A Year at Stonehenge

By Pitts, Mike | Antiquity, March 2009 | Go to article overview

A Year at Stonehenge


Pitts, Mike, Antiquity


You didn't need to be an archaeologist in 2008 to know that things were happening at Stonehenge. For years controversial plans to improve the Stonehenge environs (costed at 600m [pounds sterling]) had dominated media and much academic debate, but in November 2007 the British government announced that it couldn't afford them (Pitts 2008a). The plans were dropped (much cheaper changes are now being implemented to make Stonehenge look nice for the 2012 Olympics: English Heritage 2008). There are new broadcasts and press stories featuring the stones every year, but 2008 was different. As road protests diminished, real archaeologists took the stage.

Real archaeology happened, too. With two television films, cover stories in National Geographic and The Smithsonian magazines, web blogs and widespread media reports, it was difficult to escape the fact that Stonehenge and its surrounding World Heritage site were being subjected to new excavations: but for many--even at times for those actually engaged in some of the work--exactly what was being done, and why, were harder to discern.

What happened? Was the fieldwork of high quality and research-integrated, or pandering to the media? Should there be more, or less excavation at such an iconic ancient site? 2008 at Stonehenge was also about how archaeology and the media interact, and other issues of public engagement and curatorial management. How are we doing?

Timewatch 1

Archaeologists dug, but others led. The two major players in this story were the BBC, with their BBC2/Open University history documentary series Timewatch, and the National Geographic Society. The first project, funded by the BBC with Smithsonian Networks, was a small excavation near the centre of the monument. Here Timothy Darvill (professor of archaeology at Bournemouth University, responsible for the Stonehenge World Heritage site research framework: Darvill et al. 2005) and Geoffrey Wainwright (president of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and pioneer excavator at nearby Durrington Walls in the 1960s: Wainwright & Longworth 1971) directed the excavation of a 3.5m x 2.5m trench (Figure 1). It was sited between the sarsen circle and the ring of bluestones it encloses, where an earlier bluestone structure once stood in what are known as the Q and R holes. (There are two broad classes of megalith at Stonehenge: the larger stones carved from sarsen, the hard sandstone whose source almost certainly lay between Stonehenge and the Marlborough Downs 30km to the north; and the smaller bluestones, a variety of rocks whose sources have mostly been pinpointed to locations 250km away in south-west Wales.)

Darvill and Wainwright sought to date the first arrival of bluestones at Stonehenge, an event then thought from circumstantial evidence to have occurred around 2600 BC. They argued that these stones, transported from Wales, were crucial to understanding Stonehenge, dismissing the theory that the bluestones had reached the area in glaciers long before (Thorpe et al. 1991).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

In 2001 they had begun a field survey of suspected quarry areas on Cam Meini in the Presell Hills (Darvill & Wainwright 2008). They consistently refer to the 'spotted dolerite' from Meini as the sole Stonehenge bluestone, although a detailed mineralogical survey had proposed 10 localised sources for bluestones, not all of them dolerite, and recognised that two more lay beyond the Preselis (Thorpe et al. 1991). Other shorthand devices Darvill and Wainwright employ include referring to the Q and R holes as footings for 'the double bluestone circle', when indications are that this arrangement, while undetermined in detail, was not of that form (contrast Cleal et al. 1995:169-83 and Darvill 2006:119-24).

Claims that 'discarded pillar-stones' on the slopes of Carn Meini have anything to do with Stonehenge (or are even prehistoric) have yet to be substantiated, but as with much else, we await full publication of the evidence. …

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