LONDON — Some of England's most sacred soil was disturbed Monday for the first time in more than four decades as archaeologists worked to solve the enduring riddle of Stonehenge: When and why was the prehistoric monument built?
The excavation project, set to last until April 11, is designed to unearth materials that can be used to establish a firm date for when the first mysterious set of bluestones was put in place at Stonehenge, one of Britain's best known and least understood landmarks.
The World Heritage site, a favorite with visitors the world over, has become popular with Druids, neo-Pagans and New Agers who attach mystical significance to the strangely shaped circle of stones, but there remains great debate about the actual purpose of the structure.
The dig will be led by Timothy Darvill, a leading Stonehenge scholar from Bournemouth University, and Geoffrey Wainwright, president of the Society of Antiquaries. Both experts have worked to pinpoint the site in the Preseli Mountains in south Wales where the bluestones — the earliest of the large rocks erected at the site — came from. They will be able to compare the samples found in Wales to those at Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain.
"The excavation will date the arrival of the bluestones following their 153-mile journey from Preseli to Salisbury Plain and contribute to our definition of the society which undertook such an ambitious project," Wainright said. "We will be able to say not only why, but when the first stone monument was built."
Scientists believe the bluestones were first put in place about 2600 B.C., but they concede the date is an approximation at best.
The excavation goal is to find remnants of the original bluestones, or related materials, that can be subjected to modern radiocarbon dating techniques to establish a more precise time line for the construction of Stonehenge, said Dave Batchelor, an archaeologist with English Heritage, which oversees the Stonehenge site.
About 6 feet tall, bluestones are the smaller stones that make up part of the monument, alongside the larger sarsen stones, which are about twice as tall and were added later.
Archaeologists believe that before the bluestones were put in place, Stonehenge consisted of a circle of wooden posts and timbers built in about 3100 B.C.