Above one of the most beautiful valleys in western Britain, the silence is broken by the sound of gentle digging, scraping and brushing, and bursts of excited chatter as another ancient feature is revealed or a curious visitor stops to find out what is going on.
This summer, archaeologists won a rare permit to excavate part of the site of Arthur’s Stone, a Neolithic burial site with sweeping views of the Golden Valley in Herefordshire and the Black Mountains of south-east Wales.
Using their version of keyhole surgery, archaeologists have unearthed items including what appear to be stone steps leading up to the 5,000-year-old tomb, and tools used by early inhabitants to cultivate this landscape.
The 25-person team launched drones which identified the possible sites of several other ancient burial sites nearby, leading them to speculate that Arthur’s Stone – like the Stonehenge and Avebury circles – was a place important meeting place and perhaps part of a much larger complex of interrelated monuments.
“Arthur’s Stone is one of the most wonderful ancient monuments in the nation’s keeping, but it has been greatly misunderstood,” said Julian Thomas, professor of archeology at the University of Manchester, who leads excavation. “We try to do it justice, to put it in the context of what was happening at the very beginning of the Neolithic era.”
Over the centuries, the site has inspired storytellers as well as archaeologists and historians. King Arthur is said to have killed a giant on the spot; indentations in the surface of the tomb’s capstone would have been made by the creature’s elbows as it fell backwards.
In the 20th century, CS Lewis is said to have used the monument as inspiration for the stone table on which Aslan is sacrificed in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Thomas said the true story emerging was that of a monument developed over several decades or centuries in the very early Neolithic period by the first farmers and the last hunter-gatherers. He said it was becoming clear it was almost certainly linked to two other nearby sites, Dorstone Hill, where prehistoric halls were burned and incorporated into burial mounds, and a long burial mound at Cross Lodge.
The site also appears to point to a mountain on the horizon across the Welsh border called Skirrid, another place steeped in myth and legend, where a landslide was said to have been caused by an earthquake or a blow. lightning at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Keith Ray, honorary professor of archeology at Cardiff University, who is also overseeing the excavations, said he asked people to look again at the Skirrid and imagine what it might have meant to ancient people. “I tossed around an idea, it’s a little wacky, but could it have looked like a mammoth to them and reminded them of this giant creature that wandered around here.”
Visitors flocked to the excavations from near and far. Ben Hughes, a Cardiff-based musician, said he found the site “strange, bizarre, wonderful, fascinating”. He said: “To me it feels like kind of an in-between place, with the softer landscape behind and the mountains there. I understand why people have met here for centuries.
Pam Thom-Rowe, a volunteer English Heritage guide, said visitors from as far away as Texas were on hand. “For me, it’s as if the monument put antennas in the landscape.”
Such is the excitement over what is being discovered – and the public response – that English Heritage chief executive Kate Mavor is visiting on Friday. She said new archeology and research continue to find new stories.
“Exploring a site like Arthur’s Stone is a fascinating process and something we wanted to open up to the public,” she said. “We had a great response.”
Keeping an eye on the excavations was Win Scutt, curator of properties at English Heritage. He said it was rare for permission to be given for this type of exploration inside a listed monument. “It’s very delicate and targeted keyhole sampling to try to answer specific questions,” he said.
Scutt said ideas about the nature of the site had changed dramatically in recent weeks, rendering the details of the English Heritage Interpretation Table obsolete. “But I won’t be in too much of a hurry to change it. The story will be different next year and the year after. Which is the most exciting thing.