Monday, 27 May 2013

Merlin and Stonehenge: Stones from the West

Part IV

It is indeed a remarkable coincidence that the modern account of the construction of Stonehenge is reflected in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century legendary history which claimed  the rocks of the Giant's Dance were foreign to Salisbury Plain almost 900 years before modern science identified the source.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth's account, as a fitting monument to the British nobles murdered by Hengist's Saxon's, Merlin's suggests that they should send for the Giant's Dance in Killaraus in Ireland. Aurelius burst into laughter, and said, "How is it possible to remove such vast stones from so distant a country, as if Britain was not furnished with stones fit for the work?"   Does Geoffrey's account of the Giant's Dance being brought from Ireland portray an ancient memory of a Bluestone monument brought from south-west Wales?

Merlin dismantling the Giant's Dance,
from Wace, Roman de Brut. Egerton 3028
The oldest known depiction of Stonehenge is from a manuscript of the Roman de Brut by Wace in the British Library, copied in England between July 1338 and June 1340. It is often described as showing a giant helping Merlin build Stonehenge while ordinary people watch on amazed. But the illustration's place in the manuscript suggests that it is actually Merlin dismantling the Giant's Ring in Killaraus. Curiously, Wace is the first author to mention the Round Table, a name used for many prehistoric Arthurian sites.

As the most magnificent Neolithic structure in Europe, Stonehenge requires no introduction, however, for clarity, I will recap on the composition of the monument. Enclosed within a ditch and bank is a circle of 56 Aubrey Holes, today identified by white discs in the grass. Next, working our way toward the centre of the monument, is a now incomplete ring of huge sarsen megaliths, topped by lintels, thought to have once formed a continuous ring of 30 stones. Within this sarsen ring is a rough circle of smaller stones, known as bluestones, the largest estimated to weigh about four tons. Next is the massive horseshoe arrangement comprising five sarsen trilithons, three still erect, the largest estimated to weigh around 50 tons, graduating in height toward the direction of the mid-winter sunset. Within this arrangement is a horseshoe setting of finely worked bluestones, mirroring the sarsen settings; circle, horseshoe, graduating in height towards the same point.

Several of the bluestones show evidence of having been part of a previous structure, similar to the lintel topped sarsen trilithon arrangement at Stonehenge; stone 150, now lying flat in the Bluestone Circle and partly overlain by stone 32, possesses two well-made mortices, about 41 inches apart between centres, evidently used as a lintel; the other, stone 36, is one of the finest worked bluestones at Stonehenge. It was discovered in 1929, exhumed in 1954 by Richard Atkinson for further examination and then reburied. This stone also possesses mortices with clear signs of erosion caused by windrock during its life as a lintel on a trilithon arrangement.35

Bluestone 36 - exhumed in 1954
The spacing of the mortice holes on stones 150 and 36 do not span any of the known bluestone settings at Stonehenge. Neither do they permit a trilithon structure to be recreated using the surviving bluestone uprights from the horseshoe that have traces of tenons on top, most of this dressed away, and must have formed uprights in some other bluestone trilithon arrangement. Two other bluestones warrant our attention; the broken stump, 66, has a projecting tongue; while stone 68 has a grove running down its entire length. Did they once fit together? 36

Where did this elegant Bluestone monument stand? 

Bluestone chips discovered in 1947 by JFS Stone between Fargo Plantation and the west end of the Cursus inspired the theory that a circle of bluestones once stood there but archaeological investigations have failed to find it. However, it now seems an earlier bluestone monument stood in the opposite direction on the west bank of the river Avon. In 2009 excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project (SRP) discovered the site of a small monument comprising 24-26 stoneholes, of similar size to the Stonehenge bluestones, at the far end of the Stonehenge Avenue at West Amesbury and may mark the disembarkment point of the bluestones on a water-borne journey up the Avon past the barrows at Hengistbury Head in Christchurch harbour. SRP named this putative monument 'Bluestonehenge'.37

The monument was initially dated to around 2,900 BC from a chiselled flint arrow head found at the site. Around the same time, or a little earlier, 56 bluestones would have stood in the Aubrey Holes as the first stone monument at Stonehenge marking the first burials at the monument, fuelling the romantic notion of two bluestone monuments linked by the Avenue.

It appears Bluestonehenge was dismantled around 2,470–2,280 BC, a date obtained from an antler pick found in the henge ditch at the site. Around this time Stonehenge underwent a massive rebuilding programme, when around 2,500 BC the sarsen circle and trilithons were erected, with again further reconstruction around 2,200 BC. The bluestones  from the 56 Aubrey Hole were rearranged in the two settings within the sarsens, i.e. the Bluestone Circle and Horseshoe, together with an estimated further 26 bluestones from somewhere else, possibly Bluestonehenge, providing a total of around 80-82 bluestones, the number usually said to have stood in the final configuration at Stonehenge.38 The numbers add up, but the evidence of the previously worked bluestones (mortice spans) does not and, contrary to reports, to date no actual bluestone has yet been found at West Amesbury.39

Insana Substructio
Such was the mystery of the stones of Stonehenge that the first antiquarians suspected they were artificial and not natural; “fine sand cemented together by a glewy sort of matter.40

John Leland, 16th century antiquarian to Henry VIII, does not include the site of Stonehenge in his 'Itinerary', but elsewhere repeats Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story but with the variation that Merlin obtains the stones from a place on Salisbury Plain and not Ireland.41

