Stonehenge - the stones

You know, there are just some things in this world that defy words.  Some things are stunning in photos, but in person, they are absolutely unspeakable – there are no words adequate to describe them.  Overwhelming, majestic, none of those words are “enough.”

Stonehenge is one of those places.  Maybe that’s why people have been attracted here for thousands of years.  It’s a magnet calling to our human spirit.

This was my second day in London.  Jim and I had just spent a rather sleepless night in the Kenner’s Easy Bake Oven, a very small hotel room with no air conditioning, in a heat wave.  However, nothing was going to keep us from visiting Stonehenge, so off we went to find the tour company, something much easier said than done, it turns out.

We wanted to sign up for a bus tour, but the company said we had to come down to their office to physically make those arrangements, in person.  So, we took a subway tour by accident to get to the bus tour.  Thank Heavens we left lots of time.  To get to Stonehenge from London, you ride about 2 hours each way on the bus through what I would term nondescript farmland for the hour and a half visit at Stonehenge, but it was worth every minute of that ride and even being lost on the subway too.

But Jim and I had a special treat.  Our breakfast was included in our hotel room.  It was a real breakfast too, not just cereal and milk.  I think it’s because they felt guilty about that Kenner’s Easy Bake Oven thing.  In any case, the breakfast was really wonderful.  It included several kinds of fresh baked breads, cheeses including brie and freshly made raspberry jelly sitting in little jelly cups in icewater so they would set up quickly.

They also had normal breakfast things like eggs and “bacon” which was really good and not bacon as we know it in the US, and baked beans, which is a breakfast staple in England.  This rather unique combination, complete with tomatoes and mushrooms, is known as the English Full Breakfast and you can see some pictures here.  And yes, it does include “blood pudding” also known as black pudding which isn’t pudding at all.  There is a picture of me trying that…but I won’t publish it.  I will try almost anything once, and I did, and guaranteed, there will not be a second time.

I decided that the freshly baked bread was calling to me and so was the cheese.  Not only is that my farm upbringing, but it’s also the result of living in Switzerland as a student.  It’s all coming back now and I have this indescribable urge to have some wine with my bread and cheese:)

I noticed that the tour description said nothing about food, nor about stopping anyplace, so I presumed we needed to be prepared.  Let me translate – go to the bathroom just before leaving and take food or water or anything you’re going to need.

Stonehenge picnic me

So, I made us a picnic lunch.  It was the best lunch ever, with petit pain and brie and jelly (in packets, not the homemade raspberry – no way to transport that) and a banana and a pear and a tomato slice.  Yepper, a killer picnic lunch and we had it sitting on the grass at Stonehenge.  It was really squishy, but it was really, really good.  And yes, we had to lick our fingers.  Welcome to our picnic at Stonehenge.  After we ate, we took pictures from our picnic site.  I mean, how many times in your life do you get to picnic at Stonehenge?

Stonehenge me

Jim, by the way, refuses to smile in photos.  Still, I think this one is very cool.  He’s thinking about smiling and trying hard not to!  BTW – this photo is now on the cover of Jim’s iphone – a nifty Christmas gift!

Stonehenge Jim

There are lots of theories and myths about Stonehenge, the why and how, including aliens and Merlin, but the truth is that no one really knows why it was created, or how, or by whom.  However, no culture would invest so much time and labor into something that wasn’t sacred to them in some way.

Below, the oldest known depiction of Stonehenge.

Stonehenge roman manuscript

From a manuscript of the Roman de Brut by Wace in the British Library (Egerton 3028), a giant helps Merlin build Stonehenge.

You can’t sit in the beauty and majesty of his incredible monument without pondering and thinking, about Stonehenge itself, and also about the people who created this megalithic structure.  And I wondered of course, if I was related to them.  Are they my ancestors?  I certainly have several British Isles ancestors.  Were some of them here then?  Did they participate in some way, either in building the monument  or whatever form of worship followed?  What do we know about Stonehenge?

Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, about 2 miles (3.2 km) west of Amesbury and 8 miles (13 km) north of Salisbury. One of the most famous sites in the world, Stonehenge is the remains of a ring of standing stones set within earthworks. It is in the middle of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds. It sits simply in the middle of a plain.  In fact, while driving through that area, there are little burial mounds everyplace.  This is through the bus window, so pardon the glare on the glass.  The mounds are to the right and also in the distance mid-photo.

English burial mounds

Archaeologists believe Stonehenge was built anywhere from 3000 BC to 2000 BC. Radiocarbon dating in 2008 suggested that the first stones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC, whilst another theory suggests that the bluestones, from Wales, may have been raised at the site as early as 3000 BC

Stonehenge was built in three phases between 3000 B.C. and 1600 B.C. Archaeologists agree it was a temple — but to what god or gods, and exactly how it was used, remains unclear.

