Theories about the date and purpose of Stonehenge are to be tested through the first excavations to be permitted inside the stone circle since 1964. Scheduled Monument Consent has been granted for a two-week excavation by Tim Darvill of Bournemouth University, and Geoff Wainwright, President of the Society of Antiquaries, which was completed on 11 April 2008.
The aim of the excavation is to find out precisely when the Double Bluestone Circle, the first stone structure on the site, was built; how long it was in use, and when it was dismantled and reused in later stages of the evolution of Stonehenge. Current estimates put the erection date at around 2,550 BC, but dateable materials from earlier excavations were poorly recorded and cannot be attributed to specific features and deposits with any certainty.
Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: 'The bluestones hold the key to understanding the purpose and meaning of Stonehenge. Their arrival marked a turning point in the history of Stonehenge, changing the site from being a fairly standard formative henge with timber structures and occasional use for burial, to the complex stone structure whose remains dominate the site today.
The new trench, measuring 3.5m by 2.5m, is in the south-eastern quadrant of the Double Stone Circle tol investigate the 'Stonehenge Layer', a significant and varied layer of debris and stone chippings spreading across the whole extent of the stone circle and comprising a high proportion of bluestone fragments. This is the first time that the nature, content and structure of this layer has been properly studied, crucially to determine whether this deposit was derived mainly from the construction or destruction of the Double Bluestone Circle and of Stonehenge as a whole.
Professor Darvill said: 'It is an incredibly exciting moment and a great privilege to be able to excavate inside Stonehenge. This excavation is the first opportunity in nearly half a century to bring the power of modern scientific archaeology to bear on a problem that has taxed the minds of travellers, antiquaries, and archaeologists since medieval times: just why were the bluestones so important and powerful to have warranted our ancestors to make the gargantuan journey to bring them to Salisbury Plain?'
Professor Wainwright added: 'This small excavation of a bluestone is the culmination of six years of research which Tim and I have conducted in the Preseli Hills of North Pembrokeshire and which has shed new light on the eternal question as to why Stonehenge was built. The excavation will date the arrival of the bluestones following their 250 km journey from Preseli to Salisbury Plain and contribute to our definition of the society which undertook such an ambitious project. We will be able to say not only why but when the first stone monument was built.'