The True Origins of Arthur’s Stone in Herefordshire Finally Revealed
After years of speculation, archaeologists from the Universities of Manchester and Cardiff have found evidence that reveals the truth about the origin of Arthur’s Stone , a double-chambered rock tomb found on Dorstone Hill in the English county of Herefordshire. Rather than being an isolated monument, it seems that Arthur’s Stone was once part of a larger ceremonial site, which may have been as long as 1,100 yards (one kilometer) from one edge to the other.
Arthur’s Stone and its Connection to Dorstone Hill
Arthur’s Stone is an iconic 5,700-year-old stone monument that features a heavy 28-ton (25 metric ton) flat capstone rock set on top of multiple support pillars. With its distinctive size and shape, and suggestions of ritual significance, it inspired the sacred stone table introduced in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe . There is an entranceway dug out beneath the Neolithic-age rock structure , and it is here where the bodies of important people would have been buried.
Amazingly, serious excavations had never before been carried out around this monument. It is only recently that explorations in the area were finally begun, and they have unveiled a startling connection between Arthur’s Stone and three burial mounds located very close by.
The site has just been excavated. ( University of Manchester )
These mounds, which can be found on Dorstone Hill, were first excavated by archaeologists in 2013. Underneath two of the mounds they found the remains of two “ halls of the dead ,” which were wooden structures built over the top of large barrows or gravesites that would have been used by the local community for burials. The two halls must have been at least 230 feet long and 98 feet wide (or 70 meters long and 30 meters wide) since they would need to be that size to cover the barrows completely.
- Major Megalithic Cemetery Discovered with Dozens of Tombs
- Startling new find of a 5500-year-old Megalithic Passage Tomb in Ireland is, “The Most Important Find for Half a Century”
A reconstruction of what one of the long halls or “halls of the dead” would have looked like. (Henry Rothwell / University of Manchester )
"Each of these three turf mounds had been built on the footprint of a large timber building that had been deliberately burnt down," said University of Manchester archaeologist Julian Thomas, who was involved in both the 2013 excavations and the new excavations around Arthur’s Stone. After the halls were burned, their charred remains were then shoveled into the mounds that were created to permanently shelter the entombed bodies of the dead.
The archaeologists who performed the Dorstone Hill excavations referred to this find as “the discovery of a lifetime,” noting that such sites were “very rare” and would be of “huge significance to our understanding of prehistoric life. But they likely never suspected that future digs would establish a direct link between these ancient cemeteries and the famous Arthur’s Stone, which was still hiding its secrets just a short distance away.
In the Arthur’s Stone excavations, evidence was produced that proved the megalithic tomb was also once covered by a burial mound, just like the gravesites on Dorstone Hill. This mound was 98 feet (30 meters) long and made from compressed turf. This mound would have been supported by wooden poles, which eventually collapsed and forced a new generation of builders to re-construct it. Both mounds would have extended out into a nearby field, and the orientation of the original mound in particular shows there was a connection between the Arthur’s Stone and the Dorstone Hill mounds.
That first long mound pointed directly at Dorstone Hill, or more specifically at the other burial mounds that were located there. With the tombs and mounds on both hillsides dated to about the same point in time (around 3,500 to 4,000 BC), it is clear that all the structures were produced by the same people, working in the same geographical area and unified by some type of shared mystical or spiritual belief system.
“The block of upland between the Golden Valley and the Wye Valley is now becoming revealed as hosting an integrated Neolithic ceremonial landscape,” Professor Thomas stated, summarizing his team’s latest discoveries.
The entire complex is quite ancient, predating the monuments at Stonehenge by about 1,000 years.
The "other" Arthur's Stone, near Swansea, Wales as a drawing by Henry G. Gastineau, circa 1840 AD. (National Library of Wales / Public domain )
The Competing Legends of the Two Arthur’s Stones
References to Arthur’s Stone can sometimes create confusion because there are two rock tombs that have been given the same name. In addition to the Arthur’s Stone in Herefordshire, there is also one in Wales. This megalithic monument sits on an ancient rock ridge called Cefn Bryn, which can be found near the city of Swansea on the southern coast of Wales.
Like its counterpart in England, this the second Arthur’s Stone (known as Maen Ceti in Welsh) also features a heavy rock capstone sitting on stone support pillars over an excavated burial chamber. The primary difference between the two monuments is the shape of the capstone: the Herefordshire stone is long and flat like a table, while the stone in Wales is a large round boulder.
These are just two of several Neolithic monumental tombs that have been found in various locations throughout the United Kingdom. What unites these two is their incorporation into the mythology surrounding the legendary exploits of King Arthur .
We now know that each of these monuments was intentionally created by a team of ancient builders, for ceremonial or ritual purposes. But Arthurian mythology explains them differently.
In Herefordshire, it is said that King Arthur was once involved in a fierce battle with a powerful giant. Eventually Arthur killed the giant, who fell on a pile of rocks and flattened the one on top with his elbow—thus creating England’s version of Arthur’s Stone., which was later converted into a tomb.
In Wales, it is actually the legendary Arthur himself who is identified as the giant. While marching onward to take part in the fateful Battle of Camlann, Arthur reacted with anger after discovering a “pebble” inside his shoe. He removed the offending object and tossed it a great distance, where it landed on top of a pile of rocks on Cefn Byrn. This created the second version of Arthur’s Stone, which like the first version was also converted into a burial chamber when ancient laborers dug out the ground beneath it.
Monuments, Artifacts, and Ancient British History
The excavations at Arthur’s Stone and Dorstone Hill were both sponsored by the Beneath Hay Bluff Project. Under the directorship of Julian Thomas and University of Cardiff archaeologist Keith Ray, archaeologists recruited for the project have been investigating the early prehistory of southwest Herefordshire, searching for more information about the Neolithic-age Britons who formed the first small settlements there.
- Mystifying Megaliths: Knowth, Keeper of Ancient Tombs
- Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery: Where Prehistoric Ireland went for Ritual Burials in a Big Way
Arthur's Stone in Herefordshire, England, which is also on Dorstone Hill. (UKgeofan / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
In addition to monuments and burial mounds, the archaeologists have also found some interesting artifacts during their various excavations. At the Dorstone Hill site, for example, they uncovered flint tools and weapons buried inside the long barrows, which they believe were left as offerings to the dead.
Now that excavations have finally begun around Arthur’s Stone, the archaeologists are hopeful that artifacts will soon be found there as well. Any items they find would tell them more about the ancient individuals who built such a vast and expansive ceremonial site in the picturesque Herefordshire countryside.
Top image: Arthur's Stone in Herefordshire, England, which is also on Dorstone Hill where the "halls of the dead" were discovered along with a number of Neolithic artifacts. Source: University of Manchester
By Nathan Falde