Archaeological evidence found by the Stonehenge Riverside Project in 2008 indicates that Stonehenge could have been a burial ground from its earliest beginnings for elite families. The dating of cremated remains found on the site indicate that deposits contain human bone from as early as 3000 BC, when the ditch and bank were first dug.  These burials locations are marked by bluestones.  The Stonehenge stones may be the largest headstones ever!  Such deposits continued at Stonehenge for at least another 500 years.

Stones for Stonehenge, much of which still stands, were brought from up to 175 miles (280 kilometers) away. Construction continued for centuries, and the site may have been a temple for Druid worship, a giant astronomical calendar, a place of healing, or maybe all of the above.

Evidence suggests large crowds gathered at Stonehenge for the summer and winter solstices, a tradition that continues today.

Senior curator Sara Lunt says there are still major discoveries to be made — more than half the site remains unexcavated. But the original purpose of Stonehenge may remain a mystery.

“We know there was a big idea” behind Stonehenge and other stone circles built across the British Isles in the Neolithic period, she said. But “what the spiritual dimension of this idea is — that is the key, and that is what we can’t get.”

The surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC. The site and its surroundings were added to the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1986 in a co-listing with Avebury Henge.  Stonehenge is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage, while the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust.

When we were visiting, they were in the process of completing a new visitor’s center.  We didn’t see the new center, as it is about a mile and a half away and completely out of view.  The then-current center is just out of sight of Stonehenge itself.  The idea of the new center is to remove all of the modern day trappings and distractions, including motor noise, so that visitors can enjoy the monument in a more pristine and natural environment. That seemed to be a very volatile subject and not everyone is happy about the changes.

Recently the new facility was opened.

Among the exhibits in the new facility is the reconstructed  face of one 5,000-year-old local resident from his skull.  Oscar Nilsson, a forensic sculptor, created the bust and says that he had good teeth and handsome features, in a shaggy, prehistoric kind of way.  Actually, I think he looks uncannily like my x-husband on a good day….which kind of gives me the creeps and makes me desperately want to know about his haplogroup.

Stonehenge bust

I was very disappointed to discover that they have not, to date, performed DNA testing.  My inquiry to English Heritage about DNA testing on these and other remains found in close proximity received the following reply:

Dear Ms Estes,

Many thanks for your email regarding the human remains on display at the new Stonehenge visitor and exhibition centre. I have been asked to respond on behalf of the Project team.

Dr Simon Mays, Senior Osteologist for English Heritage has provided the Interpretation and Curatorial team with some information regarding further testing following the recent sampling carried out on the Winterbourne Stoke 1 human remains that he guided.  He advises that analysis of DNA is destructive and we would only consider using such a technique on ancient material if the results would help to answer compelling questions about the human remains that could not be answered in any other way: only then would the destruction of a piece of human bone be ethically justifiable. In this case, DNA analysis was not relevant to the questions that we considered important, which included the man’s place of origin and early development, his mobility and his age at death.

Although a fairly common procedure nowadays for historic and recent material, attempts to extract DNA from ancient skeletons fails in the majority of cases because of, inter alia, poor preservation of the relevant molecule. When DNA does survive from ancient material, it is often in very poor condition, so the information it can supply is strictly limited.

Any destructive analysis that English Heritage might wish to carry out in the future on the human remains in the Visitor Centre would be subject to the agreement of the institutions which have loaned them to English Heritage.

I hope this goes some way to answer your query, but please let me know if you need further information.
Kind regards,

Rebecca Thomas

Stonehenge Programme & Finance Co-ordinator
29 Queen Square | Bristol | BS1 4ND
Tel: 0117 975 1301 (internal 2301)

Let’s hope they reconsider in the future.  If you have feedback for them about how DNA won’t answer questions about the history of this man…their contact information is listed above.  I encourage you to share your opinion with them and perhaps ask some pointed questions.  I have to wonder if any of the cremains might be a possibility.  They are already “destroyed,” so to speak, and the heat of the cremation fire might not have been hot enough to destroy all of the DNA.  I know that contemporary cremations are at much higher temperatures and do destroy the DNA.  It might be worth having Dr. King or another individual who has successfully extracted ancient DNA do an evaluation.  Furthermore, while they are accurate, the process is destructive – it is minimally so.  A small piece of bone needs to be drilled – significantly smaller than a tooth.  It seems a shame not to utilize the tools available to us.

I have to wonder just who this reconstructed man is, in terms of ancient ancestry and clans.  Were these people from Europe or Scandinavia, perhaps?  Were they haplogroup R, like about half of Europe is today, or would they carry a different haplotype?

