A missing piece of Stonehenge has been found after 60 years, as experts say it could unlock mysteries of the ancient monument.
A long thin fragment of the enormous sarsen stones was handed to English Heritage by Robert Phillips, who had kept it in his office for decades following excavations in 1958.
Stonehenge is considered a masterpiece of engineering as it is not clear how the 25-tonne stones were moved to their current positions by people without modern technology thousands of years ago.
Mr Phillips was part of a team from Van Moppes, a Basingstoke diamond cutting business, working to raise three of the large stones which had fallen over.
They drilled three 3cm holes into the stones and removed three cores about 108cm long, then inserted metal rods to make them sturdy.
Mr Phillips kept one of the pieces in his office for years.
After he left Van Moppes in 1976 and emigrated to America, the core travelled thousands of miles with him around the country – passing through states including New York, Illinois and California.
Mr Phillips, on the eve of his 90th birthday, decided to return the fragment to conservation charity English Heritage, which looks after the ancient stones.
It is now being studied by academics at the University of Brighton who believe the incredibly well-preserved piece of history could shed light on where some of the bigger stones came from.
Stonehenge’s smaller bluestones were famously brought from the Preseli Hills in south west Wales but the precise origin of the much larger sarsens is unknown.
Mr Phillips’ son Lewis said: “Our father has always been interested in archaeology and he recognised the huge importance of the piece of the monument in his care. It was his wish that it be returned to Stonehenge.
“We are all delighted the core has come home, particularly as it is now being used to further important research.”
His other son Robin added: “It would be fascinating to know where the other two cores went, or indeed if there any other missing pieces out there that might be returned one day.”
Built some 5,000 years ago, Stonehenge is perhaps the world’s most famous prehistoric monument.
It was constructed in several stages; the first monument, a circular earthwork enclosure, was built in about 3000 BC and the iconic inner stone circle was erected in the late Neolithic period about 2500 BC.
Pagan and druid communities gather at the stones every year to celebrate the winter solstice – when the North Pole is tilted farthest away from the Sun, delivering the fewest hours of sunlight of the year.
Heather Sebire, English Heritage’s curator for Stonehenge, said: “The last thing we ever expected was to get a call from someone in America telling us they had a piece of Stonehenge.
“We are very grateful to the Phillips family for bringing this intriguing piece of Stonehenge back home.”
English Heritage would like to hear from anyone who was involved, or whose family was involved, in the Stonehenge archaeological excavations during the 1950s who may have information about the location of the other two pieces of core.