The Boles Barrow Bluestone

“Barrow digging gained impetus during the 1840s, and in many areas where tumuli proliferated the barrow openers likewise increased. The years 1840 – 70 can justifiably be called the ‘boom years’, when the subject almost approached the proportions of a field sport. In 1851 Carrington wrote, ‘in no age or nation have the investigations of the past from the contents of the tumuli been so arduously pursued as they have of late in this Kingdom’. Many of these diggings were reprehensibly carried out, more often than not in a mere scrambling after relics.” [1]

The Barrow, the Garden and the Museum
There is an ongoing argument that the bluestones of Stonehenge were transported to Salisbury Plain by glaciation and that Neolithic people were neither capable, nor had the desire, to transport exotic stones some 200 miles from south west Wales, stating that megalith building was done simply by use of whatever material was close at hand. I have argued previously [2] [3] that neither of these arguments stands up to scrutiny.

A stone, said to be the same as the Stonehenge Bluestones, found in a long barrow about 10 miles west of Stonehenge in 1801 is seen by supporters of the transportation by ice theory as evidence of bluestone glacial erratics littering Salisbury Plain long before the stone circle was constructed. [4] However, considerable confusion surrounds the Boles Barrow bluestone, now on display in the Salisbury Museum, and its uncertain archaeological context as we shall see in the tale of The Barrow, the Garden and the Museum.

The Barrow
Across Britain from the Neolithic period to the Early Bronze Age we find the barrow was a popular form of tomb for the ancient dead. Many of these burials were rich in grave goods indicating they contained the remains of tribal leaders or chieftains. The earliest form of barrow was the earthen long barrow, dated from the 4th millennium BC, over a thousand years before the earliest stone circles were erected. [5]

Some earthen (built without stone) long barrows were found to have a complete absence of human remains, perhaps fulfilling the role of a cenotaph. These were later followed by long barrows with chambers constructed with stone. West Kennet long barrow is a typical chambered tomb and found to hold the remains of many people, at least 46, as if a community sepulchre. Later, in the Early Bronze Age the round barrow was more popular. This often came in the form of bell or disc shaped barrows which only covered one or two individuals.

The earliest recorded barrow diggings occur in medieval times; in 1237 Henry III granted authority for his brother, the Earl of Cornwall, to dig into Cornish barrows. The digs around these time generally ransacked the barrows in the search for treasures, few if any, excavated for examination of their remains. By the beginning of the 18th century barrows were recognised as the tombs of the ancient inhabitants of Britain. William Stukeley (1687 – 1765) carried out the first objective barrow diggings on record with examination of the a twin bell barrow in the Cursus group just to the north of Stonehenge. Stukeley pursued further barrow excavations around Stonehenge and Avebury but these digs were hardly archaeological digs in the modern sense with Stukeley failing to note the difference between, primary, secondary or intrusive internments. [6]

On reaching its zenith by the 19th century, barrow digging had been elevated to a science. Sir Richard Colt Hoare and William Cunnington opened 465 barrows in Wiltshire in a fifteen year period, 1803 – 18, in the golden age of barrow digging. Hoare organised and funded a wide scheme of field operations each year, with Cunnington the excavator, sending details of his digs by letter, dictated to his daughters, to his sponsor. Their methods were crude compared to modern methods, however, we must bear in mind they had no guidelines or previous experience to follow for this new gentlemen’s pursuit. Invariably they would dig a central vertical shaft into the selected barrow, which rarely failed to reveal the barrows contents. Gangs of unskilled labourers would then carry out the preliminary digging putting a trench, or cutting as Hoare called it, through the barrow to the centre and often out the other side. Some later barrow excavations like Wor Barrow in Dorset were completely stripped with all mound material removed. [7] Cunnington’s chief assistants were Stephen and John Parker, father and son, of Heytesbury, whereas Hoare employed Philip Crocker as his surveyor and produced detailed maps and sketches of the barrow groups. [8]

Of the 465 barrows in Wiltshire and neighbouring counties opened by Hoare and Cunnington 86 were unproductive and failed to reveal any contents. The most unsatisfactory and disappointing labours experienced by them were the 50 or so earthen long barrows in the vicinity of Salisbury Plain with one notable exception. These earthen long barrows consumed a great expense of time and effort attacking these colossal monuments in a bid to reveal their secrets, often suffering two or three assaults from the labourer’s pick and spade, often the excavation becoming dangerous. On one such occasion, in 1801, at Boles (Bowls) Barrow at Imber, near Warminster, some 12 miles west of Stonehenge, when Cunnington was digging at the east end of the barrow he was forced to cease operations following a collapse with large stones rolling down onto the workmen in the trench. The dig revealed a ridge of large stones and flints, extending wider as the workmen dug deeper, which Hoare described as being “like the ridge of a house”. [9]

