A Rival to Stonehenge? Geophysical Survey at Stanton Drew, England

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In November 1997 news broke of the discovery near Bristol of a vast circular timber temple that dwarfed Stonehenge in scale, arousing quite a frenzy of interest and speculation (Pitts 2001). Preliminary accounts of the survey, and the geophysical images, were released on the Internet and elsewhere (David 1998a,b), and the discovery received notice in Nature (Aveling 1997). Thankfully, the limelight did not draw excessive crowds, nor turn Stanton Drew into a major new neo-Pagan shrine, as some had feared it might, and the site has since subsided back into its tranquil pastoral setting, left to the sheep and a steady trickle of curious visitors for whom the new findings are briefly described in a leaflet. So, now that the dust and hyperbole have settled, we are taking the opportunity to report in more detail upon our initial geophysical survey at Stanton Drew, and the results of additional survey in 2000.


Stanton Drew (Figures 1, 2) has long been known as a megalithic site composed of three stone circles, known as North-East, South-South-West and the Great Circle which is second in size only to Avebury. There are also two stone 'avenues', a 'Cove' and at least one outlying stone, known as Hauteville's Quoit. From the first it has drawn comparisons with its grander cousin at Avebury but, being of apparently more modest scale, and not astride a main road, it has received much less attention. It was John Aubrey, responsible for the 're-discovery' of Avebury, who seems to have been the first to make written reference to Stanton Drew, in 1664, in the manuscript intended for publication as the 'Monumenta Britannica' (Fowles & Legg 1980, 1982). The site was in cultivation at the time, the ripe barley not allowing Aubrey to survey the stones. He noted that ploughing might have erased any encircling 'trench' and also that the stones were 'much diminished within these few years' owing to being broken up by the villagers whose land they encumbered. Aubrey supplied a sketch dismissed with good reason by a later commentator as 'little better than a mere jumble' (Dymond 1896b).


The first recognisable plan was published by William Musgrave in 1718, clearly illustrating the Great Circle and NE Circle with the remains of the 'avenues' and an outlier (Musgrave 1719). However, it fell to William Stukeley, who visited the village in July 1723, to observe the site in its entirety, providing a more comprehensive birds-eye view of the monuments (Figure 3), together with more intimate views of the Cove, the Great Circle and the NE Circle (Stukeley 1776). The main plan was, however, embellished by his own interpretation of the complex as 'an eminent place in the history of Celtic Temples' with the stone circles labelled as Lunar, Solar and Planetary temples. The latter, the NE Circle, is shown as if it was once composed of five concentric rings of which the 'avenue' stones were interpreted as remnants. Stukeley was the first to draw attention to the Cove by the church, and at Hauteville's Quoit he noted 'two great stones.... lying by the roadside'. 'Another coyt' is marked on his sketch (Figure 3) on the north side of the valley near the road leading to Chew Magna. As elsewhere, Stukeley's field observations at Stanton Drew were coloured by an overlay of fancy: this led him for instance to postulate the former existence of a second cove to add geometric and numerical harmony to the whole. He also speculated that the ground skirting the works would make an 'admirable cursus for races of horses, chariots, and the like' (ibid. 176). At variance with Aubrey, he believed the site to have been undamaged until some years before his visit when stones were buried 'for covetousness of the little space of ground they stood upon'. Pre-empting later non-intrusive survey, he notes that 'Many [buried stones] may be found by knocking with one's heel upon the spot, whence there is a sound; others by thrusting an iron rod into the earth' (ibid 171). …