I went to the annual meeting of the Stonehenge Riverside Project in English Heritage’s Bristol offices last week, and very interesting it was.
The SRP is behind much of the fieldwork that has taken place in the Stonehenge world heritage site over the past few years: that includes the work at Durrington Walls (including the neolithic “village”), the discovery of “Bluestonehenge”, the excavation of the Aubrey Hole containing the reburied human cremations at Stonehenge itself, and much else.
Excavation really has ended now, and the meeting was about last year’s fieldwork, continuing research and how the whole project is to be completed and published. This is the largest Stonehenge research project ever conducted, and with the new opportunities offered by the latest in archaeological sciences, the prospects for a greater understanding of the history and early meanings of Stonehenge really are exciting.
For an earlier generation of archaeologists, this stage of work was too often treated as the least interesting or urgent. Focus would often shift to excavating at another site before what we now call “post-excavation” was finished – or even started. The reasons for this are complex, but undoubtedly part of the problem was that in another era, the relatively few archaeologists knew each other well, visited each other’s digs and sometimes felt that was enough: in other words – despite what they said or even wrote into excavation manuals telling other people what to do – they felt no compelling duty to make the full results of their excavations available to everyone.
Unfortunately Stonehenge was one of many sites to suffer in this way. As is now becoming well known, descriptions of important excavations there in the 1950s and 60s directed by Richard Atkinson, were until recently limited almost entirely to his popular book published in 1956 . It is beautifully written, but the short appendices added in 1960 and 1979  did little to reflect the fact that Atkinson had been uncovering further substantial information in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1964 – and only the first, small dig in 1950 had been fully published at all .
The scale of the resultant misunderstandings resulting from this only began to become apparent with the publication of all 20th century excavations at Stonehenge in 1995 . Amongst many problems, was the standard history of the monument, divided into three phases. This had been enshrined by Atkinson in the official guidebooks – but it was never openly debated by archaeologists, as only Atkinson had access to the evidence. We can now see that he built on ideas of his early colleague at Stonehenge, Stuart Piggott, and especially on the earlier excavations there by William Hawley: his book implied otherwise (and indeed had nothing but spleen for Hawley), but only a little that came from Atkinson’s excavations fundamentally informed the three phases into which the 1995 study tried to squeeze the full evidence.
Now, as we learnt last week in Bristol, we have another rewriting of Stonehenge’s early history, based on information from new excavations and further analysis of old records. The difference from previous attempts is that this time all the evidence seems to fit. In the past there have always been odd things – such as radiocarbon dates or supposedly stratified artefacts of a particular date in the wrong place – that we had to leave aside if the theoretical history was to work. And not only does it all fit, but to me it feels right. It has the right complexity, the right richness in the story that Stonehenge demands. It is in many ways quite different from the accepted models. And it comes none too soon, as English Heritage really gets into gear with preparing the timeline for the new visitor centre’s displays and guides.
The proper description of this history (in “stages”, not “phases”) is billed as a possible future paper in Antiquity (perhaps this year, perhaps later) by Tim Darvill, Pete Marshall, Mike Parker Pearson and Geoff Wainwright. It is very pleasing to see that the small 2008 dig inside Stonehenge by Darvill and Wainwright, at first hailed as proving the arrival of bluestones at Stonehenge in 2300BC (something everyone now seems to agree was misleading), has come to play a pivotal role in the new history . It would be wrong of me to pre-empt the publication in any way, and what follows excludes detail where some of the most interesting ideas lie. But Parker Pearson has recently published references to the “new Stonehenge” [6, 7] which I can distil now without adding anything I heard at the meeting. Of course this remains to be peer-reviewed and debated, and (like Atkinson’s model before) it comes here without the evidence. Some of this will undoubtedly change: even in Parker Pearson’s two new essays [6, 7] there are small differences in the dates (there’s most detail in the Encyclopaedia Britannica piece – the other is written by Marc Aronson – but I’ve put just about all the key points in here). But I really think this outline is going to be core to a new generation of Stonehenge studies, and that’s big stuff.
