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Arthur’s O’on: A Lost ‘Wonder’ of Britain, Part 1

Posted by Darrell J. Rohl

Darrell J. Rohl (d.j.rohl@durham.ac.uk)
Department of Archaeology
Durham University

Near the end of the twelfth century Ralph de Diceto, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, transcribed a tract entitled De Mirabilibus Britanniae, ‘On the Wonders of Britain,’ describing in variable detail 35 extraordinary natural and man-made features across England, Scotland and Wales (British Library Cotton MS. Faustina A.viii, ff. 107–109; Stubbs 1876, I.11–15). Midway through the list that includes barnacles, Cheddar Gorge, Stonehenge, and the hot springs at Bath, a single-sentence entry proclaims:

furnus Arturi, qui factus ad modum thalami rotundi, sine tegmine, et tamen nunquam intus pluvial cadit, nec nix, nec grando, plusquam bene tectus esset. (Stubbs 1876, I.13)

Arthur’s Oven, having been built in the manner of a round chamber, without a covering, and still never falling by rain, nor snow, nor hail; how much better was it protected.

The monument described here is never geographically located by Diceto, nor does it feature in the alternative and better-known ‘Wonders of Britain’ sometimes appended to manuscript copies of the Historia Brittonum and traditionally attributed to Nennius (e.g. BL Cotton MS. Vespasian D.xxi, ff. 1–17; BL Harleian MS. 3859, f. 135). Other documents from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, suggest that the ‘Oven’ was an ancient corbel-domed structure that stood on the north bank of the River Carron in central Scotland until its tragic destruction in 1742/3. From the twelfth century onwards, this monument was a perennial favorite of chroniclers, historians and antiquarians, with a colorful and contentious discursive history. This paper, deriving from a recent M.A. dissertation (Rohl 2009) and related ongoing Ph.D. research, is presented in two parts. Part 1 provides a summarized introduction to the monument including a general description, presentation of its various names and interpretations over the centuries, and a discussion of contemporary and later reactions to its untimely demise. Part 2 (forthcoming) will consider possible avenues of inquiry that may help to answer lingering questions about the monument, as well as a series of reflections on some of the lessons and challenges the monument’s story provides for current archaeological research in general. For reasons that will become obvious, Part 1 relies on an unusually large number of pre-twentieth-century sources, including several medieval and early modern Latin manuscripts.

The Monument

Arthur’s O’on (=‘Oven’) was a circular stone structure located on the northern bank of the River Carron in the present town of Stenhousemuir near Falkirk; this structure was the ‘stone house’ from which the village has taken its name. The most detailed descriptions of the monument are provided by the antiquarians William Stukeley (1720) and Alexander Gordon (1726, 24–32), who both offer detailed drawings (Figs. 1 and 2) and their own interpretations of the monument’s dating and purpose. While these accounts differ in certain details, their respective measurements and drawings are markedly similar (Steer 1960 provides a useful comparative measurements table). From these accounts we can be fairly certain that, as of the 1720s, the monument stood to a height of 22 feet with an open aperture at the top of the dome, an open east-facing doorway with a height of at least nine feet and external width of about five feet, and an open window of trapezoidal shape located directly above the door and near the aperture. The monument’s internal diameter was about 19.5 feet, with walls about four feet thick at the base reducing to about 2.5 feet at the top. The structure was of ashlar masonry, in at least 23 corbeled courses with lewis holes and no sign of mortar, set atop a ‘basement’ of about 4.5 feet in depth.


Fig. 1: William Stukeley’s (1720) drawings of Arthur’s O’on

The O’on also had several functional or decorative features. While almost all accounts note the monument’s aperture, Stukeley adds that this included an ‘Iron hoop or Kirb…and a Grate,’ while the main doorway featured an ‘Iron Door’ (Stukeley 1720, 14, 18). The monument’s interior featured a stone paved floor, a large stone that may have been used as an altar or statue base, and two protruding string-courses at heights of four and about six feet respectively (Steer 1960); while it may be attractive to consider these latter as possible interior shelves, most accounts describe them with a sloping upper surface. In addition, several observers noted possible sculptured stones—possibly featuring engraved eagles, winged Victories, spears and javelins, or a shield of Arms and St. George’s cross—and a possible inscription reading I.A.M.P.M.P.T. (most of these accounts are summarized by Steer 1960). At some point in the years preceding 1723, the local land-owner is said to have discovered a bronze finger within a crevice of the monument’s stonework (Mitchell 1906, 330), a fact that increased suggestions that the O’on served the function of a temple or shrine.


