Ancient Stones
A Guide to Standing Stones & Stone Circles in the South of Scotland.


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Where Have All The Stones Gone?

In my article, Finding Forgotten Stones, I mentioned that it has been estimated that around 90% of the ancient stones that once existed in the UK have been lost. This begs the question, what happened to them and where are they now? Having an understanding of what happened to ancient stones in the past can help us in our quest to find ancient stones today. If we are aware of what became of these stones it might of use when searching the countryside and reading the landscape in an attempt to give meaning to the stones we find. Ancient stones such a standing stones and stone circles vanish in many ways and what follows below are a few theories and my own thoughts on how this can be of use to us.

Field Clearance
Modern farming practices, pushed by the desire for bigger yields, has resulted in larger machinery needing even larger fields. The result is the clearance of obstacles such as hedges and, of course, standing stones and stone circles. Field clearance is probably the main reason for the disappearance of the vast majority of our ancient stones over the past 500 years or so, ever since the shire horse made the removal of large stones a relatively easy task. Many of these stones will have been broken up for other uses but not all may have suffered this fate. Perhaps the easiest way of disposing of a large stone is to dump it somewhere and that will be the most convenient and quickest location for the horse to get too. This is usually downhill, which is easier for the horse. So, look for old quarries, gullies, streams and rivers, where large stones may have been dumped.

Religious Conversion
Many of our ancient stones were venerated by our ancestors and as the Christian faith started to spread across the land, authorities began to frown upon such practices. As a result, many ancient stones and sites became "Christianised" the term applied to an ancient site that has been adopted and changed for later religious used. There are many examples of churches being constructed on the site of standing stones and stone circles. A famous example is the Ruston Monolith which stands in a church yard in Bridlington, East Yorkshire. The carving of standing stones into Christian crosses is another example of the religious conversion of ancient sites.

Deliberate Burial
Many of the stones used in stone circles are extremely large and weigh many tonnes and, as a result, removing such stones is a difficult and dangerous task. A simple way round this is to bury the stone where it falls. Examples of this have been discovered at Avebury in Wiltshire. Of course, finding buried stones is no easy matter but should you find a site where you suspect there may be buried stones nearby, probing with a metal rod can prove effective. Dowsing is also another technique that can be used in these situations. Conformation of the dowsing results can be proven by later probing.

Simple Neglect
Not all ancient stones will have disappeared at the hands of man. When any sacred site starts to fall into disuse, not only does the site start to become overgrown but any folklore or meaning that the stone many have had, is also lost as one generation passes to the next.

Finding ancient stones such as these is going to be difficult and even with some considerable effort in the field, some luck is going to be required as well. However, if you are forewarned that stones may exist it could be well worth the effort of keeping a look out for any likely examples when exploring the countryside. Delving into the dark corners of ancient woodland, just might prove fruitful. Searching the small coppices that can be found at the corners of filed might also yield finds. Of course, not all ancient stones were the tall standing stones we consider as being classic today. Indeed, some stones that have survived are low down, squat and dumpy. They may look just like an old boulder lying along the hedgerow but could in fact be something more entirely.

Robbing For Materials
Another of the main causes for the disappearance of our ancient stone is the quest for materials for building. Before the invention of the humble brick, stone was the main source of building materials and it does not take much imagination to see that that handy burial mound, stone circle, standing stone or other sacred site, was just ripe for the picking. One example that comes to mind is noted in the Statistical Account of Scotland. In this weighty tome, it is recorded that, near Peebles in the Scottish Borders,

"an almost perfect specimen of a cromlech or dolmen, a sepulchral construction of the stone age, called Arthur's Oven, consisting of two or more upright stones and one flat stone laid across as a roof, all of remarkable size, was broken into pieces to form a culvert for the stream."

There are no doubt many examples similar to this across the country.

Of course, it may not be correct to assume that everything was smashed into small pieces and many of the larger stones may have been reused whole. There are many examples of standing stones being built into stone walls and the sides of cattle barns. Keep your eyes peeled just in case.

Ancient stones have probably vanished in may other ways as well but when you are visiting the site of a known lost stone, keep the above points in mind and you might be lucky and turn something up.

046 Johnnie Moat Stone, Prestonpans.

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