Friday 5 August 2011

Field & Pearson on The Sarsens


David Field and Trevor Pearson
Research Department Report Series
NGR: SU 12244219
© English Heritage
ISSN 1749-8775

Sarsen boulders occur naturally within the area as remnants of a crust of siliceous sandstone formed in the Eocene (55-38 m years) that once overlay the chalk but which has long since broken up, eroded, weathered and many drifted into valleys (Green 1997, 260). Like fint, where present they might retard local weathering of the chalk. Compared to the Marlborough Downs, however, remnants are fewer on Salisbury Plain and what little remained following periglacial processes appears for the most part to have been long cleared.

The source of the stones:

Inigo Jones was the frst to point out that the stones incorporated in the monument need not have come from Ireland but that building stone was available locally, for example at Chilmark. Even so he was inclined to believe that the sarsen derived from quarries on the Marlborough Downs where sarsen boulders were plentiful. More recently, while recognising the lack of large sarsen available on the Marlborough Downs, Green (1997) assumed that the Stonehenge examples must nevertheless have come from that area as it is the place of the greatest accumulation and choice. Heavy mineral analysis on samples from Stonehenge and the Marlborough Downs (Howard 1982), however, indicated that there was a considerable degree of variation between them.

Essentially, sarsen is present in greater or lesser numbers right across central southern England (Bowen and Smith 1977). Within Wiltshire and south of the Marlborough Downs it is widely present in the Vale of Pewsey and there remains a veneer on Salisbury Plain, though early agriculture in both of these areas may have contributed to the thin distribution. A boulder neatly broken into at least three pieces occurred in Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age contexts in the East Chisenbury midden (McOmish et al 2010, 82) and this may have been the fate of a great many that proved an obstacle to the widespread establishment of ‘Celtic’ felds on Salisbury Plain to the north of Stonehenge.

William Long (1876, 142) quoted John Aubrey regarding the King Barrows. ‘At the end of these graves were stones, which the people of late years, sc. Since 1640, have fetcht away…’ and Stukeley appears to have repeated this (Burl & Mortimer 2005, 29). In addition he noted that there was a large stone in Durrington Field, one in the river at Milford and another in the feld to the west of Figheldean c3 miles from Stonehenge. (Stukeley 1740, 37: Burl & Mortimer 2005, 31).

William Cunnington (Cunnington Mss Devizes Book 9) described how, in the early years of the 19th century, farmers ploughed up sarsen in the vicinity of Stonehenge and there is suffcient evidence remaining to indicate that he was not mistaken. Cunnington wrote that sarsen is found ‘upon the Downs, a foot or two under the ground their supefces are rounded by attrition’ while ‘others ploughed up near Stonehenge appear to have been bored through by the Toredo’ (Cunnington MSS Book 9 Devizes Museum). Sarsen was used at Boles Barrow, Arn Hill and elsewhere on Salisbury
Plain in long barrow construction, while six large extant boulders lie to the north of Stonehenge at Robin Hoods Ball and three more in the ditch of the Figheldean 31 long barrow (McOmish et al 2002, 151-2). Others were noted on early Ordnance Survey maps.

Hoare wavered and considered on one hand that the Marlborough Downs was a potential source but also that the origin of the sarsens at Stonehenge could be local, ‘the plains adjoining Stonehenge might very probably have furnished stones suffciently large’ (Hoare 1812, 149, 152). The Rev E Duke (1846, 170) questioned the assumption that the sarsens had been brought from the Marlborough Downs and noted that none are now to be found of that size there. Instead, he suggested that the boulders were ‘quarried from a continuous stratum’ and indeed such seams are thought to exist around Avebury (Barker 1985, 21). Petrie noted that there were few or no sarsens of the required size to be found elsewhere, that is on the Marlborough Downs, and
considered whether the very position of Stonehenge was determined by the presence of a quantity of sarsens that had derived from denuded beds formerly lying over the chalk and on balance thought that they had been collected from the immediate vicinity.

Gowland similarly considered them brought from ‘within a radius of not many miles’ and ‘probably at no great distance from the spot where the structure stands’ (Gowland 1902, 75, 115) rather than from a distant locality, while the geologist Prof J W Judd (1901, 115-6) thought likewise and that they had moved ‘only a few hundred yards’. H H Thomas (1923, 242) considered that they may have come from ‘the site of Stonehenge itself ’. It was a good point made by Johnson (2008, 121) that the Heel Stone is too awkward and bulky a shape to move on rollers and it, at least, is unlikely to have travelled far. Equally the much smaller undressed Station Stones may be quite local. It is after all possible to fnd larger stones on Salisbury Plain without having to travel to the Marlborough Downs for them. If these points are accepted it becomes easier to
acknowledge that the sarsen group as a whole may not have been the product of a heroic journey.

The diffculty in working sarsen is well-known (Fig 14) and while weathered sarsen lying on the surface has an exceedingly tough crust, Isobel Geddes crucially pointed out that in contrast
buried sarsen is soft and can be easily worked (Geddes 2000: also Bowen & Smith 1977, 189). This was something also noted by Cunnington: ‘when frst dug out of the ground they are soft like freestone just quarried….if broken you may crumble the inside pieces between your fngers like Lump Sugar’ (Cunnington MSS Book 4, 34). Geddes also pointed out that the only place where sarsen boulders large enough for Stonehenge monoliths have been found in recent times is below the surface in swallow holes where they have been protected from weathering (Bowen & Smith 1977, 189 refer to this also). It is worth noting that there are at least two such holes, potentially more, in the Stonehenge landscape.

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