The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 107

Issue 107

July / August 2009



Scottish dig has big surprise in the post

Urine to navel fluff: the first complete witch bottle

Celtic tankard adds value to Welsh treasure

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


on the web

Recommended websites
Websites of univeristy archaeology departments and a community site for Digging Vindolanda.


your views and responses

CBA Correspondent

Some recent projects benefiting from Challenge Funding.

my archaeology

Simon McBurney is a writer and actor; his father, archaeologist Charles


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


The Devil's Work

There were once striking prehistoric ritual monuments beside the Thames in Oxfordshire. But quarrying, an airfield and centuries of farming all but wiped them from the map. Then archaeologists decided to rebuild the most impressive. Could it be done? Gill Hey reports.

"Few areas in Britain", wrote Don Benson and David Miles in their archaeological survey of the upper Thames in 1972, "present a more dramatic saga of discovery and destruction" than that to the south and west of the village of Stanton Harcourt, 10km west of Oxford. The late neolithic stone circle and henge monument known as the Devil's Quoits has had a particularly chequered history.

Open Day Invitiation

In the third millennium BC, it was one of at least six large henges in the area. With a bank around 115m in diameter and a substantial internal ditch, it was the only one, so far as we know, to contain a stone circle (indeed the combination of stone circle and henge earthwork occurs at less than 20 sites across Britain, amongst well over a thousand of both types). At the beginning of the third millennium AD, none of these Thames-side henges was visible, and all had been damaged.

The region's archaeology has been closely linked to extraction since at least the mid 19th century. Much of what we know about the past has come from investigations in gravel pits. Sadly, much has also been destroyed with little or no record. In the early 1970s the Devil's Quoits seemed about to follow the fate of the Big Rings at Dorchester-on-Thames – quarried away 20 years before – as gravel extraction threatened to complete the loss that began in the middle ages. Today, however, thanks to a lot of hard work and cooperation between Oxfordshire county council, the local parish council, English Heritage, successive developers (originally ARC, now Waste Recycling Group/WRG), All Souls College (the landowner) and Oxford Archaeology, the site has been restored to a new glory, using the surviving features and excavation evidence.

Finding the quoits

The quoits henge was built at some time between 2900 and 2600BC, in lightly-grazed grassland with areas of scrub after most of the trees had been cleared. The place was already significant, for a number of earlier funerary monuments lay nearby, including an important middle neolithic burial at Linch Hill Corner (3400–3000BC), excavated by WF ("Peter") Grimes for the Ministry of Works in the second world war.

Grimes, later director of the London Institute of Archaeology, was commissioned to undertake a series of important rescue excavations during the war, including some classic early neolithic chambered tombs. He was called in during the construction of a runway for the local airfield in 1940. This was partly built by Italian prisoners of war, some of whom were killed during a German air raid, and it was to be used mainly by Whitley bombers. Winston Churchill flew in a Liberator from here to the Casablanca conference in 1943.

At this time, the only above-ground manifestation of the site was a single standing stone lying on the path of the runway, although two other monoliths stood about 300m and 400m away towards the village. These stones have caused considerable confusion. Two were mentioned by John Aubrey in the 17th century, one of which was "taken down by a farmer about the year 1680 to make a bridge of". In 1769, Camden's Britannia noted that there were three stones before one was moved, the third lying closer to the village. The bridge stone had been re-erected by 1758 at the request of a member of the Harcourt family – local tradition has it that it could not be prevented from slipping into the water. When excavated by Grimes in 1940, it had two parallel grooves running across it like wheel ruts. He was able to show that only the first stone, quoit A, was in its original position and he had this lifted and buried in order to protect it.