Fig. 2: Alexander Gordon’s (1726) drawings of Arthur’s O’on

Despite the growing interest in Arthur’s O’on—fueled largely by Stukeley and Gordon—during the early eighteenth century, the monument was tragically destroyed in the early 1740s; precise dating of the O’on’s demolition is uncertain, but both 1742 and 1743 (as well as the demonstrably erroneous 1749 (Maitland 1757, 439)) are given. Contemporary notice of the monument’s destruction is found in correspondence between some of the period’s antiquaries (Clerk 1790a; 1790b; Stukeley 1790), and the immediate and long-term reaction to this event will be discussed below. For now, it is sufficient to say that the O’on was demolished on the orders of the local property owner, Sir Michael Bruce of Stenhouse, whose home sat nearby and which undoubtedly received its own name from the ‘stone house’ of Arthur’s O’on. According to one contemporary account, the demolition was so complete that even ‘the very foundation-stones were raised’ (Clerk 1790b). These dismantled stones were used in the construction of a mill-dam located a short distance to the south, on the grounds now occupied by the Carron Iron Works; while it is sometimes said that the mill-dam was part of the Carron Company works (e.g. Breeze 2006, 176), the Carron Company was not established until late in 1759 and the first blast furnace did not enter operation until 1760 at the earliest (Watters 1998; 2010), by which time the dam had been washed away in a deluge—possibly less than a year after its construction (Stukeley 1757, 137–38; Pennant 1771, 212). In 1950, in what was the first and only attempt to use modern archaeological field methods to locate physical evidence for the O’on, Kenneth Steer and colleagues excavated several small trenches across its likely—and long-identified—location (Steer 1960). These excavations failed to uncover any archaeological remains, leaving Steer to conclude that all traces of the monument were removed during its eighteenth-century destruction (Steer 1960, 100). The site now stands within the back gardens of a housing estate, which was developed soon after the demolition of Sir Michael Bruce’s own Stenhouse Castle in the 1960s (http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/46930/).

Arthur’s O’on, once counted among Britain’s most important ‘wonders’ and considered ‘the best and most entire old building in Britain’ (Clerk 1790b) and ‘the grandest Roman monument in Brittain’ (Stukeley 1757, 138) has, therefore, been the victim of a double destruction. The first was at the hands of Sir Michael Bruce, and the second of nature herself. Most tragically, this second destruction appears to have been total, as the monument’s very fabric (i.e. the building stones) was washed down the Carron and never retrieved from the riverbed. It is, thus, highly improbable that any physical evidence will ever be made available for modern analysis. Fortunately, the detailed studies of Gordon (1726) and Stukeley (1720), as well as several additional eyewitness accounts (e.g. Anonymous 1893; Sibbald 1707, 42–46) remain for consideration. Perhaps most providentially, a near-contemporary full-scale replica was constructed atop the stable blocks of Penicuik House, Midlothian; this was commissioned by Sir James Clerk (son of the prominent antiquarian and Baron of the Exchequer Sir John Clerk) in 1767 and was primarily based on Gordon’s account. Functionally, this reconstruction was used as a dovecote (a dove- and/or pigeon-house—a very common feature in Scotland from the sixteenth through early nineteenth centuries), and remains in generally excellent condition today (Fig. 3).


