Local and exotic sources of sarsen debitage at Stonehenge revealed by geochemical provenancing

T. Jake R. Ciborowski, David J. Nash, Timothy Darvill, Ben Chan, Mike Parker Pearson, Rebecca Pullen, Colin Richards, Hugo Anderson-Whymark

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1 Citation (Scopus)


The application of novel geochemical provenancing techniques has changed our understanding of the construction of Stonehenge, by identifying West Woods on the Marlborough Downs as the likely source area for the majority of the extant sarsen megaliths at the monument. In this study, we apply the same techniques to saccharoid sarsen fragments from three excavations within and outwith the main Sarsen Circle to expand our understanding of the provenance of sarsen debitage present at the monument. Through pXRF analysis, we demonstrate that the surface geochemistry of 1,028 excavated sarsen fragments is significantly affected by subsurface weathering following burial in a way that cannot be overcome by simple cleaning. However, we show that this effect is surficial and does not have a volumetrically significant impact, thus permitting the subsequent use of whole-rock analytical methods. Comparison of ICP-AES and ICP-MS trace element data from 54 representative sarsen fragments with equivalent data from Stone 58 at Stonehenge demonstrates that none are debitage produced during the dressing of this megalith or its 49 chemical equivalents at the monument. Further inspection of the ICP-MS data reveals that 22 of these fragments fall into three distinct geochemical ‘families’. None of these families overlap with the geochemical signature of Stone 58 and its chemical equivalents, implying that sarsen imported from at least a further three locations (in addition to West Woods) is present at Stonehenge. Comparison of immobile trace element signatures from the 54 excavated sarsen fragments against equivalent data for 20 sarsen outcrop areas across southern Britain shows that 15 of the fragments can be linked to specific localities. Eleven of these were likely sourced from Monkton Down, Totterdown Wood and West Woods on the Marlborough Downs (25–33 km north of Stonehenge). Three fragments likely came from Bramdean, Hampshire (51 km southeast of Stonehenge), and one from Stoney Wish, East Sussex (123 km to the southeast). Technological analysis and refitting shows that one of the fragments sourced from Monkton Down was part of a 25.7 cm × 17.9 cm flake removed from the outer surface of a large sarsen boulder, most probably during on-site dressing. This adds a second likely source area for the sarsen megaliths at Stonehenge in addition to West Woods. At this stage, we can only speculate on why sarsen from such diverse sources is present at Stonehenge. We do not know whether the fragments analysed by ICP-MS were removed from (i) the outer surface of Stones 26 or 160 (which are chemically distinct to the other extant sarsen megaliths), (ii) one of the c.28 sarsen megaliths and lintels from the c.60 erected during Stage 2 of the construction of Stonehenge that may now be missing from the monument, or (iii) one of the dismantled and destroyed sarsen megaliths associated with Stage 1 of the monument. With the exception of the fragment sourced from Monkton Down, it is also possible that the analysed fragments were (iv) pieces of saccharoid sarsen hammerstones or their pre-forms, or (v) small blocks brought on-site for ceremonial or non-ceremonial purposes.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104406
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2024


  • Geochemical provenancing
  • ICP-MS
  • pXRF
  • Sarsen
  • Silcrete
  • Stonehenge


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