Operation Stonehenge: what the TV films left out

Oh dear, BBC2. If this had happened in a hospital, the patient would have died. There was some lovely film and it was all put together well, but the good looks concealed some very odd archaeology. Some of it was fine but not explained. Some of it was misleading. Much of it was wrong. That was bad enough, but what made it worse was that so much recent research was omitted. Indeed, beside the work of the Hidden Landscapes Project, of which more soon, ALL of the most important research was omitted.

Why? There can be only one answer. It suited the programming.

Avenue top end 2008
Avenue top end 2008 (these photos show Stonehenge Riverside Project sites, see below)

I have no behind the scenes insights, but somewhere along the route from idea to screening, someone must have said, this needs to be unlike all the other recent Stonehenge films; and it must say something new. Much of the major research has been covered in recent films, and all of it has featured in magazines and articles. So to be completely different, you leave all that out. But then you have to fill two hours of programming with other stuff.

Fortunately, the University of Birmingham and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection & Virtual Archaeology were about to complete five years of a spectacular geophysics survey – the Hidden Landscapes Project. Much of this had been published, but it had not been seen in a TV film – and was presumably the cause of the subtitle, “What lies beneath”, as no excavation that had anything to do with Stonehenge was mentioned.

This was cutting edge geofizz, involving some pretty techy stuff. But it was for a BBC2 audience, who, on this evidence, the commissioners believed don’t like or understand science. So the opportunity to follow exciting developments in digital sensing technologies was missed. As was the chance to see a proper geofizz plot, or what any of the pieces of impressive kit paraded across the screen actually did, or anyone explain anything at all about geophysics.

So the question remained, how to fill two hours? Answer: drama, pretty shots, and anything we can find that hasn’t previously been roped into a film about Stonehenge.

Avenue bottom end 2008
Avenue bottom end 2008

The result was a ramshackle presentation, and doubly patronising. You might, I suppose, have just got away with omitting most of what we’ve learnt about Stonehenge in the past decade or so, if you said that was what you were doing, and explained why – two or three sentences would have sufficed. But the films didn’t do that. They gave the impression that they were rounding up all recent research. The films would, in the BBC’s words, answer questions such as “Why is [Stonehenge ] here? What is its significance? And which forces inspired its creators?”, thus “Solving many of the mysteries of Stonehenge.” You would reasonably expect anyone setting out to do all that would draw on all the evidence.

But they didn’t! And neither did they talk to any but a few of the dozens of archaeologists who have been working in the landscape and at the monument. How can you tell a sensible story about Stonehenge in 2014 without one of, to name only some, Allen, Darvill, Parker Pearson, Pollard, Richards, Thomas, Welham or Wainwright, without any English Heritage survey teams (landscapes and megaliths) or any petrologists (Bevins, Ixer)? You can’t!

Having decided the viewers didn’t need to know what’s been going on at Stonehenge unless it supported a contrived USP, the programme makers delivered their second insult: they didn’t explain anything useful about the work they DID feature. Indeed, they compounded the omission by throwing in a great deal of error and confusion.

I hope I’m being fair about this, but it makes me very cross. What is it about archaeology on TV that means it has to be served up like baby food? You wouldn’t see a film about Turner that treated his paintings like placemats, or a documentary about the solar system that thought gravity was a concept too sophisticated to mention. So why address people who might have an interest in Stonehenge as if they have an IQ of 30?

After that, I owe the programmers some evidence. A lot of questions were raised about these films on the Britarch discussion list, and I promised to try to answer some of them. So as best and as briefly as I can, here goes. First, to open positively, what we know (ie what the films left out).

“Stonehenge in its Landscape”

Colin Richards (centre) at the Cuckoo Stone 2007
Colin Richards (centre) at the Cuckoo Stone 2007

All modern understanding of Stonehenge begins with this book, published by English Heritage in 1995. It’s a monumental survey of the results of excavations at the site in the 20th century, most of which had not been published fully before, if at all. This is where we go when we want to learn details about stuff underground – all the Holes from Aubrey to Z, the stone pits, the earthworks, the artefacts and bones and more. The project included the first major radiocarbon dating of Stonehenge. The book does not say much about the landscapes around, very little about other monuments, and curiously almost nothing about the stones themselves. But fair enough – it’s already 640 pages long, which is a lot for an A4 format hardback with loose maps.

