thinking about archaeology

Archive for December, 2011

Happy new year from Stonehenge!

The booklet that accompanied the launch of Henry Moore’s Stonehenge Suite, consisting of 15 lithographs and, in an extended edition, 16 lithographs and two etchings, all with this etching on the title page, in 1974. Altogether 100 sets were printed, before the lithographic images were removed from the stones and the etching plates cancelled. This book also features a preliminary drawing, and an introduction by Stephen Spender. Happy new year everyone!

A quick spin around Stonehenge

A further Stonehenge inquiry took place this year, looking at the possible closure of some roads and paths. This morning Wiltshire Council announced that it has accepted the inspector’s recommendations, so another stage towards improving visitor facilities and the landscape around Stonehenge has been passed. I found some of the proceedings difficult to follow, so I had a word with someone at English Heritage, who was very helpful. Here is what happened as I see it.

The key thing is that road changes have been approved, including grassing over the road closest to the stones (part of the A344), allowing construction of the new visitor centre and facilities to go ahead, with a projected opening late in 2013. However, not everything the proponents asked for was granted, and some issues that are unlikely to go away will need to be resolved later down the line.

English Heritage had asked for the A344 closure, which was something the Department for Transport had to respond to. It also wanted to straighten the road north of Airman’s Corner as part of improving the safety of that dangerous junction, which will incorporate access to the new centre when it is done. This is known as a “stopping up order”, and the government agreed to it on October 31 (see map).

The other part of this vision had been proposed by Wiltshire Council, which by a quirk of law is the authority with powers to make such a suggestion, and is also empowered to take the decision. This proposal (a “road traffic order”, or RTO) created so much public concern, the council decided to distance itself and extend the public inquiry. The aim was to cut down general road traffic within the world heritage site, especially on routes that remain unmetalled – including Byway 12, a track that passes close to Stonehenge, crossing nearby archaeological sites at the Cursus to the north and barrows on Overton Down to the south (see map). It sounds straightforward, but it generated the sort of debate we’ve seen at previous Stonehenge inquiries: a mix of elegant thought, chaos, irrelevance and incomprehension, and sometimes just sheer boredom. In other words, it’s as fascinating as all the others.

The inspector, Alan Boyland (who had also reported on the stopping up order), decided that it would be a good thing to close the A344 between Stonehenge and Airman’s Corner to everyday traffic, but a bad thing to do the same to byways (“byways open to all traffic”, or BOATs). The latter was not what Wiltshire Council or English Heritage, or indeed some of the respondents to the inquiry, had hoped for. But it will have pleased many, including some Druids and Pagans, and off-road driving campaigners.

But the celebrations may be short lived (in Stonehenge terms, anyway). Some of the objections came from people who want to drive off-road vehicles through the world heritage site (and some, it might seem, from those who want to uphold the principle that anyone can drive wherever they like). Others, including many of the Pagans, came from people who want to park close to Stonehenge. These are quite different things, and both are problematic.

Firstly, the inspector upheld the right of people to drive along the byways. It might be “convenient and practical” for the likes of Wiltshire Council and English Heritage, who seek to improve the environment, to stop the driving, he said. But it would not be “suitable and appropriate”. He was not persuaded that “the gain to the overall amenity of the WHS would outweigh the loss of amenity of motorised users”.

That’s fair enough, but it is a conclusion that brings problems. The RTO was being sought because the principles are enshrined in the world heritage site management plan. This was created in 2000, after huge public consultation and debate, was revised and updated after more consultation in 2009, and is endorsed by national government (the Department for Culture, Media & Sport) – it is “a material consideration in planning decisions”. It cannot just be ignored. Policy 5c (there are over 40 policies of this type, listed under the headline Action Plan) reads:

“Vehicular access to Byways within the World Heritage Site should be restricted apart from access for emergency, operational and farm vehicles.”

Casual short-term parking close to Stonehenge on Byway 12

Secondly, the inspector did not say that people had a right to park their vehicles on byways. He noted that near Stonehenge, Byway 12 “is frequently used for casual short-term parking” (there were 15–20 vehicles there yesterday, several looking rather long-term). But, he asked, “Is there a right to park on a BOAT?” No, he said. “The public right… is a right of passage”. While “a number of incidental uses may not be unlawful… [such as] temporary parking… this would not be a right in itself.”

