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Carvings and Graffiti at Stonehenge

The historian John Evelyn visited Stonehenge in 1654 and wrote that he found the stones “so exceedingly hard, that all my strength with a hammer could not break a fragment.”

Sadly for the monument, other people – presumably with better hammers and greater strength – have been able to break off fragments and carve their names into the stones over the centuries since it re-emerged into the pubic consciousness as a destination worthy of a visit.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the blacksmiths in Amesbury used to rent hammers and chisels to passing visitors, but whether the tourists brought along their own tools or borrowed them the evidence of hundreds of years of graffiti carving is plain to see.

Most obvious to the modern visitor as they walk along the path to the west of the monument are the words “SEDGFIELD” (or “SEDGFIELDS”) and “ANSTIE” on two lines on the face of stone 23.

It's unknown who these names refer to, though one William Russell Sedgfield was an early photographer who was born in Devizes and one of his prints of Stonehenge dated to 1853 is held in the Royal Collection.

Less noticeable above and to the right is the name “TOM SENIOR” and the date “1817”, predating the more obvious “SEDGFIELD” carving which cuts through it.

Perhaps the earliest non-prehistoric carving is the line that reads “IOH : LVD : DEFERRE” and which is carved across the inner face of Stone 53. It's also visible from the visitor path when the light is in the right direction and it's suggested that it dates from the late 16th or early 17th century based on the style of lettering. To the left, right and below are fainter carvings belonging to W.M., J HALE, ICD, H.E. FOOTE and others but far more interesting are the shallower, larger carvings lower down that aren't letters but bronze age axeheads and a dagger.

The next photo highlights the most prominent ones – the dagger is on the left, pointing downwards, and an axehead is on the right with the blade uppermost looking rather like a mushroom in profile.

These carvings were first formally identified in 1953 by the archaeologist Richard Atkinson who was taking photos of the “IOH : LVD : DEFERRE” graffito at the time. However, early photos of Stonehenge dating back to the 19th century clearly show the dagger and axehead – they simply weren't recognised for what they are.

The style of the axeheads (there are actually about three dozen of them on this face of Stone 53, and more on Stones 3, 4 and 5) suggests that they were carved some time between 1750BC and 1600BC, at least 800 years after the stones were put up.

In 2011 a laser scan of the monument was carried out and the resulting analysis revealed over 100 axeheads and at least three daggers. The research report is available here: http://services.english-heritage.org.uk/ResearchReportsPdfs/032_2012WEB.pdf and it contains a wealth of information and images.

On the southwest side of Stone 52 is a carving that provokes frequent debate – is it or isn't it the work of Sir Christopher Wren? The letters are “I WREN” but the “I” has a small bar across the middle, which some have interpreted as an abbreviation for Christo.

Wren was born in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, only about 15 miles away from Stonehenge and the diameter of the inner dome of St Paul's Cathedral is the same as the diameter of the sarsen circle at the monument – 102 feet edge-to-edge.

Finally, in this brief rundown of some of the carvings, there is one very enigmatic piece that's on Stone 156 – the lintel from the tallest trilithon that now lies on its side in the centre of the stone circle.

The carving itself is difficult to photograph, but a rubbing was made of it in about 1880. It takes the form of a question mark or sickle together with the letters “LV” - and the significance is completely unknown.

Unusually we have eyewitness reports of when the carving was made, thanks to a short pamphlet published by John Thurnam in 1864 in which he writes:

John Pike, a shepherd, aged 62, whose early life was passed on the very farm of West Amesbury on which Stonehenge is situated, on being applied to, stated that he well remembered, about the time named by Mr Zillwood, seeing two men, as he approached it, walk away from Stonehenge where, when he arrived, he for the first time saw the marks, newly cut, as he believed, by the very men who had just left the spot. This evidence, circumstantial though it be, appeared conclusive enough. Direct testimony was however soon obtained in the person of an eye witness of the proceedings. Joseph Spreadbury, a hedger and ditcher on the same farm, of the age of about 45 years, remembers as a little boy being at Stonehenge, having been sent there with his father's breakfast or dinner, and actually seeing these marks cut in the stone, by a man who appeared to be a mechanic; he having a hand basket with him, from which he took the chisels with which he cut the marks; soon after doing which he walked off in the direction of Salisbury. He does not remember there being another man with him, but says he may have been joined by a companion soon after leaving the stones. Spreadbury's evidence shows that the marks were cut some years later than supposed by Mr Zillwood, the schoolmaster, and by Pike the shepherd, and probably not earlier than the year 1827 or 1828.”
There are dozens more examples of names, initials and dates carved into the stones, far more than can be described in a short article like this.

If you want to go inside Stonehenge on one of our Special Access visits to see the graffiti close up we can show you where the markings are. There's plenty to see!


For visits inside Stonehenge to see where these carvings please refer to our Stonehenge Special access page and we will be pleased to have you as a guest for the day.


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