History is a jigsaw puzzle. To gain a view of the past, we need to put together pieces gleaned from archaeology and from surviving records. Increasingly, it seems clear that we can also learn from myths, passed down through generations via the oral tradition to the point when they were recorded in writing.
There has been a flurry of articles recently about a paper published by Professor Mike Parker Pearson and his colleagues from a number of British Universities: The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales:
The BBC also broadcast a prime-time programme about the findings, which are of mainstream interest and are indeed very exciting.
The archaeologists have confirmed that the bluestones at Stonehenge weren’t only quarried in Wales (something which has been known for at least a century); they actually formed a stone circle there, which has been suspected since at least 1923 but not proven – until now.
The circle was in the Preseli mountains in south-west Wales, close to where the stones were quarried, and stood there for an unknown length of time before being removed and taken to Stonehenge, over 220 miles away. The archaeologists have found the exact holes where the stones stood.
(Source: Google Maps)
The stones were originally quarried and erected in a circle around 3400–3000BC: five to five and a half thousand years before our own time. They seem to have been raised in their new location, as part of Stonehenge in what is now England, around 3080–2950, meaning that they stood in the Preseli mountains for anything between 50 to 450 years. These are Pearson Parker’s dates, and he gives a 95% certainty that they are correct.
However, this is the very earliest end of the range suggested by the Wikipedia article on Stonehenge, which suggests that the bluestones were more probably first placed there around 2400 BC – 2200 BC, meaning that they would have been at their original location for around a thousand years. It’s worth noting that (as shown in the BBC documentary) the methods Parker Pearson’s team used – analysing ancient sunlight trapped in fragments of silica – are very, very sensitive, and susceptible to contamination. The later dates are based on carbon-dating of organic material discovered at Stonehenge. On balance, I’m inclined to the later dates, for reasons we’ll talk about below.
In their original location, the bluestones were aligned with the sunrise on the summer solstice, and this alignment was kept after they had been moved to Stonehenge.
In the paper, Parker Pearson and his colleagues relate their discovery to a legend recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in The History of the Kings of Britain, published around 1136. Geoffrey rewrote many existing myths and legends to form his story of King Arthur. One part of his tale has Merlin and an army of 15,000 men retrieving a stone circle – “The Giants’ Dance” – from Ireland. The stones are too heavy for the men to move, so Merlin transports them with his magic, placing them in Britain, where they became what we know as Stonehenge.
Parker Pearson notes that during Geoffrey’s lifetime, south-west Wales (including the Preseli mountains) “was considered Irish territory”* which would explain why he connected the stones with Ireland.
The paper notes that not all of the older Stonehenge stones come from the Preseli area; others come from different parts of Wales, suggesting at least the possibility that multiple stone circles were brought to Salisbury plain: a major project.
Chemical analysis of bones found around Stonehenge found that four human bodies were of people who had lived in the Preseli mountains in the last decade of their life, as had “an elderly cow” (p.99).
This leads Parker Pearson and his colleagues to conclude that Neolithic south-west Wales was “extensively depopulated” (p.100), with the people migrating to Salisbury Plain for unknown reasons.
The paper ends by reminding us that “Archaeology and myth make awkward companions” (p.99). And yet… it does seem that Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing 900 years ago as seen from our own day, had access to a Welsh myth that contained key elements of events that really happened, thousands of years ago. Are there other Welsh myths which might help us to understand what happened, millennia ago?
I think there are.
The stone circle identified by Parker Pearson’s team was located at Waun Mawn (‘The Peat Moor’, in Welsh) on the northern side of the Preselis. It was situated in the ancient Welsh commote of Uwch Nyfer, in the cantref of Cemais. As such, it stood in the ancient Kingdom of Dyfed.
This was the territory ruled by Pwyll in the First Branch of the Mabinogi.
The notes to the 1877 Guest edition of the Mabinogi tell us:
It is evident, however, that at the time the Mabinogi of Pwyll was committed to writing, Dyved was restricted to the Cantrevs (or Hundreds) of Arberth (or Narberth), Dan Gleddyv, y Coed, Penvro, Rhos, Pebidiog, and Cenmaes, to which we are told that Pryderi added the three Cantrevs of Ystrad Tywi, or Carmarthenshire, Cantrev Bychan, Cantrev Mawr, and Cantrev Eginawg, together with the four Cantrevs of Ceredigiawn, Cantrev Emlyn, Cantrev Caer Wedws, Cantrev Mabwyniawn, and Cantrev Gwarthav, which seven Cantrevs were classed together under the appellation of Seissyllwch. The addition made by Pryderi probably restored Dyved to its original extent at the time of the Romans.
