Monday, May 12, 2008
Arthur's Stone, Dorstone, Herefordshire
Above the east Herefordshire village of Dorstone the lane rises, flattens, bends, and rises again. You know, when you’ve visited a few Stone Age burial chambers, that your goal is likely to be at the top of the last rise, on a ridge, with views for miles. And so, after another short rise, here is Arthur’s Stone, and beyond it views of the Herefordshire hills and the Welsh hills too.
This late-Stone-Age monument is a burial mound without the mound – in other words, it consists of the stones that line and cover the burial chamber and entrance, the earth mound that covered them having eroded away. The large capstone is about 20 feet in length and lifting it must have taken all the manpower and technology that the builders of 3400-2400 BC could muster.
Burial sites like this were among the grands projets of prehistoric England, and the people who built them weren’t going to hide their light under a bushel. Such a mound, the result of long labour, was a conspicuous memorial to those buried there, as well as being a major landmark. You don’t have to believe in ley lines to appreciate that hill-top barrows provided a good way of orienting yourself, as well as being powerful symbols of community and place.
The symbolism could get a bit mixed up in later centuries though. I don’t know when this place became known as Arthur’s Stone, but associations with King Arthur are not uncommon with hill-top monuments, especially in the south and west. It’s not hard to see why the Arthurian associations could multiply hereabouts – the king demonstrated his royal rank by pulling a sword from a stone, and he and his knights might be sleeping in such a burial mound, waiting for the time when they will return to supply England’s need. More prosaically, the mound was said to mark the site of one of the king’s battles. All evidence that Arthur’s Stone – technologically, scenically, mythically – is a place with the power to make us wonder.