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  • Writer's pictureDr Hayley Roberts

A story about stones

In 2022 we were awarded some money from the Farming in Protected Landscapes Fund, issued by Dorset AONB, to investigate the sarsen stones in the Tenants Hill landscape area. At first appearances this might seem a little off topic but the natural stones have been able to tell us about prehistoric people’s use of and relationship with the stones and landscape.

The Valley of Stones (and Portesham) is well-known in geological circles. It contains a natural train of sarsen stones and is roughly 2km from Tenants Hill. Sarsen stones were used to build the nearby stone circles and the Grey Mare and her Colts (long barrow) and it has been presumed that these stones originally came from the Valley of Stones, but we wanted to question this theory. We wanted to know where all the sarsen stones can be found today, so that we can start to think about how and why they might have been moved and used by people in prehistory.

Sarsens stones are primarily associated with Neolithic and earlier Bronze Age ritual monuments. Previous research has tended to focus upon the bigger stones but these are more likely to have been moved over greater distances (compared to the smaller ones) so we wanted to look for the smaller ones. This would help us understand the natural geological distribution.

A man in the foreground writes on a piece of paper whilst two people in the background are holding equipment. They are standing next to a fence. The grass is green and the sky blue
Volunteers and staff recording sarsen stones

Volunteers were provided training and then sent out under their own steam to start searching for stones (in a systematic way of course). They found 323 stones altogether. These comprised: 221 sarsens, 61 greensand boulders, 35 flint nodules, 6 pieces of chalk, limestone or concrete. From their results we could start to see patterns emerging!

Two people are climbing up a hill within a woodland
Some of the sarsens were tricky to access

Visible sarsen only appears in the eastern half of the survey area- that is the side closest to the Valley of Stones. There was almost none discovered to the west of the Kingston Russell Stone Circle!

Few sarsen stones found were still in-situ- i.e. it they had been moved from their geological origin and are now located along field boundaries. Only a few pieces were totally exposed which means that the dimensions were estimated, but most appeared to be smaller than 40cm. This is indicative of a natural sarsen field across the south-eastern half of the survey area.

Some of the sarsen was embedded within the hedge-banks. These are banks along the edges of the modern field system but they have prehistoric origins. They align with a prehistoric field system, which has been identified across the wider landscape on maps and aerial photos. The sarsens were most clearly seen where gateways have cut through the banks, where it was also apparent that the sarsen stones form the foundation of the banks. These stones were probably placed there when the fields were cleared of stones, and the banks built on top. The stone clearance probably happened in the Late Bronze Age or Iron Age.

A stone is visible beneath a tree and some undergrowth. A chalk board and scale are positioned beneath the stone.
A sarsen stone embedded in a bank. This is where a gateway has been cut through the bank

There are different types of sarsen, and the volunteers were also charged with identifying these. 122 pieces were saccharoidal, whilst only 10 were conglomeratic (also known as puddingstone). In contrast to this the large sarsens used to build the monuments (the stone circles and the Grey Mare and her Colts) were mostly conglomeritic. It is therefore highly likely that the larger stones were brought up the hill to construct the prominent bits of the monuments. The smaller stones naturally found on the top of the hill were not suitable. Two possible reasons for this are that they were not big enough, or that the flint cobbles and pebbles in the conglomerate added colour and sparkle and that this was important to Neolithic people.

We are also now wondering - it is a coincidence that the Kingston Russell Stone circle is built right on the edge of the natural geological spread of sarsen stone?

Two large stones are lying in a field.
Two of the sarsens in the Kingston Russell Stone Circle

At the same time as the volunteers were searching in the fields, others were scouring online copies of old maps for references of stones, so that we could start to build a picture as to where other sarsen stones might be found across south Dorset. Although we will need to ground truth all these records we hope it might be another way of finding sarsen spreads and historic use of sarsen stones. The volunteers made a great start, finding at least 44 mentions of stones on the map- we will to continue to build on this in future as well and start to ground truth them. Are the stones still there? Are they sarsen, have they been moved there by people in prehistory or more recently?

Copyright: National Library of Scotland under Creative Commons Attribution-non-commercial-Share Alike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA) licence


This project was incredibly interesting for us. Knowing the extent of the natural sarsen spread, and the distribution of the different of sarsens has encouraged us to think about the selection of stone and the construction of the prehistoric monuments, and the field system. The volunteers also found this project particularly interesting and also quite fun. Not bad for something that was essentially spotting stones!

It became evident during the project that a community was forming. We’d set up at What’s App group- their preferred platform. This was mostly a safety/ information sharing device but it didn't take long for the jokes to start and soon they also were sending each other photos of stones and places of interest from outside the survey area!

The volunteers learnt new skills and knowledge that they felt would benefit them in the future. These were things such as

· “Greater understanding of landscape and local geology”

· “Identifying things in the landscape”

· “Importance of a) geology, b) ?? To archaeology scientific method"

· surveying techniques and forms”

· “I will use knowledge gained in walks and archaeology trips”

· “I'm constantly looking at big stones now!”

“I walk regularly in Dorset so information about the landscape does enhance the enjoyment of these expeditions.”

Volunteer outcomes are an integral part of every project that we do, but it is especially nice to diversify and still get very positive feedback.

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