Digging Up Stonehenge's Secrets

The excavation around Stonehenge's Bluestone Number 34 isn't terribly impressive at first glance, or even second. It's only a squared-off pit a couple yards wide by three or four yards long, and the archaeologists digging there are only down to their shoulders. Still, after nearly two weeks of digging with half-inch trowels, that's already some 4,500 years deep--and, seemingly, a breakthrough to a layer that could reveal some of the secrets of Britain's oldest and most famous Stone Age monument. "Stonehenge, every visitor wants to come here, and every archaeologist wants to dig here," says Geoffrey Wainwright, one of the two archaeologists from the University of Bournemouth leading the historic dig. But it's been half a century since any archaeologists have been granted permission to dig up the site. "And it'll probably be the last time for another 50 years," says Wainwright. "This is a big thing for English Heritage to agree to."

Every year, a million tourists make their way to this already much put-upon World Heritage site in Wiltshire, about 75 miles southwest of London. As long ago as the Bronze Age, graffiti artists hacked images of daggers and axes onto some of the stones. In the 17th century, the famous British architect Christopher Wren chiseled his surname onto a pillar in elegant lettering; others weren't so careful when leaving their marks. Some of the stones were removed ages ago, perhaps as building material, and others succumbed to weathering. In the 20th century the concentric rings of stone were partly reassembled--and in some cases, restorers were over-zealous with applications of concrete and sandblasting. Visitor numbers grew, and "Elvis" appeared, in spray-paint. By the 1970s, conservation-minded authorities forbade further changes and closed the inner stone circles to visitors except by special arrangement.

No one has been able to come up with a solution to a worse problem -- two modern highways that transect the site, one of which is so close to the stones that the visitors' center has to be reached by a tunnel under it. What would otherwise be a tranquil setting on a commanding height of land is now surrounded by the din of traffic and beset by pollution. The British government agreed to an ambitious plan to bury the highways in tunnels, but when the billion-dollar price tag for that came in, the scheme was canceled last December because it "would not represent best use of taxpayers' money."

The purposes of the new dig are far more modest: to investigate the mysterious bluestones that comprise the heart of the monument, and try to determine once and for all where they were moved from, and exactly when. "It's a great opportunity to get in here and see what happened," says archaeologist Tim Darvill, also from Bournemouth. He and Wainwright have located a quarry in Wales that they believe is the origin of the bluestones --blue-green rock of volcanic origin not found on the Salisbury Plain where Stonehenge is located--and they've carbon-dated the antler horn digging tools found at the Welsh locale. By digging under Bluestone 34 and exposing the posthole or foundation for it, they hope to find bone or other organic material underneath that can be similarly dated -- at B.C. 2,500. Even a small chunk of antler horn would be the Holy Grail. The dig finishes April 11, and the archaeologists are reticent about their finds so far. They did mention a Roman coin, but that would have gotten there more than two and a half millennia after Stonehenge went up. "We have a lot of samples to process," says Darvill. The archaeologists are also trying to find proof for their theory that Stonehenge was a center of faith healing, and that the bluestones, flecked with white feldspar sparkles, were thought to have miraculous powers. They've already found many small pieces of the bluestone that may have been chipped off by totem-hunters. And while there have been no ancient human remains found within Stonehenge's circle itself, the surrounding area is full of burial mounds from many eras-- some with skeletons showing injuries and deformities. Even until relatively modern times, superstitions persisted about the bluestone's therapeutic properties.

Should the archeologists find enough evidence to settle their case that the bluestones were dragged 150 miles from Wales, plenty of larger questions unanswered will still be left unanswered. Who built Stonehenge, and for what purpose? Was it a temple, or an astronomical site, or, as Wainwright puts it, a Bronze Age Lourdes? Modern-day Druids, of which Britain has a few, claim it as their own, but the historical evidence is that Druids didn't show up until Stonehenge was already very ancient. The site was a monument as long ago as the time of the first Egyptian pyramids, and its final design is as old as Tutankhamen's tomb. New Age fans and mystics of many stripes flock to Stonehenge every winter and summer solstice, when the sunrise (in those rare years when it's actually visible in misty old England) lines up precisely along the axis between the horseshoe arrangement of the trilithons -- the three-pieced arrangement of shaped sandstone boulders, two pillars and a lintel, that gives Stonehenge its iconic silhouette. Those sandstone boulders, known as sarsens, were carved by hand using other stones, in an age before metal tools, but are skillfully mortised to join them together. The sarsens were probably sourced closer to their present site, which is a good thing, since it's reckoned it would take 200 stone age men to budge one-- let alone stand it on end. "There'll always be a mystery about Stonehenge," says Wainwright.

Meanwhile, the archaeologists and their student diggers are painstakingly bagging every ounce of material removed from around Bluestone Number 34, and out of nearby Q Hole 11, a previous dig by one of the last archaeologists allowed in Stonehenge, Richard Atkinson. It's easy to spot the Atkinson era, about two feet down: there's a layer of polyethylene plastic sheeting his diggers left behind, and it doesn't take carbon dating to put that in the 20th century. This time, after the rock and dirt of the ages is sieved and inspected, each little baggie of material will go back where it came from. By next week, the 21st century archaeologists say, it'll be hard to know they had even been there.