Search begins for the lost standing stones of Yelland

Isley Marsh, where the stones are lost beneath the silt.

Posted on: 28 June 2018

A cutting edge survey began in North Devon this week to find a mysterious, lost archaeological site known as the Yelland stone row.

The investigation, paid for by Historic England and a contribution from Devon County Council,  will take place at the RSPB Nature Reserve Isley Marsh alongside the Tarka Trail, outside Barnstaple.

And once the stones have been located and evidence collected and analysed, Devon County Council’s Historic Environment Service, together with the RSPB and Historic England, hope to provide a new interpretation panel for the Tarka Trail to explain more about the site and the ancient history of the area.

A team of archaeologists will be exploring the Marshes to find the lost ancient site, which is two lines of standing stones, known as a double stone alignment. The stones disappeared from view in the 1980s after the closure of Yelland power station changed currents in the estuary and the silts built up around the site.

The two rows of standing stones in 1953.

Analysis of the pollen and insect remains in the peat and soil will allow archaeologists to determine the nature of the environment around the area, whether it was farmland or woodland or something else. Modern dating techniques may also give a date for its construction.

The team, led by Dr Martin Bates from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David Lampeter, will be working in difficult conditions between tides, using the latest geophysical surveying techniques to explore beneath the thick blanket of silts that has covered the site.

The true nature of these prehistoric monuments is not fully understood. Stone alignments were being constructed and used from the Late Neolithic period to the Middle Bronze Age, over 3,000 years ago. They give us a rare insight into ceremonial and ritual practices during these periods.

Standing stones have already been found on Dartmoor and are widely associated with burial mounds. They also may have astrological links, but as there is no consistent alignment, it is hard to tell. The Yelland row does seem to be roughly east-west, so may link to the rising or setting of the sun.

Isley Marsh in the late 1970s when some of the stones were still visible

The Yelland stone row is a nationally important site which is protected as a scheduled monument. It includes at least 18 small stones arranged in a pair of parallel rows. It is similar to the geometric stone settings of smaller stones, some less than 30cm high, found on Exmoor. In the 1930s an excavation discovered nine pairs of stones or stone sockets, a scatter of flint tools and some evidence for occupation during the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

Dr Martin Bates said: “We are very pleased to be working at this site, bringing our expertise developed along the Welsh coastline, to South West England. Perhaps our study may help to shed light on the relationship the monument builders had with the sea.”

The site is a nature reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to its overwintering and migratory populations of wading birds. Rare plants can also be found there, including rare rock sea-lavender which grows along the shores. The project has been carefully planned and timed specifically to avoid disturbance to bird populations. The RSPB owns the site and supports the project to rediscover the stones.

Historic England’s Charlotte Russell said: “It’s exciting to have the opportunity to rediscover the Yelland stones which haven’t been seen in over 35 years. We need to make sure they’re safe and haven’t been damaged by flooding or bad weather. This is an important site to keep safe and pass on to future generations, and we are hoping the work here will reveal more about the site and the conditions in which the monument was built thousands of years ago. With our partners at the RSPB and Devon Historic Environment Services we’ll be unlocking the site’s secrets which have been buried in the silts for so long.”

Bill Horner, Devon County Archaeologist, said: “Rediscovering this unique site has been one of my team’s priorities for a number of years. I am really pleased that the funding has been made available by Historic England and we now have the chance to find out so much more about this fascinating but elusive monument.

Peter Otley reserves manager said: “We can’t wait to see the results of this project. We hope the stones can be found so that our wardens and volunteers can help to monitor their condition and look after the site for the future.”

Historic England hope that the investigations will provide an opportunity to collect paleao-environmental samples such as pollen and seeds, or ancient remains of insects which will reveal more about the land surface, climate and conditions surrounding the stones during the time the monument was first constructed.

9 comments on “Search begins for the lost standing stones of Yelland

  1. Irene Fisher says:

    Fascinating. I look forward to seeing them. I remember seeing prehistoric roundhouse groups at Fernworthy Reservoir one year when the water levels were exceptionally low.

  2. M Booker says:

    So pleased archaeology is being given some funding.

  3. Christine Brennan says:

    Recently went to see the megaliths in the Carnac area of southern Brittany. Would be wonderful to visit prehistoric stones on my own doorstep.

  4. Ley Holloway says:

    Great stuff, only recently discovered this little oasis on a walk to Barnstaple from Braunton. looking forward to learning more about the stones.

  5. joanne bell says:

    I can hardly believe Sheila’s comment re giving local tourism a boost! Is she aware that some 600-houses are about to be developed a ‘stones’ throw from here all along the Tarka Trail? I think that’s all the ‘tourism’ that this area can cope with. This area has been trashed time and time again by developers – much of the wildlife wiped out. Sorry – but I would be far happier if our living wildlife and environment was being protected and safe-guarded than a bunch of stones. As for David’s comments – What a wonderful world we live in? Country side being concreted over; seas & oceans polluted; all wildlife in decline … but hey – we’ve found some Stones! But will it hinder or stop the 600-housing development? I guess not.

  6. Ann Butler says:

    I know St David’s Lampeter well I wish all of you good luck it would be lovely to have such an ancient site back with us.

  7. sheila coleman says:

    I hope you locate the stones. Rediscovering this unique site would give local tourism a boost. Good luck

  8. David says:

    Good luck guy’s
    Not sure I envy you in this heat, but wish you all luck. Would love to be there with you all.
    What a great county we live in. ⛏

  9. Amy Bright says:

    Sounds interesting. Have recently been to Avebury.

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