This means that when Pwyll was King of Dyfed, the stone circle of Waun Mawn would have been close to his northern border. After the conquests of his son Pryderi expanded the kingdom, the circle would have been near the centre of Dyfed.
We know that Pwyll, and thus his people, had a special relationship with the Otherworld. This began when Pwyll encountered Arawn, King of Annwn, whilst hunting a stag at Glyn Cych, which would also have been border country. This isn’t a mythical place: there is still a village there today, so we know exactly where it is.
As it happens, the distance between Glyn Cych and Waun Mawn isn’t all that far – around 15 miles or so. Not too far for men on horseback. And, while the name ‘Waun Mawn’ is pretty prosaic, the map in Pearson Parker’s paper shows us that the circle was right next to a spot called Cnwc yr Hydd – “The Hillock of the Stag”. Hmmm. That doesn’t prove anything – but it’s interesting.
(Source: Google Maps)
Pwyll and his tribe prospered due to their association with the Otherworld. When Pwyll died, he passed to his son Pryderi a strong kingdom. The relationship with Annwn continues, and we learn in the Fourth Branch that Arawn has made Pryderi another sacred gift: pigs. This is our first, tentative, connection between the bluestone circle of Waun Mawn and pigs. Keep it in mind, because we’ll come back to that later.
Unfortunately, Pryderi lost everything, as I’ve discussed in an earlier post. Many people think that Pryderi is a hero, but I completely disagree. My reading of the Mabinogi is that he is a fool, who loses everything his father built up. By the end of the Fourth Branch, Pryderi is dead far from home, the warriors of his tribe have been decimated (so unable to defend their lands against a strong enemy), and he has left no heir (which would cause political chaos and a crisis of legitimacy).
In my reading, Pryderi’s rashness and lack of caution have set up exactly the kind of situation in which another tribe could invade and remove the stones to their own territory. It’s possible, of course, that Pwyll’s remaining tribe decided that they were now defenceless and, fearing another attack from the north, moved en masse, far to the east. That doesn’t ring true; by the end of the Fourth Branch, there’s no reason why Math or Gwydion, would strike south again.
Given that Math’s kingdom included the sacred island of Mona, with many Neolithic remains of its own and later the last stronghold of the Druids, it’s not impossible that the Fourth Branch bears the last memory of a power play between sacred kings, with Gwydion trying to steal the pigs (and the stones?) to enhance the power of Gwynedd.
But… it doesn’t really seem that way. The Fourth Branch makes it clear that Gwydion’s raid was about internal politics in the north. And the idea that the weakened remnants of Pryderi’s people just upped and left of their own accord? Look again at the description above of Dyfed’s boundaries; there were other tribes in the way. It seems much, much more likely that another, more powerful,, tribe made a raid across south Wales, capturing the bluestones, and taking them back to their own lands, along with captives, cattle and other plunder. That would fit with Geoffrey’s tale of the stones being moved by a wizard with an army…
Was that sort of thing happening in the Neolithic? It was.
The archaeological record is sparse, but it exists – and it tells us that the Neolithic was a period of violence and cruelty.
Somewhere around the time we’re talking about, for example, a group of people were massacred near Wayland’s Smithy – not all that far from Stonehenge. They were shot down with arrows, and their bodies left for the wolves. That’s been dated to between 3590 BC and 3560 BC, so only a little before the stones were moved – if Parker Pearson’s dates are correct. If not, it was a few hundred years earlier.
The violence seems to have been going on for a long time: 7,000 years ago (so, around 5,000 BC) evidence of massacre and brutal torture – of men, and of children – has been found in Neolithic Germany. However, women don’t appear among the dead, suggesting that warbands raided other tribes for young women.
This is supported by research which shows that the population of Europe dropped significantly during the early Neolithic, with strong indications that it was because of savage warfare raging for generations. Scientists examining skeletons of people who died in Britain and Ireland between 4,000 BC and 3,200 BC have found extensive evidence of violence, inflicted both by hand-held weapons and projectiles.
