A little while ago, Mike Pitts reported the discovery of two modern screws in two of the sarsens at Stonehenge. He provided a photo of one of them here, adding that both (presumably) were “just a little bit corroded”, so that’s pretty much all I have to go on. As he remarked, this is indeed very odd, so I thought I would apply myself to the mystery of the screw in Stone 11, although my thinking is inevitably skewed by my ignorance of the whereabouts of the other modern screw.
So, forgetting for a moment the difficulty involved in getting a screw into sarsen and the fact that inserting a screw into a Stonehenge sarsen is almost certainly an act of vandalism, what purpose could the placement of the screw conceivably serve? What may have been in the mind of the person or persons who did this thing?
Could it have been placed there as an ornament? A much smaller, bizarre echo of the “Sword in the Stone”, perhaps? It’s hard to see how an iron screw in a Stonehenge sarsen could be seen as in any way enhancing either the stone or the monument, so I think this is highly unlikely. Could it have been put in place as a way of marking a visit, as Byron did when he visited the Temple of Poseidon in 1810? Well, it clearly did mark the visit of someone, but unlike the many others who have carved letters into Stonehenge over the centuries, this person or persons declined to leave their name.
Could this screw have had a functional purpose? Again, it’s possible that it was used to anchor a piece of string or one end of a tape measure, but it seems extremely unlikely on account of its position and also on account of the sheer degree of difficulty involved in getting the screw into the stone. If it ever performed a function, then we would expect many more such screws to have been discovered at Stonehenge, but I’m only aware of the two so far.
So, it seems improbable that this screw was intended as an ornament or as a practical device, so we’re left with the fact that it marked someone’s visit to Stonehenge, while it’s also clear that a modern screw – although I don’t know how modern it is – has no place at the monument, because its placement is unavoidably an act of vandalism. Neither Mike Pitts nor anyone else seems to be aware of anyone having recorded the fact that they put this screw in place, so this silence seems to me to imply – if not a sense of guilt – a desire not to be known, questioned or caught.
How long has this screw been in place? All I have to go on is that it’s metal and that it’s “just a little bit corroded”, but I would guess that it’s been there for several decades at least. Earlier today, I examined some of the old outbuildings at one end of my garden and I know that these structures have been in place for around 150 years. All the screws in the exposed beams and doors are corroded and rusted, which is what I’d expect, so I would take a wild guess and estimate that the screw in question has been in the sarsen at Stonehenge for around 50 years.
Why would someone insert a screw, and not a nail or larger spike? I would guess that it’s physically impossible to hammer a nail into sarsen or twist a screw into it, but it’s clearly possible to use a drill to make a hole first. If a nail were inserted into the hole, then it would be relatively simple to remove it later by using a pliers, but if a screw with a tight fit had been twisted into the hole, it would be far more difficult and perhaps impossible to remove it without running the risk of the head of the screw coming off and the body remaining embedded in the stone. This screw was clearly meant to remain in place forever, by whomever put it there.
Assuming that the screw’s been there for several decades at least, who would have had the opportunity to put it there? If we’re going back to the early 1980s, 1970s or 1960s, then the ruins were open to all, but the overwhelming majority of these visitors were interested in sightseeing or partying. While it’s smaller than the other uprights, Stone 11 is still around 9 feet tall, so for someone to insert the screw, they would have either needed to stand on the shoulders of an accomplice, or else they would have needed a ladder.
I suspect that they would also have needed the services of an accomplice to hold the ladder still and to pass up the drill while the act of vandalism was being performed. It could have been done by night, of course, which makes the act more furtive still, but it was clearly an act that required the idea or vision in the first place, the will to carry it out, the equipment and some degree of effort. And after all that, no one seems to have been willing to leave a record of what they and their accomplice did.
To my mind, it’s just about unthinkable that such a thing could have happened in the last few decades, even if the state of the screw placed the act as recently as this. The ruins are still occasionally vandalised and ironically enough, as you can see, the very post that recorded this was vandalised itself, along with other parts of this site. Be that as it may, the acts of chipping off a piece of stone, climbing over them or urinating on them aren’t really in the same league as inserting a virtually unremovable screw into one of the uprights.