So in both cases – driving and parking – there are going to be problems in future. This is partly because the continuing use of Byway 12 in these ways after the other changes have occurred, would be likely to become more intensive (as was seen briefly earlier this year when the A344 was temporarily closed at Stonehenge); partly it will be more disruptive to the majority of Stonehenge visitors, who would then otherwise be seeing the stones in a landscape devoid of car parks and normal road traffic (apart from that on the A303); and partly it will be much more dangerous, with access to the byway only from the fast moving and very busy A303.

And that’s very briefly summarising a huge mass of evidence, argument and review.




Bluestones on News at Ten

Just back from a cold and grey Stonehenge, talking to an ITV crew about the bluestone story I wrote about in my last blog: there should be something on ITV news bulletins tonight.

As I was driving down thinking about it, it struck me that one of the really interesting aspect of this research is the fact that all the samples of rock matched to Pont Saeson come from chips and flakes (debitage), and not from megaliths. What does this mean?

One of the distinctive features of the rhyolitic rocks is that they are flinty – they have a good conchoidal fracture. That makes them relatively easy to break up, if they are standing as monoliths at Stonehenge. But it also makes them pretty good for making tools, or portable artefacts of some kind. There are plenty of flaked bluestone “tools” in museum collections from Stonehenge (some of them from my own dig, as illustrated above, from my PPS report). Which of these are made from debris created when stones were dressed on site? Which are made from broken up megaliths? And which were made in Wales and brought to Stonehenge by people visiting, perhaps on a pilgrimage of some kind? Clearly the distinction has important implications for how we understand Stonehenge.

These are questions that future research can answer, through excavation in Wales and at Stonehenge and study of the debris – that we can do this is a reflection of the quality and utility of the new research. Ixer and Bevins identified five groups of rock amongst the rhyolitic pieces they studied, of which three (by far the bulk of all they saw) they have matched to the Pont Saeson outcrops. There is one buried stump at Stonehenge (stone 32e) that they say could well be from Pont Saeson (to be confirmed), but the four standing rhyolitic stones are different. One of the latter (stone 48) belongs to one of the two very rare classes that Ixer and Bevins identified, which have yet to be matched to a source. One way excavation at Stonehenge would help us, is in allowing modern identification of the stumps and other bits of megaliths at the site.

Just before I set out to Stonehenge, I emailed Ixer to ask how to pronounce “Pont Saeson”. Was it Sayson or Season? He replied that Bevins always calls it Sigh-son. So now we know. (I got his message after the interview, so I used the more specific Craig Rhos-y-felin!)

One of a few things I said that probably won’t make it on air, but interesting nonetheless, are these figures, which I worked out long ago. If we imagine a complete Stonehenge (itself debatable, especially for the sarsen circle), the total weight of rock at the site would have been around 2,000 tonnes. Most of this (some 85%) was sarsen. But if you calculate tonnes/kilometre, based on assumptions about where the sources were, these two rock categories work out about the same, at 50–60,00 tonne/km. All sorts of factors complicate the issue (the sheer bulk of the big sarsens brings exceptional logistical problems, while the shorter distance would have been far less problematic than having to come from Pembrokeshire; most sarsens are likely to have been brought to the site in one go, while bluestone may – or may not – have arrived in different episodes; etc). But it’s this sort of thinking that we need more of, we need to understand the practical Stonehenge as well as the things that are impossible to know, such as why it’s there.

Bluestones – proof for human transport to Stonehenge?

Norman Hammond’s piece in Today’s Times (“Bluestones theory is now frozen out”) highlights the work by Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer on the precise origins of the Stonehenge bluestones. This is landmark stuff, and worth trying, briefly, to summarise.