When I wrote Hengeworld, my aim was to present the story of Stonehenge as this book told it, to help the research reach a wider readership. I deliberately avoided going off with any major alternative theories. Hengeworld is a summary of the way we saw Stonehenge in 2000 (bolstered with some of the things I found out in the course of writing).

However, if you want to pursue original queries of your own, really you should also read the primary publications where they exist (listed in the long bibliographies in both books) and often unpublished archives, where much still remains to be learnt. This is what many of us have done as part of research since, and as a result things have moved on in many areas, not least in the site sequence.

Stonehenge in its Landscape: Twentieth-Century Excavations, ed R Cleal, KE Walker & R Montague (English Heritage 1995)

Site sequence

Paul Garwood at site near Palisade 2008
Paul Garwood at site near Palisade 2008

This has long been a focus of Stonehenge archaeology, sometimes obsessively so, with reason: unless we can say what was built when, we can’t tell the story of the site or possibly hope to understand it. There was not just one Stonehenge, but a long succession of events, structures and re-imaginations occurring across Europe-wide cultural changes. For most of the second half of the last century, the conventional story was the one told by Richard Atkinson. He constructed a series of phases on evidence from his excavations, and particularly from William Hawley’s before him, building on ideas set out by Hawley and Stuart Piggott. However, Atkinson never publicly presented most of this evidence, and when English Heritage published its fat book in 1995, few of us were surprised to find a new sequence that differed significantly from Atkinson’s. This has now changed again.

Woodhenge 2006

I have no doubt that further research is going to create yet more variations and corrections, but for now, this is what we work with. These are the key papers:

“The age of Stonehenge”, by M Parker Pearson, R Cleal, P Marshall, S Needham, J Pollard, C Richards, C Ruggles, A Sheridan, J Thomas, C Tilley, K Welham, A Chamberlain, C Chenery, J Evans, C Knüsel, N Linford, L Martin, J Montgomery, A Payne & Mike Richards, Antiquity 81 (2007), 617–39

“Who was buried at Stonehenge?”, by M Parker Pearson, A Chamberlain, M Jay, P Marshall, J Pollard, C Richards, J Thomas, C Tilley & K Welham, Antiquity 83 (2009), 23–39

“The date of the Greater Stonehenge Cursus”, by J Thomas, P Marshall, M Parker Pearson, J Pollard, C Richards, C Tilley & K Welham, Antiquity 83 (2009), 40–53

This is an essential paper, listing the entire suite of dated samples in all its nerdy and statistical detail:

Stonehenge, Amesbury, Wiltshire: Chronological Modelling, by P Marshall, T Darvill, M Parker Pearson & G Wainwright (English Heritage 2012)

And this one rounds it all up with some important revisions, to get to five “Stages”:

“Stonehenge remodelled”, by T Darvill, P Marshall, M Parker Pearson & G Wainwright, Antiquity 86 (2012), 1021–40

I summarised this sequence in my blog, Stonehenge in five easy stages (or perhaps six). The “perhaps six” was my own contribution. Some of the stuff in the BBC films makes this relevant, so here is the whole thing, with added “car park postholes” – the dated mesolithic pits that lie where the visitor car park used to be.

The first diagram summarises the scheme described in “Stonehenge remodelled”, which groups the key dated site features into five design or construction stages. I’ve put the relevant radiocarbon dates on the right side (all expressed as calibrated 95% probability ranges; a recurrent feature of all this is that there are not enough of these).

Stonehenge 5 stages

The next lists all the radiocarbon dates from things dug up at Stonehenge that are older than Stage 1 – ie that technically “pre-date Stonehenge”. Many of these things appear not to have been found in their original contexts, but in pits dug at later times. But some of them, at least, wouldn’t be on the site if people hadn’t been there to drop them or bury them, so they reveal an important but overlooked, and for now completely mysterious, part of Stonehenge’s story.

And finally the car park dates. Note that two of these overlap with the mesolithic date from Stonehenge itself, though the ranges are very wide, so that needn’t mean that any of these samples actually date contemporary events.

