Stonehenge just featured on TV in the first film in The Flying Archaeologist series, “Stonehenge: The Missing Link” (online till May 27) . The series is presented by Ben Robinson, who’s a proper archaeologist – he’s a principal heritage at risk adviser at English Heritage (you might have noticed lots of other EH staff on screen, he lets his friends in too). Sometimes his enthusiasm carries him away with the significance of what he’s describing (are ploughed out long barrows really so special?). It’s nice to see all the sights, though, including in this film, the recent Marden dig and the source of the river Avon, even if the flying conceit begins to wear thin after a while. Air photography has told us very little specifically about the Stonehenge landscape in recent years, where it’s been overtaken by newer technologies including geophysics and lidar.
The “missing link” in the title is the dig down by the Avon below Vespasian’s Camp, not far from Stonehenge (see clip above). Here is a wonderfully important site, and all credit to those who found it and are researching it. Yet one of the extraordinary things about the site (I’ll say straight away I haven’t yet seen it) is that its real significance has been understated. You don’t often get that these days.
It’s a spring with copious remains of hunter-gatherer activity (mesolithic) from around 8–7,000 years ago. Partly because of the wet conditions, bone seems to be common, and really well preserved. The likelihood of there being preserved houses in the area is strong. This is extremely rare for this era, and so important to help us understand that world.
Yet whenever the site is mentioned, it seems, it’s linked to Stonehenge, as if it needs the prop. The Times ran a piece last year titled “Tracing the origins of Stonehenge”. Here’s one in the Independent in 2011, subtitled “How students found evidence to change the way we think about Stonehenge”. “Now evidence is emerging”, it says, “that the Stonehenge area could have been an important centre for prehistoric people several thousand years before the giant stone circle was actually built.”
Well, anyone who’s been shown the white painted disks on the surface of the Stonehenge car park (you can see one of them above, photographed a couple of days ago) knows that such evidence has been around for decades, and unlike the site by the river, it’s evidence that can at least be argued to have some relevance to the stones – it consists of pits that held enormous pine posts, that could hardly have had any practical use, 9–10,000 years ago. There is a bone from Stonehenge itself with a carbon date that suggests it’s probably mesolithic (see my blog here); and more recently Darvill and Wainwright’s 2008 dig found pine charcoal which was dated to around 9,000 years ago, in the centre of Stonehenge. We know there were people on Salisbury Plain, and on the future site of Stonehenge, in the mesolithic. We don’t need Vespasian’s Camp to tell us that.
What we do need is to find out more about what was going on at Vespasian’s Camp in the mesolithic. That’s a story potentially of international significance, not important just to a bunch of stones over the hill. It doesn’t need Stonehenge.