Unlike the earlier antiquaries, Grimes was able to set the quoits within a broader ancient context, for he had air photographs taken in the early days of flying by the Royal Air Force and by the pioneer air photographer, Major GWG Allen. Allen had taken some spectacular shots in the dry summer of 1933, which showed that quoit A lay within a subcircular (elliptical) ditched enclosure of substantial size, between 110m and 115m across. The henge, for this it clearly was, had opposing entrances to east and west. Additionally, parchmarks suggested the presence of an external bank, and markings in the centre were thought to represent an inner ring of posts or stones.

Keen to do more than just record what the runway would remove, Grimes set about trying to establish the monument's original form in the limited time he had available. He stripped an area in its centre but could make little sense of the features revealed, and he deduced that they were natural. He then attempted to see whether quoit A was part of a larger circle of stones. In this he had more success, exposing four stoneholes, which, with quoit A and two hypothetical pits, he believed indicated seven widely-spaced stones in an oval around 75m×85m. He proposed that the two other standing stones originally derived from this circuit.

He also undertook an earthwork survey and excavated a section through the deep and broad ditch and the external bank, at that time barely 45cm high but still sealing a neolithic ground surface. By the 1970s, when the next phase of archaeological work on the site began, the bank and buried surface had been completely ploughed away.

Gravel extraction proceeded from the 1940s onwards, with occasional rescue excavations – mainly by the Ashmolean Museum – of a tiny proportion of this rich archaeological landscape. By 1972 when work reached the henge, only around 20ha next to it and a field to the north-west known as Gravelly Guy remained intact. Quoits B and C had disappeared and quoit A, which by this time had been scheduled although the rest of the monument had not, had to be relocated by resistivity survey. Permission for gravel extraction had already been granted when an outcry finally led to negotiations between the relevant parties, and excavations of the area to the north of the runway and around the east entrance in 1972 and 1973.

This work, directed by Margaret Gray, uncovered 15 new stoneholes: the quoits were more numerous than Grimes had thought. A cluster of postholes was also found in the centre, although with no coherent plan, and numerous tree throw pits, ice wedges and solution pits of the type examined by Grimes. Few finds were recovered, but in the ditches on each side of the two entranceways were found several hearths with charcoal, ash, flint artefacts, antler picks and bone fragments including part of a human femur. Post pits were also discovered at each side of the west entrance. This suggests special activities at the threshold between "outside" and "inside" the monument, perhaps indicating a difference between "profane" and "sacred" parts of the site or a sequence of transitions between those two domains.

The monument's future was now very uncertain. Gravel extraction continued to the east, the upper ditch fills were quarried as a source of topsoil, part of the southern ditch and the south-east terminal were removed and the interior was used to stockpile gravel. It was only in 1985, when the runway was taken out, further extraction was planned within the interior and the adjacent area began to be used for landfill, that serious pressure was brought to resolve the status of the site. An agreement was reached between all parties to preserve surviving ditch deposits, and the remainder of the interior was excavated by the Oxford Archaeological Unit (OAU, now Oxford Archaeology) in advance of its destruction. Nine further stone holes were discovered, making a ring of 28 and one offset to the south. All these excavations were published in 1995 (see end note).

Putting it all back

David Miles, then director of the OAU, had the idea to reconstruct the henge monument and stone circle, brought to fruition by George Lambrick and (latterly) myself with Granville Laws. Within 50 years 20th century development had destroyed an extensive neolithic and bronze age monument complex, including more than 60 barrows around the henge, and iron age and Roman settlements and evidence of later occupation and landscape features. Now at last the Devil's Quoits offered a positive contribution to the area – along with ecological measures – as a central feature of land restoration. This would be a significant improvement for local residents, who have for years lived with gravel quarries and lakes, the rumble of trucks and, more recently, all the side effects of living next to a landfill site. It would also help people to visualise and appreciate an ancient landscape that is otherwise lost: it would be a visible reminder of what must have been an important part of social and ritual life in the upper Thames over 4,000 years ago.

Completing the project has been a long process, with what sometimes seemed insuperable difficulties. The management of the site was also an issue: how to ensure that what did survive was preserved for the future, and what to do with the scheduled quoit. But thanks to the help and determination of WRG staff, the project gradually took shape.