Why Stone 11? And why the top of Stone 11? You could argue that as this upright is smaller than the rest, it’s more accessible to a vandal, but this screw could have been placed anywhere at Stonehenge in any of the stones at head height or less. Instead, it was placed on top of the smallest sarsen upright, where very few people would be likely to notice it.
It also strikes me that Stone 11 marks an entrance or exit to the monument that was in place in the earliest earthen phase in the form of the southern causeway, to be echoed in wood some centuries later. There are those who argue that Stonehenge was never completed as a circle, but either way, Stone 11 marks an ancient entrance or exit, while it stands out by virtue of its small size. If someone wished to vandalise the ruins, in the same way that church doors have been desecrated over the years by having the heads of animals placed there, or magical symbols painted on to them, then Stone 11 is the obvious choice.
Aside from the unavoidable fact that the monument was damaged when this screw was inserted, how could anyone regard this as desecration? I don’t know the composition of the screw, but it seems to have been made of iron, as opposed to gold, silver or bronze, although I’m sure that others more knowledgeable than myself can make a meaningful contribution here. The Druids, the supposed “Iron Age priesthood” displayed a notable aversion to iron, according to the classical writers and from William Stukeley onwards – entirely correctly – Stonehenge has been intimately linked with the Druids.
I’ve been through all this a thousand times, so I won’t bother with more than the barest details for now, but it’s safe to say that the British archaeological establishment has always denied and continues to deny any Druid links with Stonehenge, while they don’t seem to be remotely concerned with the mountain of evidence to the contrary. My favourite part of all this comes in a scene from a 1964 documentary on Stonehenge, where some very solemn Druids are gathered in the centre of the ruins, led by a bearded and well-spoken Welshman that I’ve been unable to identify. He said something along the lines of “The archaeologists can’t tell us anything about Stonehenge, but amazingly enough, the one thing they can tell us is that the Druids had nothing to do with it…”
By a truly cosmic coincidence, this same documentary features none other than Professor Richard Atkinson and his famous outburst, in which he described the builders of and celebrants at Stonehenge as “practically savages – howling barbarians.” Atkinson wasn’t a stupid man, so it’s absolutely inevitable that he would have easily been able to discern the many Druid links to Stonehenge, not least because his colleague Stuart Piggott wrote a book on the Druids himself in which he made it clear that he didn’t like the ancient or modern priesthoods either.
Furthermore, Atkinson was a devout Christian and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, it’s a simple fact that the Church has had a long and lamentable history of antagonism towards pagan British monuments, starting with Pope Gregory I and his memorable letter to Abbot Mellitus, which began “Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God.” It continues in this vein and while it doesn’t specify that the British heathens were “practically savages – howling barbarians…” it amounts to exactly the same thing.
King James I, the monarch behind the Bible that bears his name, was fascinated by Stonehenge for reasons that I explored in my book, while he was famous for removing an altar stone from Stonehenge for reasons unknown. William Blake visited Stonehenge and disliked it intensely, describing it as “A building of eternal death: whose proportions are eternal despair…”, so it’s easy to see a sequence that remains unbroken to this day, or so I’m led to understand.
So, Atkinson had the means and the opportunity to insert the screw into Stone 11, as he first worked at the site in 1950 and he was still hanging around the ruins and digging holes as late as 1978, while he has the unenviable track record of trashing the site in other ways over the course of decades. From what I can see, he also had many motives to further desecrate the site by inserting a metal screw into one of Stonehenge’s many ‘portals’, but I could be entirely wrong, of course. For all I know, someone may have taken the corroded head of a metal screw and superglued into place as a joke just a few weeks before its discovery by Mike Pitts and Professor Mike Parker Pearson, but if anyone else has any views or better still, information, I’d like to hear from them.
My thanks to Aynslie Hanna for originally notifying me of this strange story, and once again, to Juris Ozols and MOJO Productions of Minnesota for the illustrations.