thinking about archaeology


Stonehenge: Not just a man thing

digging henge view (c) Mike Pitts.jpgPrehistoric Stonehenge is shown in reconstructions as a place where men shout at each other. We might catch a glimpse of a woman or two watching on the sidelines, but the important stuff was all being done by males.

We need to get the paints out. The largest analysis of human remains from Stonehenge ever conducted reveals that exactly half those buried there were women.

How has this come about? What does it mean?


The Stonehenge dead have long been with us. Ancient cremated human remains were first found there in 1920, and throughout major excavations that ran for a further five years. Yet until now, almost nothing was known about them. How many people were there? Were they typical of the wider population, or different? Male or female, young or old, fit or poorly, these individuals were anonymous, unstudied and unavailable for analysis.

The problem was that at the time the remains were dug up, no one knew what to do with them. Scientists thought they were useless. No museum wanted to store them. So in 1935, all the bones that had been kept – from at least 59 burials – were put back. Aubrey Hole 7, first excavated in 1920, was re-excavated, and the bones contained in four sandbags were poured in and covered up.

As a consequence, despite being the largest of its kind in the country – never mind that it was also at Stonehenge – the cemetery has been overlooked. It has played a bit part in histories and explanations of the monument.


Aubrey Hole 7 WEV Young 1935.jpg

Wiltshire Museum

We knew the remains had been put into Aubrey Hole 7 because of two short records. William Young, then curator at Avebury Museum, recorded the event in his diary, now in the collection of Wiltshire Museum, Devizes. As I noted in the paperback edition of Hengeworld, 15 years ago I found a letter in the Public Record Office that showed the “surplus bones” were indeed the human cremations (and not, for example, animal bones).


“Mr Newall arrived with the surplus bones at half-past two. There were four ordinary sand bags full. These were placed at the bottom of the Aubrey Hole, together with a stout leaden plate, which bore an inscription recording at length all the circumstances which led to their being deposited here, and the date.

 “The hole was then filled in immediately while Nr Newall was present, then after I had re-laid the turf bordering, and had put a layer of fresh, white chalk in the centre, there were hardly any indications to show that it had ever been touched. !!!”

WEV Young Diary, 28 January 1935

Excavating Aubrey Hole 7 (c) Adam Stanford.jpg

The ring of Aubrey Holes excavated in the 1920s marked with red circles. Photo Adam Stanford

In 2008 Mike Parker Pearson, Julian Richards and I led a team to re-re-excavate Aubrey Hole 7 (you may have seen us at work in a TV film first broadcast in 2010), one of the last excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project


lead plaque (c) Mike Pitts.jpgWe found the pit. We found the lead plaque. And we found the bones – sadly not in little tins or boxes, or even in four bags, but a dense layer of mixed fragments (so it was impossible to distinguish individual burials). We also found, as an unexpected bonus, a new burial. Perched on the edge of the Aubrey Hole was an undisturbed cremation burial (of a woman, as it turned out), that William Hawley in 1920 and Young and Newall in 1935 had missed. Which begs the question, how many more had they dug over and not seen?


excavating bones (c) Mike Pitts.jpgChristie Willis has spent years analysing the fragments of burnt bone, a monumental task. The first full results of her studies are about to be published in Antiquity (see reference at end). The new British Archaeology has a feature written by the same team, summarising these results and putting them into a bit of context.

Here I will write just about the women. It seems to me this is a big thing to think about.

Because of the fragmentation and mixing, it was very difficult to distinguish between individuals. Of 21 pieces of skull that came from different people, Christie found nine were from men, five from women. She found 24 bones from the inner ear that were also from different people, and of these she was able to say nine were from men and 14 from women. I’ve already mentioned the woman whose burial we found on the edge of the Aubrey Hole, and another female burial had been found elsewhere at Stonehenge which was not reburied for us to dig up. You cannot possibly argue with this evidence that Stonehenge was a male preserve.


excavating burial (c) Mike Pitts.jpg

We found an undisturbed burial beside the Aubrey Hole, which had been missed in 1920

We think burial at Stonehenge was likely to be reserved for selected people of higher status. Why?

