Petrological and geochemical characterisation of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge

David Nash, Jake Ciborowski, Timothy Darvill, Mike Parker Pearson, Stewart Ullyott, Magret Damaschke, Jane Evans, Steven Goderis, Susan Greaney, Jennifer Huggett, Robert Ixer, Duncan Pirrie, Matthew Power, Tobias Salge, Neil Wilkinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Little is known of the properties of the sarsen stones (or silcretes) that comprise the main architecture of Stonehenge. The only studies of rock struck from the monument date from the 19 th century, while 20 th century investigations have focussed on excavated debris without demonstrating a link to specific megaliths. Here, we present the first comprehensive analysis of sarsen samples taken directly from a Stonehenge megalith (Stone 58, in the centrally placed trilithon horseshoe). We apply state-of-the-art petrographic, mineralogical and geochemical techniques to two cores drilled from the stone during conservation work in 1958. Petrographic analyses demonstrate that Stone 58 is a highly indurated, grain-supported, structureless and texturally mature groundwater silcrete, comprising fine-to-medium grained quartz sand cemented by optically-continuous syntaxial quartz overgrowths. In addition to detrital quartz, trace quantities of silica-rich rock fragments, Fe-oxides/hydroxides and other minerals are present. Cathodoluminescence analyses show that the quartz cement developed as an initial <10 μm thick zone of non-luminescing quartz followed by ~16 separate quartz cement growth zones. Late-stage Fe-oxides/hydroxides and Ti-oxides line and/or infill some pores. Automated mineralogical analyses indicate that the sarsen preserves 7.2 to 9.2 area % porosity as a moderately-connected intergranular network. Geochemical data show that the sarsen is chemically pure, comprising 99.7 wt. % SiO 2. The major and trace element chemistry is highly consistent within the stone, with the only magnitude variations being observed in Fe content. Non-quartz accessory minerals within the silcrete host sediments impart a trace element signature distinct from standard sedimentary and other crustal materials. 143Nd/ 144Nd isotope analyses suggest that these host sediments were likely derived from eroded Mesozoic rocks, and that these Mesozoic rocks incorporated much older Mesoproterozoic material. The chemistry of Stone 58 has been identified recently as representative of 50 of the 52 remaining sarsens at Stonehenge. These results are therefore representative of the main stone type used to build what is arguably the most important Late Neolithic monument in Europe.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0254760
Number of pages48
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 4 Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright: © 2021 Nash et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • silcrete
  • sarsen stone
  • Stonehenge
  • micromorphology
  • mineralogy
  • geochemistry


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