Excavations close to the Neolithic chambered tomb known as Arthur’s Stone, near Dorstone, Herefordshire, have revealed its early origins as well as tantalising clues about its possible connections with the surrounding prehistoric landscape.
Cared for by English Heritage, Arthur’s Stone is protected as a scheduled monument – it is famous for being the possible inspiration for C S Lewis’s ‘stone table’ in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – but very little modern research has been carried out at the site. Recently, however, archaeologists from the Universities of Manchester and Cardiff – working as part of the Beneath Hay Bluff Project – were able to excavate an area south of the burial chamber.
Based on similar monuments in the Cotswolds and South Wales, it had previously been assumed that the tomb was a northerly outlier of the Cotswold–Severn Group of long cairns, and that its two chambers probably once stood inside a wedge-shaped stone cairn. But when digging commenced this past summer, the team soon confirmed that this monument originally extended to the south and that the 5,700-year-old hilltop tomb started its life as a long mound made of stacked turf. Evidence of different groups of post-holes was uncovered, indicating that the mound may have been surrounded by a narrow palisade and retained by a series of upright posts. This iteration of the monument appears to have pointed towards the south-west and, specifically, towards Dorstone Hill, where previous work by the Beneath Hay Bluff Project has identified three similar long mounds, which began life as Neolithic halls (see CA 285 and 321).
Once these posts had rotted away, it appears the mound collapsed and an avenue of larger posts was added. At this point, the orientation of the site seems to change, and instead of pointing towards Dorstone Hill these later posts – along with the two stone chambers of Arthur’s Stone and an upright stone located immediately in front of them – align with the gap between Skirrid and Garway Hill to the south-east.
Commenting on the significance of this discovery, Julian Thomas from the University of Manchester, who led the excavation, said: ‘The different orientations of the two phases of construction are significant because our excavations on Dorstone Hill in 2011-2019 revealed three long mounds similar in construction to that now known to represent the first stage of Arthur’s Stone. Each of these three turf mounds had been built on the footprint of a large timber building that had been deliberately burnt down. So Arthur’s Stone has now been identified as being closely connected with these nearby “halls of the dead”. Indeed, the block of upland between the Golden Valley and the Wye Valley is now being revealed as hosting an integrated Neolithic ceremonial landscape.’