Recent work by Dr. Michael Hammer and first presented at the Family Tree DNA Administrators Conference in November of 2013 indicated that there was no early haplogroup R yet found in early burials. Initially, haplogroup R1b had been thought to have overwintered the ice ace about 12,000 years ago in Anatolia and Iberia, repopulating Europe after the ice melted.  However, if that is true, then were are the R1b burials?  Instead, we are finding haplogroup G and I and some E, but not any R.  The first site to show any haplogroup R is R1b from a German Bell Beaker site dated to the third millennium BCE, or about 5,000 years ago.

ancient Y

The Neolithic timeframe covers the expansion of agriculture from the Middle East across Europe beginning about 10,000 BC and continuing across Europe to about 5,000 BC.  Haplogroup R, it appears, did not accompany this expansion, but arrived later, post-Neolithic, potentially with the Bell Beaker Culture between 2,000 and 3,000 BC.

This culture is named  after its distinctly shaped drinking vessels.

Beaker vessel

3,500 years old, 40 cm (16 in) high “Giant Beaker of Pavenstädt”, Gütersloh town museum, Germany.  Other Beaker culture items, below.

Beaker artifacts

It’s also believed that mitochondrial haplogroup H spread into Europe with the Bell Beaker culture as well.

Beakers arrived in Britain around 2500 BC, declined in use around 2200-2100 BC with the emergence of food vessels and cinerary urns and finally fell out of use around 1700 BC. The earliest British beakers were similar to those from the Rhine but later styles are most similar to those from Ireland In Britain, domestic assemblages from this period are very rare, making it hard to draw conclusions about many aspects of society. Most British beakers come from funerary contexts.

From Wiki, this map shows the generalized movement of the Bell Baker culture.

Bell Beaker culture

The most famous site in Britain from this period is…drum roll please…Stonehenge.  Many barrows surround it and an unusual number of ‘rich’ burials can be found nearby, such as the Amesbury Archer who lived contemporarily with the construction of portions of Stonehenge.

The Amesbury Archer is an early Bronze Age man whose grave was discovered during excavations at the site of a new housing development in Amesbury near Stonehenge. The grave was uncovered in May 2002, and the man is believed to date from about 2300 BC. He is nicknamed the “archer” because of the many arrowheads that were among the artifacts buried with him. Had he lived near the Stones, the calibrated radiocarbon dates for his grave and dating of Stonehenge suggest the sarsens and trilithons at Stonehenge may have been raised by the time he was born, although a new bluestone circle may have been raised at the same time as his birth.

In spite of what English Heritage said, DNA testing could help answer many of these questions about who these early people were, where they came from and who they were descended from and related to.

When we visited Stonehenge, the guide suggested that historically there may have been processions from Avesbury, across the Salisbury plain, following the Avon River and then up the hill to Stonehenge.   The Avon River, 2 miles distant, and with parallel ditches leading from Stonehenge to the River, is theorized to be how the stones were transported to the Salisbury Plain from their origins in Wales, hundreds of miles distant.

Evidence on the banks of the river of huge fires between two avenues connecting Stonehenge with another nearby Neolithic site, Durrington Walls, shown below, suggests that both sites were linked.

Durrington Walls

I discovered, with a little googling, that indeed, contemporary visitors have been retracing this exact trail and are attempting to establish a historical walk, of sorts, shown below.

Avon plain hike

I can’t help but think how wonderful this would be, to retrace the steps of the original people of Avesbury and the Salisbury plains, whoever they were.  Hugh Thomson, the author of the “Magic Circles” article hyperlinked above, probably sums it up the best with this commentary:

“I can’t help thinking how much better it is to arrive at Stonehenge on foot. The comparison that comes to mind, and which I know well, is the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The experience of trekking to both sites is immeasurably richer, not just because you’ve “earned it”, but because both sets of ruins are only properly understood in the context of the sacred landscape that surrounds them.”

It’s probably much different that arriving on a tour bus after being lost on the subway.

If I ever return to England, I’ll have to come back to Stonehenge.  I would very much like to visit at sunrise and now, I’d like to retrace the walk of the original inhabitants, whoever they were.  And yes, I’d like to know if I might be distantly related to one of these people buried in these barrows, shown below, surrounding Stonehenge.  Think how you’d feel standing here if you knew your ancestors did as well.  It could only enhance the visitor experience and the science would, of course, help resolve the many unknowns in the history of Stonehenge.  I hope English Heritage gets their curiosity peaked and reconsiders DNA testing, as they seem a bit behind the curve.  After all, they have Dr. Turi King, with the University of Leicester, of King Richard fame, quite nearby.

Stonehenge with barrow

Truly, we had a wonderful day at Stonehenge.  The weather was perfect, no rain and sunny.  Beautiful photos.  Just a few people here, no large crowds, and our lovely picnic.

After our visit, on the bus on the way back to London, I thought, “guess I can check this off of my bucket list,” but then I realized, I really don’t have a bucket list.  My life has provided me with so many rich opportunities that I never dreamed that I would have.  I never imagined that I would ever have the opportunity to visit Stonehenge, so it actually wasn’t ON my bucket list.  However, now that I’ve been here, I’d love to come back.

