left In March, volunteers gathered at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre to take part in an archaeological experiment to explore how the celebrated monument’s monoliths might have been moved.

Experimental archaeology at Stonehenge

Was the communal effort of constructing Stonehenge as important to its builders as the finished monument’s purpose? And what was it like to move one of its mighty monoliths? CA spoke to Susan Greaney, Julian Richards, and Luke Winter – and travelled to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre for some hands-on experience.

Start

A commanding voice rang out across Salisbury Plain – ‘PULL!’ – and in the next moment dozens of bodies were moving as one. Heels dug into the muddy ground; hands grasped tightly onto ropes; chests, shoulders, and arms strained in a mighty effort – and slowly, but with increasing momentum, the great limestone monolith began to move.

Specially sourced from a quarry in Purbeck, Dorset, the stone formed the focus of an experimental archaeology project that took place at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre over a chilly March weekend. At four tonnes (equivalent to four family-sized cars) it was small fry compared to some elements of Stonehenge – laser scan estimates suggest that while the smaller sarsen lintels weigh 3.8-6.4 tonnes, the inner horseshoe lintels are 12-18 tonnes, and the largest of the sarsens come to nearly 40 tonnes – but the prospect of moving this modern monolith was not undaunting.

left In March, volunteers gathered at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre to take part in an archaeological experiment to explore how the celebrated monument’s monoliths might have been moved.
In March, volunteers gathered at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre to take part in an archaeological experiment to explore how the celebrated monument’s monoliths might have been moved.

This was not the first project to explore how the stones of Stonehenge could have been transported: Richard Atkinson carried out trials on a related theme in the 1950s, while UCL students experimented with shifting a stone on a wooden sledge in 2016 (CA 318, ‘Sherds’). But this most-recent initiative, undertaken as part of the Stonehenge 100 celebrations (commemorating the centenary of Cecil Chubb giving the monument to the nation in 1918; see end box), set out to explore a specific aspect of the monument’s life.

Apart from their far-flung origins, the other interesting aspect of the Stonehenge bluestones (the uprights which were quarried in the Preseli Hills of west Wales some 140 miles away – see CA 311) is that the arrangement we see today, a circle and a horseshoe, is not their original design; they previously stood in a double circle – the Q and R holes.

As a result, groups of 50-60 English Heritage members, visitors, and volunteers had been roped in to investigate how they might have been uprooted and rearranged. The challenge laid before us not-so-Neolithic novices was to drag our stone (using modern nylon ropes and wooden rollers) into a purpose-dug pit, to haul it upright aided by a timber A-frame, and then – after admiring our newly erected standing stone all too briefly – to carefully lower it to the ground once more and pull it back onto the surface.

Community archaeology

Public involvement lay at the heart of the project: one of its key aims was to explore ideas of cooperation and the community aspect of constructing something as monumental as Stonehenge. Recently, ideas of Stonehenge representing a great community effort, where the act of building and the social rites surrounding this process were as important as the end product (we might find a modern parallel in the raising of barns by the Amish), have gained more prominence.

right Pulling together: the community aspect of constructing a monument like Stonehenge lay at the heart of the project.
Pulling together: the community aspect of constructing a monument like Stonehenge lay at the heart of the project.

Group cooperation was therefore vitally important to this initiative, and not only because of the huge physical effort required to complete it. The process was also repeated during British Science Week, with parties of around 70 schoolchildren taking the strain, and the project leaders were keen to see how varying the group composition would affect the results. The child teams did manage to move the stone successfully, though only after their teachers and a group of adult onlookers also got involved. This may have been down to their smaller size and strength, but the fact that this group’s actions proved harder to coordinate as a disciplined team must have also played a part.

The construction of Stonehenge would also have been a great collaborative event, extending beyond the local community, said Susan Greaney, project co-director and Senior Properties Historian with English Heritage.

‘We know that the bluestones came from far away, and likewise analysis of food remains at Durrington Walls [a Neolithic settlement two miles from Stonehenge which is contemporary with the monument’s main phase and is thought to have housed the people who built it] suggests that people may have travelled from as far away as Scotland to take part in huge feasts close to the stones [see CA 334; an exhibition exploring evidence for these feasts runs at the Stonehenge Vistor Centre until September],’ she explained. ‘There is a sense of the act of building, and the large numbers of people coming together for this task, being as important as the final purpose of the site. When seen in this light, apparently counter-intuitive elements like choosing to source the bluestones from Wales make much more sense. This wasn’t a modern construction project where the main concern is to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible – here, that wasn’t necessarily the point.’

Anthropological studies of more modern societies have shown how moving megaliths can be very much a celebratory event, she added.

‘In north-eastern parts of India, and on Indonesian islands like Nias and Sumba, there are records of groups moving enormous stones in the early 20th century. Photographs survive that record these events: there are people in ceremonial dress, there is feasting – it’s a celebration. And, of course, being able to pull people together from far and wide to accomplish something, and rewarding them for their efforts with lavish feasts, is a great way to demonstrate the strength of your community to outsiders.’

right This photograph, taken c.1915 on Nias, an island off the western coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, shows a stone-moving ceremony that involved hundreds of people. The event culminated in a feast. Were such celebrations also a part of the building of Stonehenge?
This photograph, taken c.1915 on Nias, an island off the western coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, shows a stone-moving ceremony that involved hundreds of people. The event culminated in a feast. Were such celebrations also a part of the building of Stonehenge? Image: Ludwig Borutta, Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures.

