At last: a Stonehenge story that is exactly what it says

Simon Banton, Tim Daw and Mark Bowden (left to right) survey pits for missing sarsens 17 (in foreground beneath tape), 18, 19 and 20
Simon Banton, Tim Daw and Mark Bowden (left to right) survey pits for missing sarsens 17 (in foreground beneath tape), 18, 19 and 20

The new Antiquity has a paper by Simon Banton, Mark Bowden, Tim Daw, Damian Grady and Sharon Soutar. All work for English Heritage: Bowden, Grady and Soutar are based at the Swindon centre, and Banton and Daw at Stonehenge. Their study began in last year’s exceptionally dry summer, when Tim Daw realised patches of dead grass at the site matched the location of some missing stones. Simon Banton agreed. They contacted their archaeological colleagues in Swindon, and set out to record the marks.

The story followed by the press is about the big sarsen circle (the BBC has a good report with a couple of key illustrations from the Antiquity paper, for which you need to be a subscriber to read). This says that the parchmarks, on the west side of the site where there is the longest run of missing stones, definitively prove that there were once stones there, and thus that the circle really was a circle – and not, as some archaeologists have been arguing, an unclosed arc.

Readers of British Archaeology will have learnt about this a year ago, when I reported the news – and the startling point that had the site hose been a little longer, the grass there would have been watered, and the marks might never have been seen. I was pretty confident that this was indeed evidence that the circle had been complete, as you can read in the news text copied at the end of this blog. Ironically, given the press’s new shared confidence, the Antiquity team say that “the evidence is still inconclusive”.

“While the discovery of parchmarks corresponding to stone holes 17 and 18 does have a bearing on this question”, they write, “it does not answer some of the other difficulties listed above [eg “lintels are missing from positions where it would have been difficult (and illogical) to remove them”] and the presence of a stone hole does not of itself prove that a stone ever stood in it.”

Signs of pits beyond the standing stones
Signs of pits beyond the standing stones

Leaving that aside (I remain on the completist wing), the new paper brings much more than this. Dave Field (also English Heritage) noticed further marks in the grass that corresponded to the Y and Z Holes (both excavated and unexcavated) – and “others [which] apparently formed a third, concentric ring between them”. This is entirely new, and potentially of huge significance in our flailing attempts to understand these pits beyond the stones. “Until the new features at Stonehenge can be corroborated”, they conclude, “:and in the absence of dating evidence this remains speculative: but if [the parchmarks between the Y and Z Holes] could be proved to be postholes of mid third millennium BC date they would offer firm evidence for [Alex] Gibson’s proposal [of multi-circuit timber post settings at Stonehenge].”

parch marks

And there’s more.

“A number of more diffuse marks were noted, at approximately 5m intervals, on the inner flank of the southern and eastern sections of the enclosure bank, three of them apparently corresponding with holes F, G and H… This second set of marks was photographed from the air (by DG) on 26 July and from a lower level by Adam Stanford on 27 July… but unfortunately it was not possible to survey them until the following week when they were already fading rapidly (and some had indeed disappeared).”

As the Antiquity team say (thank you!), this new evidence offers “some support for Pitts’ suggestion of an outer ring of stones between the Aubrey holes and the enclosure bank. This was based on antiquarian evidence, the presence of holes F, G and H, and the Station Stones (Pitts 1981). However, again, more research is needed to clarify this issue.”

This is a wonderful piece of serendipitous research, highly productive and promptly published. If anyone remained unconvinced that new, targeted excavation at Stonehenge is needed, surely any doubts must now be dispelled?

Ground-truthed: the dead grass at the base of stone 56 on the left exactly maps Gowland’s 1901 trench (below). The small square just to the right is where one of his supports stood when they were straightening the stone. The larger patch beyond, around the fallen stones, is where the ground had been cut out for the gravel that used to fill the area before the public were excluded
Ground-truthed: the dead grass at the base of stone 56 standing on the left exactly maps Gowland’s 1901 trench (below). The small square just to the right is where one of his supports stood when they were straightening the stone. The larger patch beyond, around the fallen stones, is where the ground had been cut out for the gravel that used to fill the area before the public were excluded

Gowland 1902 fig 7

This is the Antiquity plan, slightly adapted: colouring the Y and Z Hole rings with a pink band makes it easier to see the newly revealed pits in between. We have no firm evdience for when any of these orange “pits” were dug, or what they were for.

Banton et al 2014 adapted
Banton et al 2014 adapted


Parchmarks at Stonehenge, July 2013”, by S Banton, M Bowden, T Daw, D Grady & S Soutar, Antiquity 88 (2014), 733–39.

Stones, pits and Stonehenge”, by M Pitts, Nature 290 (1981), 46–47.


Stonehenge dispute solved after 260 years

From British Archaeology Jul/Aug 2013/132

Generations of guidebooks and reconstructions for television films have shown an original Stonehenge as a complete megalithic circle. Yet since at least the 18th century archaeologists have debated whether that was so. The idea that there never was a full ring of sarsens had gained ground in recent years. New evidence resulting from the hot, dry weather seems to have clinched the case for a complete circle. Had English Heritage provided its site staff with a longer hosepipe, it is evidence that may never have been seen.

