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The sarsen stones and bluestones
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The sarsen stones and bluestones

In the form of its ditch and the animal bones that were carefully placed there, the first Stonehenge was not so different from many other enclosures of a similar date. Even cremated human bones have been found at other sites of this date. What made Stonehenge so unusual is what happened next: the arrival of the stones.

Moving within the earthwork formed by the ditch and bank and closer to the central stones, it is immediately obvious that they fall into two different groups in terms of their size. Many of the stones are very large, including the uprights closest to the path and, further in towards the centre, the pairs of uprights that support horizontal lintels. Others, nestled among the larger stones, are much smaller, some less than the height of an adult. These two groups of stones are quite different, both in their size and in the type of raw material from which they are formed.

The sarsen stones and bluestones

Map showing one possible route by which the bluestones may have been transported to Stonehenge.

The largest stones, some of which weigh over 40 tonnes, are known as sarsens. Sarsen is a type of extremely hard sandstone, small boulders of which can be found in the area around Stonehenge. But for larger sarsens the closest source lies more than 30 km (19 miles) to the north of Stonehenge, on the Marlborough Downs in north Wiltshire. Here massive stones can still be seen half-buried in the bottoms of shallow valleys, although many others have been broken up for building material or cleared away to make cultivation easier.

The sarsen stones and bluestones

Map showing the likely route of the sarsen stones to Stonehenge.

The smaller stones at Stonehenge are known collectively as bluestones, although this group includes a variety of different types of rock. What unites them is their source, in the Preseli Hills of Wales, over 240 km (150 miles) to the west of Stonehenge. There is no doubt about their origin: the mineral composition of stones from Stonehenge can be matched precisely with samples from Preseli.
It is difficult to explain the peculiar mixture within the bluestone group, but perhaps it represents not simply a collection of building materials, but the components of an existing stone circle that stood in Wales before being uprooted and brought to Stonehenge. There were originally at least 80 bluestones at Stonehenge, some weighing up to 5 tonnes.

The sarsen stones and bluestones

The circles of sarsens and bluestones, showing the contrasting sizes of the two different types of stone.

So how did both types of stone get to Salisbury Plain? The sarsens are bigger, but are found closer to Stonehenge, and experiments have shown that stones this size can be dragged on a simple wooden sledge running on wooden rails by a team of about 200 people. To drag a stone from the Marlborough Downs to Stonehenge, using a route avoiding steep slopes wherever possible, would take about 12 days.

In the past there have been suggestions that the bluestones were found lying on Salisbury Plain where they had been carried by the movement of glaciers during the last Ice Age. There is a little geological evidence to support this idea, and it is now generally accepted that it was human rather than glacial transport that moved them. Although the bluestones are smaller, they had much further to travel and their route is still open to debate. The first part of their journey would have been by land, but water transport may also have been important. The river Avon, which flows close to Stonehenge, is often suggested as forming the final part of the bluestones’ journey from Wales.

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