Arthur’s Stone, an enigmatic rock burial in Herefordshire, England, is one of the United Kingdom’s most famous Stone Age monuments. Now, reports Carly Cassella for Science Alert, excavations carried out near the tomb—named for its supposed ties to King Arthur—have shed light on its beginnings, revealing that Neolithic people built it as part of an intricate ceremonial landscape.
“Although Arthur’s Stone is an iconic … monument of international importance, its origins had been unclear until now,” says dig leader Julian Thomas, an archaeologist at the University of Manchester, in a statement. “Being able to shine a light on this astonishing 5,700-year-old tomb is exciting and helps to tell the story of our origins.”
As Europa Press notes, researchers began studying the burial as part of the Beneath Hay Bluff Project, which has been investigating Neolithic structures near southwest Herefordshire since 2010. During this most recent dig, archaeologists determined that Arthur’s Stone is linked to nearby “halls of the dead” at Dorstone Hill. According to a 2013 statement, these two halls were intentionally burned down following their construction; the buildings’ ruins were then incorporated into two burial mounds.
Arthur’s Stone dates to around 3700 B.C.E., making it a millennium older than Stonehenge, which was constructed around 2500 B.C.E. Per Atlas Obscura, the tomb consists of nine standing stones that support a 25-ton, 13- by 7-foot quartz capstone. As the statement notes, the site served as a source of inspiration for the Stone Table in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.
The number of Neolithic features present in the landscape surrounding Arthur’s Stone indicate “that this was a place that people came to for gatherings, meetings [and] feasting … and a place that retained its significance for centuries,” as Thomas tells Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe.
Researchers identified two distinct phases in Arthur’s Stone’s construction. Initially, reports Current Archaeology, the hilltop tomb consisted of a long mound of stacked turf that pointed southwest, toward Dorstone Hill. It was surrounded by a palisade of wooden posts that eventually decayed, leading the mound to collapse.
After the first mound fell, Neolithic people rebuilt it with a larger avenue of post pillars, two rock chambers and an upright stone. These later posts faced the southeast rather than the southwest.
“[T]he initial emphasis is on the internal relationships between the monuments that make up the complex but … later, the focus shifts outward,” Thomas explains to Live Science.
As its name suggests, Arthur’s Stone is traditionally linked to King Arthur. Legend has it that Arthur found a pebble in his shoe on his way to battle and tossed it away. Landing in Cefn Bryn, where the monument now stands, the pebble grew in size “with pride [at] having been touched by the legendary British leader,” according to Atlas Obscura. Another origin story claims that Arthur killed a giant, whose elbows left impressions in the soil as he fell, at the site.
Myths aside, Arthur’s Stone has borne witness to an array of historical events. As Mysterious Universe’s Paul Seaburn notes, a pair of knights dueled there during the 15th-century Wars of the Roses. And, in 1645, Charles I and his army paid the historic monument a visit. In later centuries, ceremonial dances were held at the site on the fourth Sunday of July.