In 1958, archaeologists summoned a diamond-cutting business to help reinforce a fallen Stonehenge trilithon—the site’s signature structure consisting of two large vertical stones topped by a horizontal one. Three holes were bored into one of the stones so it could be filled with supportive metal rods, which, in turn, produced three cores from the interior of the stone. Robert Phillips, an employee of the diamond-cutting company, decided to take one of the cores back with him when the job was complete.
For six decades, Phillips proudly held onto his piece of Stonehenge, displaying it in his office and later bringing it with him when he moved from the United Kingdom to the United States. But on the eve of his 90th birthday, according to the BBC, Phillips decided it was time to return the fragment to its original location.
Phillips’ two sons brought the core from Florida, where Phillips now resides, to Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England around one year ago. They presented the long-missing piece to Heather Sebire, a curator at English Heritage, the organization that cares for the site.
“The last thing we ever expected was to get a call from someone in America telling us they had a piece of Stonehenge,” Sebire says.
English Heritage waited until now to announce the recovery because it wanted to have a better sense of the core’s significance. Experts hope that with further study, the piece, which measures around three-and-a-half feet in length, may offer new clues into the mysterious origins of the site’s massive pillars.
Stonehenge is comprised of two different types of rock. The smaller pieces—which still weigh between two and five tons each—are bluestones thought to have come from the Preseli Hills in southwest Wales. Earlier this year, in fact, a study found that bluestones in the area jut vertically out of the ground, which would have saved ancient rock miners the trouble of having to carve vertical stones out of a more local source. But the origins of the larger pillars—blocks of a sandstone called sarsen, which weigh 25 tons on average—remain uncertain.
For many years, researchers have suspected that the sarsens came from Marlborough Downs, around 18 miles north of Stonehenge. More recently, experts have noted that other large sarsen blocks have been found near the monument, raising the possibility that the stone was sourced from a closer site. But David Nash of the University of Brighton, who is leading an investigation into the stones’ chemical composition, says his initial analyses “suggest that in fact the sarsens may come from more than one location.”
The newly recovered core, which was bored from one of the sarsens, is now giving experts the opportunity to study an “unweathered interior” of one of the pillars, English Heritage notes. Other Stonehenge chunks exist in museums around Britain, but according to Palko Karasz of the New York Times, the core is as yet the only piece that can be definitively matched to a specific Stonehenge stone.
Back in the 1950s, when Phillips decided to remove the core from the site, perspectives on archaeological conservation were very different than they are today. Nash tells Karasz that pieces like the one Phillips took from Stonehenge typically “would have been thrown out.”
“Nowadays,” Nash adds, “we would have kept it.”
Experts don’t know what happened to the remaining two cores that were drilled out of the sarsen stone some 60 years ago, but they hope that these pieces will someday be returned to Stonehenge, as well. “The other two Stonehenge cores may still be out there somewhere,” Sebrie says, “and if anyone has any information, we’d love to hear from them.”