Stonehenge is the biggest, but it’s not the only circular cremation cemetery of this time, around 3000–2500BC. But they are not common: we know of less than 20 across the whole of the UK.

Secondly, those we do know are not big enough to represent everyone in a likely local population. At Stonehenge, we know from new radiocarbon dates from 25 different people that cremation burial occurred over at least six centuries (between around 3100BC and 2500BC). At the higher estimate of 240 burials for all of Stonehenge (my personal choice), that would be only 10 people/generation (25 years). At 150 burials (Mike Parker Pearson’s choice) it’s even less, six or seven. Neither number seems remotely big enough to represent the likely catchment area were everyone buried there.

Thirdly, this one is at Stonehenge!

We can only guess as to why more women were buried at Stonehenge than in earlier generations – though our guessing is backed by more scientific evidence than you will have seen in last night’s Silent Witness. It’s probably a reflection of wider changes across Britain, associated with the origins of the circular cremation cemeteries that replaced long barrows.

These earlier barrows were closed but accessible: remains were hidden away deep inside stone or wood chambers beneath large mounds. People seem to have entered the chambers repeatedly to add burials and possibly to take out bones for ritual use.

At the bigger cremation cemeteries like Stonehenge, as much effort was expended in digging and moving stones or timber as in building a barrow (at Stonehenge, for example, we have a ring of 56 Bluestones in the Aubrey Holes, surrounded by a circular ditch and bank 100m across). But after cremation (a demanding and spectacular event) an individual got their own, simple, grave. Their bones were not put into a communal chamber where in time they were muddled up with others. They remained separate, where they could be commemorated and remembered as individuals.

It seems these individuals could be women as much as men. Perhaps we are seeing a shift from a society dominated by male lineages and hierarchies – where the family or class was more significant than the person – to one where individual status or achievement stood for more. And that wider recognition extended to women as well as men.

Another of Christie Willis’s discoveries further suggests that in the early neolithic status was partly achieved by birth – and less so in the late neolithic. She found relatively very few children buried at Stonehenge compared to remains from long barrows – and even those we can see are probably an exaggeration of the relative quantities, as smaller younger bones will have survived the cremation and mixing better than larger adult bones, and thus be easier to spot.

It’s worth noting also that long barrows tended to be sited on hilltops or high ground, away from where people lived. Cremation cemeteries tend to be on lower ground, near rivers – not necessarily precisely where people lived (Stonehenge is conspicuously clear of any domestic remains), but in similar environments and near by.

This is a complete guess, but perhaps in line with a move from a focus on male lineage and hierarchy, to both genders and individuals, this reflects a parallel shift from markers of territory and land (barrows) to commemorations of communities (cremation cemeteries). Selective access to burial places (perhaps the ashes of most people were scattered in the rivers) suggests society remained hierarchical, but it doesn’t prove it.

It has been immensely rewarding to see these remains finally re-excavated and analysed (notwithstanding Pagan protests that would have stopped us). The remains of these forgotten people will change the way we understand Stonehenge. The journey of discovery has only just begun.

BA147 Stonehenge.jpgThe excavation of Aubrey Hole 7 and the subsequent research were conducted by Mike Parker Pearson, Christie Willis and Tony Waldron (UCL Institute of Archaeology), Pete Marshall (Historic England), Jacqueline McKinley (Wessex Archaeology), Mike Pitts (Digging Deeper), Joshua Pollard (University of Southampton), Colin Richards and Julian Thomas (Manchester University), Julian Richards (Archaemedia) and Kate Welham (Bournemouth University). Our report (“The dead of Stonehenge”) appears in the February 2015 edition of Antiquity [now slated for April 2016]. The project was part-funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Oxford Scientific Films, with the consent of English Heritage, the Department for Culture Media & Sport, and the Ministry of Justice

 “The Stonehenge people: senior and high status… and not all men” is in British Archaeology Mar/Apr 2016/147, online today and in the shops on Friday February 5

Alan Sorrell sledge

Not so much this perhaps (Alan Sorrell 1950s)…

Kelvin Wilson stonehenge.jpg

… as this (Kelvin Wilson for Archaeology magazine in 2007)

Added Feb 3 9.20am.