The excavation of Boles Barrow, a long barrow measuring 150 feet in length, revealed primary deposits of 14 skulls, 5 or more with bones in disorder. Remains of 7 or more ‘heads and horns’ of oxen and a block of bluestone. 3 intrusive skeletons appear to be Saxon. The collapse of the barrow during the excavation has left the context of the bluestone find uncertain; we do not know if it was a block of bluestone placed in the barrow or part of the construction, it may even have been part of a secondary internment. Despite later digs at the barrow by John Thurnam 1864, and William & Henry Cunnington 1885-6, no further bluestone finds were recorded. [10]

The Garden
Following the excavation Cunnington is said to have taken the bluestone to his garden at Heytesbury, where he lived between 1775 and 1810. The name Heytesbury refers to a burh held by a Saxon woman, and is recorded in the Domesday book. An early Saxon church in Heytesbury was rebuilt during the 12th century.

Heytesbury parish is rich in archaeological features, having 111 entries on the Sites and Monuments Record in 2009. Boles Barrow is situated in the north of the parish only a couple of miles from Cunnington’s abode. Aided by Sir Richard Colt Hoare, Cunnington excavated 20 barrows and earthworks on the Downs around Heytesbury. Several of his archaeological finds were stored in the garden of the house until they were taken to the Salisbury and Devizes Museums following his death on 31 December 1810. He was buried in Heytesbury churchyard.

Cunnington was considered one of the pioneering English antiquarians of the late 18th and early 19th century. Cunnington, a draper and wool merchant, was told by his doctors to ‘ride out or die’ and so he took up archaeology, in partnership with Colt Hoare and concentrated his work on excavating the barrows of Salisbury Plain. They were the first antiquarians to carry out recorded excavations at Stonehenge in 1798 and again in 1810. They dug around a fallen Trilithon and the fallen slaughter stone confirming that it had once stood erect.

Following his excavation of Boles Barrow in 1801, William Cunnington wrote of the excavation of Boles Barrow which contained ten `large stones’ which at first he described as “The stones that composed so large a part of this ridge over the bodies are the same species of stone as the very large stones at Stonehenge”, that is sarsen. At a later date he added a note that amongst these stones he discovered a `Blue hard stone ye same as the upright Stones in ye inner circle at Stonehenge’, thought to be non-local dolerite or ‘bluestone’. In another footnote he added that “the stones were from about 28lbs to 200lbs in weight” [11]

He then arranged the ten stones he removed from the barrow in an ornamental circle at the bottom of the lawn around a weeping ash in his garden at Heytesbury. A grand-daughter of Cunnington’s named Eliza, recalled in 1864 that the stones in this ring had come from Boles Barrow. Eliza also referred to a larger block of stone, a piece of granite from Dartmoor which she stated was not, “as has been supposed, a stone brought from Stonehenge, but was presented to Mr Cunnington by Sir Richard Colt-Hoare.” [12]

H P Wyndham, MP for Wiltshire had encouraged Cunnington to dig on his land. Cunnington lived at 108 Heytesbury, almost opposite the front gates of Heytesbury House where Wyndham’s sister lived. In an account passed on to Ben Cunnington [13] in 1923, Lord Heytesbury’s aunt the Honourable Mrs Hamersley, told him that the stone had been taken from the late William Cunnington’s garden and that is was known to the occupiers as the “Stonehenge stone” and it was placed under a beech tree where Ben found it. He determined it had been there since before 1860. [14] From there, it was given to the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum by Siegfried Sassoon in 1934.

The Museum
In Cunnington’s notes to his letters he states the weight of the Boles Barrow bluestone was less than 200lbs. According to Dr Christopher Green the bluestone in Salisbury Museum “…. is much larger (1,338lbs) than the stones recorded there by Cunnington (28-200lbs), and the ten stones taken by Cunnington to Heytesbury he described as sarsens. …………..There is no unequivocal evidence that the disputed bluestone [at Salisbury Museum] was ever in Cunnington’s possession. What we know is that it reached the grounds of Heytesbury House before 1860, supposedly from the nearby garden of Cunnington’s house.” [15]

Evidently, it appears that there are two stones in question here: one larger stone at 1,338lbs and a smaller stone weighing between 28 – 200lbs; possibly one of the ten stones brought from Boles Barrow bluestone and the other known as the ‘Stonehenge Stone‘ by William Cunnington’s grand-daughter Eliza and Lord Heytesbury’s aunt Mrs Hamersley,

Aubrey Burl rules out the possibility of the stone being robbed from Stonehenge during Cunnington’s era, stating that no stones had been robbed from the monument as evidenced by John Woods plan of 1740 and Flinders Petrie, 1877, a period of nearly 150 years. [16] However, the statement that “he is unlikely to have left a largish bluestone unplanned” does not stand up to scrutiny. Petrie’s survey of 1877 introduced the stone numbering system we still use today and added the original positions of five stones which had fallen or notably shifted since Wood’s survey of 1740. Petrie actually records more stones than Wood.

