|Devil’s Quoits, 9th March 2002
This site has occupied a curious place in my imagination for several years now – I’ve always known almost exactly where it was, but always felt as if it was untouchable, beyond reach, to be imagined but not experienced. I first read about it, as a passing reference, in Aubery Burl’s field guide many years ago. Not quite so many years ago I failed to get onto a rare organised visit organised by organised southern stone circle freaks. Only when the topic of the site was raised a few weeks ago did I finally decide to get down there and find out just what was going on, and why this site is so difficult to visit, or at least seems that way.
Located just south-west of Oxford, on the edge of the village of Stanton Harcourt, the Devil’s Quoits have suffered unjustly from their favourable location. Once the centre of considerable Bronze Age activity (records show this to rival Avebury, Flag Fen and Glynsaithmaen as a prehistoric cultural centre), first medieval agriculture, then wartime ‘necessity’, then construction (this is a rich gravel bed extraction area), and finally, the greatest insult of all, landfill. The henge and barrows ploughed out and destroyed, the stones flattened to build the runway, the earth scarred and ripped to provide the raw materials for road-building, and the wounds tended with the rotting garbage of our throw-away society. To study the progress of British civilisation, look no further.
But you can’t. This site is still a working landfill site, home of a never-ending procession of bin-wagons, bulldozers and responsible landscape gardeners, as an unwelcome a prospect for Neolithic explorers as could be imagined. But prompted by a throwaway question, and still smarting from being too disorganised to make the previous visit 2 years ago, I took the bold step of ringing up the site, and asking, no, demanding, to be allowed on to the site, to inspect the damage for myself. In one of those strange twists that came to define the day, the lads on the site were really helpful, and could see no problem in me turning up, with up to 9 friends, pretty much any time I liked. That’s it, you can visit anytime you like, you only have to ask, and you’re in.
As the site is still a working landfill site, and is going to remain that way for a while, you have to follow Health and Safety regulations when on-site, which means high-visibility jacket/vest and hard-hat, but the site office can lend you these, and you really want to be wearing wellies as well.
7 of us got together, and turned up on a fiendishly blustery day in March 2002. We parked up, signed in, kitted out and walked the 800 feet from the site office to the remains of the Devils Quoits henge, alongside an enormous gravel pit lake, which according to my map of the area, previously was home to dozens of barrows. By the waters edge are a variety of felled stones in a variety of conditions, piled up, half-buried and up on display. Most prominent is the stone clearly recognisable from the 19th century photograph (aka “Quoit A”), then towering above the self-photographer, now lying on the ground, still with a deep groove on it’s right-hand side. Slightly to the south are 2 half-buried stones, man height, which we took to be the other 2 stones standing in 1940. To the north is a genuine “pile of broken rocks”, which were apparently discovered in the 1988 excavations. These are not thought to have been part of the circle, but have been kept anyway, “just in case”. If all you’re interested in is seeing big stones tower above you, then you’re going to be disappointed, for the time being anyway. All the stones have been recovered from their graves, but await res-erection.
To the east of this megalithic graveyard is a far more impressive sight – the henge returns! And what a beauty it is, roughly equal in size to an Avebury inner-circle or Stanton Drew. This was a true giant among the henges, the focus of what seems to have been a site of huge importance, quite plainly the result of a lot of effort and hard-labour. The reconstructed ditch is deep and wide. It’s hard to imagine on a bleak pre-equinox spring morning, with rubbish blowing about, a disturbingly large number of dead birds crunching underfoot, and heavy plant roaring in every direction, but this was the centre of a barrow cemetery stretching for miles in every direction, the focus of a determined and extremely able society, of which we know just about nothing, and have literally thrown away the chance of discovering.
The Oxford Archaeological Unit (OAU) are working hard to make amends and cling onto what little we have, along with the heavy machinery of the Waste Recycling Group. 3 excavations have uncovered the surviving stones, the location of the stone holes, and the dimensions of the henge ditch. The ground has been brought down to the level of the site at the time of construction (various datum levels remain to show the level before work started, with little grass hairpieces) and the immense ditch dug out. The OAU have calculated the labour required to raise each stone by hand, and plan to reunite each surviving stone back to it’s place after their oh-so brief immersion in the soil. Missing stones are to be replaced with likely substitutes, from the local conglomerate. An awesome weekend awaits the strong, curious and adventurous.
The end-result should be a cut-above the average “landfill-turned-countrypark” that are becoming increasingly common. A great scar has been inflicted on what was once a site of intense activity. The countless barrows are gone, never to return, but a peaceful place for the future beckons. Visit it often, and marvel at the changes.
Posted by RiotGibbon
12th March 2002ce