Archaeologists have described some of the bodies found in Britain as ‘suspected human sacrifice’, but at least one is easily interpreted as a cruel, brutal death for a female captive who kept running away (WARNING: may cause distress). We shouldn’t be surprised at this: in far more recent times, the (WARNING!) brutal and protracted torture of captives was common amongst Native American tribes in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, with entire villages (including children) taking part. Humans do these things to each other.
And yet: the same culture was performing feats of fantastically precise engineering, involving massive pieces of rock weighing many tons. It was capable of analysing the movements of the heavenly bodies and predicting astronomical events. Clearly, there was a caste, or group, who had the time and the security to do deep thinking and research. Given that the total population of Britain at the end of the Neolithic was only around 250,000 people, it seems improbable that each of the warring tribes had its own philosophers; it must be at least equally likely that these ‘thinkers’ in some way transcended the tribal differences… Hmmm… what name might we give them, I wonder…?
Further evidence suggests genocide around 2,800 BC in mainland Europe as a new population – the Yamnaya, or the Corded Ware culture – moved in from the East, exterminating the men who already lived there, and enslaving the women. That’s not long after the stones were moved from Waun Mawn to Stonehenge, by Parker Pearson’s dating – but several hundred years before, according to the carbon-dating.
Something seems to have happened in Britain – something which didn’t happen in mainland Europe, and which may be relevant to the story of the Waun Mawn bluestones.
Before discussing that, I need to jump forward in time, and then work backwards. We need to discuss what by then had become Iron Age Gaul, a Celtic society, in 57 BC: the final years of Gallic independence, and around 3,000 years after the bluestones were first quarried.
In Book 6, Chapter 13 of The Gallic Wars – his account of his conquest of Gaul – Julius Caesar writes of the Druids that they:
assemble at a fixed period of the year in a consecrated place in the territories of the Carnutes, which is reckoned the central region of the whole of Gaul. Hither all, who have disputes, assemble from every part, and submit to their decrees and determinations. This institution is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed thither for the purpose of studying it.
Caesar’s comment has been widely used to say that the Gauls believed *Druidry* came from Britain. It probably did, of course, but if you actually look at his words, that isn’t what he’s saying: he’s clearly referring to the festival itself: the ‘insitution’ of the festival, as distinct from the ‘system’ of Druidry. I suspect that past generations of academics decided that since they had never seen any record or evidence of any such pan-tribal gathering in Britain, he must even so have been referring to Druidry. However, now we know that there was such a gathering, and it was held near Stonehenge.
As I discussed in a post in 2019, scientists have discovered large quantities of pig bones in the region around Stonehenge. They were brought there alive from all around Britain – long distances – and there slaughtered, to be eaten in feasts. Why? Well, we don’t know – but different tribes gathering in one place for a festival certainly sounds like the Druidic festival in Gaul… which even the Gauls said was something that originally happened in Britain.
Did the Gallic tribes bring pigs to their festival? We don’t know; Caesar may not have thought it was worth mentioning, even if he knew.
When the British tribes gathered around Stonehenge, bringing pigs, were there Druids there, adjudicating disputes? We don’t know – but Caesar’s comment suggests that it was likely. Someone certainly organised it, and they must have had some purpose in mind.
Now, the Gallic tribes were a warrior culture. They were not peaceful. They were not at peace with their neighbours. So what was the point of the festival “in the territories of the Carnutes”?
It was to stop the violence from getting out of hand. It was to stop mass violence from spanning generations.. It was to stop catastrophic population loss, of the kind that occurred in Neolithic times.
We know from multiple sources in the Classical period that the Druids had authority to enforce peace, even if that meant walking between armies that had already begun their charge and telling them to stop. Clearly they did not always do this: but sometimes they did, and their right and authority to do so was acknowledged.
Is this what was happening at Stonehenge? Is that why the tribes gathered, with their sacrificial pigs? For Druids to hear cases, and pass judgements? It seems likely – and that’s very, very interesting, because those pig bones have been dated, and they are from 2,800 BC to 2,400 BC. That’s several hundred years after the bluestones were moved, if Parker Pearson is right. If we believe the scientists quoted in the Wikipedia article, it’s at almost exactly the same time. It’s the period of the new wave of genocidal violence in mainland Europe, spreading from the steppes towards the Atlantic.
Did the British tribes previously gather in the Preseli mountains, to have disputes heard and settled by religious authorities?