Wood is regarded as being the first to accurately record the state of the monument. His survey took place in 1740 although it was not published until 1747 in “Choir Gaure“. He is credited as being the first surveyor to distinguish between erect or leaning stones and those buried in the ground and those lying on the surface. There can be little doubt that Wood’s survey is the most accurate record of the condition of the monument until Petrie carried out his survey 137 years later. However, Dr John Smith (the small pox inoculator) writing “Choir Gaur: The Grand Orrery of the Ancient Druids” in 1771 made one or two additions to Wood’s plan. Smith showed the complete outline of the leaning stone 14 resting on Bluestone 38. Wood misaligned the stones of the fallen northern trilithon stones 60 and 59b and 59c because they were partially hidden by a hut (or huts) belonging to a Stonehenge tour guide known as Gaffer Hunt. [17] The legend of “the Devil and Stonehenge” first appeared in print in Wood’s “Choir Gaure“, a tale the author probably received from Hunt. By the time of Smith’s visit to the stones, some thirty years after Wood carried out his survey, the hut had been removed revealing the fallen Bluestone 72, which Wood had missed. Wood also missed the third fragment of the fallen lintel, stone 160a probably for the same reason, Gaffer Hunt’s hut. [18] Wood could not accurately record the shape of Bluestones 46, 47 and 48 either as they were too ‘incumbered with Dung and other Rubbish.’ [19]

By omitting Bluestone 72 Wood had indeed “left a largish bluestone unplanned”. Furthermore, we cannot rule out the possibility that he missed other stones that could have been removed before Petrie’s survey. Indeed, Antiquarians recorded the robbing and destruction of megalithic monuments from the 17th century continuously up to Petrie’s time

As we have seen above William Stukeley recorded the complete destruction of the Sanctuary by 1724. Earlier antiquarians such as Aubrey recorded the burning pits at Avebury and the dramatic decline in stone numbers. At Stonehenge Inigo Jones recorded the destruction of the bluestone circle in 1655, noting that several had disappeared during the intervals of his visits of the last quarter of the 17th century, “since my first measuring the work, not one fragment of some then standing, are now to be found.[20] William Hawley found evidence for the removal of at least four stones from the western quadrant of the Bluestone circle, probably during the 17th century, judging by the debris left by the stone robbers. This destruction continued into the 19th century when a ‘vacation Rambler’, from Glastonbury wrote to the editor of the Times in 1871 (before Petrie’s survey) noting the demolition at the hand of man since his last visit thirty years previously. [21] In the same year Lord Antrobus was told by a distinguished archaeologist that he had obtained a substantial piece of megalith from Stonehenge for himself. [22]

Indeed, the crux of the debate of the archaeological context of the Boles Barrow bluestone is the robbing of artefacts from ancient monuments; clearly Colt Hoare and Cunnington, as many at the time, saw it as no more than removing legitimate spoils.

William Stukeley records the chipping of stones at the monument as common practice in his day, but in many cases large portions of stones which had fallen must have been carried away. [23] Indeed William Cunnington, grandson of the Barrow digger, recounts the destruction of the stones of Stonehenge. Writing in the Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History magazine, vol. xi (1868), p.348 he states, “Depredations are still perpetrated on Stonehenge by excursionists and other visitors. About two years ago, a mass, which must have weighed nearly 56 pounds, was broken, apparently by means of a sledge hammer, from the hard schist, marked No.9 in Hoare’s plan.” [24] On Hoare’s plan stone No. 9 is part of the inner circle, i.e. the Bluestone circle. 

One Stone or Two?
It’s all very confusing. Of course the bluestone taken to the museum from the garden of Heytesbury House need not be the Boles Barrow bluestone; as a collector of finds from his barrow diggings, Cunnington very likely had many other artefacts at his residence. However, from the information we have available is it possible to say which stone is which, or indeed was found in the garden of Heytesbury House by Ben Cunnington in 1923?

