The Stone of Destiny was a doorstep

The Stone of Destiny, the oblong block red sandstone used in the coronation of Scottish monarchs until it was snatched by King Edward I in 1296 and used in the coronation of English and British monarchs thereafter, started out as a step or threshold. A recent analysis of the 335-pound stone found the wear pattern on top of the stone was likely caused by many a foot treading upon it rather than by many royal butts perched upon or over it.

The first historical record of the Stone of Destiny being used for a coronation is Alexander III’s in 1249. It was reportedly covered in gold silk cloth, so its heavily worn surface was obscured from view. When Edward Longshanks pillaged it, he had it built in to his throne at Westminster, so again the stepped-upon surface was not visible. It was officially returned to Scotland in 1996 and displayed in the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle with other Scottish regalia.

It left Scotland again last year for a very brief stint back inside Edward’s throne for the coronation of Charles III. Before its departure, researchers examined the stone in detail using digital technology to scan the surface, revealing the wear pattern of steps that can’t be seen at a glance. This indicates it had a long history of non-coronation use, perhaps as the step to a monumental structure like an early church or maybe even a Roman building.

Dr Nicki Scott, Senior Cultural Significance Advisor at HES, said: “While we know some inauguration rituals did involve the individual being inaugurated to step onto the stone, such as at Dunadd Hillfort, the level of wear on the Stone of Destiny doesn’t support such use.

“Even several hundred years of such a ritual wouldn’t create the level of wear we see. It’s more likely that the stone had earlier served as a step, although we don’t know the context for this.”

Professor Dauvit Broun, Chair of Scottish History at the University of Glasgow, who contributed to the new interpretation at Perth Museum, said: “The evidence is quite compelling. It means that, at some point, the Stone was repurposed as an inaugural throne.

Unfortunately there are no surviving origin stories with a plausible kernel of truth that could help explain the scientific findings. The legends about the Stone of Destiny all claim exotic provenance and quasi-miraculous journeys from distant lands. One of the myths about the stone is that it was “Jacob’s pillow,” the stone Jacob laid his head on when he dreamt about the ladder to heaven (Genesis 28:10-18). Another says that it was transported to Tara in Ireland by the daughter of a pharaoh and then brought to Scone by Kenneth MacAlpin, the legendary founder of Scotland.

After the coronation of Charles III, the stone returned not to Edinburgh, but to its ancient homeland in Perth for the first time in 700 years. It is now the centerpiece of the new Perth Museum.