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Appeared in the National Post, April 22, 2000 "Discovery" B6

Did megalithic movers use boats and canals?:

Stonehenge wasn't built with slave teams, says a Canadian expert

They're at it again. Yet another large group of volunteers is playing "slaves for a month" for Cardiff University and a Welsh rural reclamation group, Menter Preseli. Their goal is to show how the blue-stones of Stonehenge could have been moved from the quarry in the Preseli Mountains of southwestern Wales to the Stonehenge site in Wiltshire, England.

The spokesman for the slave-gang, Peter Bowen, is calling for more volunteers to join the 250 already on the job. So far, they have moved the three-tonne table-sized stone 1.5 kilometres and have 385 more to go. They have to drag it around the Severn estuary at the head of the Bristol Channel, into southwestern England.

The first televised Stonehenge-hauling that I can remember was attempted in 1976 by E.J. Pawlicki, an American engineer. His blue-stone didn't get far. His workers went on strike after a week.  Such slave-gangs have never really worked for hauling big stones long distances, though the thinking behind them is better than New Age theories that the blue-stones were transported by UFOs.

These Welsh blue-stones were considered special for some megalithic ("big stone") cultural reason, about 2300 BC, when Stonehenge was under construction. Their blue colour is enhanced when they are wet with dew or rain. They weigh between three and five tonnes.  Altogether, there were originally 33 of them at Stonehenge, arranged in a circle just within the huge outer wall of upstanding "sarsen" stones with their "lintels" or capstones.

The outer wall's sarsen stones and the giant trilithons at the centre of the monument are much larger than the blue-stones, and weigh up to 15 or 20 tonnes. But their origin is also much closer to Stonehenge, in the neighbouring Wiltshire Downs. So they could have been dragged only eight to 16 km to the site. But the Welsh blue-stones were moved much further, in spite of a substantial water barrier. How?

Any given three to five tonne blue-stone could have been moved from Wales to Wiltshire in about a week by three people (instead of 250 slaves), by means of a curragh.

A curragh was the largest kind of boat available in 2300 BC.  Megalithic Britons had no way of making planks. A curragh was a boat-shaped framework of saplings lashed together with rawhide. It was covered with a flexible hull of bull's hides sewn together with flax thread. Curraghs could be made adequately strong and extremely seaworthy. They were rigged with sails. Because their construction was so lightweight, they were very fast sailers.

In 1976-77, a replica wood-and-leather curragh crossed the Atlantic from Ireland to Newfoundland under the command of the British adventurer Tim Severin. More recently, Farley Mowat has suggested in his book The Farfarers that curraghs carried early visitors from Britain to North America.

Tim Severin's "Brendan" replica curragh under sail.
Twenty-seven years ago, I designed "neo-curraghs" for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). These curraghs had wood and epoxy tube frames, and their hulls were of very thick plastic-impregnated canvas. They were successful as inexpensive (about $750 each) and very seaworthy boats for Third World village fishermen in places where there were strong winds and huge oceanic swells. They were used in the southwest Caribbean and in the Pacific.   These CIDA curraghs were about 10 metres long and 2.5 metres wide.  They could carry several people and a cargo of 1,360 kilograms.
British megalithic and Neolithic curraghs were larger -- 15 to 20 metres long and perhaps four to five metres in beam. We know this because in the winter curraghs were often turned upside-down, placed on a low stone foundation wall and lashed down tightly with ropes, to form shelters for the crew. There are many boat-shaped foundations of this size in Britain, especially in Scotland and the northern isles. Some also exist in Canada around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They were curragh-roofed winter shelters.  These boat-shaped shelter foundations are the reason we know the size of large ocean-going curraghs

Such a curragh would carry about 10 tonnes, two or three average blue-stones. Because their structure was so light, curraghs carrying 10 tonnes and three people would draw only about 45 to 60 centimetres of water.  Best of all, ordinary curraghs already in daily use for fishing or trade would suffice for bluestone moving.

Using a curragh of average megalithic size, then, we ascend Milford Haven and the Eastern Claddeu River in Wales, as far inland as possible. Since to carry one blue-stone at a time -- three tonnes -- we need only 31 cm of water, the three-person crew can haul the empty curragh up the large tributary Foeldrych River. We are now in the foothills of the Preseli Mountains, less than eight kilometres from the quarry.

Meanwhile, the blue-stone has been hauled, downhill, to the banks of the Foeldrych. A conventional archaeologist's sledge would not have been used for this. The quarrymen would have made a narrow road of cobblestones from the quarry to the stream. These cobblestones would have been smeared with hot fat -- and the biggest problem would not have been hauling the blue-stone, but stopping it.

The stone doesn't have to be lifted to load it into the curragh.  The leather hull has been rolled down from the gunwale. Perhaps one or two frames will have to be unlashed and pushed aside to get the blue-stone between them into the curragh. The blue-stone goes from the bank into the curragh on a ramp of logs that may be a semi-permanent fixture of the loading site. The curragh's frames are then lashed back into place (if they had to be moved), and the hull's leather is rolled back up and secured. Some water has to be bailed out, because the hull has been flooded while loading the blue-stone. We float back down the Foeldrych and Eastern Claddeu into Milford Haven.

We then sail around Land's End and along Britain's southern coast to the Avon River at Southampton. This takes us within three kilometres of the Stonehenge building site. However, all over southern Britain there are earthworks with names like "Offa's Dyke" and "Woden's Ditch." They are not big enough or deep enough for defensive works. But they make sense as canals linking rivers. Using curraghs, the channel would only have to be about 93 cm deep and five metres wide. The curraghs could have been hauled up and down sloping earthwork ramps to reach rivers with different water levels.

Using a system like this, we don't have to sail around Land's End.  We sail downwind on the early summer prevailing westerlies from  Milford Haven about 80 km to Avonmouth on the Bristol Channel. This is the "northern" Avon River, and it will take us, with canals, within three km of Stonehenge. The blue-stone has been "hauled" only eight km in Wales and less than half that distance in England. We need a crew of only three people. It will take us about a week to get to Stonehenge.

The UFO theory is the result of using imagination without any technical knowledge, while the huge slave-gangs are the result of using rudimentary technology without imagination.

Stonehenge was built by people limited to primitive technology. But they had imagination and intelligence. They were the ancestors of many of us.


Author's Note.  When this article appeared on line in the National Post, two British readers criticized the accuracy of the whole idea because I'd made the "mistake" of writing that the southern Avon River's mouth was at Southampton.

Today, the Test River exits at Southampton while the present southern Avon's mouth is at Christchurch.  Things were different in Megalithic times 3000-4000 BC when Britain had more rain and the water table was higher.  Most paleogeographers think that back then the Avon and Test watersheds were connected and jointly drained at Southampton, accounting for the very large estuary.  Later, perhaps 500-1000 BC, the water table dropped sufficiently so that the Avon part of the system became independent and drained to the sea at Christchurch -- which has a much less developed and younger estuary.

Not wanting to go into such esoteric details in a newspaper article, I just sailed my Megalithic curraghs to Southampton which has the further advantage that most Canadian and North American readers know roughly where it is.  Such is an author's life.

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