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Research in the Stonehenge landscape: time for a green attitude to long-term conservation

A discussion note written by Christopher Chippindale and circulated at the Stonehenge Research Forum in London on 17 July 2001

Excavating at Stonehenge

Stonehenge has suffered grievously from the first generations of systematic archaeology and its destructive methods. Some kind of hole was dug at the heart of the place in search of knowledge in the 17th century, and more subsequently. In the last, 20th century about 55% of the ground area of deposits at Stonehenge was destroyed. It is a higher proportion when one looks at the plan of the trenches *, for it was areas more promising information and interest, around the central stone settings and the north-east entrance that were most interfered with. The loss was compounded when neither the Hawley (1920s) nor Atkinson/Piggott (1950s) excavations were well published, despite a later heroic salvage excavation of the paper records by Rosamund Cleal's team*.

It is startling how little we know of Stonehenge after so much of the deposits have gone. The place in the complex sequence of the four Station Stones, for instance, is doubtful. The phasing 'must be highly subjective', Cleal tells us, since there are so few stratigraphic relationships. Despite recent high- resolution radiocarbon dates, the absolute chronology is also precarious.* Partly this is due to weaknesses in recording and publication; partly it is because 20th- and early-21st-century techniques simply are unable to recover much from the kind of thin chalky deposits Stonehenge has. Strikingly, the lure of excavation drew attention from other and non-destructive approaches. It was not until the late 1990s that a thorough photogrammetric survey was done to record the actual nature and position of the standing structure. There is still no detailed record or publication of the many prehistoric carvings. More than a generation after Atkinson & Piggott, when their understanding of the Neolithic seems lamentably thin, it is tempting to excavate at Stonehenge again. But many key deposits are already destroyed. For the rest, let us remember that none of Stonehenge archaeology was destroyed by archaeologists in the 4500 years from about 2900 BC to 1600 AD, perhaps 1% in the 300 years from 1600 to 1900 AD, then 55% or so in the years 1900 to 2000 AD, leaving less than half - and a poor-quality half at that - to last for ever and ever in the future. If in the decades from 2001, we quarry away more in our selfishness, how much will we leave for the better and less destructive techniques of the 22nd? 23rd? 28th? 35th centuries?

After so much destruction so rapidly, it is time to back off- we should resolve not to make any destructive study of Stonehenge itself for the rest of the century.

Excavating in the Stonehenge landscape's standing monuments

What about the Stonehenge landscape? Covering 600 and more hectares rather than to be measured in square metres, it has only been chipped at by the archaeologists. Instead, all but a few percent has been ploughed or otherwise grossly degraded in the last century, so that nearly all the upper archaeological traces seem to have been wrecked or blurred to, at most, a diffuse flint and artefact scatter. Over the plough-land, it is only where the deposits are deep - as in Coneybury Henge, for example - that they survive in place.

The barrows have, in a way, been luckier. They were excavated early, mostly in the Colt Hoare/ Cunnington campaigns of the early 1800s by vertical shafts dug into their centres, from which the grave goods alone were taken; the skeletons were left behind, and the rest of the barrow and any secondary burials untouched. That early interference meant they have been more fortunate in their survival: they were not explored by more thorough barrow-digging, and many seem not to have been ploughed at all. Having chanced to be left alone through the destructive 20th century, they are a (the?) major group of southern English barrows that have not been calamitously destroyed by archaeologists, soldiers or farmers.

After so much has been lost, it is time to back off: we should resolve not to make any destructive study of the Stonehenge standing earth monuments for the rest of the century.

Excavating in the Stonehenge landscape

Archaeology has an uneasy place as a force for conservation. Anxious to preserve, it uses destructive methods of study and enjoys the benefit when it can do salvage work in advance of development.

English Heritage, as the agency responsible for safeguarding the physical heritage, rightly has a partisan stance. When developers find good cause that it is 'not worth' conserving a historic building like the bombed Baltic Exchange in London, English Heritage resolutely fights for the conservation ideal - despite the extra cost someone will have to bear. Many are uneasy that English Heritage, when it is itself a developer as it is for the Stonehenge scheme, no longer fights for the conservation ideal of no A303 widening or a long bored tunnel, but settles for the compromise of the cut-and-cover tunnel and its accompanying archaeological destruction.

So it is particularly important that conservation ideals should come first in the Stonehenge landscape around the new roads, a landscape wholly controlled by conservation interests and where there is no financial or commercial pressure.

As well as unique monuments like Stonehenge and the centre of Silbury Hill, there are some classes of British archaeological sites, like the Upper Palaeolithic cave-sites, which have been largely or nearly all destroyed by destructive study. Too many burial mounds have been largely destroyed also. It is time to set a decisive new course, and the place to do it is here..

A new A303, however tunnelled, will mean hectares of destruction; research should be content with what we can learn there, and we should not propose other destructive interference as well. Stonehenge excavations

The Stonehenge landscape is promised to be the largest block of land in southern Britain where respect for archaeological traces is to be put first. Present road- building plans already would destroy the archaeology of many hectares; it is time to back off. we should resolve not to make any other destructive study of the Stonehenge landscape for the next decade.

Part of Plan 2 from Stonehenge in its landscape: twentieth-century excavations maps archaeologists' disturbance of the eastern side of the central stone setting. It shows how much of the centre of Stonehenge was destructively investigated during the 20th century.

A main purpose of these explorations was to discover what holes had been cut into the chalk bedrock, and in what stratigraphic relationships each hole held to others. The main knowledge gained was some understanding of what successive structures there might have been. It was not successful to the point of providing any clear and reliable sequence of 'ust what structures were built where and when.

Strikingly, we seem now to be not far from a time when the shape of that kind of large-scale feature, sediment- filled holes cut into chalk bedrock, will be reliably recoverable without excavation.

When that comes about, the cost in the destruction of those sediments and their content will no longer have been necessary in order to gain that benefit in knowledge.

* CLEAL, R.M.J., K.E. WALKER & R. MONTAGUE. 1995. Stonehenge in its landscape: twentieth-century excavations. London: English Heritage. Archaeological report 10. For the plan of Stonehenge showing what was excavated when, see plans 1 & 2; for the phasing, see especially the summary on pages 466-470.