Stonehenge site plan.jpg

In response to Tim Daw’s comment, I’ve added this plan below. The yellow Aubrey Holes have been excavated, but have no record of cremated human remains being found in them. I’ve also put a yellow line in the south-east marking the edge of the excavated areas there (Hawley claimed to have dug up almost everything on that side of the site north and west of this line). You can see from this how little of the bank immediately adjacent to the Aubrey Hole ring, or the area beyond the ditch, has been investigated: Hawley trenched along the ditch, but barely touched the bank. If you read anything that suggests there is some kind of astronomical significance in the location of things found under the bank, you need to bear this in mind – what we’re seeing could easily be just where archaeologists have dug.

David Dawson, director of the Wiltshire Museum, has put a very interesting piece up about WEV Young’s diaries, which are in the museum’s collection.

And BBC News picks up the story. And Discovery News, and many others. The struggling-unsuccessfully-to-get-a-grabbing-but-relevant-headline prize must go to a Jezebel contributor.

See Roman London from space!

4940.jpgForget the Great Wall of China. Time Peake’s photo of London shows a city 2,000 years ago. Street lights pick out roads, still used today, that connected the new Roman city with the rest of the province.

The top photo (courtesy the Guardian) shows London photographed by Peake at midnight on Saturday.

Below is a detail from the Ordnance Survey’s Roman Britain map, with major roads marked in red. I’ve outlined the frame of Peake’s photo in yellow.

Roman Britain map.jpg

And underneath you can see those roads mapped onto the photo. Look at this, then look again at the photo at the top.

London with roads.jpg






The heart of the Stonehenge bluestone problem

Chronicle 1972.jpg

For some of us old archaeologists last night’s Timewatch film was as much about memories as Stonehenge, but it was great for both (and good to see Salisbury Museum’s new prehistory gallery).

I enjoyed Magnus Magnusson talking to Richard Atkinson and Geoffrey Kellaway about bluestones for a Chronicle film in 1972, like a polite Newsnight interview (love that rug!). Glyn Daniel sits beside Atkinson, struggling to conceal a quizzical smirk. (Photo above is from the film.)

Did the bluestones get to Stonehenge by human transport or glacial action?

The fundamental problem with resolving this issue is clear in the film clip, and it hasn’t changed a bit. Kellaway (a geologist) talks about archaeology and the motivations of people who built Stonehenge. Atkinson (an archaeologist) talks about geology.

Kellaway: What nobody has explained is why were rotten stones that have in fact come out of a peat bog, which are absolutely useless for building, which have come from north or central or south Wales, we don’t quite know which, why those should be gathered together in heaps on Salisbury Plain?

Atkinson: If the bluestones were brought by ice to somewhere on Salisbury Plain, it seems to me highly improbable that what was brought was subsequently sufficient just for the needs of the builders of Stonehenge and left nothing over.

It began like this:

Magnusson: Professor Atkinson, do you think that Mr Kellaway is talking nonsense?

Atkinson: If I were to say yes, that would be rude.

Things are not always so polite now, but it’s an enduring academic shouting match that hasn’t moved on in 40 years. We’ll only progress if geologists and archaeologists work together, rather than lean on their ignorance of the other’s field for support.

On TV tonight

timewatch.jpgA rummage in the BBC Stonehenge archives, should be entertaining, presented by Alice Roberts with Tim Darvill, Mike Parker Pearson and myself. I don’t know who wrote the script (fingers crossed…), but there’s some great film stashed away! BBC4 tonight.

Final British Archaeology of the year

British Archaeology 146.jpgAnd here it is, a farewell to 2015 with a great new magazine. As I wrote earlier, we lead with an exclusive feature about new Stonehenge research. Some of the stones came from Wales. But where? And how did they reach Wiltshire – by glaciers, or human transport? With the discovery of two prehistoric quarries in Pembrokeshire, archaeologists seem to be getting close to answering these age-old questions.British Archaeology 146 Glastonbury.jpgElsewhere we reveal the UK’s oldest iron-smelting site (next to Scunthorpe’s troubled Tata Steel plant), results of a new excavation at the famous Glastonbury Lake Village, and the discovery of strange animal-headed carved figures in Cornwall. Time Crashers’ Cassie Newland describes a life-changing moment in a Melbourne cinema. We report on a bronze age smiths’ house, and attempts to mitigate antiquities looting in Africa. And we celebrate 25 years of a planning policy that transformed British archaeology and our nations’ story – with the news that trends in commercial archaeology appear to be predicting an imminent UK construction boom.British Archaeology 146 Gulval.jpg

Have archaeologists found Stonehenge quarries?