The sarsen stones are from a local source but the 'bluestones' have long been known to be foreign to Salisbury Plain and the name is used today, rather unsatisfactorily, by geologists as a generic term for all the non-local stones at the monument. For many years the source of the bluestones at Stonehenge baffled eminent Victorian investigators such as Maskelyne, Cunnington, Teal and Judd. However, in 1923, Herbert Thomas from the Geological Survey published a paper in The Antiquaries Journal in which he claimed to have sourced some bluestone types to rock outcrops from Carn Menyn in the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales. Thomas went on to speculate that the transportation method to Salisbury Plain was human, but not all agree:

“Stonehenge is composed of two types of stone, a consistent group of heavy sarsens from the Avebury region eighteen miles to the north; and an inconsistent muddle of much smaller dolerites and different stones from the Preseli mountains of south-west Wales 140 miles directly to the west. There is continuing controversy about the method by which the bluestones reached Salisbury Plain. There is almost none about the sarsens.42

Richard Atkinson proposed a journey by sea for the bluestones, embarking from Milford Haven, following the South Wales coastline along the Bristol Channel, up the Severn Estuary, then down the Bristol Avon and finally the short distance overland to Salisbury Plain. Alternatively, he suggested, they could have followed a longer route along the south-west coast of England, rounding Land's End and journey up the Hampshire Avon, past Hengistbury Head to Amesbury. Atkinson carried out successful experiments with rafts.43 The route and method certainly seem plausible. Anyone doubting the capabilities of Neolithic man is referred to studies of Prehistoric trade routes.

The seaborne bluestone routes
Recent petrological studies have confirmed that the bluestones did come from the Preseli Hills in South Wales but not all from Carn Menyn (Carn Meini) as proposed by Herbert Thomas. Indeed, ongoing studies by Dr Richard Bevins, Keeper of Geology at Amgueddfa Cymru, and Dr Rob Ixer, University of Leicester, have identified the rock outcrop from certain types of Stonehenge bluestone, some of the rhyolites, as Pont Saeson to the north of Mynydd Preseli. It is unlikely that they would have transported the Pont Saeson stones in a southerly direction up slopes and over the Preseli Hills to Milford Haven when they are much nearer the River Nevern (Afon Nyfer) which skirts the northern slopes of the Preseli Hills before discharging into Newport Bay and the Irish Sea.44

Irish in South Wales
An Irish influence has existed in South Wales since prehistory as attested by the portal dolmens, such as Carreg Samson, near Trefin, and Pentre Ifan, near Newport, reminiscent of the megalithic monuments of Ireland. There appears to have been an axe-factory  at the eastern end of the Preseli Hills producing polished stone axes of spotted dolerite of such high quality that they were in demand as far afield as Antrim and Salisbury Plain. Furthermore, Preseli was on the trade route of the gold mined from the Wicklow Hills, Ireland, to Wessex.

This ancient trade route persisted and later Pembrokeshire lay on the pilgrimage route of the Celtic saints who travelled between Ireland and Rome and the Holy Lands. During the 4th century an Irish tribe, the Deisi, from County Meath in Ireland, migrated to Pembrokeshire under their leader Eochaid Allmuir, and established a royal dynasty which was to rule Demetae (modern Dyfed) in south-west Wales for some five centuries. The medieval Irish narrative The Expulsion of the Déisi, from the Cycles of the Kings, provides the Deisi with a mythical noble origin as the heirs to a dynasty expelled from Tara. Evidently there is some doubt over the historicity of this account, but it has been suggested that the term “déisi” is interchangeable with the Old Irish term, “aithechthúatha” meaning "rent-paying tribes" or "vassal communities", which may well be the origin of the Attacotti who are reported attacking Roman Britain in the mid-4th century.45

What did Geoffrey know?
Geoffrey’s account seems to have been based on an earlier tradition of the transportation of the stones from a site across the sea after battling the Irish. Yet again, we find Geoffrey's story seems to contain a remarkable set of coincidences:

  • There is clear evidence that the bluestones at Stonehenge formerly stood in a trilithon arrangement at an unknown site, as the span of the mortices do not match any known bluestone configuration at Stonehenge, the Aubrey Holes or Bluestonehenge; this arrangement must have been dismantled from some unknown location before their use on Salisbury Plain.
  • Significantly, Geoffrey has Uther's forces battling the Irish in Pembrokeshire over the removal of the stones; the Irish tribe known as the Deisi established a dynasty in South Wales and may have been raiding Roman Britain as the Attacotti in the mid-4th century.
  • Remarkably, Geoffrey has the stones of Stonehenge coming from oversea from Ireland; at least some of the bluestones must have been transported via the Irish Sea.
  • And finally, Merlin, according to Geoffrey, the architect of Stonehenge, was born some 20 miles from the bluestone site at the town of Kaermerdin (Merlin's fortress), modern Carmarthen, named after him; as a native of Pembrokeshire he would have had intimate knowledge of the Giant's Dance.

Copyright © 2013 Edward Watson


Next: Merlin and Stonehenge Part V: The Raid on the Otherworld

Notes & References
35. Atkinson, Stonehenge, Penguin, Revised Edition 1990, pp.51-53.
36. Ibid. p.55.
37. Mike Parker Pearson, Stonehenge, 2012.
38. Ibid.
39. British Archaeology magazine Issue 110, Jan/Feb 2010, News - Phase 2.
40. Camden, on Wiltshire in Britannia, 1610.
41. John Leland, Commentarii de Scriptoribus Britannicis, published by Anthony Hall in 1709.
42. Aubrey Burl, Transportation or Glaciation? in Great Stone Circles: Fables, Fictions, Facts, Yale University Press, 1999, p.107.
43. Atkinson, op.cit., pp.105-116.
44. 'New Discovery ‘will rewrite Stonehenge’s history' - University Of Leicester, 25 February 2011.
45. Philip Rance, Attacotti, Déisi and Magnus Maximus: the Case for Irish Federates in Late Roman Britain, Britannia 32, 2001.

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