Is this a dagger which I see before me?

posctard 1945This rather nice postcard and its message give me an opportunity to return to Stonehenge. It’s curious to think of the stones promoting a homily from Winston Churchill – and not on an official card. Mr (? the Reverend) G Richens (his notification of his dinner needs suggests he’s writing to his wife or mother, but perhaps she was a care lady?) seems to have been enjoying a late war.

carvings 1945

What’s interesting about the image is what you can see on Stone 53, the large sarsen upright second from right. There is an almost mythical story of Richard Atkinson in 1953, taking photos of a heavy inscription carved into the face of this stone. You can see the horizontal line of letters in the postcard, at about eye level, and again in a recent photo (above), to the left of the security guard’s head (facing front left to right are Mike Parker Pearson, Hugo Anderson-Whymark and Marcus Abbott).

The inscription is said to read IOH:LVD:DEFERRE, or John Louis de Ferre, suspiciously like the 16th century artist and writer Lucas de Heere (1534–84) who we know visited – and drew – Stonehenge, but sadly not him. In their report on the recent laser scanning for English Heritage, Anderson-Whymark and Abbott note a London poet called John Louis de Ferre who died in 1884, aged 83. The lettering style (said to be 17th century) and weathering, however, suggest to them the carving pre-dates the 19th century.

Atkinson 1

Atkinson 2

On July 10 1953, in the late afternoon light, Atkinson was looking at the screen on his reflex camera, when he suddenly saw the outlines of a dagger and an axe blade (lower centre in top above). He looked at the stone, so the story goes, and found more axes. A couple of days later David Booth (a 10-year-old schoolboy – the story does not explain what he was doing there) found an axe on Stone 4 in the sarsen circle, and more discoveries followed on the same stone (above; these two photos are from Atkinson’s Stonehenge, 1956). Later Robert Newall cast the carvings, and found yet more. In the short term the significance of these carvings, which were never fully published, got lost in a red herring about Mycenaean architects, and only now is their proper part in the story of ancient Stonehenge being considered. Yet what of the more recent story?

carvings 1934

Notwithstanding Atkinson’s excitement in 1953, the dagger and the axe are clearly visible in photos taken before then. You can see both of them in this postcard (1945). Tim Daw tells me he has a card postmarked 1934 in which they can also be seen (above). Anthony Johnson has a photo (which he published on page 141 of his Solving Stonehenge, below) apparently taken in the 19th century that shows what appears to be the dagger, at least. Another photo, c 1880, reproduced in Julian Richards’ Stonehenge: A History in Photographs (page 19) may also show the carvings, though less clearly (Julian does not comment).

Anthony Johnson

So not carved in 1952, but why had they not been commented on before? Had they even been noticed? Martyn Barber (co-author of Historic England’s The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, which is reviewed in the new British Archaeology out next week), says when he was waiting out of hours at Stonehenge in July 2006, they could see these carvings from 70m away as they stood outside the henge ditch on the west – but from close up they were almost invisble.

There is a strong suspicion that the dagger, at least, has weathered since 1953, with all the rubbing and touching it received. Old photos could be useful for their record of better preserved carvings. Below, for example, is a photo apparently processed in the US in October 1969 that appeared a few years back on the Stonehenge Collectables website (which currently seems to be inaccessible). It shows at least two clear axe carvings quite high up on what seems to be the outer face of Stone 4 (note the bulge on adjacent Stone 3, which is near its top).

axes 1969slide 1969

As far as I am aware, these two axes have not otherwise been recorded. I’ve put them on Anderson-Whymark and Abbott’s image of all the known carvings on stones 4 and 5 (see British Archaeology Nov/Dec 2012/127, page 19), below – with a lot of guessing about exact site and scale.

Old photos, worth looking out for.


6 thoughts on “Is this a dagger which I see before me?

  1. Hi Mike, It’s great to see a few old photos showing the carvings before they were discovered in 1953.

    I’ve had a good look at the ’60s photo which quite clearly shows the axe carvings on stone 4. I’m not sure that the two at the top of the image are new – I think they could be the 2 highest examples we illustrated. In the lower third of the image the blade edge of the largest dagger on stone 4 is clearly visible, as are a few blade edges of daggers in between which match well with others on the illustration.

    Great to see these carving again, but it’s all Ness of Brodgar art for me this summer…

    1. You are very probably right Hugo, good to hear from you (do you mean daggers or axes?). I hope to be able to check this on site before too long. Meanwhile I’m jealous of anyone on Orkney!

  2. Thinking about the Stonehenge Daggers and if they have eroded made me wonder what happened to the latex cast of them that was made by Atkinson in 1956 and if it could be compared to the laser scan of the stone.

    1. Good question. Does anyone know what happened to that? Some years ago someone sent me a black rubber cast of the dagger carving they had made and I passed it on to Salisbury museum. But I’ve never heard about the latex sheet.

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