Stonehenge today looks much as it did when first recorded in the late middle ages. Approached from the north-east, it has the appearance of a ring of massive, closely spaced pillars under a continuous ring of lintels. From the south-west, however, most of the stones in the apparent ring are seen to be missing, or fallen and broken.

In 1655 the architect Inigo Jones, inspired by ancient Roman buildings, imagined Stonehenge as a symmetric monument with a complete lintelled circle. Architect John Wood’s rival theory, based on the first accurate survey of the stones and published in 1747, was that “the whole Work was never compleat”. Jones’s version became the popular view, though Wood’s has always had its followers, among them Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, who surveyed the site in 1880. In 1995 geophysical survey found no trace of four stones. A study by English Heritage in 2010 saw an “increasingly likely possibility that the outer stone structure was not completed as a circle”.

A new case for a full ring emerged last year with a 3d laser survey of the stones by English Heritage (feature Nov/Dec 2012/127). Signs for massive damage to fallen stones were taken to argue that many could have been removed entirely. Details of stone finish and shape suggested that Stonehenge, “an architecturally complex structure, and not a regular circle”, was designed to be seen from the north-east and the inside; stones to the south-west were smaller and less well finished. Clues to missing stones – geophysical and excavation evidence, fallen fragments, and tenons on adjacent stones implying the existence of former lintels – left only one megalith for which no reasonable case could be found: number 17.

In July zones of grass parched brown in the rare heat were noticed by Stonehenge steward Tim Daw where buried ancient pits (Y and Z Holes) are known to exist. There were other parch marks on the sites of missing stones on the south-west side, including a run between 17 and 20 – proof to close the complete circle. A water sprinkler had kept much of the grass green, but the hose did not reach that far.

Mark Bowden, an archaeologist in English Heritage’s Assessment Team (West), said there is still a case that the circle may have been incomplete. It seems likely, however, that most archaeologists will now accept a Jones-Wood compromise: complete, but a bit rough round the back.


11 thoughts on “At last: a Stonehenge story that is exactly what it says

  1. Mike – excellent summary.

    One of my hunches is that the middle ring of holes has actually been excavated by stones 8 and 9. If you look at the parchmark plan where the Y holes swerve inwards, Y7 and Y8, there were two faint parch marks to the exterior of the ring. I think they are the real Y7 and Y8 and the ones that Hawley dug are from the middle ring. The same seemed to apply to Y6 but the parchmark was so faint I couldn’t be sure it was one.

  2. This is a wonderful piece of serendipitous research, highly productive and promptly published. If anyone remained unconvinced that new, targeted excavation at Stonehenge is needed, surely any doubts must now be dispelled?

    What societal purpose would that serve Mike? It is part of our heritage. If finding out more about what this structure may have looked like would have no benefit to wider society, then it may be better to just preserve it in case a time comes in the future when disturbing it has some sort of benefit to society (and perhaps investigation techniques are better).

  3. I don’t know why you think knowing more about the past has no benefits, but a point to bear in mind is that what has been excavated at Stonehenge still has much to tell us from re-excavation, and nearly half the site remains uninvestigated. We can excavate a few of these pits, learn a great deal and leave many more for future generations to explore.

  4. Societal purpose? Will it cure leprosy or make the lame walk? No but it fits into the whole being human bit. We could live day by day in grey concrete hutches eating gruel and only drinking water, but life is better if we pamper our senses, our body and our intellects. You could argue there is no societal purpose to fine wines, good beer, paintings, music or books. Even I find it hard to explain the societal purpose of some Art grad degrees, but they all add to creating a society we want and enjoy.
    You only have to look at the huge coverage this story has had in the press around the world to see that it feeds people’s curiosity, it engages them, it amuses them. It seems pretty self evident that it has formed some purpose in society.
    And hey, some of us make a living from it so it keeps Mike and I off the streets which must be plus for society.

  5. If knowing about the past is important then it is also important to know why it is important. The fine wines, beer and so on add to society, but we either leave them or we drink them. Paintings are enjoyed but rarely taken apart intrusively to find why the artist did what they did.

    If knowing about the past is important because it provides extra income for English Heritage (economic importance), then the approach would be different to the case where it adds social value. If the importance is economic value, then, in my opinion, bodies set up to preserve the past may have to be quite careful about what they do and why.

    I’m not in the profession and, from the outside, most of the arguments for doing what you do all appear to revolve around curiosity rather than a defined social benefit. I have come across one argument for social value that makes sense (by Chris Johnson), so I’m not in the anti-camp: But the purpose of archaeology seems to be poorly defined by the profession.

  6. First of all, kudos to Tim, Simon, and the team for helping dispel some of the more arrogant postulations out there concerning the non-completion of the Circle. Additionally, I’m grateful to those who kept me in the loop while this was all unfolding last year. (For what it’s worth, these two knowledgeable gents get a prominent mention in my new book. Mike – you would too, if you ever answered my e-mails. lol!)

