Not far from the Oxfordshire village of Stanton Harcourt is a huge landfill and waste site on the edge of an industrial estate. Not, perhaps, the first place you would think of to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon, in spite of the artificial lakes created by industrial gravel extraction operations. But that is exactly what we were going to do.
We did have doubts and a good few reservations. Not only because of the location, or even the presence of an overly excited small dog on the back seat, whose constant ‘singing’ sounded very like ‘are we there yet?’ It was the word ‘reconstructed’ that was causing the misgivings. Where ancient sites are concerned, that can mean anything from standing up a fallen stone to the complete ruination of the spirit of the place by overzealous and underinformed developers. And anyway, it probably wasn’t going to be much of a stone circle… it is not exactly well-known. We expected little… and we could not have been more wrong if we’d tried.
Emerging from the tunnel of leafy shade, we were confronted by a huge open space. The space was enclosed by the almost-circular banks and ditches of a henge, with entrances almost due east and west. Within the henge, an almost-complete stone circle, as good as any we have seen and better than many, left us gaping in astonishment. Even against a backdrop of industry, with the grasses and plants, there was a distinct air of prehistory about the place. Hard to explain, but unmistakable..as if, somehow, the tree-lined tunnel had been a wormhole that had led us back through time.
As usual, we had done little or no research beforehand. We just knew there was a reconstructed stone circle somewhere in the middle of the landfill. We had no idea what to expect, and could barely take in what we were seeing. The site, one of the seven largest circles in mainland Britain, was almost impossible to photograph except in bits. At four hundred feet in diameter, the only way to get even most of it on a picture was from the top of the outer bank and from that distance, you lose all sense of scale.
The circle dates back going on five thousand years to the Neolithic period. There were originally thirty-six standing stones. Now there are twenty-eight in the circle plus another that is set at an angle, like a gnomon, just outside the southern quarter. Within the circle there appear to have been wooden posts, as at Woodhenge, and what looks like a possible burial cyst where Ani the archaeologist sniffed, intrigued, until we distracted her with water.
The site was damaged by ploughing in Roman and medieval times. When John Aubrey visited the Quoits in the seventeenth century, the damage was already extensive. Even so, he wrote in his Monumenta Brittanica, that the “east stone is nine foot high: and as much broad: half a yard thick. The west stone is eight foot high and about six foot broad, half a yard thick.”
During WWII, the site was almost obliterated by runways and the later gravel extraction completed its ruin. Thankfully, excellent surveys and archaeological work had been undertaken. The entire area is littered with the remains of ancient burial mounds and what appears to be a cursus, a connecting processional route.
The henge… the circular arrangements of banks and ditches… is magnificent and would have been visible from the five-thousand year old Ridgeway, the ancient trackway over the hills. It has been partially excavated and reinstated, giving a good indication of its appearance… but only as it would have been nearly three thousand years after its construction. The banks are nowhere near as high as they were originally and the ditches only half their depth. This is to preserve the archaeology that still lies buried beneath the grass and earth. The rabbits, however, take no note of such care and are busily exposing the buried treasures with hundreds of delicate portals and impossible arches.
Almost immediately, I found a fragment of bone. It was big enough to be human, light enough to have been there a very long time and looked like part of a large joint. Both human and animal bones from the time of its digging have been found in the ditch and, although the likelihood is that this was a rather more modern bit of sheep or some such, it was the oddest feeling to hold it in my hand in that place. I held it for a good while before replacing it, riding the emotions it engendered, letting them carry me back to another time, long, long ago, and the people who first knew this place as sacred.
There were other ‘artefacts’ too… just as dubious, but equally important. Pieces of flint, sharp enough to cut, were strewn across the ditch where the rabbits had excavated. Even though the best of them was probably just a bit of random gravel, you could see and feel in its edges how our earliest ancestors discovered the very first tools of stone.
The flake of flint that I held fit comfortably between thumb and fingers as if shaped to do so. Naturally sharp edges would have been perfect for scraping hides. One incurved edge looked as if it had been worked, though that too was probably an accident of nature, and was incredibly sharp and the perfect size and shape for stripping meat from ribs. We found rib bones too. So did the canine archaeologist, who had to be distracted again before she could do more than sniff.
The reconstruction, done between 2002 and 2008, is superb. The original stones that were on site or found during excavation have been reerected in their sockets. The missing stones have been replaced, in their correct positions, with stones of similar appearance and composition. Whoever was responsible for choosing them either had a natural sense of ‘rightness’, an extensive knowledge of other stone circles or they were guided in their choice. The circle feels alive.
Apart from a few sharp edges that weathering will soften, they could have been original. Looking at the individual stones, we could name the circles in which we have seen almost identical shapes…and almost all the stones have the half-formed faces we have come to expect.
Even with the presence of the landfill, the atmosphere was unbelievable. In spite of the heat and the fact that a certain animal had insistently drunk all the water we had brought already, we were in no hurry to leave. Reconstructed or not, this may well be the best circle we have ever seen for getting a true impression of the size, scale and ‘feel’ of these ancient and sacred places. Coming out of the trees to find it laid out in front of us was definitely the best ‘reveal’.
The stories of its creation are good too, though obviously date from the Christian era. Legend says that the Devil was playing quoits on a Sunday and was chastised by God for playing games on the Sabbath. The Devil threw his toys in a fit of pique and thus created the monument. A rather more interesting version says that the Devil challenged a beggar to a game of quoits on Wytham Hill… with the stake being the beggar’s soul. The Devil won when he threw the stones of the Quoit.
Another old story reinforces the need to treat these ancient places and their stones with respect. Farmers took one of the stones to build a bridge across a stream, the Black Ditch. No matter what they tried, though, the stone kept slipping and the bridge would not stand… so it was returned to the circle.
We are lucky to have this particular circle. Over the years, through necessity, industry, neglect or disrespect, it has suffered more than most. In a few years time, when the angular stones have softened, the bare earth is once more green and the surrounding trees have matured, it will be a jewel once more and far better known than it is today. For now, though, although it is still a rough diamond, it is once again a place of peace and power… and a place to which we will undoubtedly return.