The first stage was to agree how the monument should be presented and to reinstate the ground levels in the interior. It was decided to restore the earthworks to their approximate condition at the beginning of Roman times, when the ditch began to be filled with ploughsoil and the bank had eroded. This would ensure the preservation of the remaining neolithic and bronze age deposits in the ditch, either beneath the early ploughsoil or by backfilling the sections that had been dug through them – some archaeological trenches had been open since the 1970s, providing useful access points for burrowing animals. Ironically, soils had to be imported onto the site in order to re-form the bank with inert material. It was built up to 2m in height, though it has settled a little since.

This transformed the monument, even though the bank was only half its original height and described a wide circuit (between 102m and 120m across). From being an unevenly-filled ditch set in an open and blighted landscape, the monument became an enclosed space with no view from within of the immediate surroundings. This focuses attention on the site's interior, and it becomes easy to imagine it as an arena for gatherings and ceremonies. Recreating the earthworks also highlighted the width of the berm – the flat space between the ditch and the bank – which had so fortunately been plotted by Grimes. This strongly suggested processions or other activities which may have been undertaken before entering the circle or by those not allowed access.

Plotting the megaliths' original positions was an easy process, although there was some discussion about whether the paucity of stones on the north-east side of the circle represented the prehistoric situation, or was an illusion caused by the differential preservation of stoneholes: it was decided not to fill apparent gaps. Should we dig out and erect a natural conglomerate outcrop which survived next to the west entrance? It was left in place. The physical process of erecting quoit A, a stone weighing more than 7 tonnes, was an interesting engineering problem, and as it was a scheduled monument, the solution had to satisfy English Heritage. In the end a 50 tonne 360° tracked machine fitted with a hoist and fabric slings provided a relatively simple answer

Over the years the gravel and waste recycling companies had collected together on site a number of conglomerate blocks, two of which are almost certainly the missing quoits B and C. Some had come from the archaeological excavations, where they had been buried in the ditch or reburied within stoneholes, for iconoclastic or agricultural reasons – the henge lay in the medieval open fields of Stanton Harcourt. Others had been encountered during topsoil stripping or by the quarry dragline. We used them, where large enough, to recreate the circle. We attempted to place these in what may have been their original positions, taking into account the fact that the largest uprights appear to have been near the opposing entrances to the circle. Twenty spaces remained. The original brief had allowed for concrete or wooden stumps to replace lost stones, but with the forbearance of WRG and the kind assistance of Smiths & Sons of Bletchington Ltd, conglomerate blocks were sourced from their nearby quarry at Ducklington. These now stand next to their more ancient cousins and, through time, will become grey and gnarled in appearance too.

The negotiations were sometimes hard, the logistics difficult and the engineering problems tricky – and that was in the 20th and 21st centuries AD. How much more of an effort would it have been to build this monument in the third millennium BC? It has been calculated that 100 people would have been needed to dig the ditch and create the bank in just over three weeks; they could have erected the stones in a further 10 days, using conglomerate blocks from the immediate area.

Of course, we do not know whether it was possible to assemble this number of people and, if so, what cajoling and negotiation were necessary. Was it a communal effort, organised locally or regionally, or was it the result of enforced labour? We do know that many hundreds of people could have gathered within the site, perhaps sitting on the banks to observe events within, perhaps processing between the bank and ditch or entering the circle and participating in rituals at its centre. On the evidence for fires lit in the ditches at the entrances, and the deposition of artefacts, animal bone and some human bone, entering the circle would have been special and, perhaps, dangerous. Local people can now walk out onto the site, and ponder such questions as the stone circle becomes part of their modern neighbourhood.

See Excavations at the Devil's Quoits, Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire 1972–3 & 1988, by Alistair Barclay, Margaret Gray & George Lambrick (Oxford Archaeological Unit 1995). Gill Hey is director: regions at Oxford Archaeology.

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