    Next up, we have those previously unmentioned central parchmarks between the Y&Z holes. Now, call me crazy, but didn’t someone mention a few years ago about a low, partial ridge in those locations?
    Please indulge me a moment while I run this idea up the flagpole …

    Stonehenge in its heyday was clearly widely known, and folks came from all over the land to do … whatever they did. I have always felt that, though the place must have had some major cultural influence in its time, what went on inside the actual Stone Circle itself was a huge secret.

    We have the Palisade on the higher ground of the north and west, impossible to see over. This tightly woven screen was a mile long.
    We have the 8-foot high embankment which would have been equally difficult to see through to the lower east and south.
    We also have the jumbled remains of the unfortunate fellow who was chucked like a dog into the north ditch. Killed with up to 4 arrows, this guy was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
    As has been shown, the edifice was almost certainly intended to be viewed only from the approaches of the Avenue.

    But what if they weren’t taking any chances with clever spies? What if they decided to put an additional screen inside the perimeter? Are these new parchmarks remnants of those shrubs or trees?

    Certainly this is marvelous fodder for study, and I for one would be very interested to know if they’re post-pipes from the original build, stoneholes situated in an intermediary period before the Sarsens, (thereby complimenting Dr Pitts 1981 idea of an exterior stone circle), or trees planted later to further assist in obscuring the monument from prying eyes.

    Always more questions … the place drives me batty!

    Best wishes to all,

  7. Agreed Neil

    Tim’s done a great job noticing this. So apologies that my comment on this site was a bit negative. It’s just something that I feel is quite important if we want to know what all this was about.


  8. Once upon a time, the primary reason for excavators to dig was in search of treasure. Then it shifted to digging in search of The Full Explanation. Now we look to answer very specific questions and develop extensive research frameworks to justify the work (and the cost, not only of an excavation but also of all the follow-up analysis required).

    Most of the regular media seize on any new information, especially about Stonehenge, as a route to the second of those. That’s why so many TV shows, books and articles have titles with words like “Revealed”, “Answered”, “Secrets” and “Explained” in them.

    Perhaps the (unconscious?) societal purpose in what Mike suggests is to help develop – in the minds of the public, especially – a better appreciation for how science “works” in our modern age. There are no perfect answers, only the current hypotheses that best fit the available data, hypotheses that may be improved or rejected through the discovery of a small fact that was previously unknown.

    20 years ago geophysics data took an age to collect, enormous effort to process and resulted in vague blobs that required great imagination and skill to interpret. The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes project has shown just how far we’ve come in less than a generation. Who knows what will be possible in another 20 years?

    Ultimately you can only excavate something for the first time, once. But is this a reason to stop all excavation in the hope that one day it will become completely unnecessary through some future technology that we can’t yet imagine?

    I don’t believe so, for without those small facts that we are able to turn up and the new hypotheses that develop as a consequence we would perhaps fail to discover the very questions that spur us on to develop better ways to investigate.

  9. That’s good Simon. Excavation is an emotive thing, and it can be difficult to maintain a clear view of what really matters. It has to be properly done, and properly managed (ie at somewhere like Stonehenge, decisions on what to dig, how and when cannot be left just to lone archaeologists pursuing personal agendas). Stonehenge has famously suffered in the past from excavations that were neither – as has almost every site of international interest that I’ve ever studied. But it still has to be done. Only excavation allows for the recovery of artefacts, faunal and ecological remains and so on, whose study is crucial and can continue long after the dig. Only excavation allows the textures and colours of deposits to be scrutinised and sampled.

    There’s something else which I’ve not seen discussed, which matters a great deal. Continuing excavation maintains a body of knowledge about the site, in terms of geomorphology, soils, stratigraphy and more, without which we would be less able to understand previous excavations there. It also fuels the skills and experiences that give archaeologists the abilities to read earlier excavations. All that is extremely important. Stonehenge itself has already shown how earlier excavations, even when poorly done, can offer new insights when interpreted with changing ideas. It takes experienced excavators to really understand that excavation is an extremely subjective thing, that different field archaeologists see and find different things according to their prejudices and skills, and that what an excavation report describes, however good it is, is not necessarily all that was there in the ground, or even what was actually seen. For excavation to contribute fully as a science, and for past excavations – earlier sacrifices of in situ remains made at the site – to offer their full benefits, a culture of excavation needs to be maintained, for which excavation itself is an essential contributing part.

    There’s a book to write about this…

  10. Hi Mike, Simon

    Those are good explanations for the mechanics of why excavation needs to be done if you need to know more about something..

    But these answers do not explain the overall benefit to society, if there is one, that there would be in solving the types of problem that archaeologists appear to want to solve. Other professions list in some detail what the current and future potential benefits (of their type of work) are. Here is just one example page from one of my institutions:

    If there is no benefit to society in solving a problem using excavation, then perhaps it is reasonable to say that work is not in the public interest except in so far as the public are interested. Interest in a subject may not be sufficient, from a public benefit point of view, to justify excavation of historic assets using destructive techniques.


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