Why should the Preseli bluestones have gone via Milford Haven to Stonehenge when they might have taken a less perilous route to the east? And does this have anything to do with an end ‘Neolithic’ Irish copper trade?
Newport, on the north coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales, is a small and charming little town, blighted only by having the main road from Fishguard to Aberystwyth going through it’s narrow main street. At Newport the Nevern (or Nyfer) River reaches the Irish Sea in a series of twists. It is a small and unexciting river, just over ten miles long, although it was a route of pilgrimage in medieval times.
Newport itself was established by the Anglo-Normans. However, it is probable that it sits at the site of a much older ‘port’ now lost in the sands. For along the River Nevern are a series of Neolithic ‘Portal stones’ (portal nothing to do with port). The newest of these to be ‘found’ is the Trefael stone, a megalith once part of a more complex structure and engraved with cup and ring marks.
Crossing the Pembrokeshire headland
From Newport the river heads south. After a few miles it becomes unnavigable, even to small boats, as it is followed down toward the eastern end of the Preseli Mountains. To continue the journey south it’s necessary to leave the Nyfer, cross the watershed and link up with the River Taf heading south.
The Taf River, although also small, is probably large enough to have allowed a small boat to travel down most of its course, past the odd standing stone and burial chamber. It eventually comes out on the south coast of Pembrokeshire at Laugharne.
Notably, the watershed between these two rivers, including Carn Menyn (and Carn Goedog), is also the location from which most of the famed Bluestones of Stonehenge are thought to have come. I think that this connection may be significant. (note – Bevins et al. 2011 report that at least one stone comes from lower ground to the north, but this is still part of the watershed – 2/3/11)
Traditionally, those archaeologists who believe in the great ‘Bluestone Transportation Event’ have, led by Richard Atkinson, opted for the River Cleddau, leading down to Milford Haven, as the route for the stones’ transportation. There’s a lot to be said for this route. Relatively gentle slopes down to the river and an abundance of standing stones at the river’s headwaters.
However, once at the river, it is not really any better than the Taf for transporting the stones. And on arrival at the coast, any boatman is faced with the difficult business of getting around some challenging and very exposed, southwest facing rocky headlands. To me this seems like a big disadvantage.
(For either the Taf or Cleddau route, a further 5 km of portage through modern Swansea or across the Gower would save the difficult journey around Worm’s Head too.)
It has long been assumed by most archaeologist that the Bluestones were transported by people from Pembrokeshire to Stonehenge. This may or many not be true. However, the reasons why anybody should have bothered have not been really discussed, other than suggesting a vague sacredness of the Preseli area. I have no problem with the bluestones being sacred. It’s just that there are some perfectly attractive, and potentially just as sacred, stones in the Mendips or Quantock Hills, say, which are much handier for Stonehenge.
But if the bluestones lay on an existing route to and from somewhere important at the time then their significance can be better appreciated. What if, as in a previous post, traders coming from Ireland with copper to trade avoided the difficult rocky coast of the Pembrokeshire headland by taking a route across the headland from north to south. A route via the Nyfer and the Taf, and therefore passing the Bluestone site of Carn Menyn, seems like a good choice for this. It is interesting to note the concentration of Neolithic and Bronze age standing stones at the northern end of this route.
There is also a second possible route across the headland, further to the east, starting along the Teifi River then crossing a broad section of land to join the Tywi in the south. Again between these rivers there is a concentration of standing stones, although this route does not pass the Preseli Hills.
Perhaps somewhere in this data lies part of the reason why anybody would have bothered to collect the bluestones and move them all the way to Stonehenge. After all they were going that way anyway.
Well, it’s only a thought.
(P.S. by chance “pres” means copper in Welsh. There is no significant copper deposit in Pembrokeshire and this put me in mind of an exciting survival of some ancient name in Preseli. I suspect, however, that the word “pres”‘s etymology can be traced back to the English word “brass”, and so is much younger than Stonehenge. Oh well.)
Atkinson, R.J.C. 1956 Stonehenge, Penguin, pp256.
Ixer, R.A. & Bevins, R.E. 2009 Missing Stonehenge circle did not come from Preselis (with retraction), British Archaeology 109.
Ixer, R.A. 2007 Waiting by the river: Stonehenge and the Severn Estuary. Abstract. Stone artefacts as material and sybolic markers in cultural landscapes. An international perspective.Implement Petrology Group Meeting. York. (not read but mentioned in comments below)
Bevins, R.E., Pearce, N.J.G. & Ixer, R.A. 2010 Stonehenge rhyolitic bluestone sources and the application of zircon chemistry as a new tool for provenancing rhyolitic lithics, Journal of Archaeological Science 38, 605-622. (only read abstract)