Bluestone open spread.jpgThey certainly think so – not all, but two important ones. I went to visit their excavations in Pembrokeshire this summer, and was sufficiently impressed to ask them to write about their discoveries for British Archaeology. You can read their report with many photos – including this fabulous opening shot by Adam Stanford – in the new magazine later this week. Digital on Wednesday December 9 (as an App and in web form) and print in the shops on Friday. Copies for Council for British Archaeology members and magazine subscribers are on their way.

Carn Goedog M Pitts.jpg

Excavations at Carn Goedog (photo M Pitts)

In the meantime, here is the UCL press release.

Stonehenge ‘bluestone’ quarries confirmed 140 miles away in Wales

Excavation of two quarries in Wales by a UCL-led team of archaeologists and geologists has confirmed they are sources of Stonehenge’s ‘bluestones’– and shed light on how they were quarried and transported.

New research by the team published today in Antiquity presents detailed evidence of prehistoric quarrying in the Preseli hills in Pembrokeshire, helping to answer long-standing questions about why, when and how Stonehenge was built.

The team of scientists includes researchers from UCL, University of Manchester, Bournemouth University, University of Southampton, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, and Dyfed Archaeological Trust.

The very large standing stones at Stonehenge are of ‘sarsen’, a local sandstone, but the smaller ones, known as ‘bluestones’, come from the Preseli hills in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Geologists have known since the 1920s that the bluestones were brought to Stonehenge from somewhere in the Preseli Hills, but only now has there been collaboration with archaeologists to locate and excavate the actual quarries from which they came.

Director of the project, Professor Mike Parker Pearson (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: “This has been a wonderful opportunity for geologists and archaeologists to work together. The geologists have been able to lead us to the actual outcrops where Stonehenge’s stones were extracted.”

The Stonehenge bluestones are of volcanic and igneous rocks, the most common of which are called dolerite and rhyolite. Dr Richard Bevins (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales) and Dr Rob Ixer (UCL and University of Leicester) have identified the outcrop of Carn Goedog as the main source of Stonehenge’s ‘spotted dolerite’ bluestones and the outcrop of Craig Rhos-y-felin as a source for one of the ‘rhyolite’ bluestones. The research published today details excavations at Craig Rhos-y-felin specifically.

The special formation of the rock, which forms natural pillars at these outcrops, allowed the prehistoric quarry-workers to detach each megalith (standing stone) with a minimum of effort. “They only had to insert wooden wedges into the cracks between the pillars and then let the Welsh rain do the rest by swelling the wood to ease each pillar off the rock face” said Dr Josh Pollard (University of Southampton). “The quarry-workers then lowered the thin pillars onto platforms of earth and stone, a sort of ‘loading bay’ from where the huge stones could be dragged away along trackways leading out of each quarry.”

Professor Colin Richards (University of Manchester), an expert in Neolithic quarries, said: “The two outcrops are really impressive – they may well have had special significance for prehistoric people. When we saw them for the first time, we knew immediately that we had found the source.”

Radiocarbon-dating of burnt hazelnuts and charcoal from the quarry-workers’ camp fires reveals that there were several occurrences of megalith-quarrying at these outcrops. Stonehenge was built during the Neolithic period, between 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. Both of the quarries in Preseli were exploited in the Neolithic, and Craig Rhos-y-felin was also quarried in the Bronze Age, around 4,000 years ago.

“We have dates of around 3400 BC for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 BC for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn’t get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 BC” said Professor Parker Pearson. “It could have taken those Neolithic stone-draggers nearly 500 years to get them to Stonehenge, but that’s pretty improbable in my view. It’s more likely that the stones were first used in a local monument, somewhere near the quarries, that was then dismantled and dragged off to Wiltshire.”

