The famed bluestone megaliths at Stonehenge – a prehistoric site in the United Kingdom that has fascinated and intrigued tourists and archaeologists through the ages – have been dated back to the turn of the 4th millennium before our Common Era, or some 5,000 years ago, a study published Tuesday said.
The research, led by a team from University College London and published in the prestigious journal Antiquity, drew on data collected over eight years from digs at two quarries in Wales that were known to have been the distant source of the stones erected at Stonehenge.
"What's really exciting about these discoveries is that they take us a step closer to unlocking Stonehenge's greatest mystery – why its stones came from so far away," said Mike Parker Pearson, the team's lead researcher.
According to Pearson, every other Neolithic monument in Europe was built using megaliths brought from no more than 10 miles (16 kilometers) away.
In the case of Stonehenge, however, the bluestones were carved out in western Wales and transported more than 180 miles (290 kilometers) away to the ancient stone circle located in what is now Salisbury Plain (southern England).
"We're now looking to find out just what was so special about the Preseli Hills (in Pembrokeshire, Wales) 5,000 years ago, and whether there were any important stone circles built here before the bluestones were moved to Stonehenge," Pearson added.
Researchers from Bournemouth University, the University of Southampton, the University of the Highlands and Islands and the National Museum of Wales also took part in the excavation efforts.
Stonehenge's 42 bluestones are the smallest type of liths found at the famous site and derive their name from the bluish hue sported by the igneous rocks.
The larger stones are known as sarsens and have been estimated to have been raised at Stonehenge about 2500 BCE.
At least five of the bluestones have been confirmed to have originated at the Carn Goedog outcrop on the north slope of the Preseli Hills.
"This was the dominant source of Stonehenge's spotted dolerite, so-called because it has white spots in the igneous blue rock," explained Richard Bevins of the National Museum of Wales. "At least five of Stonehenge's bluestones, and probably more, came from Carn Goedog."
Stonehenge's large megaliths were erected in a ring-like fashion by the early inhabitants of what is now the landlocked civil parish of Wiltshire, located some 130 kilometers (81 miles) to the west of London.
Archaeologists have long been perplexed by many aspects of the iconic landmark, such as its original purpose and construction methods: some modern theories posit the site was used for religious ceremonies, including healing rituals, while others believe it was used as a solar calendar due to its astronomical orientation.
The presence of human remains unearthed in recent excavations could also suggest that Stonehenge once served as an ancient burial ground or necropolis.
Since no written records exist from that period, the fertile speculation surrounding the monument is unlikely to cease anytime soon.