Rise and fall

The value of working together was inescapably evident during our own stone-moving experience. The initial effort to overcome natural friction and get the stone moving over the rollers was considerable – but after the whole team heaved together, suddenly it was moving – and moving fast. With momentum building, it was surprisingly easy to pull the stone swiftly over the rollers until it tipped into the square pit waiting to receive it. The back of this hole was vertical, acting like a stop, but its opposite side was sloped so that the monolith stuck out of the earth at an angle. In slid the stone, to much rejoicing – but our work was not yet done.

Far from it: from there it was time to erect a wooden A-frame that the rope went up and over, so that the stone was being pulled more efficiently from above, rather than at a flat angle. Even so, the force (and force of will) required to raise the stone to vertical was huge – it was only with gritted teeth and scrabbling feet that we managed it – yet here the social feeling was at its strongest. As we strained, neighbouring strangers muttered encouragement to each other – and then a sudden buzz filtered down the line: ‘It’s moving! It’s moving!’

left After moving along the rollers, the stone slid into a purpose-dug pit with one sloped side so that it stuck out of the ground at an angle.
After moving along the rollers, the stone slid into a purpose-dug pit with one sloped side so that it stuck out of the ground at an angle.

Craning our necks to look down the rope towards the stone, we could see that its top end was slowly rising in response to our efforts. The excitement was palpable, though that quickly merged into grim determination as the stone passed a key angle, and the forces battling to bring it – and our hopes – crashing back down to earth truly became something to be reckoned with. With cries of effort we dug in, and when the stone was finally upright, and the call given to halt, it was an exhilarating feeling. The team broke into spontaneous cheers as an incredible sense of achievement, of the whole group having been united in producing this triumph, washed over us.

It seemed a shame to dismantle our monument so soon after battling to bring it into being, but in the interests of science, down it had to come. This time there was no pulling to be done – rather, a slow, shuffling walk towards the stone, countering its weight to control its descent back towards the earth. Past a certain point, the feeling that the stone wanted to take over, to drag you along the ground, was irresistible – once again we were faced with powerful natural forces, but together we lowered it safely.

With the stone back at its semi-recumbent angle, our final task was to drag it back onto level ground. Perhaps surprisingly, this was the hardest task of all – the effort to pull the monolith back up the shallow ramp felt positively Herculean, and the job was only achieved by roping in a dozen curious tourists to add their strength to the line. In terms of the investigation, though, this was the most important aspect, as the team also wanted to find out what traces the act of removing the stone might have left in the ground. The results were clear: even a cursory glance revealed that the bottom of the stone had scooped a chunk out of the back of the pit as it tipped over.

A wooden A-frame was used to help haul the limestone block to vertical.

‘This was really interesting to see,’ said Luke Winter, project co-director and experimental archaeology expert. ‘Of the post-holes recently discovered at Durrington Walls [see CA 320], those that were excavated also had a scoop dug out of one side. This seemed odd – you would not deliberately undercut the back of a post- or a stone-hole, you would want it to be vertical to provide a stop for the upright as it went in – so it was suggested that it could have been caused when the settings were removed. Now we can see the very effect that tipping a standing stone over and pulling it from the ground has. Our next step will be to look at previous excavation reports for Stonehenge to see if similar traces can be seen in the bluestone holes.’

Weather report

What else has the team learned from this endeavour? Above all, the other project co-director, archaeologist and author Julian Richards, laughed, they have found that early spring is ‘about the worst time that we could have picked to carry out this task – the ground was much too wet, and with every repetition of the experiment it got more churned up and muddy, causing the rollers to sink and spin rather than rotate properly. This made the task much harder.’

Luke added: ‘The techiques we tried this year were simplified in order to allow the stone to be moved, erected, and lowered, in the quickest and safest way, and so the event could be repeated over the four days. If the stone had been held in a frame that slid across stationary timbers set in the ground, then the ground conditions may have been less of an issue – I have suggested an alternative methodology for next year.’

Muddy conditions might sound like more of an inconvenience than an illuminating discovery, but this aspect of the project could prompt a rethink of long-held assumptions about Stonehenge. It was traditionally thought that the monument might have been constructed during the winter months, when Neolithic farmers would have been freed from their agricultural responsibilities.

far left A wooden A-frame was used to help haul the limestone block to vertical. left The finished standing stone. It was upright only briefly before the project’s second phase saw it lowered and dragged from its socket to explore how the Stonehenge bluestones might have been rearranged.
The finished standing stone. It was upright only briefly before the project’s second phase saw it lowered and dragged from its socket to explore how the Stonehenge bluestones might have been rearranged.

Yet given how much the land was affected by dragging just one stone, moving and erecting dozens of monoliths in wet conditions would have turned this patch of Salisbury Plain into quagmire. In the light of these new findings – assuming a similar climate – might the monument have been built at a different time of year? Or could the builders have done something to ameliorate the wet conditions?

‘It is possible that they might have prepared the site in advance, stripping back the topsoil to work on the bare chalky bedrock,’ Luke suggests.

As for the project’s block of limestone, discussions are now under way about whether the no-longer-upright upright might be kept at the Visitor Centre so that the experiment can be repeated more regularly.

‘For me (and, I hope, others) this may be the start of a longer term experiment,’ said Luke. ‘I am already looking at ideas for using the stone to test four or five different hauling methods using a sled-based method, and I would like to see how simply a stone can be raised from a sled and lowered back onto it.’

Thanks to this first attempt, having seen how people rallied round enthusiastically to help move one stone – even if out of curiosity rather than ceremony or necessity – and having felt the sense of elation resulting from hauling it upright, it is easy to appreciate how much of a celebratory, collaborative event creating a full-sized monument like Stonehenge may have been.

Further information: the stone-moving project was part of Stonehenge100, a celebration of the centenary of the monument having been given to the nation. This programme of events also includes lectures and activities; visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/events for more details.
All Images: English Heritage, unless otherwise stated.