A “lost” boulder rediscovered in a box in Salisbury Museum has provided powerful evidence that   the bluestones of Stonehenge were transported from West Wales by glacier ice. 

The evidence also makes it clear that the story of the transport of 80 bluestones by heroic Neolithic tribesmen, one of the great Stonehenge myths should now be dumped.

New research, published today in the International Quaternary Science Journal, describes in  detail the surface characteristics of the boulder, which suggest that it has had a complex history beginning with glacial entrainment and transport in North Pembrokeshire and ending at Stonehenge with human damage in Neolithic and modern times.

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The author of the paper, retired geography lecturer Dr Brian John, has been studying the impacts of glacial erratic transport for many years, with research-based for the most part in the source area of the bluestones.  But his research received an unexpected boost in 2022 when a small boulder made of volcanic rock was rediscovered in Salisbury Museum, having been ”missing” for 46 years.

The boulder was initially unearthed in a Stonehenge dig in 1924, and was considered to be of no importance, but the archaeologist RS Newall rescued it and stored it in his attic, until it was passed over to Salisbury Museum shortly before he died in 1976. 

Researcher Dr Brian JohnResearcher Dr Brian John (Image: Dr Brian John)

There was a brief burst of interest in the boulder around 1977, but then it was placed back into storage and effectively forgotten for another 46 years.

In 2022, Dr John found a reference to the boulder and asked the Museum Director Adrian Green if it was still in storage, and on discovering that it was, he was given permission to examine it and undertake a careful examination of its surface features.

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The volcanic boulder, about the size of a human skull, has a number of different facets and surface characteristics suggestive of glacial transport.  It also has surface weathering features that suggest it is far too old to have been quarried in Neolithic times or to have been knocked off one of the igneous monoliths at Stonehenge. 

There are also encrustations of tufa on the boulder surface, indicative of burial in chalky or calcium-rich sediments for maybe hundreds of thousands of years.

On the other hand, the boulder has considerable “fresh” surface damage, suggesting that it was found by somebody, maybe during the Neolithic, and seen as a possible source for tool manufacture before being rejected when it was found unsuitable.  Ironically, most of the subsequent damage has been done by geologists.

Dr Brian John says:  “This boulder has had a fascinating history, but it is highly probable that it was carried into the Stonehenge area by glacier ice.  The rock type suggests a Pembrokeshire origin.  We should not be surprised by this. 

"The great majority of Stonehenge bluestones are not pillars at all, in spite of what we have all been encouraged to believe.  They are smoothed and deeply weathered glacial erratic boulders similar in shape and appearance to almost any assemblage of boulders to be found near any present-day glacier snout.”

Dr John dismisses the hypothesis involving monolith quarrying and human transport.  He claims that the Stonehenge bluestones were picked up by the vast Irish Sea Ice Stream as it flowed across Pembrokeshire, and then transported eastwards up the Bristol Channel to be dumped somewhere on Salisbury Plain, at a location still to be discovered.  

He also claims that Stonehenge was never finished, and that the building project was abandoned when the builders simply ran out of stones.

More information can be found at egqsj.copernicus.org/articles.