24 October 2020

SARSEN STONES: THE OLD ONES OF THE DOWNS, By Rebecca Davies BSc (Hons)

Introduction to Wiltshire’s Sarsen Stones

Wiltshire’s Sarsen Stones

A Canadian friend came to stay and, since they were a Neo-pagan, I decided to show them Avebury stone circle, a favourite place of mine. This didn’t go exactly to plan. For a start they were most upset because some Early Medieval people had decided to build their village on a sacred site.

To my perplexment and sadness my visitors found this was quite unacceptable. But then I’ve found that neo-pagans can be perplexing and saddening.

I once showed another new-ager Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, a stirring Shinto tale, and they were most horrified. But then, explaining that the world’s most technologically advanced society is pagan often doesn’t work out well.

I thought better of trying to explain that Avebury was not a sacred site to the Saxons and, after pacifying them with a pint of cider at the Red Lion, took them up the byway leading to Fyfield Down.

This was to show them wild sarsens in their natural habitat.

I am gratified to say that they enjoyed this trip very much.

Wiltshire's Sarsen Stones - fyfield down

Origins of the names of Wiltshire’s Sarsen Stones

t’s probable that the stones themselves got their names from the Knights Templar who had a Preceptory at Rockley. (Blackwell & Fowler). They called them Saracen stones because they’re alien to the soft chalk. Their other name, Grey Wethers derives from the way they look like a flock of sheep, particularly on a misty morning. (Delorme).

“I shall conclude with the stones called the Grey Wethers; which lye
scattered all over the downes about Marleborough, and incumber the
ground for at least seven miles diameter; and in many places they are,
as it were, sown so thick, that travellers in the twylight at a
distance take them to be flocks of sheep (wethers) from whence they
have their name.” (Aubrey)

Sheep and sarsen stones - Wiltshire's Sarsen Stones

Formation and geology

Sarsens are the remains of a tough overlay of the chalk, now eroded away, formed of silicate cemented sand and are a very dense rock; one cubic foot weighs 150 lb. (Delorme).

These rocks are the survivors of sandy islands in the Cretaceous seas, Many sarsens have holes in them formed by the roots of tropical trees. They’re relics of a more fanciful time. (Hungerford Virtual Museum).

Later the stones were part of a periglacial landscape, redistributed by meltwater. Fyfield downs contain many examples of this climatic era for the geological student to seek out. (Hungerford Virtual Museum).

Sarsens are always found on chalk downs. Yet it’s not inevitable that chalk downs harbour sarsens. You can find them from Kent to Suffolk and across the channel on the French chalklands around Dieppe. Oddly though they seem to be absent from the Isle of Wight. (Delorme).

Nor are they exactly plentiful on Salisbury plain. They are common on the Marlborough downs, both in fields and in the forest.

West Wood is today famed for its bluebells. But in the past there was a considerable extractive industry in these woods including sarsens. There are the remains of sarsen crushing machines and plenty of loose cut stone.(Archaeology Data Service.)

Recently it was proven that this is the source of the sarsen component of Stonehenge. (BBC News).

The usage of sarsens

Over the millennia the sarsens have had many uses. In the first instance they were erected as part of megalithic monuments such as Avebury stone circle and Stonehenge. Then later their superior strength lent form to Windsor castle. (Delorme).

Wiltshire's Sarsen Stones - the cove avebury
The Cove, Avebury
West Kennet longbarrow - Wiltshire's Sarsen Stones
Inside the West Kennet long barrow

Exploring the village of Winterbourne Monkton I saw sarsens at every turn.

Encountering sarsens

Sarsens are tactile, they invite touching and climbing upon. They come in a variety of colours, greys, creams, oranges and browns. Sarsens are well worth visiting.

The best place to see sarsens today is Fyfield Down. But there’s also a small National Trust estate at Lockeridge Dene and Piggledene which are a bit more accessible. All three places are Geological Sites of Special Scientific Interest. (National Trust).

But yet, there are many sarsens round and about Swindon, mostly upon the east side. (Hidden Swindon).

Pretty much all parks have them. You may well have seen them without actually noticing them.

(All pictures © Rebecca Davies 2020).

lockeridge dene - Wiltshire's Sarsen Stones
Lockeridge Dene

About Rebecca

Rebecca Davies is a private Researcher. Coming from the antiquity rich county of Wiltshire it was only natural for her to become aware of our ancestors and ancient landscapes. In her early forties, quite by accident, she left her home town of Swindon and travelled to Cornwall to study Archaeology. This has enabled her to develop special interests in Early Medieval Christianity, Industrial History, Vikings and Experimental Archaeology. (Though really she is fascinated by anything curious she might grab at).  

She would describe herself as apart from University, mostly self-educated. Her interests are “eclectic” ranging from Bushcraft to Local history to Classic Cars. She does not think Swindon to be boring at all. 

Her ambition is to have even more adventures in Heritage.

Wiltshire's Sarsen Stones - Rebecca Davies
Rebecca Davies BSc (Hons)

Rebecca on YouTube:

References

ADS Archaeology Data Service Amadio, L. (2011). West Woods, Wiltshire: An Archaeological Survey. Devizes: Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Society.

Aubrey, J. Natural History of Wiltshire. (My Edition is John Britton’s of 1848, which is on Project Gutenberg).

Blackwell, I. & Fowler, P. 2000. An English Countryside Explored; the Land of Lettice Sweetapple. Tempus Publishing, Stroud.

Delorme, M. 1985 Curious Wiltshire, Ex Libris Press, Bradford on Avon.

Hidden Swindon https://swindonia.blogspot.com/ (Accessed 16th October 2020).

Lockeridge Dene and Piggledene, National Trust. – Accessed 10th Oct 2020

Sarsen stones, Hungerford Virtual Museum. https://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/15-artefacts/899-sarsen-stones (Accessed 10th October 2020).

West Woods, Upper Kennet News. https://www.upperkennetnews.co.uk/west-woods/ (Accessed 10th October 2020).

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