Getting to the core of Stonehenge

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The 1.08m-long core from one of the sarsen stones of Stonehenge, which was recently returned to the monument. (IMAGE: Juliet Brain – English Heritage)

A long-forgotten piece of one of Stonehenge’s famous sarsen stones, which make up the outer ring of the monument, has travelled thousands of miles from the USA to return to the Salisbury Plain site. The core was drilled from one of the stones during excavation work in 1958, when archaeologists raised an entire fallen trilithon.

During this reconstruction effort, cracks were found in one of the standing stones and, in order to prevent it from breaking, three cores were drilled from the stone and metal rods were inserted. These repairs were then covered with small plugs of stone cut from sarsen fragments found during the excavations.

Van Moppes, a diamond-cutting company from Basingstoke, was employed to carry out the drilling, and among the employees sent to site was Robert Phillips. As a token of his work, he kept one of the cores he had drilled, displaying the 1.08m-long piece of sarsen in his office. The core then travelled with him when he moved to the USA, first to New York, then Illinois, then California, finally settling in Florida. But, with his 90th birthday approaching, Robert wanted to return the core to the monument and, to fulfil this wish, last year his two sons Robin and Lewis travelled to Stonehenge and presented the sample to English Heritage curator Heather Sebire.

It is hoped that this core may be used to help pinpoint the precise origins of the sarsens. While it has been convincingly argued that the smaller bluestones of Stonehenge were brought from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales (see CA 311 and 344), an exact source for the sarsen stones has not been identified, besides suggestions that they may have come from the nearby Marlborough Downs.

Rob Ixer, a geologist who has worked extensively on tracing the origins of Stonehenge’s components, commented on the find: ‘Despite there being many thousands of stone samples from Stonehenge, fewer than a dozen (all are from drill samples) can be proven to come from a numbered orthostat. This core is one (and perhaps the best) of them. Its length allows, for the first time, an opportunity to investigate the totally unweathered core of a major (and rather neglected) sarsen stone. It should help to clarify their geological and geographical origin or origins. Like all bonanzas, it is unexpected and a golden opportunity.’

It is not known whether the other two cores survive, but English Heritage would like to hear from anyone who participated in the 1950s excavations and might have information as to their whereabouts. They can get in touch by emailing [email protected].

This article appeared in CA 352.

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