This will be the first of what I hope to be periodic postings about the building stones of famous edifices, such as the Great Pyramids, Machu Pichu, and the Great Wall of China. Suggestions would be welcome.
Some of the world’s oldest building stones made it into a fine story in this month’s issue of Earth. Written by English geologist Brian S. Johns and Lionel E. Jackson, Jr., a Quaternary geologist from British Columbia, the article offers a thought provoking and believable account of the travels of the enigmatic rocks used at Stonehenge. In doing so, they answer one of the great questions posed by anyone who has visited the Salisbury Plain, “How the hell did they do it?”
As Johns and Jackson note, this question has led to some dubious answers. The Celts, Vikings, Phoenicians, Druids, and Romans have all had their day in the spotlight, though the building of Stonehenge, around 4,500 years ago, predates each of these peoples. Nor were space aliens involved, though that would be a very handy way to explain the many mysteries. Johns and Jackson don’t provide an answer to who but instead focus on the origin of the stones.
Two primary types of building stone make up the majority of the monoliths. The outer ring consists of a 60-million-year old rock known as sarsen sandstone. (Sarsen is a regional term applied to the boulders found scattered across south central England.) About 50 sarsen stones occur, either as vertical slabs or horizontal lintels, and comprise Stonehenge’s most famous features, the Pi-shaped trilithons. The largest sarsens weigh an estimated 40 tons, or about equal in weight to 48 Smartcars.
The smaller and less abundant bluestones raise more questions. Made primarily of diabase, but also rhyolite and additional volcanic material, the stones’s origin has been traced to the Preseli Hills of western Wales, more than 125 miles to the west. At least eight different rock types associated with Stonehenge have been found across seven miles of hills in this region of Wales. Early researcher Herbert Thomas, who promoted the “human transport” theory for the origin of the bluestones, hypothesized that Stonehenge’s builders sought out these stones because of their magical and medicinal properties.
Source area for bluestones: From Brian Johns' web site
Johns and Jackson favor a glacial transport model for the bluestones. They describe how converging ice sheets from Ireland and Wales funneled erratics from Wales in a “trail leading straight to Stonehenge.” As evidence of such a conveyor belt-like feat, they report on glaciers in Canada, which ferried erratics in a narrow band over 350 miles south. In England, this phenomenon provided Neolithic Britons with a ready source of stone for their great structure, no matter why they built it. And that is the great mystery that not even geology can solve.