As It Happens

Missing piece of Stonehenge returned after it was taken to Florida decades ago

For decades, Robert Phillips kept an unusual, one-of-a-kind souvenir mounted to the wall in his Florida office: a long cylinder of stone pulled from Stonehenge. His son Lewis helped return the fragment — 60 years after it was first taken from the historic site during restoration work in 1958.

In 1958, Florida man Robert Phillips took a piece of the stone monument during restoration work

Restoration being done at the ancient monument of Stonehenge in 1958. A stone taken during that restoration has finally been returned. (John Franks/Keystone/Getty Images)
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For decades, Robert Phillips kept an unusual, one-of-a-kind souvenir mounted to the wall in his office: a long cylinder of stone pulled from Stonehenge.

In 1958, Phillips took the piece while he working on a restoration project at the historic site in Wiltshire, England.

But now, that missing bit of monument has finally been returned — after it made an elaborate journey from Florida, where 90-year-old Phillips currently lives.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to one of Phillips' sons, Lewis, who helped return the piece of Stonehenge all these years later.

Here is part of their conversation.

Lewis, how did your dad get this piece of Stonehenge?

Way back in 1958, they did a lot of archeological work at Stonehenge, and one of the things they did was to raise one of the stones that had lain fallen for many, many years. They found that this stone had a big crack in it.

The firm that my father worked for was engaged to drill out three holes across the stones so they could put stainless steel bolts through to hold the stone together.

So with the consent of the Ministry of Works, as it was then called, the firm took back one of these pieces of stone that they drilled out, and it's rested for about 20 years in my father's office — mounted up on the wall, in a plexiglass tube.

In Florida. This sounds like a rather well-traveled piece of stone.

It is an extremely well-traveled piece of stone. In fact, I think we can say with confidence that is the furthest travelled piece of Stonehenge.

When my father left the firm, nobody who was there was really very interested anymore or they'd left or they had retired. But my dad, who's always been interested in archaeology, realized the importance of this artifact.

So, rather than risk it being lost or chucked out, he decided that the best thing to do would be to take it and safeguard it.

He emigrated to the United States in 1977 and the stone came with him.

As a boy and young man, as you looked at this stone in your dad's possession, did it look special?

As a kid, we would visit Stonehenge. And my dad would point out on the stones: "If you look carefully, you can see there are three places there where we drilled out these these stones and the bolts were put in."

And then I can recall visiting my dad and visiting in his office — and there, hanging on the wall, was this piece of Stonehenge.

Lewis Phillips remembers visiting Stonehenge and his father pointing out where he had removed the stone samples back in 1958. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Did he have ever have any regrets that he had taken this part of Stonehenge?

No. I think that, on the contrary, I think that he felt that it was an important thing to do so that it was preserved and didn't just get lost.

So why did he decide that it was time to return the stone?

He's now turned 90. I guess when you get to that age you start worrying about what's going to happen next.

And so he was concerned — still is — that after his death, what would happen to this? And he was wanting to be sure that it actually came back home to the United Kingdom and back to Stonehenge.

And so we're absolutely delighted to be able to have done exactly that.

When you told the Heritage Association that you had this, how did they respond?

My brother contacted them and I think they were pretty surprised because they didn't even know that it existed.

English Heritage arranged for a secure packing case to be delivered to my dad's apartment.

It was very exciting that a large blue van drove up in Aventura, in Florida, bearing the royal warrant: "By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, Fine Art Shippers."

My gosh, so they helped you. But you and your brother actually were the ones to return the stone, right?

My brother Robin and I went down to Stonehenge early one morning and met with the curators at the monuments and we did a formal hand over.

What was that like?

It was really rather special.

You know, when you go to any major visitor attraction there are always hundreds of people there.

But going there early in the morning, actually before the official opening time, where there was nobody else and we were privileged to be allowed to go close up to the stone circle and see where these stones had been drilled, in the quiet — it was really rather a magical experience.

Phillips took the stone core sample from the monument during a restoration project in 1958. (Three Lions/Getty Images)

But now they believe that possibly the stone that your father had kept might reveal some secrets about where the stones came from.

This is really exciting bit, and what we're really pleased about.

It's enabled the scientists to take some very small samples from right in the centre of the stones, so never been exposed to the elements, and that's really very valuable to them in helping to if, you like, do a DNA fingerprint.

It's very exciting to be part of that scientific process.


Written by Menaka Raman-Wilms and John McGill. Interview produced by Menaka Raman-Wilms. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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