Miami-Dade Man Returns Stolen Piece of Stonehenge After 60 Years

Stonehenge Qalix / Flickr Creative Commons
click to enlarge Stonehenge - QALIX / FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
Qalix / Flickr Creative Commons
Aventura resident Robert Phillips is 90 years old. For much of his long life, he apparently carried a secret: In 1958, he stole a thin, meter-long portion of Stonehenge, which he kept in his office for decades as he moved from England to Richmond, New York; Chicago; Ventura, California; and ultimately Miami-Dade County.

Last week, English Heritage, the charity that manages Stonehenge, announced on its website that, on the eve of his 90th birthday, Phillips had finally returned the broomstick-sized rock fragment.

"The last thing we ever expected was to get a call from someone in America telling us they had a piece of Stonehenge," Heather Sebire, English Heritage’s Stonehenge curator, said in a press release. "We are very grateful to the Phillips family for bringing this intriguing piece of Stonehenge back home."

Philips actually returned the fragment last year, but the charity only recently announced the news to the public.

In 1958, a British archaeological team tried to raise a fallen "trilithon" — one of the big stone archways Stonehenge is famous for — and, in the process, noticed the structure had developed some serious cracks. So scientists decided to drill some holes through the structure and insert metal rods for added support. Archaeologists contracted out the work to a local diamond-cutting company called Van Moppes, where Phillips worked at the time.

After Van Moppes employees drilled holes through the rock, they extracted multiple 25-millimeter long rods from the stone. Phillips just took one. He left Van Moppes in 1976, later moved to the United States, and ultimately retired in Aventura.
click to enlarge The broomstick-sized piece of stone Phillips stole. - JULIET BRAIN / ENGLISH HERITAGE
The broomstick-sized piece of stone Phillips stole.
Juliet Brain / English Heritage
Apparently, Phillips stole a pretty important piece of history. Historians still have essentially no idea why Stonehenge exists or how it was made, although scientists theorize it was built in various stints between 3000 and 2000 B.C. As part of their research, they've been studying the makeup of the actual Stonehenge stones for decades. The stones are mainly of two varieties — sarsen and bluestone — and it seems Phillips had been holding onto a fairly crucial slice of ancient sarsen all this time.

David Nash, a professor at Brighton University, said in a media release that Phillips' fragment might help archaeologists finally figure out where the Stonehenge rocks originated.

"The bluestones have attracted a lot of attention recently, but in contrast, little has been done to look at the sources of the larger sarsen stones," he said. "Conventional wisdom suggests that they all came from the relatively nearby Marlborough Downs but initial results from our analysis suggest that in fact the sarsens may come from more than one location. Our geochemical fingerprinting of the sarsens in situ at Stonehenge, and of the core itself, when compared with samples from areas across southern England will hopefully tell us where the different stones came from.”

Of course, it's not entirely stunning that an artifact like this wound up in Dade County. In 2014, New Times detailed how South Florida has become something of a repository for priceless stolen art and goods. Since the city's huge cocaine boom in the 1980s, people with dirty money to burn have bought up everything from priceless paintings to pre-Columbian artifacts. Works from Francisco Goya and Paul Rubens have turned up in Miami-Dade. In 1999, the FBI found Jacob Jordaens' The Last Supper inside a Broward County La Quinta Inn. In 2008, a man tried to bring a dubiously acquired Egyptian sarcophagus through Miami International Airport.

South Florida also has its fair share of retirees who are likely holding onto odd or priceless goods. Frankly, the most remarkable thing about Phillips might just be that he actually bothered to return the Stonehenge core.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.