Looking at the map, people today might think of the Preseli mountains as being remote and inaccessible, but that’s because today we think of driving overland, and because we tend to refer to places in Britain in terms of their location with regard to London – a place which only really became important far later, after the Roman invasion.
In the Neolithic and Iron Age period, though, long-distance travel was primarily by sea: Neolithic Britons were expert sailors. Britain is an island, but during the Neolithic period the North Sea – the sea to the east of the island and lying between Britain and mainland Europe – was extremely hazardous to sail. The Irish and Celtic Seas, however, lying between Britain and Ireland, and between western Britain and Armorica (now Brittany in France) were far safer and easier to sail: the main sea routes of Neolithic Britain were to the west. The original bluestone circle was near excellent ports and harbours, capable of handling large numbers of ships and curraghs, (Milford Haven/Aberdaugleddau, Newport/Trefdraeth, and Fishguard/Abergwaun being just a few contemporary examples). It would have been a central and extremely accessible location for the Neolithic tribes.
Moving the bluestones was no simple or easy task: someone thought they were very important – important enough to commit significant resources to. Whatever purpose they were serving, it was something only they could do. What was that purpose? And why did they want it to happen on Salisbury Plain, rather than in the Preselis?
This is where we come to something unusual that happened in Britain.
As we saw above, around 2,800 BC the Yamnaya arrived in Europe from the East, and began slaughtering their way west. They never got as far as Britain, though: there was another culture in the way, emerging from the Iberian Peninsula, or possibly even from Morocco in north Africa, at exactly the same time. This was the Bell Beaker culture.
This culture spread north and east very rapidly, reaching northern France and Hungary respectively within a few hundred years. This may be because they were socially more organised than the peoples they encountered. They were also more technologically advanced: originally stone-tool users, it was this culture which developed the use of bronze for tools – and for weapons.
As they reached what is now eastern Europe, they encountered the Corded Ware culture and, apparently, stopped their advance. Bell Beaker culture reached Britain, seemingly via what is now Germany, around 2500 BC, and this is where things get strange.
The Bell Beaker people seem to have reached Britain at approximately the same time as the period of feasting at Stonehenge. If we believe the carbon-dating, it was just before the bluestones were first brought to Stonehenge. It was this culture that was responsible for reshaping Stonehenge to the form we know today: they continued to use the circle first developed by their Neolithic predecessors.
But… those Neolithic predecessors… vanished completely. They have left almost no genetic trace**.
This wasn’t because of warfare and violence. Archeological research shows that the two cultures actually lived peacefully alongside each other for hundreds of years. They seem to have just… merged into each other. They didn’t intermarry or have children together – but they did share their cultures.
This research was conducted… at Stonehenge.
Archaeologists have suggested that the site where Stonehenge now stands was originally a sacred site linked to healing. Even before the first stones were raised, there was a circular earth bank and ditch, so it was a place of importance.
The next piece of the jigsaw is the Amesbury Archer, sometimes called ‘the King of Stonehenge‘. This man was buried, with a younger male relative, near Stonehenge somewhere around 2300. He belonged to the Bell Beaker culture, so he must have been amongst the first groups of their settlers in Britain. He wasn’t born in Britain: chemical analysis show that he was originally from the Alps in Central Europe – close to where the much more violent Yamnaya culture were raging. His burial was lavish, indicating that he was very important to his people.
The final piece of the jigsaw is an unsolved question: when did this culture become the Celtic Britons of the Iron Age, when they are first recorded by Greek and Roman writers? Iron tools and weapons first appear in Britain around 800 BC. Identifiably Celtic art and culture, of the continental La Tene style, only seems to have appeared around 300 BC. This change saw the reverse of what happened earlier: the genetics were largely unchanged, but the culture shifted.
Soon after that, of course, came the Romans, and everything changed. As I discussed in another post, the now-Celtic Britons fought desperately to protect the Druid stronghold on Anglesey; had that religion, and its structures and institutions, only emerged a few hundred years earlier? It seems unlikely.
If we put these pieces together, a possible story emerges.
12,000 years ago, Neolithic culture spread across Europe, introducing agriculture. It reached Britain 6,000 years ago.
This culture was intellectually advanced: it had thinkers who could plan and organise fantastically challenging engineering projects, and who studied and understood the movements of the heavens.
However, this culture was also appallingly violent. Competition for land, resources, and women drove brutal inter-tribal warfare, with the losers being tortured and massacred. This continued, generation after generation, and caused a massive drop in population levels across Europe.