Professor Kate Welham (Bournemouth University) thinks that the ruins of any dismantled monument are likely to lie somewhere between the two megalith quarries. She said: “We’ve been conducting geophysical surveys, trial excavations and aerial photographic analysis throughout the area and we think we have the most likely spot. The results are very promising – we may find something big in 2016.”

The megalith quarries are on the north side of the Preseli hills, and this location undermines previous theories about how the bluestones were transported from Wales to Stonehenge. Previous writers have often suggested that bluestones were taken southwards from the hills to Milford Haven and then floated on boats or rafts, but this now seems unlikely.

“The only logical direction for the bluestones to go was to the north then either by sea around St David’s Head or eastwards overland through the valleys along the route that is now the A40” said Professor Parker Pearson. “Personally I think that the overland route is more likely. Each of the 80 monoliths weighed less than 2 tons, so teams of people or oxen could have managed this. We know from examples in India and elsewhere in Asia that single stones this size can even be carried on wooden lattices by groups of 60 – they didn’t even have to drag them if they didn’t want to.”

Phil Bennett, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority’s Culture and Heritage Manager, said: “This project is making a wonderful contribution to our knowledge of the National Park’s importance in prehistory.”

The new discoveries may also help to understand why Stonehenge was built. Parker Pearson and his team believe that the bluestones were erected at Stonehenge around 2900 BC, long before the giant sarsens were put up around 2500 BC.

“Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery of why Stonehenge was built and why some of its stones were brought so far”, said Professor Parker Pearson.

Further excavations are planned for 2016.

“Craig Rhos-y-felin: a Welsh bluestone megalith quarry for Stonehenge” is published in the journal Antiquity today.

bluestones Antiquity.jpgAnd the new CBA book:

Stonehenge CBA book

A vote in a Wiltshire field about drainpipes

Woodhenge view 1.jpg

The last time I visited Woodhenge, the site of a great ritual timber structure near to, and of the same age as, Stonehenge, there was a small community notice on the back of a road sign. ‘BEWARE!’ it read, ‘THIEVES OPERATE IN THIS AREA!’

They do indeed, and they’re not just after our ‘mobile phones, wallets and bags’. Some time in November a pair of bronze plaques that told the visitor about the site were prized off their concrete pillar and taken away.

Woodhenge plaques.jpg

It may not sound much if you don’t know the site, but it would be dreadfully sad if the plaques were not seen again. We don’t know of course, but it’s unlikely that whoever took them understands (or understood) their significance. They have no market value – a tiny amount of metal, and they are too recognisable to be sellable without being caught. If you’ve got them, they might look nice over your fireplace, but what will you tell your friends? Better to slip the plates in a jiffy bag and quietly drop them into a police letterbox. They’ll know what they are.

Woodhenge view 3.jpg

Woodhenge, an iconic part of the Stonehenge world heritage site, was discovered from the air in 1925 by a first world war air ace and VC flying a Sopwith Snipe. The pilot, Squadron Leader Gilbert Insall, could see rings of pits as dark marks in a growing crop. He told Wiltshire archaeologist Maud Cunnington. She mounted a dig with her husband and nephew, and William Young, an experienced excavator. In 1926 and 1927 they uncovered the whole area, exposing 168 postholes, mostly in six concentric rings.

All of that was not only a dramatic turn for understanding the ancient Stonehenge landscape, but was pioneering both as an aerial discovery and as a large scale excavation, with a full report that included many specialist contributions. It didn’t stop there.

The Cunningtons bought the site in 1928, to preserve it and to allow the public to visit. They put a marker over each posthole, a concrete drainpipe sealed with a cement top (bushes had been considered – these would grow into a “shapeless tangle” and their roots would destroy the pits – and wooden posts would rot). The pipe tops were painted with colours that matched those in the printed report, to distinguish the different rings. The ground was laid to grass, and the whole given over to the care of the Office of Works who, eventually, accepted responsibility. The Works department then installed the plaques as a guide for the public.

