Situated beside the A1 west of Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire, are the evocatively named Devil’s Arrows. The stones are in a SW-NE alignment, with the central one offset to the west slightly. There were historically four ‘arrows’ – one at least was pulled down in the early modern era – and they might easily have once been more lost before antiquarian records began.
They are composed of millstone grit, likely to have been hauled to the spot over 9 miles from the distinctive Plumpton Rocks, south of Knaresborough. The tallest of the three is the second tallest monolith in the UK (Rudstone, East Yorkshire, possessing the tallest).
The Devil’s Arrows are clearly fragments of a far larger and more complex prehistoric ceremonial arrangement following the River Ure. A series of henge monuments are known to the north leading to the well-known Thornborough complex. They are therefore usually ascribed to the Bronze Age although their precise date of construction is unknown.
The folklore is that the Devil threw these stones at Aldborough from Howe Hill: he was a crap shot, which is lucky all round I guess, but not for Boroughbridge.
There is distinctive natural wear to the tops of the stones. There are also various dents which might be cupmark or later attempts to damage them.
A Stone to Commemorate a Stone
There are two distinctive modern features linked to the stones that are also worthy of attention since they configure recent engagements with these monuments. First, there is an OS benchmark on the southernmost stone. This reveals how even our most unique prehistoric monuments have been stamped for official use as geographical fixed points until quite recently.
Second, there is a fourth stone beside the southermost of the Devil’s Arrows. This isn’t brand new, and I suspect it hails from the 1970s or thereabouts. Embedded within it is a light blue disc that might aim to inform the visitor regarding what they are looking at. This blue plaque simply states:
THE DEVIL’S ARROWS
Three pre-historic monolithis
of millstone grit,
probably transported here
from the area of Knaresborough
c. 2700 B.C.
So this is a plaque on a stone referencing stones. To be more precise still, the new stone commemorates the old ones but its really focus of commemoration is ignorance. Here’s why.
Of course this roadside monumental sign doesn’t indicate where the other two Arrows are; they are behind it and across the road behind a hedge and these have no signs. So the first point is that this stone breaks the southernmost away from the others, as much as it joins them together.
The plaque and its stone says next to nothing. No mention of the folklore, no mention of context, no mention of parallels, no comment on meaning or significance past or present. Instead the sign opts for simplisticity: noting where the Arrows might have come from and an extremely odd precise date. Implicitly, it articulates the Arrow’s protected status and physically blocks vehicular access to the stone from the road.
In doing so, the stones are physically protected but also shrouded in ignorance. More still, they are afforded an official stamp of authority that serves to celebrate, even commemorate that ignorance regarding the Devil’s Arrows.
Generations have now come to see the Devil’s Arrows and encountered this gnomic heritage marker by the roadside. I sometimes criticise heritage interpretation as too complex and fantastical, yet the opposite is this kind of gnomic signing. Like the Devil’s Arrows it is trying to be monumental itself, attempting to be timeless in its abrupt simplisticity yet monumental materials and dimensions. Therefore, one might be generous and say that ‘less is more’ or that the abrupt text mirrors the mute and ‘lost’ nature of the stones, bisected as they are by a road and film boundary, and without apparent immediate context. One might simply put it down to lack of 20th-century imagination to adopt the materials of commemorative environments to erect a stone to sign other (older) stones.
Yet whether by design or happenstance, this sign does something quite frustrating and negative. As the result of the structures and practices of governmental heritage management the sign and stone operate to separate and trap the Devil’s Arrows physically and conceptually. I say this because the provenance asserts geological knowledge but without offering an evidence base and without affording this a significance for prehistoric people who had to transport the stones. The date stamp is about asserting knowledge without understanding: failing to frame the stones in relation to the work and beliefs of prehistoric societies. What does 2900 BC mean without context? The plaque asserts knowledge and sustains ignorance.
In summary, more than informing and engaging the public with the Devil’s Arrows, the plaque celebrates a mindless mechanism of preservation within ignorance.
Outside my academic knowledge of the Devil’s Arrows, my kids and I left knowing less about the stones than when we arrived. And that, I contend, is the intention of this fourth new stone and its plaque.