So having got that out of the way, we can look at some of the new work that’s been done in the field. First up is by far the biggest of the various projects.

Stonehenge Riverside Project

Aubrey Hole 7 2008

The Stonehenge Riverside Project began quietly in 2003, with soil augering and surveys, and returned in 2004 to conduct its first small excavations. Its inspiration was Mike Parker Pearson’s idea that Stonehenge was a monument for the dead (ancestors). It grew into a wider quest to give the stones contemporary worlds into which they could be placed, by investigating other nearby monuments and the landscape itself.

Mike Parker Pearson by river Avon 2006
Mike Parker Pearson by river Avon 2006
Durrington Walls 2006
Durrington Walls 2006
Julian Thomas inside Durrington Walls 2006
Julian Thomas inside Durrington Walls 2006

The last dig was in 2009, with major fieldwork in the summer every year in between. There are six directors: Mike Parker Pearson, then at Sheffield University (now UCL), Josh Pollard, then at Bristol University (now Southampton), Colin Richards and Julian Thomas, both at Manchester University, Chris Tilley, UCL, and Kate Welham, Bournemouth University. Two or three dozen other specialists contributed to the project, others (like myself, co-directing the re-excavation of Aubrey Hole 7) hovered on the sidelines, and many hundreds of students and other volunteers gained experience of excavation and survey.

Durrington Walls house floor 2007
Durrington Walls house floor 2007
Stonehenge Cursus 2007
Stonehenge Cursus 2007
Josh Pollard near Woodhenge 2007
Josh Pollard near Woodhenge 2007

Fieldwork has finished, and the massive task of analysis and publication is under way. We have been promised the results in three monographs. The first will describe the early landscape, and excavations that touched on the Cursus, Amesbury 42 long barrow, Woodhenge, bluestones (including Bluestonehenge), sarsens (including the Cuckoo Stone and the Tor Stone), the Avenue and Aubrey Hole 7. Volume 2 will feature Durrington Walls, including houses, middens, timber monuments and henge earthworks. Round barrows, the Palisade, and later prehistoric, medieval and 20th century archaeology will fill the third.

Bluestonehenge 2008
Bluestonehenge 2008
Palisade area 2008
Palisade area 2008
Amesbury 42 long barrow 2008
Amesbury 42 long barrow 2008
Stoneworking area near Stonehenge 2008
Stoneworking area near Stonehenge 2008

You can see just from the headlines that this project covered a huge amount of ground. As you’d expect, there were many new discoveries, some of them – such as the houses at Durrington Walls or the stone circle by the river Avon – of major significance. The opportunities to conduct ecological studies, examine new artefacts and the human remains that had been re-buried in Aubrey Hole 7, and radiocarbon-date new samples have also added enormously to the success of the project.

Bluestonehenge 2009
Bluestonehenge 2009

There have been many articles published along the way looking at particular aspects of this work, and a book by Mike Parker Pearson (published by Simon & Schuster as Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery in 2012 – and, confusingly, republished by Experiment in 2013 as Stonehenge, a New Understanding: Solving the Mysteries of the Greatest Stone Age Monument, while the first remains in print). All of that is interesting and very helpful for finding out about the project, and you will discover much to enjoy in Parker Pearson’s book. But most of what we are told is inevitably interpretive and relatively thin on data. The monographs, which should describe all we need to know, will launch a new era of Stonehenge understanding, and inspire new research (and may even lead to a Hengeworld 2 – there’s not a lot of point writing another book about Stonehenge until this project is fully published).

Excavation by Darvill and Wainwright

Tim Darvill, Geoff Wainwright and Miles Russell 2008
Tim Darvill, Geoff Wainwright and Miles Russell 2008

In 2008 Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright, inspired by their work in Pembrokeshire and the idea that in the neolithic the Stonehenge bluestones were believed to have had healing powers, excavated a small trench at Stonehenge. It lay between the sarsen circle and the ring of bluestones it encloses, where an earlier bluestone structure once stood in what are known as the Q and R holes. They hoped to date the first arrival of bluestones at Stonehenge, something then thought from circumstantial evidence to have occurred around 2600BC.

