Splitting stones

A huge sarsen boudler in West Woods, excavated by Thacker & Johnson in the 1920s and saved by their bankruptcy
A huge sarsen boulder in West Woods, excavated by Thacker & Johnson in the 1920s and saved by their bankruptcy

I went out on a TV recce yesterday, enjoying a rare bit of warm sunshine on the Marlborough Downs. We were looking at sarsens, the strange stones that lie scattered on the surface that were used for megaliths at nearby Avebury and to the south at Stonehenge. You hear a lot about the Welsh bluestones there, but the sarsens are far bigger and more engineered, and would have been a greater challenge to move, despite the shorter distance. There have been endless demonstrations for TV films of how this might have been achieved, but there has been no systematic attempt to test any theories. Neither has the technology of shaping and finishing the sarsen megaliths been properly considered.


Such questions are best addressed at Stonehenge itself, and on the Marlborough Downs, where in recent centuries (especially between about 1850 and 1940) sarsen was used for building and road setts. The industry was a hard, manual one, and though the men used a set of custom-designed iron tools, they would have had an understanding of sarsen that their neolithic precursors must have shared (and like the Brandon gun-flint knappers, they seem to have suffered from silicosis). Sadly noone is now alive who worked with sarsen, and – with the lone exception of Herbert Stone in the early 20th century – no archaeologist talked to a mason when it was still possible. We are left with the abandoned debris of discarded split stones that are so well known, in places like Piggledene, pictured here.




But my favourite sarsen trail is in West Woods, where a strange business run by Thacker and Johnson in 1920 aimed to profit from crushing sarsen for road gravel. It didn’t work, and before long they were bankrupt. A frozen snapshot of their industry survives (and has yet to be recorded): in situ sarsens at one end of the valley; empty quarry pits at the other; and in between, a marvellous, unsettling scene of sarsen boulders still in the ground, but excavated and ready to lift out. You get an idea of how much stone lies beneath the turf, and – to my mind – what a neolithic quarry area might have looked like, and, I think, appropriately in woodland not the grassland we are used to seeing.


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