Fig. 3: Photo of Arthur’s O’on replica at Penicuik House

The early eighteenth century marked the high point of Arthur’s O’on scholarship, with Stukeley and Gordon leading the way and providing the most influential accounts. While Stukeley appears to have never visited the monument himself, he nevertheless is responsible for the first rigorously-detailed architectural survey, for which he personally commissioned ‘Mr. Andrews Jelfe’ (Stukeley 1720, 1); Stukeley’s paper is thus a presentation of these findings with his own analysis, drawings based on those provided to him by Jelfe, and speculative interpretation. It was this very paper that the Scotsman Alexander Gordon (1726, 7) credits as the key inspiration for his own investigation of Scotland’s ancient monuments and landscape; while Arthur’s O’on plays only a small role in this sweeping chorographic treatment (receiving only nine pages of concerted attention), it may be argued that it was central to Gordon’s Itinerarium Septentrionale, which is arguably the most important—and certainly the earliest wide-ranging and methodologically rigorous—Scottish antiquarian work.

Names and Interpretations

Throughout its lifetime the O’on bore many names and was variously assigned to different periods, builders, and purposes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the allusion to Arthur appears to gain steam only after the c. 1136 completion of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (e.g. BL Harleian MS 6358, ff. 2–58), which popularized the Arthur myth. It is possible, however, that the monument’s Arthurian connection pre-dated Monmouth, as Lambert of Saint-Omer’s c. 1120 Liber Floridus (Ghent University Library MS 92) appears to describe the O’on under the name ‘Arthur’s Palace’ (Dumville 1976; Padel 1994, 6). The first documented use of the name ‘Arthur’s Oven,’ on the other hand, is undoubtedly in reference to a different monument: in Hermann of Tournai’s De Miraculis Sanctae Marie Laudunensis, French priests from Laon travel through Cornwall and Devon in 1113, where they are shown both Arthur’s Chair and Oven (Chambers 1927, 194; Lacy et al 1997, 26; Padel 1994, 5–6), the latter of which was later renamed furnum regis, ‘the king’s oven,’ a well-known prehistoric monument on Dartmoor. While the events of this story are supposed to have taken place two decades before the completion of Monmouth’s work, it is important to realize that Tournai’s manuscript was likely completed around 1140, raising the possibility that Monmouth’s pseudo-history provided some influence. Whatever influence Monmouth may have been, the name ‘Arthur’s Oven’ for the monument at Stenhousemuir appears to have been well-entrenched by the late thirteenth century, when a charter of 1293 grants lands at ‘Stanhus, which is near furnum Arthuri,’ to the Cistercian monks of Neubotle Abbey (Chalmers 1887, 245; Innes 1849, no. 219). It is interesting to note that in this charter the ‘furnum Arthuri’ is primarily used as a landmark to clarify the location of ‘Stanhus,’ suggesting that the monument was more widely known than the area in which it stood.

Besides ‘Arthur’s Oven,’ the O’on has been known by the names Julius’ Hoif/Huiff/Hoffe (i.e. ‘house’ or ‘hall’) (Boece 1527; Camden 1586, 481; Baxter 1719, 226), Templum Termini (Buchanan 1582; Clerk 1790c), Sacellum of Mars Signifer or Mars Ultor (Gordon 1726, 30–31), and almost certainly the Stanhus or ‘stone house’ that has given its name to the general locality. In addition to these several names, the monument has had various interpretations. As has already been mentioned, the early Arthurian names suggest a functional interpretation as an oven or palace of the legendary Arthur. Two competing later interpretations associate the monument with Julius Caesar, as either a type of victory monument or as the hastily-left-behind sleeping chamber of Caesar, who outrageously had his men carry the stones on the march and reconstruct the structure as needed so that the general would not need to sleep in a tent (Hearnius 1722, 92–93; Skene 1872, 46)! In a probably late twelfth-century (James 1912, 317) Nennian rescension manuscript copy of the Historia Brittonum (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 139, f. 169 v), a second-hand marginal gloss appears to describe the O’on as a ‘round house [built] of smooth/polished stones,’ and credits its construction to the late third-century usurper Carausius (for more on Carausius, see Casey 1995); according to this medieval gloss, the River Carron was named for Carausius as a result of his activities in the area.

