Stonehenge has long been one of the world’s greatest mysteries. Up until now, the exact origin of the giant stones, known as sarsen, has been unknown.
Groundbreaking research - and a sample that has been missing for a few decades - means the origins of the standing stones have finally been revealed.
What led to the discovery?
The mystery of Stonehenge has baffled humanity for centuries. Finally, archaeologists have discovered where the stones originated - with help from a sample that was taken in 1958 as a keepsake and transported to the US.
The core of one of the stones had been removed by a Basingstoke diamond cutting business as part of a measure to use metal rods to reinforce the upright stones.
Company employee, Robert Phillips, kept the core in his office as a souvenir. The Stonehenge sample travelled to the US when Phillips later emigrated, and stayed with him for six decades without anyone knowing.
The sample was only rediscovered when Phillips said he wished for it to be returned on his 90th birthday. After its return to English Heritage in 2018, tests were able to determine where the stones originated from.
Where did the stones come from?
By analysing the chemical composition of Phillips’ sample, archaeologists were able to pinpoint the source of the stones to an area 15 miles north of the famous site, near Marlborough, in West Woods.
First, researchers carried out X-ray fluorescence testing of the remaining sarsens, which revealed that most shared a similar chemistry and came from the same area.
Professor David Nash, from Brighton University, who led the study, said, “It has been really exciting to harness 21st century science to understand the Neolithic past, and finally answer a question that archaeologists have been debating for centuries.”
Susan Greaney, the English Heritage senior properties historian, said, “While we had our suspicions that Stonehenge’s sarsens came from the Marlborough Downs, we didn't know for sure, and with areas of sarsens across Wiltshire, that stones could have come from anywhere.”
The smaller stones situated at the monument have been traced to the Preseli Hills in Wales, but, until now, the sarsens have been impossible to identify.
Detailed examination of the West Woods area by Reading University archaeologist Katy Whitaker suggests that the builders of Stonehenge likely chose the area to take stones from because of their huge size and relative flatness of the sarsen boulders.
Now that the origins of the famous Stonehenge sarsens have been discovered, the focus is likely to turn to uncovering the route that prehistoric builders took to move the giant stones - the distance from West Woods to the Stonehenge site is about 15 miles.