For centuries, the Stone of Destiny—also known as the Stone of Scone—has played a key role in the coronations of Scottish and British monarchs. The block of red sandstone, which will be placed in the Coronation Chair at Charles III’s crowning next week, has long been shrouded in mystery and myth. But a new analysis of the stone is offering researchers insights on its origins.
Experts at Historic Environment Scotland (HES) used cutting-edge scanning tools to create a 3D model of the stone. They also conducted an X-ray fluorescence analysis that revealed the object’s elemental composition. Key findings include previously unseen markings that could be Roman numerals, traces of copper alloy and gypsum plaster, and tool marks left during both the stone’s original carving and a 1951 repair.
“The discovery of previously unrecorded markings is … significant, and while at this point we’re unable to say for certain what their purpose or meaning might be, they offer the exciting opportunity for further areas of study,” says Ewan Hyslop, head of research and climate change at HES, in a statement. “We may not have all the answers at this stage, but what we’ve been able to uncover is testament to a variety of uses in the stone’s long history and contributes to its provenance and authenticity.”
Ewan Campbell, an archaeologist at the University of Glasgow who was not involved in the research, tells Live Science’s Owen Jarus that he finds the presence of a copper alloy on the stone “more important” than the discovery of the unidentified markings, which he says are probably “crude crosses,” not numerals. The remnants of copper, Campbell adds, suggest “some object, possibly a relic such as a saint’s bell, was positioned on the stone for a long period.”
The specifics of the rock’s creation are unknown. But the Telegraph reports that the stone “is rumored to have biblical connections” and may have been used in Scottish rulers’ coronations more than a century before its first recorded use, in 1057, when Lulach, stepson of Macbeth, was crowned king at Scone Abbey. (The Shakespeare character was based on a real ruler, but the early 17th-century play that bears Macbeth’s name has little in common with his actual life.) During these early coronations, the stone “was believed to roar with joy when it recognized the right monarch,” writes Steven Brocklehurst for BBC News.
English monarch Edward I stole the stone from Scotland in 1296, during the Wars of Scottish Independence. He later transferred it to Westminster Abbey, where it was installed in the base of the Coronation Chair, which has been used in the crowning of every English monarch since.
“Even though Scotland was not yet part of a United Kingdom”—the country only joined with England to create Great Britain in 1707—“the stone that Edward took symbolically gave the future English kings dominion over Scotland,” notes Lizzie Enfield for BBC Travel.
As calls for Scottish independence gained traction in the 20th century, the stone gained new resonance as a political symbol. On Christmas Eve in 1950, Scottish university students making a statement in support of Scottish nationalism stole the stone from Westminster Abbey. It was only returned to England the following April.
“In one of the many invasions by the English into Scotland, they took away the symbol of our nation,” Ian Hamilton, one of the students behind the heist, told BBC News before his death last year. “To bring it back was a very symbolic gesture.”
In 1996, approximately 700 years after the stone’s removal, British Prime Minister John Major announced plans to send the object back to Scotland. Today, it’s housed at Edinburgh Castle; come May 6, however the stone will temporarily return to its former home at Westminster Abbey for Charles’ coronation.
Though rumors circulated that Scottish nationalists replaced the stone with a replica during the 1950 heist, the new analysis indicates otherwise.
“What we’re able to say is that there’s really no reason not to think that the Stone of Destiny that’s in Edinburgh Castle and will be used in the coronation is the very stone that was removed to Westminster Abbey over 700 years ago,” Hyslop tells the National’s James Walker.
The research project also allowed experts to take a closer look at tooling marks on the stone, which confirmed it was “roughly worked by more than one stonemason with a number of different tools, as was previously thought,” says Hyslop in the statement.
The new discoveries have offered valuable insights on the stone’s history. But much can still be learned, says Sally Foster, a historian at the University of Stirling in Scotland. The plaster remnants found on the stone, for instance, have no recorded origin.
“The availability of the [online model] now allows us all to see and review some of that evidence for ourselves,” Foster tells Live Science. “We can all become detectives if we look for the ways in which the stone has been modified through time by activities that left their marks on its fabric.”