Search begins for the lost stones of Yelland

  • Mysterious prehistoric standing stones disappeared into silt in the 1980s
  • Historic England is funding new archaeological investigations in the RSPB nature reserve at Isley Marsh

A cutting edge survey began this week, funded by Historic England, to find a mysterious, lost archaeological site known as the Yelland stone row.

The investigation will take place at the RSPB nature reserve Isley Marsh alongside the Tarka Trail, outside Barnstaple, Devon.

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.

Image of Isley Marsh today, where the Yelland stones are now lost beneath the silts
Isley Marsh today, where the Yelland stones are now lost beneath the silts

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.

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.

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.

Image of Yelland stone row as it appeared in the Devon Archaeological Society Proceedings Report in 1946
Yelland stone row as it appeared in the Devon Archaeological Society Proceedings Report in 1946 © Devon Archaeological Society

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.”

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, site manager said: “Not only are our nature reserves a great place for wildlife but they also hold some amazing archaeological gems.  We’re really excited to be working in partnership to help understand more about the history of our RSPB Isley Marsh nature reserve and to help protect it.”

Image of Isley Marsh in the 1970s, with a couple of the standing stones still visible
Isley Marsh in the 1970s, with a couple of the standing stones still visible © Frances Griffith, Devon County Council

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.

Once the stones have been located and evidence collected and analysed, Devon County Council 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.

Next Steps

Find out more about our Research team

Find out more about Historic England's South West office

What is a scheduled monument?

Find out more about Isley Marsh

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