Stonehenge is unique – the road tunnel would have respected that
Misconceptions about this ancient site have led to the rejection of this visionary scheme, says Mike Pitts
The Guardian, Tuesday March 11 2008
Jonathan Jones is absolutely right to bemoan the tragedy dealt to Stonehenge. The government’s rejection of the visionary landscape scheme, which had taken so long to design at such cost, was crass, short-sighted and unforgivable – and will haunt future generations. But his explanation for what happened is wrong (The final insult, March 5).
Stonehenge, he says, “is part of a ‘sacred landscape’, still visible on Salisbury Plain … at least, that’s the theory currently championed by leading archaeologists, including Mike Pitts and Francis Pryor, both of whom have written lively books on the subject. But I think this very theory is to blame for what is happening at Stonehenge.” This expansive view, suggests Jones, pitted the National Trust (which owns the landscape) against English Heritage (which owns the stones), contributing “to the disagreements that have led to this impasse”.
The National Trust’s recent objections to the proposed road tunnel (they were once allies of English Heritage) have been unfortunate, but have little to do with archaeology. Neither did the protests from others stem from our growing realisation that, more than 4,000 years ago, the stones were part of a yet grander religious and social scene. Indeed this knowledge was responsible for some of the more imaginative aspects of the now abandoned scheme.
The misconceptions brought to the debate were about Stonehenge’s recent history. Everyone accepted that Stonehenge is now a mess, but few seemed also to see that it is not just the stones that suffer: it is the people who live in nearby villages, who use the A303 for business and pleasure, and who visit Stonehenge from around the world; it is the wildlife and countryside; it is the character of an ancient place and our ability to engage with that ancestry at the deepest level. Many opponents of the proposed scheme, which would have buried the roads and provided quality visitor facilities outside the world heritage site, were defending an imaginary 18th-century landscape: talk of “driving a highway through Stonehenge” ignored the fact that it is already there.
Many in the media choose to see Stonehenge as a place where Turner or Constable might pop up, not articulated lorries. And English Heritage failed to broadcast the splendour of its vision, and to listen and talk to local people.
This happened on our watch, and we are all to blame. Yet what is now being planned, to satisfy a government fantasy that Stonehenge’s problems can be resolved at low cost by 2012, will make things even worse. Half-cocked changes will entrench everything that is bad, while holding back what is needed, for generations to come.
Jones suggests Stonehenge’s uniqueness “has been talked down by the experts”. To the contrary: new research has deepened our understanding and should increase our wonder. Many of us had been desperately trying to get out the message that Stonehenge was special, that extraordinary measures had to be taken to save it.
“Why don’t we care about Stonehenge?” asks Jones. The answer is that the present roads, facilities and posturing have all but concealed its stupendous glory. If only we knew, we’d care all right.