thinking about archaeology

Archive for November, 2011

View from the Heelstone

* Please note the images in this post, as explained below, were changed and the text slightly adjusted at 8.50pm on December 1.

Let’s have a dispassionate look at the latest Stonehenge news. The Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project (University of Birmingham and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection) continues its geophysical survey. So what’s new?

The press release is titled “Discoveries provide evidence of a celestial procession at Stonehenge”, which is pretty much what all the journalists who reported it said (often just copying the release). It includes a “podflash” interview with Vince Gaffney, and there is a video visualisation of the theory here.

The Independent really went to town, using words like “extraordinary” and “massive”, suggesting the discoveries might “turn the accepted chronology of the Stonehenge landscape on its head”, and that “Stonehenge site’s sacred status is at least 500 years older than previously thought”. The project as a whole is going to “transform scholars’ understanding of the famous monument’s origins, history and meaning”. Golly.

I couldn’t see where all this came from, so I contacted the Birmingham University press office, who very kindly gave me some geophysics plots. As no other news media anywhere as far as I can see had used them, I thought it would be helpful to post them here, which I did. The press office later asked me to replace them with the lower resolution images below, which show pretty much the same thing, though the actual anomalies that are interpreted as prehistoric pits are harder to pick out.

I mostly leave it to others to look at these plots and comment on the interpretations (please do). What I will do here is describe what the Birmingham team found, and add a bit of context.

They pick on two geophysical anomalies, just south of the northern line of the Cursus. Here is the survey on its own:

And this is their interpretation, a triangle connecting the two pits revealed by the survey (at the top), and the Heelstone at Stonehenge (at the bottom):

Seen from the Heelstone, they say, the eastern anomaly is on an alignment towards midsummer sunrise, and the western is on an alignment towards midsummer sunset. (Assuming there are no obstructions, the eastern site is visible from Stonehenge; but the western site, as Gaffney says, cannot be seen, explaining their choice of a burning post in the video representation.)

These anomalies have not been excavated or cored, so we do not know what they are, or how old they are.

Antler from the west end of the Cursus has been dated to 3630–3370BC (1). The earliest known phase at Stonehenge is some five centuries later, at 3015–2935BC. The erection of the Heelstone is undated, but is generally assumed to have taken place at an early stage in the site’s history, perhaps as early as 3000BC – though as my excavation there in 1979 showed, at that date (we’re guessing these dates) the stone may have been standing a little bit north-west of its present site (2).

The press release gives this comment on the two anomalies from Vince Gaffney (project leader from the IBM Visual and Spatial Technology Centre at the University of Birmingham):

“This is the first time we have seen anything quite like this at Stonehenge and it provides a more sophisticated insight into how rituals may have taken place within the Cursus and the wider landscape. These exciting finds indicate that even though Stonehenge was ultimately the most important monument in the landscape, it may at times not have been the only, or most important, ritual focus and the area of Stonehenge may have become significant as a sacred site at a much earlier date.”

The release also notes “a new horseshoe arrangement of large pits north-east of Stonehenge which may have also contained posts”. No indication is given of which features this refers to.

A “previously unknown gap in the middle of the northern side of the Cursus”, also noted in the press release, sounds like the gap that the English Heritage landscape survey (see below) found in 2010.

There are several other survey projects in the Stonehenge world heritage site, most still in progress.

Stonehenge landscape relationships geophysics survey

In June 2011 this project conducted a geomagnetic survey covering two square kilometres north of the A344, between King Barrow Ridge and Fargo Plantation (largely equivalent to the Birmingham survey area, without the block south of the road). The work was directed by Timothy Darvill (Bournemouth University), and Friedrich Lüth and Andreas Fischer (Römisch-Germanische Kommission, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Frankfurt) with support from Sensys GmbH. Details have not been published.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project geophysics survey

This multi-university field project, responsible for most of the recent excavation in the world heritage site, has a geophysics project directed by Bournemouth University’s Kate Welham. They have surveyed over 5.5 hectares since 2004. Details have not been published.

Stonehenge landscape survey (English Heritage)

This is the first modern detailed survey of the earthworks and other standing remains within the world heritage site – the barrows, field systems and linear ditches, tracks, ponds, recent military remains and so on.

Stonehenge mapping project (English Heritage, part of the National Mapping Programme)

This created a map-based record of everything of archaeological and historic interest that is known about the world heritage site from aerial photos. It added 539 sites to the 2,062 recorded at the start, and continues to be updated.

Stonehenge lidar surveys

Lidar creates a very detailed 3D image of the ground surface using airborne laser imagery, and has revealed subtle new details to known earthworks such as field boundaries. The English Heritage survey is described here and in Antiquity 2005 (3). Wessex Archaeology has an impressive 3D animation using lidar data here, and a zoomable lidar image of the whole world heritage site here.

Stonehenge laser scanning (English Heritage)

This has created a high resolution 3D image of the surfaces of the megaliths, and was done on site in spring 2011.


1 “The date of the Greater Stonehenge Cursus”, by Julian Thomas, Peter Marshall, Mike Parker Pearson, Joshua Pollard, Colin Richards, Chris Tilley & Kate Welham, in Antiquity 83 (2009), 40–53

2 “On the Road to Stonehenge: report on the investigations beside the A344 in 1968, 1979 and 1980”, by M Pitts, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 48 (1982), 75–132

3 “New light on an ancient landscape: lidar survey in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site”, by RH Bewley, SP Crutchley & CA Shell, in Antiquity 79 (2005), 636–47



It’s a shame that Stonehenge’s new visitor facilities won’t be ready for the 2012 Olympics (and the recent inquiry finding that part of the A344 can close is a great step towards getting those facilities). But it’s good to see the stones featuring in the programme. They have a strong place in the torch video just published, and the torch itself will be going there for an off piste visit as it overnights in Salisbury in July (I will be there!).

We’ve also been told that the Cultural Olympiad (under Ruth Mackenzie’s direction, and already looking to avoid all the vacuous lack of ambition of the millennium festival) will feature Stonehenge: French street art group La Compagnie Carabosse will turn it into “a glowing fairytale environment… accompanied by seductive live music”. This is being presented by the Salisbury International Arts Festival on the evenings of July 10–12.


Best ever Stonehenge video

How can you take any of them seriously after this wonderful thing? And did EH really know what was going on?