The Enigmatic Devil’s Arrows: The Tallest Standing Stones in Britain

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The Enigmatic Devil’s Arrows: The Tallest Standing Stones in Britain

In the heart of Yorkshire in northern England, near the town of Aldborough, lie three huge pillars of stone known as the Devil's Arrows. Originally fo

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In the heart of Yorkshire in northern England, near the town of Aldborough, lie three huge pillars of stone known as the Devil’s Arrows. Originally four, these are the tallest collection of standing stones found in the whole of the United Kingdom.

But what remains of the stones is also all that is known about them. What their purpose was, where they came from, and who placed them, remain a mystery, and it is not even certain that there were only four originally.

Which is not to say that the site is unknown. In fact, they have attracted a number of visitors too, over the centuries. Some pieces of evidence show that the local people of Aldborough used to have St. Barnabas Solstice fairs, held between the nearby village of Boroughbridge and the Arrows. 

Strange Names and Strange Rumors

The row of three stones has been known by a number of names, such as the Devil’s Bolts, the Three Sisters, or the Three Greyhounds. However, the most common name of the three stones is The Devil’s Arrows.

Even the origin of this name is uncertain, and there are multiple stories behind the name of the stones. According to one local story dating back to the 17th century, it was said that the Devil was angry at the inhabitants of Aldborough.

Out of anger, he threw stones at the village from the nearby How Hilltop. However, whether due to divine intervention or diabolical inaccuracy, the stones did not hit the target. Instead, they landed upright on the earth where they remained, the Devil’s Arrows that missed their target. 

Cigarette card depiction of the Devil throwing the Arrows (Unknown Author / Public Domain )

As per another local story, if anyone walks 12 times around the huge stones anti-clockwise, the Devil will appear. Such associations with the Devil are not unheard of for standing stone circles, and may have been due to medieval Christianity seeking to associate pagan sites with Satan.

The Stones Today

The three remaining stones stand 18 feet, 22 feet, and 22.6 feet (5.5m, 6.7m and 6.85m) high. The last, highest stone, is taller than all the stones present in Stonehenge.

Moreover, it is also the second tallest standing stone in the United Kingdom. Only the Rudston Monolith, also in Yorkshire, is marginally taller at 25 feet (7.6m), but that stone stands alone.

While the height of the stones is testament to the effort it took to place them and the inferred importance of the site, it is in their placement that the stones are most mysterious. The stones are very irregularly spaced, and even though the three stones form a kind of alignment, they are not located in a completely straight line.

The smallest stone among the three stones is the furthest north. The second stone stands some 200 feet (60m) to the south, and the largest, protected by a fenced enclosure, lies a further 360 feet (110m) beyond.

All three stones are made of millstone grit, common in the British Isles but not particularly common in this area, and have been heavily weathered over their lifespan. The stones also show evidence of being carefully shaped and decorated: fluted at the peaks, and with a number of indentations often interpreted as cup marks.

The largest of the stones (Richard Mudhar and David Kernow / CC BY-SA 2.5)

The largest of the stones (Richard Mudhar and David Kernow / CC BY-SA 2.5 )

While the marks could have been formed naturally and through later damage, such marks can be found on other Neolithic sites across the United Kingdom, suggesting a tantalizing link between whoever placed these stones and the other cultures in Stone Age Britain. Here, as elsewhere however, the significance of the marks remains elusive. 

Excavating the Stones

According to historical records, the first excavation was conducted in 1709 around the foot of the huge stones. During the excavation, an area of about 9 feet (2.7m) was opened around the central stone.

The excavation brought into light the fact that below the topsoil, clay, cobbles, and grit had been packed around the stone up to a depth of about 5 feet (1.5m). The stone’s base had been worked upon in order to create a flat bottom that squarely sat on the hard-packed clay. 

Moreover, it was also discovered that the stone was originally finished with pointed tools to create a smooth surface. This had been preserved below the ground, although above the ground, the stones’ surface seemed to be quite rough due to weathering.

Before refilling the excavated hole, a lead box containing four halfpennies from the reign of Queen Anne and William III was deposited at the stone’s foot. Left to their slumber, the stones then remained undisturbed for more than 150 years.

Later, in 1876 and then in 1881, the two other stones of the Devil’s Arrows were excavated. Like the previous excavation, it was found that the stones had been buried deep in the ground. The smaller stone sat 4.6 feet (1.4m) deep, and the largest stone had fully 6 feet (1.8m) of its length underground.

The Missing Stone

A number of researchers believe that the Devil’s Arrows originally consisted of four stones, and evidence has been found of where this fourth stones lies today. Originally displaced by treasure hunters in the 18th century, it was repurposed as the foundation for building a nearby bridge across the River Tutt, with the upper part believed to stand in the grounds of nearby Aldborough Manor.  

The Devil’s Arrows in 1798 (J. Flintoff / Public Domain)

The Devil’s Arrows in 1798 (J. Flintoff / Public Domain )

Reports that predate the felling of the fourth stone survive. John Leland, visiting the site during the 1530s, had given a detailed and clear description of the fourth stone of the Devil’s Arrows, confirming that the fourth stone once stood like the others.

Local stories also persist that there were five stones or even more. Several large boulders can be found in local gardens and open spaces which, tradition holds, came from the site. If these stories are true, then the site was perhaps much larger, and an understanding of its original complete arrangement may shed light on its purpose.

Unanswered Questions

But with only the three stones remaining, the Devil’s Arrows still hold many secrets as to their purpose. Even the date of construction is unknown, and indeed many have suggested that the Romans erected the three giant stones to commemorate a great victory.

Certainly there was a Roman fort nearby to the west of the stones, but Roman monumental architecture is typically decidedly different. Seeking answers elsewhere, many others have tried to read the stones as following ancient ley lines, but definitive proof has yet to be provided. 

Another possible theory is that the line was built during prehistoric times in order to align them properly with the southernmost rising of the moon during the summer. This would point to a ritual purpose for the stones, but an unusual one, as (unlike solstices and equinoxes) observing the rising of the moon does not serve an obviously practical purpose.

But, based on observations here and what is known of other British megaliths, a majority of researchers ascribe a religious purpose to the huge stones. Others have suggested that the stones were monuments to the prestige or power of a local chief, who must have been powerful indeed to case then to be placed. 

Irrespective of the true story behind the stones, the Devil’s Arrows interest a lot of people even today. Maybe, with further research we will one day have a fuller picture, and a clearer understanding of who placed them. But whether it was Neolithic pagans, local Romans, or the Devil himself, for now their purpose like so much of the stones remains unknown.

Top Image: The two shorter stones. Source: Paul Allison / CC BY-SA 2.0 .

By Bipin Dimri 

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