They failed to achieve this, for interesting reasons: the picture of the area’s stratigraphy as we had come to understand it from Hawley’s and Atkinson’s excavations turned out to be wrong in some significant details. This meant some key conventional relationships between pits underground were overturned, allowing a new and perhaps more convincing megalithic sequence to be proposed.

This is what we see in the final report of those listed above under Site sequence. “Stonehenge remodelled” starts the megalith sequence with a ring of bluestones in the 56 Aubrey Holes around 3000BC – “Stones were probably present at the site from its inception” (page 1029). All the stones in the centre, bluestones and sarsens, appeared quite rapidly about five centuries later.

Darvill and Wainwright have published an interim article about their dig. I found the mix of archaeology and media these excavations stirred up fascinating, and wrote about theirs and the Stonehenge Riverside Project’s work in 2008, and the respective TV films then broadcast:

“Stonehenge excavations 2008”, by T Darvill & G Wainwright, Antiquaries Journal 89 (2009), 1–19

“A year at Stonehenge”, by M Pitts, Antiquity 83 (2009), 184–94

Stonehenge laser scan

Marcus Abbott and Hugo Anderson-Whymark 2012
Marcus Abbott and Hugo Anderson-Whymark 2012

In 2012 English Heritage published the results of an archaeological analysis of laser scan data of the Stonehenge megaliths, collected by a commercial contractor. This cumbersome phrasing reflects an awkward fact: the laser survey was not archaeologically informed, but conducted for English Heritage who then asked archaeologists to look at it. Consequently, not everything that might be there to see was necessarily seen. However, the analysis by Marcus Abbott and Hugo Anderson-Whymark was sophisticated and perceptive, and resulted in significant new insights into the monument – unsurprising, perhaps, as this was, astonishingly, the first ever proper survey of the stones.

Among the key discoveries were that almost every surface of the stones has been dressed – but that this dressing is uneven, and tells stories. First, the amount of damage done to the stones from visitors with steel hammers is vastly more than any of us had imagined. This will have had the effect of making the stones look rougher now than they were originally – finely dressed edges have often been bashed off.

lintels 158 & 154

The effect is so strong, it’s worth illustrating – I put the above images together for the feature Abbott and Anderson-Whymark wrote for British Archaeology. Sarsen lintel 158 was on the ground between 1797, when the uprights supporting it fell down, and 1958, when they were re-erected. William Stukeley drew it in the 1720s, with nice sharp edges (engraving at top). The lintel today (centre) shows what visitors did to it between 1797 and 1958. If that does not convince, look at lintel 154 (bottom). This has never fallen – and remains undamaged, beyond the reach of tourist arms. Records describe visitors chipping off souvenirs throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but this is the first time the results have been documented.

Secondly, some parts of the monument were better carved than others from the start. This is summarised in another diagram we prepared for British Archaeology:


Look at the contrast between sarsens to the north-east and those to the south-west. It seems the place was designed to impress as you approached from the north (along the Avenue route), to be seen from that direction inside (note finest surfaces face inward), and not really to be seen at all from the back, where there is relatively little dressing and the stones themselves are smaller and rougher.

This tells us something about how the site functioned (all eyes seem to be on the midwinter sunset to the south-west, for example). It also helps explain why so many stones are missing round the back – they were never big and muscular in the first place. This was the first new evidence to suggest the big sarsen circle was ever a complete ring, one more recently supported by the grass parchmarks seen in 2013.

Stonehenge laser scan: archaeological analysis report, by M Abbott & H Anderson-Whymark (English Heritage 2012)

Landscape surveys

As well as all the above, there have been surveys and many other small excavations in the world heritage site, often occasioned by work associated with the new visitor centre arrangements. Here are some of those you can find online.

