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Foundation stone of empire: the role of Portland stone in ‘heritage’, commemoration, and identity.

Butler-Warke, Alice; Warke, Matthew R.


Matthew R. Warke


In 2013, Portland Stone, a creamy white limestone from the Isle of Portland in Dorset, was named the world’s first ‘Global Heritage Stone Resource’ (GSHR) by the Heritage Stone Task Group, a sub-commission of the International Union of Geological Sciences. The criteria for GSHR designation are ambiguous, with the Task Group championing Portland Stone’s ‘cultural value’ and ‘heritage’, neither of which are critically interrogated. In this paper we undertake a detailed critical discourse analysis of Hansard entries mentioning Portland Stone between 1803 and 2020. We reveal that the use of Portland Stone is intertwined with colonial oppression, class subjugation, empire politics, structural racism, and a mythologised, England-centric vision of British national identity. In celebrating the use of Portland Stone as part of Britain’s ‘heritage’, we are condoning a narrative of Britishness that is exclusionary and whitewashed, and that supports an elite rewriting of national and international history. Drawing on critical heritage literature, we argue that the Heritage Stone Task Group must urgently reconsider their uncritical appraisal of ‘heritage’ and ‘culture’ and consult with social science colleagues to ensure that all voices are heard. Our study shows that through the history and nature of their usage, the rocks beneath our feet, our natural foundation, can become imbued with notions of regional and national identity, belonging and exclusion, memory and loss – they can become a powerful manifestation of symbolic and unequal power structures. While British society’s attention is turned to the imprint of colonialism, empire, and race on our geographies, we urge further consideration of the built environment: the very stones that construct our towns and cities, the plinths on which statues are erected, tell stories of oppression and domination that are an important part of British history, culture, and heritage.


BUTLER-WARKE, A. and WARKE, M.R. 2021. Foundation stone of empire: the role of Portland stone in 'heritage', commemoration, and identity. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers [online], 46(4), pages 958-972. Available from:

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Apr 25, 2021
Online Publication Date May 4, 2021
Publication Date Dec 31, 2021
Deposit Date May 10, 2021
Publicly Available Date May 25, 2021
Journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers
Print ISSN 0020-2754
Electronic ISSN 1475-5661
Publisher Wiley Open Access
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 46
Issue 4
Pages 958-972
Keywords Portland stone; Cultural value; Heritage; Colonial oppression; Class subjugation; Empire politics; Structural racism; Colonialism; Empire; Identity; Memory
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