This began to change when one tribe, located in sacred mountains in the West of Britain, received the blessings of the Otherworld.
The caste of religious thinkers, determined to end the constant violence, caused a new circle to be quarried and raised on a high mountain-top, near the Hill of the Sacred Stag; a place where land, sea, and sky are interwoven. Here they summoned the warring tribes to meet, to feast, and to settle their differences. The tribes’ representatives came from all over Britain, their ships and curraghs bringing them to the many good harbours, only a few miles from the bluestone circle. There, in the Kingdom of Pwyll and Pryderi, they would sit together to eat the gift of the Otherworld: the flesh of the pig.
The plan worked. The violence continued, but it diminished; the hatred and blood feuds were dealt with through sacred judgements, no longer through mutilation and murder and endless retaliations. Order emerged.
But, in time, disaster struck: an internal feud in a kingdom to the north led to a war. The gifts of the Otherworld were stolen; the foolish, rash, King of the Sacred Kingdom, and the majority of his warriors, fell in battle, far from home. The sacred bluestones were left defenceless; the tribe, leaderless.
Just as this happened in the west of Britain, a new order was emerging in the east. A new people had arrived; more advanced, and more organised. This people had recent knowledge of genocidal violence; they had met the murderous Yamnaya, and had personal experience of tribal hate. They wanted to settle new lands, but they also wanted to live in peace.
Their King, advancing rapidly inland with his people, settled on the fertile plains. They chose not to fight with the people already living there, but settled apart.
From their new neighbours, they learned of how the priests had brought peace, thousands of years before. They learned of the sacred bluestones, and the pig-flesh feasts.
And then they learned that the Sacred King of Dyfed had fallen in battle, that his line had ended with him, and that the stones were undefended.
The King of the Bronze people sent a strong army, 15,000 men, to secure the stones, and to bring them back.
Some of the priests came as well, perhaps as captives, more likely in honour. Perhaps the ordinary people of the tribe also came along; we cannot tell. Perhaps some of the priests decided to stay with the people of their own culture, and went north, to Anglesey, establishing another centre there.
The King had the bluestones erected in the sacred healing circle; the priests ensured that it had the same dimensions, and the same astronomical alignment, as it had had in its original mountain home. The tribes were invited to come together, and feast in this new place: no longer quite so accessible by sea – but far more convenient for the new culture, and its relatives in mainland Europe.
It was the children of the new culture who prospered; their line continued. The older population slowly vanished, their children absorbed into the Bronze people – but the Bronze people, the Beaker people… they now had the religion, and the tales, of the older people. They continued to tell the stories of their culture’s childhood, in those distant days of stone.
Over time, they remodelled the stone circle, remaking it with newer, larger, more local stones – but the bluestones remained the heart of its power. And, over time, the ancient ways, the priestly caste, and the inter-tribal feasts were carried to mainland Europe, and were adopted there.
Centuries passed, and became millennia. A new technology arrived: iron. New forms of art appeared. The culture changed once more; the Beaker People became the Celts. Stonehenge was no longer used for feasting – but the priests endured, and their status and learning, and their commitment to peace. The festival and feasting still took place in Gaul; the tribes there remembered that the tradition had come from Britain.
Greek travellers and traders began to visit the tribes. They recorded the name of these priests: the Druids.
And then came the Romans. The priesthood which had emerged amongst a long-vanished people, which had been adopted by the people who replaced them, and which had continued amongst the culture that had replaced them in turn… was savagely, ruthlessly, determinedly, extinguished.
But the tribes continued to tell the tales of the childhood of their culture, so long before.
And when, some hundreds of years later, Rome departed, there were no longer Druids to maintain peace and unity between the tribes. The feasts had been forgotten, and the British fought amongst themselves once more, unable to unite against the sea wolves arriving from the east, and who toppled the tribes one by one.
But in the mountains of the west, where it all began, the Welsh endured, and they still tell the tales of the childhood of their culture, so long ago.
* Update: although, by Geoffrey’s time, the ‘Irish’ present in south-west Wales would actually have been Danes from the Kingdom of Dublin – basically, Gaelic-speaking Vikings…
** Update: it seems as if the Neolithic population did actually remain the majority in Wales, where the stones originated: Welsh people could be most ancient in UK, DNA suggests (BBC).