New archaeological discoveries set to transform understanding of Arthur’s Stone

Written by: Joe Stafford

Archaeological excavations at the Neolithic site of Arthur’s Stone in Herefordshire have uncovered unprecedented remains that will transform understanding of the monument, and of the first farming communities in Britain nearly 6000 years ago.

The project - led by The University of Manchester, University of Cardiff and Herefordshire Council’s Archaeology Section - represents the first investigation of the site, which is a Scheduled Ancient Monument cared for by the charity English Heritage.  Professor Julian Thomas from The University of Manchester, one of the excavation directors, says “Arthur’s Stone is a well-known and much-loved monument, it has become tied up with Arthurian legend, and provided the inspiration for Aslan’s table in C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’.  However, it has never been excavated before, so we have not clearly understood how the stones visible today relate to the monument in the Neolithic, until now.”

The team expected the site to be poorly preserved, as many upstanding monuments like this were targeted by antiquarians and looters in the 18th and 19th century. But to their surprise, the excavations, permitted by English Heritage and Historic England, uncovered substantial new parts of the monument inches below the surface, and completely undisturbed Neolithic deposits.

Dr Nick Overton from The University of Manchester, another of the project directors, said “The stone-build architecture found in our excavations reveal a complex history of construction. The stone monument began as a ‘dolmen’, made up of the giant capstone sitting on upright stones that is visible today, surrounded by a circular bank of stone with a single entrance at the north end, marked by two large upright stones. There are other dolmens from the period in Britain, mainly in the west, but this is, to our knowledge, the first with a bank and entrance. Interestingly, there may be similar examples in Denmark. This was then surrounded by a larger trapezoid-shaped long cairn bounded by dry-stone walling. On the western side of the cairn was an entrance to a passage, leading to a small stone chamber, formed in part by the entrance stones of the earlier phase. After a period of time, the floor of the chamber and passageway was sealed by stoney deposits, and the entrance was blocked up. 

The story of the later phase fits into a broader style of tombs known as ‘Cotswold-Severn long cairns’, which are located mainly in the Cotswolds, Wessex and South Wales. We also found a prehistory quarry about 100m away, which is a very likely source for the stone used to make up this later phase; finding the quarries used to make monuments like this is really unusual, and this is the first example in the region.

Dr Nick Overton

Excavations around the entrance, and within the passageway and chamber recovered Neolithic pottery and stone tools, including a piece of worked rock crystal, most likely from North Wales, and a piece of pitchstone, from the Isle of Arran in Scotland. The excavations also recovered deposits of human bone containing multiple individuals; they were most likely introduced to the monument as fleshed cadavers, and later re-arranged, mixed together, and deposited in discrete piles. The local geology is acidic, so the recovery of well-preserved human bone was not expected, and very exciting.

Professor Keith Ray from the University of Cardiff, the third project director said “Collaborative work like this between our institutions, Historic England and English Heritage is so important; it has uncovered evidence that will radically re-write our understanding of the monument, and contribute to new understandings of the Neolithic in Britain. The human remains offer an enormous potential to think about the life and death of these early farming communities in this part of the world, nearly 6000 years ago. The changing styles of the earlier and later stone monuments tells a story of new communities doing things in specific local ways, before becoming wrapped up in broader regional practices. But at the same time, the presence of rock crystal and pitchstone tells a story of communities with networks of long-distance connections. These are all fascinating insights into a dynamic period of Britain’s prehistory.”

Over the course of July, over 2000 members of the public attended local lectures, daily guided tours led by English Heritage volunteers, and the project’s open day, giving visitors the chance to learn about new discoveries at the monument as they happened. Work is now underway to analyse all of the material recovered, with specialist assistance from Historic England, which will further expand our understanding of the monument and the people that built and used it, and guide the future management and presentation of the monument, ensuring the monument continues to be enjoyed for generations to come. 

Bill Klemperer, Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Historic England, said “The results of the carefully planned and highly targeted excavation, and the ongoing analysis, will inform future safeguarding and interpretation for the wider public of this site, and also the understanding and potential of similar sites in England.”

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