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Archaeological Background Research

Before any archaeological fieldwork it is important to do your background research first and this blog will introduce you to that process.

The first comment we need to make is that background research never really ends- there is always something else to read, another angle to explore. Whilst our field project is on-going, so is our background research.

Start with a question

If you have decided that you want to do archaeological research, it probably means that you already have a subject in mind. Something, or somewhere, you find interesting. Our last blog entry discussed research questions. It is always helpful to have a question in mind to focus your research, likewise an end goal and timescale. Make sure that you keep detailed notes as to what you're finding, and where it is from. Think about you're end goal, is this research just for you or will you want to share it?

Our overarching question that frames our project in Dorset is:

‘How was Tenants Hill and its surrounding landscape used in prehistory’.

Throughout this article we will focus on one monument as an example: the Kingston Russell Stone Circle. It’s located on Tenants Hill, Dorset (near Abbotsbury) and is close to several footpaths.

Starting to search

Firstly, do an internet search to see what accessible resources are available.

For the Kingston Russell Stone Circle there are many great photos of the monument that immediately pop up. Then it is time to get more specific. There are also many specialised resources, such as archival data, old maps, and academic articles that we cover below. Don’t forget to also look for local or subject specific resources relevant to your research area.

Some resources we recommend:

This website allows you to search across several resources. You can search by place, name, map area, time period and other parameters. These resources include:

The National Heritage List for England is the official register for all protected historic buildings, scheduled monuments, registered parks and gardens, and registered battlefields. Each entry will contain a summary, some generic information about the site type as well as some details specific to the monument. Using this we can establish that within the Tenants Hill landscape there are several entries. Some of these are scheduled monuments, others are listed buildings, all of which are legally protected. By reading the entries it becomes apparent that many of the monuments are prehistoric in date.

The entry for the Stone Circle includes some general information about stone circles. For example, Stone Circles often date to the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. It also tells us that the monument is in reasonable condition and that it is one of only 4 stone circles in the area. The record goes on to provide a simple description; the stone circle is made up of 18 visible sarsen stones and has a diameter of 30m.

Historic England Research Records contains information on archaeological, architectural, and maritime sites. Some of these records have been transferred to the Historic Environment Record (see below), so the results you get might change or be duplicated later. The sources that the records link to are often useful to follow up.

For Tenants Hill it becomes obvious that there is more archaeology in the area than is recorded on the Heritage List. The information relating specifically to the stone circle is more detailed and starts to give clues as to how it might have changed in recent times. A record made in 1815 indicates that one stone was then standing (now all our lying down). There is also a comment that a stone may have been added in ‘recent years’. The sources reference a book written by Warne in 1872 called Ancient Dorset. It also links to an article in the journal Antiquity by Stuart Piggott. Although they might be hard to get hold of digitally, these types of resources can usually be tracked down in archives, university libraries, and local museum libraries. More on these later…

Historic Environment Record (HER)

All counties have their own HER and they should include all of the known archaeology, including information about historic buildings, archaeological finds and features, and maritime archaeology in that region. ​

Records range from isolated finds of coins or fragments of pottery to massive earthworks covering many hectares; from the earliest prehistoric periods to industrial sites and World War 2 defences. Wrecks and underwater sites are recorded, as are cropmark sites recorded from aerial photographs, and sites with special designations, such as scheduled monuments and listed buildings.

The online version of the record is simplified, for more complex research you can submit a request to the HER via their website. They may or may not charge you for this, depending upon the purpose and complexity of the research.

The HER relevant to Tenants Hill is managed by Dorset Council. The entry for Kingston Russell Stone Circle includes an aerial photograph taken in 2004. It is also available via DorsetExplorer (see below).

DorsetExplorer provides access to a variety of geographic information, including records on the historic environment, data from Historic England, landscape characterisation, digital terrain models, and historic flood maps.

Old Maps

In our experience, old maps have also been incredibly helpful when trying to understand past landscapes. Although often not that old (compared to the prehistoric monuments) they show what has changed over the last few hundred years and provide many clues about the landscape further back in time. The National Library of Scotland and A Vision of Britain through Time are two useful online resources.

"This work is based on data provided through and uses historical material which is copyright of the Great Britain Historical GIS Project and the University of Portsmouth". Copyright (c) 2004-2015 of the Great Britain Historical GIS Project and the University of Portsmouth. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The first reference to ‘Tenant Hill’ was on the Ordnance Survey First Edition one-inch map, published in 1811. Before then the field was known as Hamden Hill. We can also see on the OS maps that Tenants Hill was partially covered in gorse and scrub before World War Two but by 1963 the field had been cleared and levelled!

In 1889, 17 stones were drawn on the 25-inch to the mile Ordnance Survey map forming a sub-circular arrangement, with another three outliers shown to be close to the edge of the field (Ordnance Survey 1889).