The same process occurred soon after at the Sanctuary, in the Avebury part of the world heritage site, where the Cunningtons again excavated the entire area of a series of concentric pit rings, in this case a mix of stone- and postholes. The Office of Works erected an information plaque there too, but it disappeared many years ago when the signs were renewed. In those days people cared less publicly about these things, and a civil servant might have innocently taken the plaque home; now is perhaps the time for them to drop it into an anonymous jiffy bag.

Woodhenge plans.jpg

At Woodhenge the plaques survived in situ until November. There was a plan, and below that a text. As you can see above, the bronze plan was a direct copy from the fold-out printed plan in the excavation report, published in 1929 – in effect a peer-reviewed study monumentalised for public consumption in cast bronze and coloured enamels.

Woodhenge pipes.jpg

“The pillars,’ wrote Maud Cunnington in her report, “though perhaps not aesthetically pleasing, seemed on the whole the best method of preserving a permanent record on the site.”

We were able to see the concrete markers from the inside when Josh Pollard re-excavated part of the Cunningtons’ trenches in 2006. These three pipes from the outer ring (above) show two tops and a base; weathering and lichen growth distinguish the parts that were exposed above the carefully mowed turf. In the photo below, you can see a line of blue-topped pipes and a pair of pits in the same ring, refilled by the Cunningtons after excavation.

outer ring.jpg

As they weathered in, the pipes and plaques became Woodhenge, which otherwise, for all but the nerdiest of archaeological specialists, would have been indistinguishable from an empty field. The painted pipes are a full-scale replica of the excavation report’s site plan, just as the upper bronze plate was a scale copy. Helen Wickstead and Martyn Barber write about this and wider issues in “Concrete prehistories: the making of megalithic modernism”, in Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 2 (2015).

The pipes and plaques also became Woodhenge in the sense that, through nearly 90 years, they impressed themselves on visitors and recorded their passage. The bronze plates were so covered in graffiti and random scratches to have acquired an abstract background to the original engraved messages, in which scratched texts are all but unreadable. Strange snatches of phrases or words could occasionally be made out:


What looks like the date, above right, February 25 1952.


Is this a military ID, MHUS 1854?

was entered by.jpg

A treble clef.

Martyn Barber kindly directed me to a report on a visit to Woodhenge by the Wiltshire Archaeological Society in July 1931 (in the society’s Magazine 44, 1931, 475–76). It’s worth quoting the relevant passage in full. Maud Cunnington described their dig, after which her husband talked about the pipes.

“Capt. Cunnington mentioned that they had purchased the site, and marked the position of the holes with drain pipes of different sizes as being the best way that could be thought of, of preserving and showing the plan of the place. The drain pipes filled with concrete were not beautiful, but they did mark the site of each hole, and the plan could be seen. A difficulty, however, had now arisen, they desired to hand over the site to the Office of Works, for preservation, but that body would only accept it, on the understanding that the drain pipes should be removed and the holes marked as the Aubrey holes at Stonehenge are, by a patch of chalk only [the chalk Aubrey Hole markers were later replaced by flat concrete discs, painted white]. The obvious objection to this was, that unless the grass was regularly kept cut closely it would be impossible to see the chalk patches at all, and even if you could see them it would be impossible to distinguish the different circles from each other.

“Capt. Cunnington said Mrs. Cunnington and himself were quite willing to lessen the height of the pipes if that was thought desirable, but unless some definitely better means of marking out the circles was proposed, they were unwilling to consent to remove the pipes altogether. He wished to put it to the vote of the members present as to whether the pipes should be done away with or not. Admiral Hyde Parker then proposed that the pipes be retained as they are. This was seconded and was put to the vote by the President, when the entire company, except two members, voted in its favour, and it was desired that the result should be communicated to the Office of Works.

“Members then returned to their cars and went on to the George Hotel, at Amesbury, for lunch, and after lunch visited the Church.”

On the day after Parliament voted to extend the air war against IS from Iraq into Syria, and of Hilary Benn’s landmark speech delivered with a touch of Laurence Olivier, I like to imagine a group of archaeological enthusiasts standing in a corner of a Wiltshire field. They are not far from a military camp, established before the first world war and still active today. They vote, with proposer and seconder, on painted concrete drainpipes arranged in patterns in the field. And they resolve to pass the result on to the government.

