Mesolithic Stonehenge

This week we will look at Stonehenge in the Mesolithic period to see how the landscape would have looked during that time.

If we look at Stonehenge using LiDAR we can clearly see that it is not placed at the highest point in the landscape – in fact is placed halfway down a hill with much higher positions available close by, in particular at the top of the hill by Vespasian Camp where we find the site of Blick Mead, where the open university has found human fire pits with cooked meat dating back to the Mesolithic period – so the question we must consider is why build Stonehenge at this low position.

Blick Mead
Blick Mead

LiDAR can easily answer this question as we can create a 3D model of the landscape which enhances the features and make landscape identification much easier than consulting either OS maps with their contour markings or even field surveying, where landscape features are easily lost at ground level.

Stonehenge Bottom
Stonehenge Bottom

If we fly over or hover about 100 foot above the landscape, facing in a southerly direct, we find Stonehenge is on the edge of a vast Dry River Valley. But in the Mesolithic this valley was not dry but very wet with an active tributary fed by natural springs that ran south down to the River Avon.

A high Groundwater Table creates springs and groundwater is at its highest directly after an Ice Age as the melt water replenishes the Aquifers in the ground that create the water table. To understand the volume of water that comes from a spring they are categorised from A – E and the most productive A has a flow rate of 2800 litres per second and it has been estimated that the Dry River Valley we call ‘Stonehenge Bottom’ had several springs pumping an immense volume of water through the bottom to the River Avon.

Stonehenge Bottom in the Mesolithic
Stonehenge Bottom in the Mesolithic – Mesolithic Stonehenge

We can replicate this volume of water within our LiDAR software to see how it would affect the landscape during the Mesolithic – according to the archaeological evidence we estimate that the water table (and hence the river shoreline) was about 30m above the current level and would have flooded the entire river valley up to the Old Car Park of Stonehenge (97m).

We know that this is the case as we have found excavation evidence in the old car park back in 1966 when three giant post holes were discovered when laying the car park tarmac.

Stonehenge Old Car Park
Stonehenge Old Car Park – Mesolithic Stonehenge

These post holes show that they were cut into the chalk bedrock some 9 – 10k years ago in the early Mesolithic period and their contents was of silt and sand which is found by the shorelines of rivers in this area.

We can date these post holes as they had remains of pine charcoal in the bottom of these holes which was carbon dated to be cut about 8300 BCE. Other post holes have been found on this curious alignment in the old car park which indicates a total of five post holes were found that not only did these holes dating back to the same early Mesolithic Date – but they match the radiocarbon dates of hearths found at the quarry site for the Bluestones at Stonehenge at Craig Rhos-Y-Felin.

Post Hole A Matches Quarry Hearth Date
Post Hole A Matches Quarry Hearth Date – Mesolithic Stonehenge

The old car park is 10m lower than the Stonehenge site, and recent radiocarbon dating (by Darvill and Wainwright’s excavations in 2008) has confirmed from charcoal remains found inside the Sarsen stone Circle that the main site was in use by use by 7200 BCE, emphasising the connection between these ‘totem poles’ and the main site.

So if they are not Totem poles what are they?

If my hypothesis is correct, these holes housed posts which were functional mooring points for boats.   They were utilised for unloading their 4-tonne bluestone cargo, and as they were on a tidal river – the post’s cross-beams could be used as simple lifting devices.  One metre cross beams were placed on two of these 1 metre wide posts, secured with a simple mortise and tenon joint, as used on the Stonehenge lintels.

Bluestone lifting device
Bluestone lifting device – Mesolithic Stonehenge

This lifting device could have been used to raise stones from boats during high tide by merely tying the stones to the cross beams.  Then, as the tide receded, the vessel holding the stone would naturally lower in the water, lifting the stone ‘like magic’ into the air.  This is the first example of a hydraulic lift, which shows the level of sophistication in our ancestor’s thinking.  The stone could then be lowered to either a sledge or rollers placed under the cross beam for the 50m journey to the top of the hill.

I feel I must also point out that the current batch of archaeologists would disagree with this evidence of a higher River Avon. There theory for these Post Holes were ‘ceremonial totem poles’ place by random Hunter Gatherers?

Sadly, the lack of logic for this excuse is breath-taking, firstly the dates of these poles span over 1,000 years as the excavations show that they were replaced and not just rotted in place. Secondly, they are over 1m wide and so a 1m wide pine tree is almost 200 ft high and so this massive tree needed to be cut down with a stone axe taking weeks – somewhat overkill for just a ceremonial pole in the ground which could have been of any thickness?

So there you have it

LiDAR shows that one upon a time the River Avon was much higher in the past which turned Stonehenge into a peninsula surrounded by water.

Next week we will continue to look at Stonehenge, this time during the Neolithic and we look in-depth at the addition the builders constructed to meet the water level of that period The Avenue.

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