Cunnington first recorded that he removed ten stones from Boles Barrow that he described as the same as the sarsens, the ‘upright large stones‘. He then added a note to one of his letters that he had found a bluestone amongst them. Cunnington was an able geologist for his day and should have been quite capable of identifying between sarsen and bluestone.Yet this does not satisfy the question why only one stone from the ten found in Boles Barrow, local or exotic, was taken from Cunnington’s garden to Heytesbury House and the question of where are the remainder.

Furthermore, this still does not explain the huge difference in weights, more than 1,000lbs, between the Boles Barrow stones (28 – 200lbs) and the specimen in the Salisbury Museum (1,338lbs). Taken solely on the evidence of the weights of the stones we can conclude with a reasonable degree of confidence that the bluestone on display in Salisbury Museum cannot therefore be the stone from Boles Barrow.

And yet the bluestone from the garden of Heytesbury House known to the occupiers as the “Stonehenge stone” sounds suspiciously as exactly that – a stone removed from the stone circle on Salisbury Plain. In a letter of 1933, R S Newall, assistant to William Hawley in his excavations of Stonehenge between 1919-1926 and discoverer of the Aubrey Holes, stated he found a large piece of spotted dolerite in a cottage garden near Lake House. Newall described it as a rough cube of about 18 inches each way, which might have been broken off the top of a worked monolith of the bluestone horseshoe. The owner of Lake House, near Wilsford, south of Stonehenge, donated the bluestone to the Salisbury Museum. [25]

Are there two bluestones in Salisbury Museum; one from the garden of Heytesbury House and the other from Lake House, both sounding suspiciously like a stone robbed from Stonehenge? There is only one on display claiming to be the Boles Barrow Bluestone. Is there another hidden in the vaults? Although Newall does not specify when the Lake House bluestone was taken to the Museum it must have been before he wrote in 1933. Therefore, it cannot be the same stone as the bluestone from Heytesbury Garden donated to the Museum in 1934.

The so-called Boles Barrow Bluestone in Salisbury Museum is the only foreign rock from south west Wales found in Wiltshire not at Stonehenge that can be considered more than a fragment. Yet the archaeological context of the specimen in the Salisbury Museum is uncertain and cannot be considered secure evidence in any argument.

The Boles Barrow Bluestone remains elusive.


1. Barry M Marsden, The Early Barrow Diggers, Tempus, 1999. He continues,“…… Few descriptions of the work were committed to paper, but one or two harrowing accounts, which must serve to represent many more, have been rescued. One from J Walker Ord’s History and Antiquities of Cleveland, concerns a barrow opening on Barnaldby Moor in the 1840s: ‘earth, charcoal and stones were flung up by the workmen’s spades’, begins the depressing account.”
2. See: Moving Megaliths
3. See: Material Selection in Meglithic Monuments
4. “…..The most compelling evidence for glacial transport of the bluestones is that at least one substantial block was on Salisbury Plain centuries before the construction of Stonehenge. It lay in the Neolithic Boles Barrow which had been blocked up and abandoned long before the bluestone circle was erected.” – Aubrey Burl, Glaciers and the Bluestones of Wales, British Archaeology magazine, No 45.
5. The revised dating of Stonehenge sequence by SRP suggests bluestones could have been in place in the Aubrey Holes around 2900 BC. See: Stonehenge: The New Sequence
6. Marsden, op. cit.
7. See: The Fate of the Tolmen.
8. Marsden, op. cit.
9. Ibid.
10. Anthony Johnson, Solving Stonehenge, Thames & Hudson, 2008, pp.164.
11. Mike Pitts, Hengeworld, Arrow, 2001, pp.199-202.
12. Ibid.
13. William’s great grandson Benjamin (1861-1950) was to become the curator of Devizes Museum. Together with his archaeologist wife Maud (1869-1951), famous for excavating Woodhenge, carried out further excavations in the area and were responsible for the re-discovery of the Sanctuary after it had been destroyed, later purchasing the site and presenting it to the nation. See: The Destruction of the Sanctuary
13. Pitts, op.cit.
14. Ibid.
15. Letters – British Archaeology, Issue no 47, September 1999.
16. Burl, op. cit.
17. Johnson, op. cit. pp. 66 – 71.
18. Ibid. Note 38. p.272.
19. Ibid. p.193.
20. Ibid. Note 58 p.275.
21. Ibid.
22. Pitts, op. cit. Note 431, p. 370.
23. William Long, Stonehenge and its Barrows, reprint from the Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History magazine, vol. xvi, 1876, p.75.
24. Ibid. p.76.
25. R S Newall, letter in the Wiltshire Gazzette dated 26 October 1933. Newall added that it was the only piece of bluestone he had seen that could have come from Stonehenge.

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