It is not just a pair of bronze plates that have been stolen. It is a part of Woodhenge and its memories.


Mark Harrison, national policing and crime advisor for Historic England, has asked people who knew anything about the plaques to contact Wiltshire Police (101) or Crime Stoppers (0800 555111).

In this photo below, the concrete pillar with the plaques (rear right) looks like a lectern, facing the congregation.

Woodhenge view 2.jpg

Wonderful Calder show makes me think of ice age art

I may have been the only person at yesterday’s Tate Modern press view to think about cave art, but the more I looked at Alexander Calder’s dangly wires and coloured shapes, the more I saw animals on the walls of Lascaux and Chauvet, galloping in flickering flame light.

The show is a revelation from the start – in fact, especially at the start. The exhibition features mostly work Alexander Calder made in the 1920s and 30s, with just a handful of later things. The first room is full of figures. Who knew? Early in his artistic career Calder the man of abstract mobiles drew people and animals in wire, with extraordinary vitality and line.

It was looking at these that I stared to think about caves.

If you stand in front and stare, the wire figures look flat; they are confident line-drawings with a Picasso-like muscularity of form, and impossible to avoid breasts and genitals. That’s how they look in the catalogue photos. But as you move gently around the objects themselves, they spring to life (the image at the top shows three views of The Brass family, 1929: compare below, Picasso’s Acrobats before a king with his little dog in attendance, 1966). The depth in the constructions reveals an exaggerated 3D effect. At first it looks as if the figures are moving, but then they change shape until they become unrecognisable – or something new. It’s a mesmerising effect.

Photo Grosvenor Gallery

The hyper three-dimensional impression reminded me of 3D movies, in particular Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (the first full-length such film I saw, and the only one I’ve liked). Herzog used 3D cinema with breathtaking success to show us inside the Chauvet Cave, home to the world’s oldest figurative art (if, like me, you accept the radiocarbon dates, which not everyone does), made around 35,000 years ago.

The difference between looking at The Brass family in life and in the catalogue, is the difference between seeing art in a cave and reproduced in a photo. Most of us see only photos of cave art, and most of what archaeologists have written about the art is probably based on other archaeologists’ photos and drawings. Not only are these heavily edited and selected, but the art is flattened and depersonalised. As we move around The Brass family, we have a unique, personal experience that only seeing the real thing can give.

In that sense, even Cave of Forgotten Dreams fails, as it presents what Herzog wants us to see. Seeing the art itself (or perhaps the 3D reproduction) we experience the art in a way that is unique to us. Neither, without being there, can we smell the cave, or feel damp or cold. We can in the film at least hear noises (I think to myself, as I hear pings and knocks drifting in from another room), but we will hear the echo of our own voice only by being there.

And so with Calder’s work, we need to see the real thing. It’s born of dance and circus, animals and acrobats. “It’s not child’s play”, however, says one of the curators. The thrill and drama of the circus is not, perhaps, unlike the hunt. Ice age hunting is to kill and get food and raw materials, but it’s also exercise, stealth and balance, inspiring and exhilarating spectacle, electrified, like the big top, by the possibilities of danger and failure.

Later, standing in another room beside a delicate wafty construction that dawdles overhead and makes me think of falling snow (its called Snow Flurry, I find) co-curator Ann Coxon describes to me how the mobiles arrived in flat packs. They pulled up out of packaging like bones from a fish, three dimensions from two.

Two views of Snow Flurry (1948)

With light, it can work the other way, a three-dimensional form turned into two-dimensional shadow. Look at these wire heads: a man becomes a skull, an expression changes, a face becomes meaningless and a lion-like face becomes human.

A crowd of journalists stands listening to talks. Mobiles drift a little, stop, move a little more. When the show is open and busy with visitors walking round and through the room, perhaps the art will move more, sharing the experience. However you look at it, it’s always different.

Four views of Form against yellow (1936)

Tate Form against yellow

The same work, Form against yellow, in Tate’s press photo

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture, is at Tate Modern, November 11–April 3 2016

Tunnel Truths 2

The Western Daily Press picked up on my previous blog yesterday (a complete surprise to me). You can read Tristan Cork’s piece here. It includes comments from the Stonehenge Alliance, who seek a longer tunnel (at even more boggling expense). They got to meet “the Unesco mission”.