From the fourteenth century onward, the monument has been almost universally accepted as a Roman structure, though specific interpretations of date and function have ranged from—among several suggestions—a monument of Caesar’s military prowess (proposed by John of Fordun c. 1360, see Hearnius 1722, 92–93; Skene 1872, 46) to a Vespasianic temple of Claudius and Victory (Boece 1527), a temple of the god Terminus (Buchanan 1582), an Agricolan replica of the Pantheon at Rome that may have been a temple of Romulus (Stukeley 1720), a shrine that housed Roman military standards or a mausoleum built under Agricola (Gordon 1726), to the now largely-accepted tropaeum (i.e. victory monument) associated with the nearby Antonine Wall (Steer 1960; Breeze 2006). Despite this long-standing—and almost-certainly correct, at least in terms of general period—Roman identification, the old Arthurian connections continue to resonate, particularly within the alternative discourse of popular accounts (e.g. Lang 1910, 40; Hale 1989, 21–22; McKerracher 1989; Hennig 2008, 202–4).

Today, there is some confusion around the proper pronunciation of the term ‘O’on.’ While some have emphasized the presumed ‘oven’ meaning, opting for a pronunciation that maintains the original two-syllable form but leaves the missing ‘v’ unvoiced, similar to the forename ‘Owen’ (Michael Shanks pers. comm.), most Scottish archaeologists and historians who have been consulted on the matter (e.g. Hugh Cheape and Domhnall Stiùbhart pers. comm.) prefer to simply ignore the apostrophe and pronounce the word in one syllable, as ‘oon.’ The former may arguably be closer to the original pronunciation of the monument’s common name, but the latter is now reasonably entrenched; this may possibly be traceable to Gordon’s contemporary and influential rival John Horsley (1732, 174–75), who consistently omitted the apostrophe.

Reactions to the Monument’s Destruction

The destruction of Arthur’s O’on ‘has come to be regarded as the greatest antiquarian scandal of the eighteenth century’ (Brown 1974, 284), and Iain G. Brown (1974) has provided an excellent discussion of the antiquarian reactions during the years following the monument’s demise. In short, the antiquarians of both Scotland and England were furious, and their fury was aimed squarely at the perpetrator, Sir Michael Bruce. In the first-known communication of the event, Sir James Clerk writes to Roger Gale that ‘he has pulled it down…this Gothic knight…we all curse him with bell, book, and candle’ (Clerk 1790a). When Gale relayed this news to Stukeley, he remarked that ‘if there is a pitt deeper than ordinary destined for the reception of such villains and sordid rascals, condemn him to the bottome of it’ (Lukis 1885, 428–29). For his part, Stukeley responded with what he thought would be a fitting punishment for Bruce:

In order to make his name execrable to all posterity, that he should have an iron collar put about his neck, like a yoke; at each extremity a stone of Arthur’s Oon to be suspended by the lewis in the hole of them; thus accoutred, let him wander on the banks of Styx, perpetually agitated by angry demons with oxgoads; ‘Sir Michael Bruce,’ wrote on his back in large letters of burning phosphorus. (Stukeley 1790)

Accompanying this correspondence, Stukeley appended a rather gruesome drawing of the imagined scene (Fig. 4). The monument’s destruction, and the tenor of the antiquarian discourse centered on the tragedy, would later enter a more popular arena through the historical fiction of the novelist Sir Walter Scott (1814, 32; 1819, 21–32).


Fig. 4: ‘Sir Michael Bruce, Stonekiller,’ by William Stukeley
(Grose 1780; also re-published in Brown 1974)

Part 2: A Preview

Thus far, this paper has attempted to cover a lot of ground to establish the basic facts and key elements of the Arthur’s O’on story. Despite this density, the account provided here has been selective and incomplete. It is hoped, however, that the presentation of this story has raised an interest in this fascinating monument, as well as consideration of how it may inform current approaches in archaeology. The next installment of this paper will consider some of these issues. This will begin with ideas for how we may pursue new research toward answering the lingering question of Arthur’s O’on’s original purpose. It will also reflect on issues of broader applicability to the theory and practice of archaeology, including the nature of time and how it is experienced at particular places like the site of Arthur’s O’on, how archaeologists deal—or ought to deal—with mythic landscapes and alternative views of the past, and the difficult issue of monument destruction and the inconsistent ways in which both the archaeological community and broader public react to specific instances.



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