Extract from the Ordnance Survey First Edition 25ʹ’ to 1 mile map, surveyed in 1887 and published 1889 (Dorset sheet XLVI.6), showing the stone circle, outlying stones and the adjacent tracks and footpaths. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under Creative Commons Attribution-non-commercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA) licence


Documents, maps, aerial photographs, antiquarian books, and journal articles can be very helpful when doing archaeological research. Many archives now have online catalogues. Use the results from the Heritage Gateway to compile a list of search terms – e.g., place names, authors, landowners, etc.

A search of the Dorset History Centre catalogue turned up the earliest detailed map of the area we could find. It was drawn in 1750 for the landowner, the Earl of Bedford. Although it doesn’t show the stone circle, they do provide information about the fields and routeways nearby. The track and footpath that runs within spitting distance of the stone circle, and along the top of the ridgeway used to be a significant routeway that connected the villages to each other and Weymouth.

Another source that was useful to our research was The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset, the first two volumes of which were compiled by Hutchins in the 18th century, with a further two volumes published during the 19th century. Volume 4included a description and illustration of the stone circle from c. 1805. recorded 17 stones at the Kingston Russell Stone Circle, but also ‘two or three large stones, which lie at a little distance, have evidently rolled to their present situation since the destruction of the Temple’ (Hutchins 1796-1815). Another pictorial image, produced in 1872, depicted 15 stones and also mentioned two outlying stones ‘by the side of the adjoining fence’. This was in another book about Dorset written by an antiquarian (Warne 1872).

Plan of the ‘Druidical Temple at Gorwell’, the earliest known depiction of the Kingston Russell stone circle, made in 1805 by the Reverend James Knight (south is at the top of the image) (Hutchins 1796-1815, xli).

We also found a detailed plan of the stones, drawn by Whitwell in 1889, showing all 18 stones that are currently visible. It also mentions the outliers, but they are not included on the plan. A more detailed survey and plan was made in 1937 and shows 2 outliers (Piggott and Piggott 1939 and Historic England Archive, cat. no. MP/KRS002).

It is also worth searching The National Archives, the Historic England Archive and Research Reports, the Aerial Archaeology Mapping Explorer, the Aerial Photo Explorer, the Archaeology Data Service, the Historic Environment Image Resource, and the Digital Bodleian. Additionally, you can find many academic publications online: try using Google Scholar to search for literature. You can then access a range of publications for free by registering with sites such as, JSTOR, ResearchGate, and EthOS the online doctoral theses collection at the British Library.

The PAS website has a database of archaeological objects that have been found by members of the public in England and Wales. You can search the database by object type, period, county, or using a map interface. Individual records include a description of the object(s), their date of manufacture, dimensions and weight, and are often accompanied by a photograph. Conclusion

This summary of our background research is expanded upon in our article: Rylatt et al 2021. Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall but please do get in touch if you wish to know more.

The research certainly helped us understand a bit more about the Kingston Russell stone circle, and the wider Tenants Hill landscape. We now know that:

· the number of stones in the circle might have changed over time;

· there are other stones nearby in the landscape that might, or might not be related to it;

· it is located near an important routeway;

· the land use in the field has changed (comparatively) recently;

· the stone circle is a scheduled monument and we cannot dig it without permission;

· it probably dates to the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age.

Although this research has helped our understanding of the Kingston Russell stone circle, it also raises questions: have the stones been moved from elsewhere in the field into the stone circle? How many were there originally? Have they been moved or have some broken and, therefore, increased the number if not the amount of stone in the circle?

Once we finished this we research we then set about trying to find more answers in the following fieldwork seasons. Of course, we won’t reveal all at once so follow the blog to find out when we post more of our research journey…


Hutchins, J. 1796-1815. The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset, Volume 4. 2nd ed. London: W. Bowyer and J. Nichols.

Ordnance Survey. 1811. Bridport, Dorchester, Weymouth, the Isle of Portland. Sheet 17, One-inch to the mile (1:63,360) (First Series). Southampton: Ordnance Survey

Ordnance Survey. 1889a. Dorset, Sheet XLVI.6, 25 Inch to the Mile (1:2,500). Southampton: Ordnance Survey.

Piggott, S., and C. M. Piggott. 1939. “Stone and Earth Circles in Dorset.” Antiquity 13: 138–158. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00027861.

Rylatt, J., Teather, A., Pullen, R., Pinnell, J., Randall, S., Roberts, H. and Andrew Chamberlain 2022. Re-examining stone circles in Dorset: the results of recent research and non-intrusive surveys at Kingston Russell stone circle, Archaeological Journal, 79:1: 141-168.

Warne, C. 1872. Ancient Dorset: The Celtic, Roman, Saxon, and Danish Antiquities of the County, Including Early Coinage. Also an Introduction to the Ethnology of Dorset, and Other Archaeological Notices of the County. London: D Sydenham

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