thinking about archaeology

Stonehenge: still a choice


The text below is based on a presentation I gave to the Society of Antiquaries in London in May 2006, as a contribution to a debate about the future of Stonehenge; my piece was driven largely by slides (I was still using Kodachrome then) showing the three main alternative routes for the A303 road then being considered. As we know, the options then being offered by the government were all dropped as being too expensive; a less ambitious, “temporary” solution to the monument’s environmental and visitor problems is now being pursued.

I think it’s worth publishing this, as a piece of history (in several ways), and a record of the frustration that many of us felt at the time, when it seemed almost every archaeologist had their own opinion on what should be done, but frequently, it seemed, little knowledge. It is important to remember that English Heritage and the World Heritage Site Management Plan still anticipate a long-term future with a more radical and encompassing approach to this very special landscape. In the Guardian in 2008, Jonathan Jones blamed archaeologists who had striven to set Stonehenge into its contemporary context for the loss of the roads scheme: “stressing the religious meaning of the landscape as a whole”, he wrote, “archaeology has lost sight of the uniqueness of Stonehenge as a building”. As I argued then, I think he was wrong – but he was right in the sense that archaeologists were undoubtedly partly responsible for what happened. You can whinge and whine only for so long and get away with it.

The real Stonehenge

We like Stonehenge: or at least, we like to say how important it is, as if noone else had thought of it. Of course, everyone knows that. It is the only universal theme in the current debate.

We also like to complain about the roads at Stonehenge, and the facilities for visitors. This is not new. It goes back at least to 1933 when the Office of Works suggested closing the A344, and to 1928 when the Wiltshire Archaeological Society blocked Alexander Keiller’s proposal to build a museum in Stonehenge Bottom.

What is unprecedented is the scale of debate, consultation and assessment that has occurred in the past 20 years (though very many members of the public, including archaeologists, are plainly completely unaware of this – an important issue for another time). What is quite new is that something really could happen. A road solution has been approved at public inquiry, a proposed new visitor centre is likely soon also to receive planning permission, and for both some money is in place.

This difference should force us all to think carefully about our positions (the inspector’s decision to support a particular scheme was announced some nine months ago, but as far as I can tell noone objecting to the scheme has reviewed their stance, and no organisation has formally consulted its members). The debate ought no longer to be an opportunity for pointless if sometimes engaging posturing. It should not be about the meanings of academic structures we have imposed on the landscape, part of it inscribed as a world heritage site. Instead it must be about the real future of the monument and its environment, and how every one of us, around the world, experiences or imagines Stonehenge.

We were invited to comment on three road schemes, with the clear signal from the government that the approved one, the 2.1km tunnel and associated road works, was unaffordable at £510m. What should we do? Most of the noise has come from people who think the unaffordable scheme inadequate. The response, then, might be to repeat this view and demand something bigger. This is what 10 “conservation organisations” did in a press release on March 30 – though the text avoided any mention of what might be acceptable (there has been vague talk of a longer tunnel, likely to cost at least £1 billion). If we can’t have that, we are told, we should settle for “small–scale, interim improvements”.

This is fine if you want nothing to change – or even worse, if you want cheap tinkering that would allow the government to say the problem is solved (the ultimate outcome of a “partial solution” then being the A303 becoming a surface dual carriageway throughout). You leave Stonehenge, its visitors and landscape to wallow in eternal disgrace.

Yes, we can ask for nothing. The ideal of a longer tunnel is so compelling, that if we can’t have it, it is better that people should continue to die at the road junction in Stonehenge Bottom; that local inhabitants and businesses and everyone on their way to or from the south-west should for ever suffer the effects of a worsening traffic bottleneck; that this precious landscape should remain divided, with inhibited circulation of people and wildlife; that Stonehenge and everyone there will endure the sight and noise of traffic, 24 hours a day; and that we, archaeologists, should be held responsible for all of that. We can also imply, by arguing that any construction within the world heritage site is so damaging that it should not be considered, that all archaeological excavation should cease.