“We pointed out”, said an Alliance spokesman, “that the A303 through the World Heritage Site in its present form did not compromise the outstanding universal value of the Site,” adding that proposed works might threaten the WHS status.

Really? So the Stonehenge Alliance would support construction of the present road if it were not there? That sounds incredible, but there is a logic to it, so it may be true. Accepting that the present A303 is a problem compromises opposition to proposed roadworks, because these can be shown (balancing existing and proposed roads) to improve the “outstanding universal value”. You escape that conundrum by imagining the present A303 as a donkey path with daisies.

Tunnel truths

ICOMOS and UNESCO are visiting Stonehenge this week, to ponder the current set of road tunnel proposals. A lot has changed since we were last thinking about such a tunnel. Despite stories in the press, these changes add up to a much better proposition than the one that had, in principle, been accepted a decade ago.

The government has apparently promised funding for an unprecedented 2.9km-long bored tunnel and further beneficial works. After so many years of failed projects, I still find that promise difficult to believe, welcome as it is. However, I was assured it really is true by National Trust and Historic England representatives on a helpful tour put on for Council for British Archaeology trustees (who kindly invited me along) a couple of weeks ago.

HE-NT mapA 2.9km-long tunnel is (in my opinion) the best of three options, none of which has been examined in detail and for none of which precise routes have been agreed. So talk of threats to archaeological remains at Blick Mead (which is a kilometre beyond reach of any proposed roadworks, not “within 20 metres”), and even vague comparisons to the destruction wreaked on heritage by ISIS, is premature and quite silly. The National Trust and Historic England are not heritage terrorists.

With any proposed tunnel, this road would disappear

With any proposed tunnel, this road would disappear and we could continue on this track to Stonehenge 

Here is where we are now:

  1. A new visitor centre has been opened on the western edge of the world heritage site.visitor centre
  1. Former, much-derided facilities close to Stonehenge have been removed, and the A344 road that passed close to the stones has been closed and grassed over.
    Mesolithic pits marked by concrete, once in a car park

    Mesolithic pits marked by concrete, once in a car park


    That was a road

  2. A new concept of “outstanding universal value” (OUV) has been introduced to world heritage site thinking. In the past, greater conservation emphasis was given to the area around Stonehenge (known as the “Stonehenge bowl”) than the rest of the world heritage site. OUV gives equal weight to the entire area. This means the conservation demands that have to be met along any future road route are greater than they were. (Thus, scored this way, the approved 2004 tunnel loses its benefits, and comes out “neutral” – no point).
  1. Traffic on the A303, the main road passing through the Stonehenge world heritage site, continues to grow, and major delays are becoming commoner.
  1. The government, in a pre-election pledge, says it is determined to improve traffic flow along the entire route of the A303.
  1. As part of that project, the government says it is prepared to fund works through the Stonehenge world heritage site. Option 3 (A1–E on the map above) includes a 2.9km tunnel past the stones; beyond the western tunnel entrance, the present A303 would be moved south to leave clear land around the important Winterbourne Stoke barrow group.
  1. In a joint statement, the National Trust and Historic England have described this option as “a huge improvement on the previous 2.1km tunnel scheme and in line with the initial preliminary assessment work which suggests that a tunnel of at least 2.9km might have a substantive beneficial impact on the World Heritage property, subject to detailed design.”

On available evidence, I can’t find any reason to disagree with this statement. What is on offer is extraordinary. It would greatly extend the already radical improvements to the immediate surroundings at Stonehenge, and to the world heritage site as a whole.

A344 gates

coach park

Byway 12, north of Stonehenge

Byway 12, north of Stonehenge

cars byway 12

Byway 12 close to Stonehenge, cars parked having left the A303

Cursus bank looking north

Cursus bank looking north

Earthworks of an apparently unfinished road north of Stonehenge, perhaps dug in the mid 18th century (looking east towards King Barrow Ridge)

Earthworks of an apparently unfinished road north of Stonehenge, perhaps dug in the mid 18th century (looking east towards King Barrow Ridge)

sunset 1


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