A Stone Age Holy Land?

Everyone agrees that the Preseli bluestones made Stonehenge a special monument. Yet most discussion has centred on how the rocks were transported from Preseli over such a long distance to Salisbury Plain where Stonehenge stands, rather than why. It is the why that most concerns us here.

Theories have been few and far between, and most of them have been them pretty simplistic, such as suggesting the fact that the rocks are bluish in colour with white spots made them special. This might have been partially true, but there had to be other reasons as well. Archaeologists are now aware that rocks from natural places that were apparently venerated were circulated over considerable distances in the Neolithic era of prehistory. These “pieces of places” were, in effect, relics charged with the sanctity, the mana, of their homeland, much as the bones of saints that were circulated and venerated in Medieval times were thought to possess magical and healing qualities. So what besides their colour made these bluestones so special? Two unexpected factors may be relevant – water and sound.

Bluestones and Healing Waters

Professor Timothy Darvill, co-director with Geoffrey Wainwright of the current archaeological survey of Preseli, S.P.A.C.E.S. (Strumble-Preseli Ancient Communities and Environment Study), and consultant to the Landscape and Perception Pilot Study, refers to an interesting element in the 12th-Century account of Geoffrey of Monmouth (see The Story of the Bluestones). In this, Geoffrey uses the myth of Merlin bringing the stones to Stonehenge to state that the stones had medicinal properties that could be accessed by washing the stones and then pouring the water into baths. The water absorbed the healing virtues of the stones. There is a folk belief in Pembrokeshire even today that the Preseli bluestones possess healing qualities.

S.P.A.C.E.S. soon found that the distribution of holy wells in the Preselis, and in west Wales generally, is dense. Many such springs and wells are believed to have healing properties. The survey noted about a dozen springs issuing out of the mountain immediately around the edge of the dolerite outcrops such as Carn Menyn. Of those that S.P.A.C.E.S. have found, a few are “enhanced springheads”, enhanced in the sense that the water source has been cleared out and enlarged, and a little wall has usually been built thus creating a pool where the water emerges. This indicates that such a spring was viewed as special and that the ancient people who so viewed it wished to obtain water at source, as it came out of the ground, Mother Earth, rather than further down the mountain where it becomes a rivulet and so less pure.

S.P.A.C.E.S. have also found features of archaeological interest around such enhanced springheads, like prehistoric rock art (not known to have been on Preseli previously – see Visual Mapping), fallen standing stones, and small cairns.

So one “magical” value of the bluestones might have been their perceived healing capabilities, perhaps turning Stonehenge into a kind of pilgrimage spa.

Spirits in the Stones

There is yet another intriguing (and surprising) aspect to the Preseli bluestones – a relatively high proportion of them (perhaps as much as ten percent) have the usually rare property of being “musical”. That is, they can ring like a bell or gong, or resound like a drum, when struck with a small hammerstone, instead of the dull clunking sound rock-on-rock usually makes. That this property has been noted locally down the generations is shown by the “Maenclochog” (“Ringing stones”) village place-name in the Preseli area (see Taking a Closer Look).

Part of the Landscape and Perception Pilot Study field research involves making a series of “acoustic assay” transects of Carn Menyn to try to obtain for the first time a reasonably accurate estimate of the proportion of such rocks there, while at the same time compiling a unique audio-library of the acoustic signatures of such stones or “ringing rocks” as they are sometimes called (see Acoustic Mapping).

Land of Origins?

The underlying reason for the perceived importance or special nature of the bluestones by Neolithic people therefore seems to lie in the idea that Mynydd Preseli was viewed as a sacred land in that era. This is reinforced by the presence of both major and many minor Stone Age monuments on and around the Preseli upland.

The concept of a mythic “point of emergence” of the First People, a land of cultural origins, was widespread around the ancient world. The ancestral Shoshone Indians, for example, considered the region containing Death Valley in California to be tiwiniyarivipi – “mythic land, sacred country” or the land “where the stories begin and end”. To our modern eyes the region may seem harsh and arid, but it all depends how one looks at it…

The Zuni Indians of Arizona, on the other hand, still make a hundred-mile-long annual pilgrimage from Zuni Pueblo near Gallup to Grand Canyon, because they say the First People emerged from a place close to Ribbon Falls, deep within the canyon. In Mexico, the Huichol Indians make a three-hundred-mile-long annual pilgrimage to the Wirikutà plateau, their mythical homeland, and while there they undergo specific rituals in order to gather the mind-altering, mescaline-containing cactus, peyote, which they use as a sacrament in their rituals throughout the year. So it is quite plausible to consider that the Preseli upland was drenched in Stone Age mythology – and it is an area, incidentally, where “magic” mushrooms (among other varieties) grow in abundance. As with Wirikutà and the Huichol, Preseli may have been the sacred destination of pilgrimages, possibly linked with the ritual, sacramental use of psilocybe mushrooms – and we can imagine that in bemushroomed visionary states the ringing of the rocks may have taken on magical dimensions, even causing the spirits in the stones to appear and dance before stoned Stone Age eyes…

fig.1 - An “enhanced springhead” at the foot of the Carn Menyn outcrops. It is now above the modern spring line so dry for much of the year

fig.2 -Striking certain Carn Menyn rocks produces a ringing sound.

fig.3 - An eerie yet magical light pervades this distant view of Carn Breseb on Mynydd Preseli

fig.4 - The Pentre Ifan dolmen – one of the great Neolithic monuments of the Preseli region. Carn Ingli (“Hill of Angels”) is in the background, and this natural feature was visited from at least Mesolithic times, c.7,000 years ago, right up to early Christian times. It also possesses major magnetic anomalies.

fig.5 - Tiwiniyarivipi, Death Valley, the ancestral sacred land of the Shoshone.

fig.6 - Preseli fungi