Or we can remove the road, and build a new and bigger one close by through quiet farmland rich in archaeological remains. The consultation offered two choices: we can stay entirely within the world heritage site, decimate an uninvestigated valley of immense ancient significance and block a spectacular but little known green way (the “southern route”). Or we can take a longer “northern route”, pass within metres of both the Stonehenge cursus monuments, physically and visually separate Stonehenge and the King Barrows from Woodhenge and Durrington Walls, as well as the proposed visitor centre, and place a severe barrier between Stonehenge and one of the richest ancient landscapes in Europe to the north (the military training area on Salisbury Plain is in every respect, apart from its lack of a stone circle, better preserved and of greater archaeological potential than the world heritage site).

Or finally we can remove the roads that presently disfigure Stonehenge – the “published scheme” – without damaging landscape elsewhere inside the world heritage site. With a 2.1km tunnel, if enough of the A344 is removed, we can actually reduce the area of road surface. Uniquely, we can open the landscape to uninterrupted movement – of people, animals and plants – from north to south, and transform public perception and engagement.

Yes, there is a cost. It’s expensive. The cheaper cut-and-cover tunnel is not an acceptable alternative to a bored tunnel (the two significant features of the former being the symbolic and practical loss of surface archaeology and its replacement by a cropmark that would forever map the buried road; and an earthwork in Stonehenge Bottom).

But if enough people could be seen really to want it – and it’s still achievable in time for the 2012 Olympics – the government might just listen. Stephen Ladyman, minister for transport, was asked on the Culture Show (BBC2, March 16), what he thought would be too much money for Stonehenge. “Somewhere between £284m and £500m in my view is where it becomes unacceptably high”, he said, apparently writing off the published scheme. But he then added, “Now, I accept entirely that Stonehenge is unique and it may well require a unique treatment, and maybe at the end of the day we’ll say this problem is big enough and the only way to solve it is the £510m project”.

Yes, a second tunnel portal (all A303 schemes require at least one such, none proposing a portal east of Amesbury) would be built within the world heritage site. But new land taken in by the wider A303 beyond that portal is of trivial area compared to that in any other scheme; it is not, except near an already dreadful roundabout, of great archaeological interest. Topography works to conceal the tunnel entrance and road cutting from many directions.

The real cost, I submit, is that many of us, to accept this solution, would have to concede two critical but entirely undebated points.

Many heritage professionals (including all those who signed the March 30 press release) have given a significance to the boundary of the world heritage site that is unwarranted. They fail to accept that within the site there is landscape of relatively low value; and that outside it there is substantial landscape (especially to west and north) of great ecological, archaeological and public leisure importance. History leads one to expect that these values will become increasingly clear as the years pass.

Calls for a longer A303 tunnel focus mostly on the need to move the western portal further from Stonehenge. Doing this might take it outside the world heritage site: but it moves it into a significantly richer environment, the valley of the river Till. I don’t recall a word of objection to that. Yet the boundary between the two, the western edge of the world heritage site, is no more than a line on the map marked by a modern road. An A303 routed entirely to the north of the world heritage site, pushing several kilometres of four-lane road through open downland, would make the Newbury bypass look tame (it did after all avoid Newbury – Larkhill would be less favoured). Yet such is the grip of the world heritage site boundary on Stonehenge thinking, this has been offered as a serious solution by major heritage players.

Secondly, we would need to surrender a fond pretence that Stonehenge is not part of our modern world.

“We passed over that goodly plaine”, wrote diarist John Evelyn after seeing Stonehenge in July 1654, “which I think for evennesse, extent [of] Verdure [and] innumerable flocks to be one of the most delightful prospects in nature”.

It is not 1654. Stonehenge is not one of nature’s most delightful prospects. Implementation of the published scheme, contrary to the claims of many objectors, would not mean a new highway across the world heritage site: it’s already there. It would not mean the destruction of remoteness, quiet and tranquillity: tunnelling part of the existing road could return them, but they don’t presently exist. Neither would it mean a hasty rush in a politically-favourable Olympian climate: if the timing just might be opportune, consultation and planning have been active for decades, and the solution long apparent.

We do have a choice.

We can say to the government we speak not for the British public, not for overseas visitors, not for Stonehenge: we speak for petty squabbling, management bureaucracy and antiquarian fantasy.

Or we can say, look, here is what was once one of the wonders of the world, whose power is so strong that still, every year, a million people brave danger, disillusionment and insult to see it.

Just think what you could do now.

car park

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