Missing Piece of Stonehenge Returned

  • A piece of one of the enormous sarsen stones at Stonehenge has been returned to the ancient monument, and may help to locate the stone's origins.

Gloved hands holding the Stonehenge 'core' presented to English Heritage. Photo credit: Juliet Brain

A piece of one of the enormous sarsen stones at Stonehenge has been returned to the ancient monument.

The prehistoric stone ‘core’ was removed during archaeological excavations in 1958 and its existence remained largely unknown for the next 60 years. The core will now join English Heritage’s collection of more than 500,000 artefacts and may help to uncover the source of the stones that form the instantly recognisable trilithons and outer circle of Stonehenge.

In 1958, archaeologists raised an entire fallen trilithon. During the works, cracks were found in one of the vertical stones and in order to reinforce it, cores were drilled through the stone and metal rods inserted. The repairs were masked by small plugs cut from sarsen fragments found during excavations and are very hard to see today. 

The work was undertaken by a diamond cutting business called Van Moppes, a Basingstoke company. Three 32mm holes were drilled horizontally through the one metre thick stone. An annular drilling machine was used to bore out the holes, which resulted in three cores of approximately 25mm diameter being extracted. A watercolour illustration from the time shows the proceedings. 

A Van Moppes employee, Robert Phillips, kept one of the stone cores and for a number of years, this unusual 108 cm long piece of Stonehenge took pride of place in his office. When Robert left the firm in 1976 and later emigrated to the USA, the core travelled with him, from Richmond, New York to Chicago, Illinois, to Ventura, California and finally Aventura, Florida.

However on the eve of his 90th birthday, Robert expressed his desire that this prehistoric fragment be returned to the care of English Heritage. Last year, Robert’s sons, Robin and Lewis, travelled to Stonehenge and presented it to English Heritage curator, Heather Sebire.

The Stonehenge 'core' kept by Van Moppes employee Robert Phillips, now presented to English Heritage. Photo credit: Juliet Brain
The Stonehenge 'core' kept by Van Moppes employee Robert Phillips, now presented to English Heritage © Photo credit: Juliet Brain

This recently returned piece of Stonehenge, which looks incongruously pristine next to the weathered stone from where it came, may now help locate the original location of the sarsen stones. Stonehenge’s smaller bluestones were famously brought from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales but the precise origin of the much larger sarsens is unknown.

A British Academy and Leverhulme Trust project, led by Professor David Nash of the University of Brighton, is investigating the chemical composition of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge in order to pinpoint their source. The project team have already used a handheld portable spectrometer to investigate the chemistry of the sarsen stones using x-ray fluorescence, a non-destructive technique.

The core presents the team with a unique opportunity to analyse the unweathered interior of a stone. 

Heather Sebire, English Heritage’s curator for Stonehenge, said:

“The last thing we ever expected was to get a call from someone in America telling us they had a piece of Stonehenge. We are very grateful to the Phillips family for bringing this intriguing piece of Stonehenge back home. Studying the Stonehenge core’s ‘DNA’ could tell us more about where those enormous sarsen stones originated. 

“The other two Stonehenge cores may still be out there somewhere and if anyone has any information, we’d love to hear from them.”   

Professor David Nash, Brighton University, said:

“Archaeologists and geologists have been debating where the stones used to build Stonehenge came from for years. The bluestones have attracted a lot of attention recently, but in contrast little has been done to look at the sources of the larger sarsen stones. Conventional wisdom suggests that they all came from the relatively nearby Marlborough Downs but initial results from our analysis suggest that in fact the sarsens may come from more than one location. Our geochemical fingerprinting of the sarsens in situ at Stonehenge, and of the core itself, when compared with samples from areas across southern England will hopefully tell us where the different stones came from.”  

Lewis Phillips said:

“Our father has always been interested in archaeology and he recognised the huge importance of the piece of the monument in his care. It was his wish that it be returned to Stonehenge. We are all delighted the core has come home, particularly as it is now being used to further important research”. 

Robin Phillips added “It would be fascinating to know where the other two cores went, or indeed if there any other missing pieces out there that might be returned one day.”  

English Heritage would like to thank the Phillips family for the return of the sarsen core and looks forward to the publication of the results of Brighton University’s geochemical research.

Whether the other two Stonehenge cores survived remains unknown. English Heritage would like to hear from anyone who was involved – or whose family was involved – in the archaeological excavations at Stonehenge during the 1950s and who has more information as to the remaining cores’ whereabouts. You can get in touch by emailing 


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