Sarsen core returns to Stonehenge after US sojourn

A core drilled out of one of Stonehenge’s massive sarsen stones has been returned to its homeland after decades in the US. It wasn’t smuggled out or looted; it was legitimately removed and nobody even remembered it existed other than the person who had it.

In 1958, archaeologists working at Stonehenge endeavored to raise a fallen trilithon. When cracks were found in one of the vertical stones, Basingstoke diamond cutting firm Van Moppes was brought in to drill out three cores so that metal rods could be inserted to reinforce the post and allow it to bear the weight of the lintel.

Roger Phillips was one of the Van Moppes employees who bored three horizontal holes through the stone using an annular drilling machine. The three cores removed were 25mm (approximately one inch) in diameter and one meter, the full thickness of the stone, long. After the metal reinforcements were installed, the openings were plugged with fragments of sarsen stones unearthed in excavations. It was a highly effective intervention and today the repairs are all but invisible.

The cores were considered waste material and there are no known records documenting their fate. As it turns out, Phillips kept one of them. For years he displayed the 108cm (3’6″) long cylinder in a protective acrylic sleeve in his Basingstoke office.  Robert Phillips left Van Moppes in 1976 and moved to the US. He crossed the country, living in Rochester, New York, Chicago, Illinois, Ventura, California and lastly Aventura, Florida, carrying his trusty sarsen core with him on every move.

Last year, at the age of 90, Phillips decided his beloved piece of Stonehenge should go home. He asked his sons Robin and Lewis, both of whom live in England, to return it to English Heritage, and so they did. In a repatriation ceremony at Stonehenge, The Phillipses handed over the cylinder to English Heritage curator Heather Sebire.

The core is an invaluable source of information on the source of the sarsen stones. Modern technology makes it possible to analyze their origin in a way that wasn’t even a glint in anyone’s eye back in 1958.

This recently returned piece of Stonehenge, which looks incongruously pristine next to the weathered stone from where it came, may now help locate the original location of the sarsen stones. Stonehenge’s smaller bluestones were famously brought from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales but the precise origin of the much larger sarsens is unknown. A British Academy and Leverhulme Trust project, led by Professor David Nash of the University of Brighton, is investigating the chemical composition of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge in order to pinpoint their source. The project team have already used a handheld portable spectrometer to investigate the chemistry of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge using x-ray fluorescence, a non-destructive technique. The core presents the team with a unique opportunity to analyse the unweathered interior of a stone. […]

Professor David Nash, Brighton University, said: “Archaeologists and geologists have been debating where the stones used to build Stonehenge came from for years. The bluestones have attracted a lot of attention recently, but in contrast little has been done to look at the sources of the larger sarsen stones. Conventional wisdom suggests that they all came from the relatively nearby Marlborough Downs but initial results from our analysis suggest that in fact the sarsens may come from more than one location.  Our geochemical fingerprinting of the sarsens in situ at Stonehenge, and of the core itself, when compared with samples from areas across southern England will hopefully tell us where the different stones came from.”

English Heritage would love to get their mitts on the other two cores, if they still exist out there. Anybody with any information about the Stonehenge cores should email

3 thoughts on “Sarsen core returns to Stonehenge after US sojourn

  1. Cor! as they might have said at the time. I wonder what metal they used, and whether it is corroding away inside the stones?

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