There’s a lot of stone debris under the ground at Stonehenge, and more in the area around. For much of the 20th century the former was known as the “Stonehenge layer”. William Hawley associated it with the original dressing of megaliths (hence, any pits found below it were said to be older than the standing stones), while Richard Atkinson thought it derived from destruction of the stones, and was largely post-medieval or modern. As I found at my small excavation on the roadside in 1980, at least some of this debris almost certainly is prehistoric. At the time, I claimed it was contemporary with the carving of the stones. Mike Parker Pearson and Tim Darvill would now like to associate it with prehistoric stone destruction; on available evidence, I think it’s impossible to be certain either way. However, while the debris across the site is likely to have a variety of different origins, most of it, at least, probably does come from stones used for megaliths. So it’s an extremely important resource for understanding Stonehenge.

At last, we have some substantial modern studies of this material. Hammond quotes the most recently published, by Ixer and Bevins in Archaeology in Wales. Other articles include theirs in the Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine, and one they authored with Nick Pearce in the Journal of Archaeological Science (see references). They bring an important insight: the great bulk of the non sarsen stones at Stonehenge (but not all), come from a very restricted region in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales. So restricted, that Ixer at least is confident in saying that this alone points to human transport as the only likely mechanism for the stones having got to Stonehenge.

The best known type of bluestone is the spotted dolerite, of which all the stones in the surviving inner arrangement at Stonehenge are composed. These are long known to have originated in the Preseli Hills. Ixer and Bevins have also examined specimens of the other main class, rhyolitic tuffs.

The work began principally with a study of the stone fragments picked up on the surface or excavated in test pits near the Cursus, just north of Stonehenge. Though several different types of rhyolitic rock were represented, they found that most “had a restricted and distinctive petrography both in terms of their mineralogy and textures”, and that “this petrography was unusual for south-west Wales, being only recognised from the Pont Saeson area”. In subsequent fieldwork, building on Bevins’s extensive knowledge of the area, they located outcrops at Pont Saeson, in a deep valley on the northern edge of the famous Preseli Hills. In the JAS article, they reported that some rhyolites from Stonehenge were the same as samples from Pont Saeson (on Craig Rhos-y-felin), and further detailed work confirming this is reported in the Archaeology in Wales article. The location is so precise, we have every reason to think that actual quarries should now be found, opening up exciting fieldwork possibilities.


“Craig Rhos-Y-Felin, Pont Saeson is the dominant source of the Stonehenge rhyolitic ‘debitage’”, by RA Ixer & RE Bevins, Archaeology in Wales 50 (2011), 21–31

“Stonehenge rhyolitic bluestone sources & the application of zircon chemistry as a new tool for provenancing rhyolitic lithics”, by RE Bevins, NJP Pearce, & RA Ixer, Journal of Archaeological Sciences 38 (2011), 605–22

“The petrography, affinity and provenance of lithics from the Cursus Field, Stonehenge”, by RA Ixer & RE Bevins, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 103 (2010) 1–15

“The detailed petrography of six orthostats from the bluestone circle, Stonehenge”, by RA Ixer & RE Bevins, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 104 (2010), 1–14

Some boys like chocolate

The Guardian has published a really interesting survey by Kira Cochrane and others about the gender imbalance in the media. Over four weeks in the summer, they counted the number of male and female writers from their byline names, and sure enough there is a strong over-representation of men. I looked at this last year, moved by a column by Bidisha that I still think wrongly blamed editors for this pattern, and presented various figures for British Archaeology (and British archaeology). Adding my statistic for named feature writers to the Guardian figures, it looks like this:

Putting the entire blame on the media industry is wrong, but have to say I had some sympathy with Bidisha when I saw this in last weekend’s Sunday Times.

It’s the headline from page 9 of a 20-page supplement (including ads), called 100 TOP GADGETS. It doesn’t say 100 TOP GADGETS FOR MEN, and one imagines plenty of women would be interested in things like sat navs, radios, computer games, tablets, phones and cameras (etc). Yet there is no “Gadgets for boys” page. The few items on page 9 include a calculator wrapped in chocolate, a woolly hat with speakers and a video memo device doubling as a fridge magnet. The Contents list calls page 9 “The best gadgets for the fairer sex”. What is the editor thinking? Don’t boys like chocolate?