A sample taken from Stonehenge 60 years ago helped researchers figure out sarsen stone origins

A sample taken from Stonehenge 60 years ago helped researchers figure out sarsen stone origins
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Thanks to a core sample from a 1950s repair to Stonehenge’s “Stone 58,” researchers have been able to locate the exact place where the massive sarsen stones came from. A study published in the Science Journal last month revealed that the sarsen megaliths came from the chalk hills of Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire, just 15 miles north of Stonehenge.

The discovery puts to rest mysteries of where the massive monoliths, which weigh an average of 20 tonnes each standing as tall as seven metres, were quarried. While the bluestones that make up part of the prehistoric site were found to have come from the Preseli Hills of western Wales, nearly 200 miles away, researchers previously had little to go on in finding the origins of the sarsens. A silica stone, the sarsens could’ve come from a number of places in the UK, but without special studies, ranging from x-ray fluorescence to mass spectroscopy, some more invasive than the others, researchers were at a stalemate.

David Nash looks at rock sample from Stonehenge
Professor David Nash examines the core sample from Stone 58 taken from repair work administered to Stonehenge in 1958. Photo by Sam Frost, courtesy of English Heritage.


Today, it’s illegal to drill into the stones so speculation continued until a core of Stone 58 was returned to English Heritage last year. The sample was kept by Robert Phillips, a former diamond cutter who helped with the repairs to the site in 1958. It came from a drilled hole in Stone 58 and stayed in Phillips’ Florida office all these years. Just before his 90th birthday, last year, he returned it to English Heritage. The sample proved invaluable to David Nash, a geomorphologist and professor at the University of Brighton, and his team of researchers.

“We weren’t really setting out to find the source of Stonehenge,” Nash told The Irish Times. “We picked 20 areas and our goal was to try to eliminate them, to find ones that didn’t match. We didn’t think we’d get a direct match. It was a real ‘Oh my goodness’ moment.”

It is believed that 50 of the sarsen stones that still stand at Stonehenge today, researchers believe there were around 80 in total originally, were sourced from Marlborough Downs. Although it remains unclear as to how the stones were transported, a few paths from the hills have been proposed. “A big, concerted, deliberate act” is how Nash referred to the construction of Stonehenge. “It must have been a real undertaking. That brought home to me the scale and focus that was required.”

black and white photo of repairs to Stonehenge in the 1950s
Photo of the 1950s repairs made to Stonehenge. Photo courtesy of English Heritage.


“To be able to pinpoint the area that Stonehenge’s builders used to source their materials around 2500 BC is a real thrill. Now we can start to understand the route they might have travelled and add another piece to the puzzle. 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, the stones could have come from anywhere,” said Susan Greaney, English Heritage Senior Properties Historian, in a statement.

“We can now say, when sourcing the sarsens, the over-riding objective was size – they wanted the biggest, most substantial stones they could find and it made sense to get them from as nearby as possible.  This is in stark contrast to the source of the bluestones, where something quite different – a sacred connection to these mountains perhaps – was at play. Yet again this evidence highlights just how carefully considered and deliberate the building of this phase of Stonehenge was.”