thinking about archaeology

Archive for August, 2013

Where was the Stonehenge Festival?


Festival 1976 (NMR/English Heritage)

Festival 1976 (NMR/English Heritage)

All over the place really. On my first summer solstice visit in 1971 it was little more than a gaggle of people sleeping in the ditch around the stones. These two photos from Julian Richards’ excellent collection published by English Heritage show where it went from there: first immediately outside the earthwork to the south-west, so that it faced the rising sun on June 21; then across the road into what we call the Cursus field, National Trust land between Byway 12 and the Fargo Plantation. At its greatest extent it did run onto the Cursus itself (thanks for the comment, Francis Stoner), and spread eastwards into the Avenue field. Damage was reported at the time to the woodland at Fargo and to some of the barrows.

Festival 1982 (Alan Lodge)

Festival 1982 (Alan Lodge)

It’s high time a proper academic study was done of this story. There must be a great deal of information out there in the form of press reports, memories, correspondence and snapshots (and English Heritage, National Trust and police files), but it needs to be collated and assessed before we ever get a real picture of what happened in all its details. Would make a good PhD.

EH 2004

A344 memories: Real archaeology at Stonehenge, as work continues to remove the road and car park

car park panorama small

If you visit Stonehenge now – as huge numbers did in August – you’ll really see signs that things are changing. Work continues in the car park to prepare a turning circle at the end of what will be the stub of the old A344. The road itself as it once continued eastwards to Stonehenge Bottom has now all but gone, exposing the chalk below. Wessex Archaeology has been monitoring it, and has excavated parts of the two parallel Avenue ditches, and a small part of what looks like the lip of the Heelstone ditch, as Ollie Good kindly showed me.

My interest in this was naturally strengthened by my excavations immediately beside the road there in 1979 and 1980. We had several advantages over the modern archaeologists.

The team were almost all volunteers, archaeology students and staff from Southampton University, so brought considerable skill, but at no cost to the Department of the Environment, which was technically running the show, through me as its employee directing the digs. The areas we excavated were by comparison very small. Though the long, narrow nature of the trenches brought its own problems, their scale, and no cost restrictions on labour, meant we were able to hand excavate the entire thing, including cleaning all the “natural’ by hand. All artefacts excavated within features were plotted in 3D, and we recorded over 20 vertical sections.

The Stone Floor in 1980 was so dense, we excavated that in 1m-long segments, and wet-sieved all the soil, though note my comment in the report on this: “Individual treatment of finds from the Stone Floor was felt to be quite inappropriate for the vast quantity and frequently minute size of the material recovered. Contemporary opinion had led one to expect accumulations of Stonehenge rock filling hollows and wheel ruts in recent road surfaces. However, detailed post-excavation analysis has strongly indicated the deposit to be prehistoric. Any future exposure of similar features should, without question, be recorded in greater detail.”

By comparison, Wessex has a large area – as large as it ever gets near to Stonehenge – and time and resources are subject to a contract with English Heritage. Over 30 years ago, senior archaeologists were doubtful that anything much of worth would be found under the road verge. They were wrong. But today, there could have been little question that anything of interest once near the surface (such as an equivalent to the Stone Floor) would have been at least partly removed by the road, which was sunk in a slight hollow.

So no great surprise, perhaps, to find that little seems to have been revealed beyond the Avenue ditches and the Heelstone ditch, though with some interesting features that may be part of the early road (which contrary to an old saw in some news reports, has been there since the 18th century, not eternity). Down by the car park is a curious stone-lined floor-like feature, which is apparently thought to be relatively modern.

The surface geology at Stonehenge is complex. I’m not sure the stone pit we excavated in 1979, whose fill was very similar to the surrounding cryoturbated chalk, would have been found had we not been able to excavate it slowly by hand, and spend a lot of time staring at it.

Near end of 1979 dig, with army lorries and the Stonehenge Free Festival in the Cursus field. Excavated Avenue ditch just visible in near end of trench
Avenue Ditch in 2013

Avenue Ditch in 2013

1980 excavation, with stone floor in foreground (most of what you can see are pieces of sarsen)

1980 excavation, with stone floor in foreground (most of what you can see there are pieces of sarsen)

A344 2013 looking east

Looking east in 2013

A344 2013 2

The curious floor by the car park

The curious floor by the car park

Byway 12 has become a popular parking area – saves the parking fee, and in 2014 will be so much more convenient than the more distant visitor centre

Byway 12 has become a popular parking area – saves the parking fee, and in 2014 will be so much more convenient than the more distant visitor centre

Starlings flock at Stonehenge: but soon the fences, and the food, around the car park will be gone.

starlings on stones

starling on fence

A British Archaeology for the holidays

Cover with Spine

The front cover of the new British Archaeology is inevitably a bit sombre, but it’s a reminder of how fortunate we were to have had Mick Aston among us. I run an obituary-listing feature at the end of every year (about 60 individuals in the last one); and very occasionally deaths will be noticed of particularly well known and influential archaeologists during the course of the year. But the only archaeologist who has appeared in their own right on the cover before was Mick himself. I doubt there will be another while I’m still editing.

Greg Bailey has written about Mick and broadcasting, I created a My archaeology column by bringing together fragments from various texts Mick had written for the magazine over the years, and there is Mick’s own final Travels column – on the Isle of Purbeck. And I wrote a short appreciation. “If we care”, he said of archaeologists, “we should organise ourselves better”. None cared more than Mick.

It’s also worth noting that the Council for British Archaeology has put all of Mick’s columns online for free access.

Then there’s all the usual stuff, good archaeology, including these five features (and more), book reviews and so on. The excavation feature on Broxmouth, a hillfort near Edinburgh excavated in 1970s, was picked up by BBC Scotland.


ARTICLE ARTICLEI do rather like a short News story about Stonehenge. Not only does it report an apparent conclusion to something that has been debated for over two centuries – whether or not the great sarsen circle was ever complete – but the discovery and reporting were down to two English Heritage monument stewards. Things have changed from the distant custodian days, when it was not unknown for on-site staff to care little about the monuments they would rather the public kept away from. Stewards are often much better placed than archaeologists to get really familiar with sites we all like to think we know well.

The story is in the magazine, but here are some photos I took on my visit there to check it out. The short but wonderfully hot and dry summer created a rarely seen degree of parching in the grass at Stonehenge, revealing stone pits in the stone circle that geophysics has not yet been able to reach.

parch marks

parch marks

Stonehenge car park

And work continues in preparation for the new facilities, here an archaeologist from Wessex Archaeology watching the removal of a modern bank along the edge of the car park. I talked about the changes briefly for an Open Country programme on BBC Radio 4 which came to Salisbury Plain.