The Rollright Stones is one of the greatest neolithic sites in Britain. It’s made up of three parts: The Whispering Knights, The King’s Men and The King Stone.
The oldest part of the site is known as The Whispering Knights, the remains of a portal dolmen burial chamber. This was a structure which would have several upright stones to form walls, and a single horizontal capstone to form a roof. This created a table-like structure with a chamber inside, about 2m square.
The Whispering Knights was built in around 3,800 BC (almost 6,000 years ago). It was constructed to contain dismembered human remains and is possibly the earliest funerary monument in Britain.
All of the stones on this site are natural boulders from the basal layer of the Cotswold Hills. Over thousands of years of geological faulting, cycles of erosion and deposition, boulders were left exposed on the ground surface within 500 metres of the site. To move the stones into this position, they would probably have used sledges, or stone ramps with wooden rails. It would have taken about 60 people about 3 weeks to put the stones in position.
The Kings Men
About 1,000 years after the construction of the burial chamber, in around 2,500BC, our later Neolithic ancestors dragged about 100 stones to the top of the hill, and set them in a small circle about 30m across. This is now known as The Kings Men.
There are 77 stones in this circle today, although there might have been as many as 105 – about 30 have disappeared, probably used for building materials.
This type of stone circle is similar to Long Meg and her Daughters near Penrith, or Castlerigg near Keswick. They follow a structure of close-set stones, a portalled entrance and a levelled interior. This kind of structure is unique to Cumbria, Wales and Eastern Ireland, so it’s thought the people who built The Kings Men probably had some connection to these areas.
Archeologists tend to agree that it was used for ceremonial or religious rituals – perhaps some kind of stone worship, or a giant astronomical calculator allowing our ancestors to chart the movement of the heavens. Some have even proposed a kind of dial up for extra-terrestrial communication.
The varied thicknesses and shapes of the stones reflects variations in the original strata, and the pitted appearance is a result of millions of years of weathering.
The King Stone
The third part of The Rollright Stones is The King Stone. It’s a weathered monolith, 2.4 metres high by 1.5 metres wide. It was erected about a thousand years after the Kings Men, in 1,750 BC.
Its shape has been compared to a seal’s head balancing a ball on its nose – but don’t accredit that to ancient history. This is only a result of 19th century tourists chipping it away. The King Stone has been a nightmare for antiquarians, archaeologists and monolith experts, who can’t seem to offer any real idea of its purpose.
Some have suggested it was an astronomical marker to mark Capella, the sixth-brightest star in the night sky. Others have suggested it was a guide post directing travellers to the nearby stone circle. There is also an Early Bronze cemetery nearby – discovered in 1979 – so it seems likely The King Stone stands as an entry point and memorial, demarcating the burial ground as a sacred space.
“The greatest Antiquity we have yet seen”
In our more recent past, The Rollright Stones have been shrouded in mystery. They are first referred to in a late 12th century account of the Wonders of Britain:
In the region of Oxfordshire there are great stones disposed as if by the hand of man. But at what time, or by what people, or for what memorial or significance this was done is not known.
The next important account comes from William Camden’s 1586 work, ‘Britannia’:
[A] little river… speedeth him into Isis: which riveret on the very border of the shire passeth by an ancient Monument standing not farre from his bank, to wit, certaine large stones placed in a round circle (the common people usually call them Rolle-rich stones, and dreameth that they were sometimes men by a wonderfull Metamorphosis turned into hard stones).
When William Camden wrote ‘Britannia’ in 1586 (a kind of survey of the nation’s history) he accredited the Rollrights to the Danes who first arrived in Britain in 786 AD. This meant that when Camden looked at the stones, he believed they were no more than 800 years old.
Some progress was made in 1649, when John Aubrey, a pioneering archaeologist who is accredited with discovering the remains at Avebury, suggested the Rollrights might be pre-Roman. But this was soon countered by Dr Robert Plot in 1677. Plot was the first curator of Oxford’s Ashmoleon Museum and Secretary of the Royal Society. He produced some remarkably accurate illustrations of the stones, but after comparing them to Scandinavian megaliths, concluded that they were the work of the more recent Danes.
In 1710 and 1724, the stones were paid a visit by William Stukeley. Although Stukeley was a pioneer of scholarly investigation of prehistoric monuments, he, like his predecessors, misdated the stones by thousands of years, arguing they were the work of the Druids.
Nevertheless, recognised their importance. He wrote that the stones were “the greatest Antiquity we have yet seen … corroded like worm eaten wood by the harsh Jaws of Time.” A “noble, rustic sight”, enough to “strike an odd terror upon the spectators”.
The first Ancient Monuments Act
In 1882, a year after the opening of London’s Natural History Museum, the first Ancient Monuments Act was brought in. It recognised a need for the government to take responsibility to protect ancient monuments. John Lubbock was the man who introduced it, and he drew up a list of 68 prehistoric sites which were particularly at risk.
He appointed Augustus Pitt Rivers to become the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments – identifying ancient sites and saving them from destruction. At Rollright, about a third of the stones were lying flat all over the place – it was Pitt Rivers’ work propping them all up, which is what we see today.
In the 20th century, the prominent location of these stones on the crest of the Cotswolds marked it out as a vantage point. In 1940, during the Second World War, a Royal Signals Corps post was placed near the King Stone as a look out. The larch trees which had been planted in the circle in the 19th century were felled to obtain a clear view.
In 1961, during the Cold War, this simple hut with a telephone connection became a Royal Observer Corps early warning post, and it was extended into a subterranean chamber. It was decommissioned and capped off in 1991.