The descriptions and interpretations of the Rollright Stones offered by antiquaries and archaeologists down the centuries are a microcosm of how ideas about megalithic monuments have developed.
The earliest known written account describing the Rollright Stones comes from the 14th century.
An unknown author wrote a tract entitled De Mirabilibus Britanniae (The Wonders of Britain) in which the Stones were described alongside Stonehenge and the White Horse of Uffington. As the author rather charmingly related: ‘In the neighbourhood of Oxford there are great stones, arranged as it were in some connection by the hand of man. But at what time; or by what people; or for what memorial or significance, is unknown. Though the place is called by the inhabitants Rollendrith.’
John Leland mentioned the Stones in his Itinerary (1538-42), but the earliest interpretative description was in William Camden’s Britannia (1586), the earliest illustration being in the 1607 edition. He attributed the Stones to the Danes, but by 1649 John Aubrey, the Oxford antiquary (below left) was suggesting that such monuments might be pre-Roman.
Inspired by Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (1658), a local landowner, Ralph Sheldon unsuccessfully looked for burials in the stone circle. Dr Robert Plot, first curator of the Ashmolean Museum, gave a detailed account of the Stones in his Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677). He favoured the Danish attribution, comparing them with Scandinavian megaliths. The illustration of the Stones in his book, by Michael Burghers, is a remarkably accurate bird’s eye view.
Almost 200 years before the division of prehistory into the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, John Aubrey’s suggestion that comparable stone monuments in Wiltshire might be pre-Roman and attributable to the Druids was not unreasonable: megalithic monuments were clearly religious and ceremonial structures, and Caesar had described the Druids as being the priestly class of Britons. This connection was enthusiastically taken up by William Stukeley, the leading antiquary of his day, who visited Rollright in 1710 and 1724. He was a good field archaeologist and was the first to identify two barrows and a long mound that he thought was a burial monument close to the King Stone. Obsessed by Druids, he suggested that the King Stone was where the Archdruid conducted ceremonies with the long mound as his burial place. He got his friend Henry Gale to measure the Stone circle — and then made sure the diameter given fitted a whole number of his ‘Druid’s Cubits’!
Although much more concerned with local churches, Thomas Fisher produced a valuable set of drawings of the Stones in 1804, which includes the most detailed record of a barrow with displaced stones west of the King Stone first seen by Stukeley, which he says was being ‘undermined’ — probably due to agricultural clearance. It has since disappeared altogether.
The Stones were now firmly prehistoric, but it was not till the ealry 19th century that archaeologists recognised that there were successive technological advances that allowed a longer chronology of separate ages of stone, bronze and iron. This was applied to the Rollright Stones by a local historian and antiquary, Thomas Beesley in the mid 19th century. In the previous decades quarries were dug alongside the road to provide stone for walls and road metalling, and Beesley reported the discovery of pottery, bones ‘of men and horses’ burnt stones and other finds. These are almost certainly a mixture of material from an Iron Age enclosure and, as he correctly observed, a Saxon cemetery.
The 19th century also saw growing interest in the astronomical alignment of megalithic monuments and in the collection of folklore. The astronomer Sir Norman Lockyer visited and surveyed the King’s Men in 1868 and 1873, and in 1905 annotated his initial drawing with changes after the site was ‘restored’ when it was scheduled under the first Ancient Monuments Act in 1882.
The Stones had long been subject to people chipping bits off as souvenirs, and this was so prevalent that it radically changed the shape of the King stone in particular. The need to protect ancient monuments from such vanadlism was one of the reasons for passing the first legislation making it an offence to damage monuments, which also provided for them to be taken intop stste 'guardianship'. The Stones were amongst the very first monuments to be so protected, and the railings round the King Stone and the Whispering Knights date from the 1890s. For the first half of the twentieth century the King Stone had double-decker railings.
The Stones were popularised by the photographer Henry Taunt and the amateur archaeologist F. H. Underhill who painted his own lantern slides for public lectures. The folklore of the Stones was reviewed in 1895 by Arthur Evans (later the discoverer of Knossos on Crete).
As new archaeological theories developed in the twentieth century a variety of ideas arose about who built such monuments and whether they were immigrants who brought their own culture; also a revival of ideas about astronomical associations and the possible existence of prehistoric units of measurement (Alexander Thom's 'megalithic yard'). Archaeologists speculated about whether the Whispering Knights was part of a long barrow, what the King Stone was for and whether the long mound behind it was artificial - but without any new evidence.
Meanwhile in the 1970s and 1980s other ideas were growing about how the location of the Stones may reflect a special site evident in earth energies - ley lines, forces detectable by dowsing, and anomalous levels of ultra sound radioactivity.
The first scientific archaeological survey of the complex was undertaken between 1981 and 1986 by the Oxford Archaeological Unit and the Oxford University Archaeological Society under the auspices of English Heritage. This multi-faceted survey combined a study of antiquarian sources and illustrations, geophysical and finds collection surveys, togetther with small scale excavations which also recovered palaeo-environmental evidence from soils, snails and charred plant remains. Since then other specialist scientific studies have been carried out into the lichens and weathering of the stones.
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