You know, there’s something wrong with this picture.  I thought you visited places to check them off the list, not to add them to the list as a return visit!  But Stonehenge, well, it’s a magical place, and it will do that to you…consider this fair warning!




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17 thoughts on “Stonehenge

  1. Really, really fabulous post! And, yes, my hus and I have taken a few “subway tours”, and even a few “train tours” in Europe. And, the older we get, the more often we get lost. LOL

  2. Flabbergasted that they will not DNA test! I guess their minds are as ancient as Stonehenge is itself.

  3. He does have a very familiar kind of face, and that gingery hair and beard, Celtic origin? Maybe he was related to that randy old Irish Chieftain, Niall of the nine hostages. My American husband’s DNA is very close to that of Niall. English Heritage surely can spare one tiny piece of bone for DNA testing, it would be fascinating to discover the man’s roots, perhaps Dr. Turi King could be persuaded to approach them on the subject. I spent time in Wiltshire back in the late 1950’s for trade training when I was in the WRAF, but never got to see Stonehenge, the closest I got was a distant passing view from a car in the 1970’s.

  4. Omigosh…great! When I was ten-thirteen yrs. old I read all the Nat’l Geographic magazines my dad collected, and I wanted to be an archeologist so badly. I think I can now identify my biggest regret in life….that I didn’t do that. The guy kindof favors my ex, too.

  5. I really do wish that DNA testing was regularly done on remains from around sites like Stonehenge and Avebury, and not just because my Fribbens line lived in the area for centuries. Saying that it won’t answer questions they ask! But, it will answer questions that will occur to them, once the tests are done. Could it be due to lack of money?

  6. hi have sent an email to the Stonehenge DNA and cover a connection back to Niall of the nine hostages possible family connection at Stonehenge. and the remain be tested . and await there reply also added the tools in us for old DNA recovery only leave a little hole .

    will let you know what there reply is they have been warned there may be a court case if they prolong testing 

    thank you from mark sanders  working on Campbell and Niall of the nine hostages royal connections     

  7. Just to clarify what you said about “across the Salisbury plain, following the Avon River”, this is the Christchurch Avon and not the Avon that flows through Stratford on Avon. There are several Avon rivers in England and this one reaches the English Channel at Christchurch near Bournemouth.
    Great article. Makes me want to walk the Great Stones Way.

  8. Wow, looks just like my ex too! He claimed it was his viking heritage that accounted for his red hair. Fascinating post,

  9. I find it interesting that English Heritage finds archaeological digs to be non-destructive, but DNA testing destructive. This attitude is dated, but will change with time. Hopefully, not as long as it took to build Stonehenge.

  10. I’m going to play a little Devil’s Advocate here. I will start by saying that I don’t necessarily agree with their decision to not try and test DNA, but they do have valid reasoning behind their decision. I’m not sure exactly how much bone they have, but it sounds like it’s apparently enough to be on display, which to my mind would certainly be enough to sacrifice a little for testing. I think what it basically comes down to is a risk vs. reward, a cost/benefit analysis,and an expert in the field has said…the reward just isn’t worth the risk. In addition, part of the argument they make is “DNA analysis was not relevant to the questions that we considered important, which included the man’s place of origin and early development, his mobility and his age at death”. I think it would be hard to argue that DNA analysis would answer any of those questions….which is what they are concerned with. The questions they are asking are *not* the questions we are asking, and we have no right to expect them to be. (Keep in mind that’s not the same thing as saying the questions we are asking aren’t worth asking, nor that it’s not worth asking them to consider ours). Also I don’t think anyone, especially not English Heritage, was making the case that archaeology is non-destructive. We (archaeologists) are very aware that what we do is inherently a destructive process and every day we make decisions similar to the very one Dr. Mays is making regarding the possible benefits derived from the destruction we inevitably generate.

    That being said…I’m not an expert in the field of ancient DNA extraction and analysis (unlike the guy who’s making this decision), but my *personal* opinion is that the reward *is* worth the risk, and the questions we are asking are significant to humankind, and the story of Stonehenge in particular (even if not necessarily to the individual’s life history). It sounds like there’s plenty enough bone to give it a try, even if the odds of it working are very small.

  11. Pingback: DNAeXplain Archives – General Information Articles | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  12. This is a terrific post. I’ve had a very difficult time trying to locate Y-chromosome haplogroups. There has been recent large scale DNA analysis that has a lot of enticing but vague information–lots of popular articles that about the sudden replacement of haplogroups about the time of Stonehenge without ever mentioning what those haplogroups are!
    Have you dug into this further more recently in light of the massive new DNA analysis? You seem to have a knack for this kind of research!

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