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The missing core of stone from Stonehenge that was removed during maintenance work in 1958.

A Missing Piece of Stonehenge Is Returned and Could Answer Big Questions

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One of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world is Stonehenge in England. Remarkably a piece of the monument has been returned after going astray for over six decades. It is hoped that this item can help us to solve one of the greatest mysteries of Stonehenge, namely where did its gigantic standing stones come from.

In 1958, archaeologists, “raised an entire fallen trilithon - a set of three large stones consisting of two that would have stood upright, with the third-placed horizontally across the top”, after it had fallen according to the BBC. However, during this operation, some fissures appeared on one of the upright stones, known as a sarsen stone. English Heritage decided to reinforce the block so that it would not break or fragment.

Photo of the work that took place in 1958 when the core was removed. (Image: English Heritage)

Photo of the work that took place in 1958 when the core was removed. (Image: English Heritage )

A local company drilled three holes, measuring three feet (1m) into the damaged stone, into which were inserted long steel rods. The holes were hidden using pieces from other sarsen stones. The drilling of the stone was conducted by Van Moppes, an engineering company. The three-cores were taken from the block and they measured 3 feet (1m) in length. For reasons unknown, the authorities did not retain the cores extracted from the Sarsen Stone and they disappeared.

The return of the missing part of Stonehenge

Then suddenly, English Heritage was contacted by some Americans. They were the sons of Robert Phillips (89) who had helped to drill the holes into the sarsen stone in 1958. They had an amazing story to tell.

Mr. Phillips had taken and kept one of the three cores removed from Stonehenge and then had emigrated to the US in 1976. He took the item with him as he worked all over America. He has a life-long interest in archaeology and prized the core, even  ‘displaying it on a wall in his office’’ reports CNN. Mr. Phillips took it to Florida when he retired, but as he neared his ninetieth year he decided that the item should be returned to its original home, Stonehenge.

The Stonehenge core kept by Van Moppes employee Robert Phillips, now presented to English Heritage. (Image: English Heritage)

The Stonehenge core kept by Van Moppes employee Robert Phillips, now presented to English Heritage. (Image: English Heritage )

The return of the item came as a complete surprise for English Heritage who are responsible for protecting Stonehenge. The item was returned in 2018 but only announced this year because they wanted to authenticate the core. Now that they have authenticated it they believe that it can help them to solve one of the most enduring enigmas about Stonehenge.

The story of Stonehenge

The historic monument which is over 4,500 years old was built in a series of stages. It was given to the British people by the former owner of the land it stands upon. Since then it has been very popular with tourists. The Daily Telegraph reports that present-day ‘ Pagan and druid communities gather at the stones every year to celebrate the winter solstice’ at Stonehenge.

The monument is composed of a ring of standing stones, and some smaller ones known as blue stones.  Experts have been able to establish where the smaller bluestones came from, most likely south-west Wales. The BBC states that ‘the source of the larger sarsen stones is unknown’.

This is why the core taken from Stonehenge, which was returned in person by Mr. Phillips’ sons is so important. They can help researchers to identify the source of the sandstone blocks. Business Insider quotes Heather Sebire from English Heritage, as saying that studying " the Stonehenge core's 'DNA' could tell us more about where those enormous Sarsen stones originated."

Trilithon (center) from which the core was removed. (Image: G Manners)

Trilithon (center) from which the core was removed. (Image: G Manners)

A team of experts has already begun to examine the pieces of the stone with a spectrometer. This can help them to match the chemical composition of the core to geological formations in the region and in this way they can pinpoint where the stone came from. According to English Heritage the item offers ‘unique opportunity to analyze the un-weathered interior of a stone’. The core is in pristine condition unlike the other remains at Stonehenge which are all badly eroded and weathered. This means that it is ideal for researchers and can provide reliable results as to the origin of the sarsens.

The mystery of where the stone came from

There are a number of theories as to where the standing stones came from. The BBC reports that Prof David Nash from Brighton University states that some believe that they came from “the relatively nearby Marlborough Downs”, and there are many who believe that they came from a number of sites around the region.

English Heritage reports that the core will now be added to its ‘collection of more than 500,000 artifacts’.  The whereabouts of the two other cores are not known even after more than 60 years.

The data from the analysis of the item returned by Mr. Phillips will not only be able to identify the origin of the standing stones. The returned artifact could throw some light onto the builders of Stonehenge, such as the extent of their influence or connections in the region. However, it may not help with solving the puzzle as to how Neolithic people moved the massive rocks without modern technology.

Top image: The missing core of stone from Stonehenge that was removed during maintenance work in 1958.                 Source: English Heritage

By Ed Whelan

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