First stage: 3000–2935BC
Circular ditch and bank ring some 100m in diameter, with the main access to the north-east and a narrower entrance to the south, enclosing 56 pits (the Aubrey Holes) which hold standing Welsh bluestones. Human cremation burial occurs in and around the Aubrey Holes and the ditch and bank. Most of these burials are of adult males, and the practice continues till at least 2300BC; as I pointed out in Hengeworld , they constitute the largest known cemetery of its type. The timber posts across the main entrance to the enclosure may also belong to this stage.
A second stone circle (Bluestonehenge) is built beside the river Avon. This consists of some 25 Welsh bluestones in a ring about 10m across, and is perhaps used for cremating and preparing the bodies whose remains are taken to Stonehenge.
Second stage: 2640–2480BC
At least 75 large sarsen stones from the Avebury area, about 20 miles (32km) to the north, are dressed at Stonehenge. They are then arranged at the centre of the earthwork circle in a horseshoe-plan setting of five tall trilithons (two uprights and a lintel, like a pi) surrounded by a ring of 30 uprights linked by curved lintels. Between the trilithons and the sarsen circle is an arc of bluestones, standing in pits known as the Q and R Holes. These bluestones may have been taken from the Aubrey Holes, and possibly also from Bluestonehenge.
At this time, if not before, the four sarsen Station Stones are erected near the Aubrey Hole ring. Two of the Station Stones (those now missing) are then partially covered by low mounds (the South and the North Barrow). The South Barrow is raised over the floor of a 10mx11m D-shaped building immediately east of the southern entrance into the enclosure. From this entrance a route marked by timber posts leads towards the centre of the site. Three large sarsens form a facade across the north-eastern entrance (of which the Slaughter Stone alone survives); beyond them stands the Heelstone within a circular ring ditch.
At Durrington Walls, two sets of concentric oak circles are built within a large settlement. Nine square-planned houses have been excavated out of what may have been 1,000 such dwellings, in what was perhaps the Stonehenge builders’ camp. Close by stands a third group of concentric oak rings, known as Woodhenge.
Third stage: 2470–2280BC
The Avenue earthwork (two parallel sets of ditches and banks defining a wide passageway), almost 2 miles (3km) long, is dug from Stonehenge to the river Avon, where it meets a small henge (a bank and ditch ring) dug at the site of Bluestonehenge after the stones are removed.
At Durrington Walls, the ruins of the village are enclosed by the bank and ditch of Britain’s largest henge enclosure. An earthwork avenue 560 feet (170m) long is built to connect the larger set of concentric oak circles (the Southern Circle) and the river Avon. The Southern Circle has decayed by the end of this stage.
The Durrington avenue is aligned on the summer solstice sunset, while the Southern Circle faces the winter solstice sunrise. At Stonehenge, both the summer solstice sunrise, and the winter solstice sunset, can be viewed along the Avenue and through the centre of the monument.
The Amesbury Archer is buried the other side of the river Avon.
Fourth stage: 2280–2030BC
The bluestones are rearranged to form a circle between the trilithons and the outer sarsen ring, and an oval within the trilithons.
Fifth and sixth stages: 2030–1520BC
A ring of pits known as the Z Holes is dug outside the sarsen circle, and apparently some time later a ring of pits beyond this known as the Y Holes (these are poorly dated and understood).
1 Atkinson, RJC 1956. Stonehenge. Hamish Hamilton
2 Atkinson, RJC 1979. Stonehenge (revised ed). Penguin
3 Atkinson, RJC, Piggott, S & Stone, JFS 1952, The excavations of two additional holes at Stonehenge, and new evidence for the date of the monument. Antiquaries Journal, 32, 14–20
4 Cleal, RMJ, Walker, KE & Montague, R 1995, Stonehenge in its Landscape : Twentieth-Century Excavations. English Heritage
5 Pitts, M 2009. A year at Stonehenge. Antiquity 2009, 184–94
6 Parker Pearson, M 2010. Stonehenge, in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
7 Aronson, M with Parker Pearson, M 2010. If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge. National Geographic
8 Pitts, M 2001. Hengeworld. Century