Stonehenge Environmental Improvements Project. Archaeology & the Historic Environment: Baseline Assessment, prepared for English Heritage by Wessex Archaeology (2009)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: Stonehenge, Amesbury, Wiltshire, by D Field & T Pearson (English Heritage 2010)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: King Barrow Ridge, by S Bishop (English Heritage 2011)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: Stonehenge Cursus, Amesbury, Wiltshire, by T Pearson & D Field (English Heritage 2011)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: Level I Field Investigations, by S Bishop (English Heritage 2011)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: A344 Corridor: Level I Survey, by A Komar & D Field (English Heritage 2012)

Stonehenge Monument Field & Barrows, Wiltshire: Report on Geophysical Surveys, September 2010, April & July 2011, by N Linford, P Linford & A Payne (English Heritage 2012)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: Larkhill Barrows, Durrington, by S Soutar (English Heritage 2012)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: Lake Barrows, The Diamond & Normanton Gorse, by M Bowden, D Field & S Soutar (English Heritage 2012)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Synthesis: Prehistoric Landscape, Environment & Economy, by M Canti, G Campbell & S Greaney (English Heritage 2013)

Stonehenge, Wiltshire: Report on Magnetic Susceptibility Survey, January 2013, by N Linford (English Heritage 2013)

English Heritage has additionally published a detailed online guide to Stonehenge sources, which has much of real use in it.


Finally, Richard Bevins, Rob Ixer and colleagues have for many years been slowly tracking down sources for the many varieties of bluestone present at Stonehenge and in the landscape around, with surprises at every turn. They have published many technical reports. I recommend a general overview they wrote for British Archaeology (Sep/Oct 2014/138).

Film critique

This is already too long, but I owe the makers of Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath – and anyone wondering about some of the things in the films – a critique. Apart from introducing the work to those unfamiliar with it, my point is that there has been a huge amount of research at and around Stonehenge – the problem is not a shortage of data or stories, but, if anything, a surfeit. If you regularly read British Archaeology, you will be aware of much of this, as we have covered all the major projects over the past decade. I guess the programme makers didn’t get the magazines. (What follows will mean nothing to you if you haven’t seen the films!)

Episode 1

The Amesbury excavation is potentially important for mesolithic studies, but any connection with Stonehenge is entirely speculative, and in any direct sense meaningless – the site is thousands of years older than Stonehenge, and tells stories about people with radically different culture and mind-sets. We did, of course, long know that mesolithic hunters and fishers lived in the landscape, and we have material of this date from the site itself, and close by.

The Grimes Graves flint mines in Norfolk are extraordinary, but have nothing to do with Stonehenge. They are an exceptional group of late neolithic mines, dated to around 2400–2200BC. The evidence for flint-axe making is relatively slight, so the relevance of these mines to axes and Stonehenge, one of the links made in the film, is difficult to see. The link about monumental engineering is also obscure. [See my UPDATE in Comments below.]

The Greater Cursus at Stonehenge is dated to before 3000BC, the Stonehenge earthwork was dug around 3000BC, possibly the first stones arrived at the same time, and the major Stonehenge monument is dated to around 2500BC. So all of this is older than the Grimes Graves mines.

There are big early neolithic flint mines in Sussex and Hampshire where axes WERE made, but curiously when people are building all these big timber henges like Woodhenge, when you’d think they’d need axe blades by the ton, there is relatively little sign of any big flint mines making them. It looks as if at that time they were relying more on surface and shallow flint (there are some small flint quarries up near Durrington Walls, for example – you don’t need to go to Norfolk). Grimes Graves is the LAST large scale engineering project we see in the neolithic, not the first.

The two big pits in the geofizz survey on the Cursus are quite dramatic discoveries. In the film lines are drawn to suggest they are aligned with Stonehenge, and the rising and setting sun at midsummer. The pits are of course undated without excavation. Among other things, they could be mesolithic, like the car park postholes. There was a big pit we know from early excavation at the far west end of the Cursus that has all the signs of being something similar to the car park post pits (I noted it in Hengeworld). They could be early neolithic, like the pit at Coneybury henge (named the anomaly, because it showed up as a big feature in early geofizz). They could be anything. If the solar alignment is correct and considered meaningful, they could be where posts were put up any time after Stonehenge was built.

Episode 2

A big sarsen in modern woodland, half buried
A big sarsen in modern woodland, half buried

Katy Whitaker experimenting with sarsen was one of the few things in either film, apart from the geofizz, worth watching. I blogged about a TV film I was involved in, when we went into woodland near Marlborough where there are sarsens mixed up with trees, I think a much more likely look for neolithic people in search of megaliths than the open downland we usually see (as in this film). But what really makes that location, and is useful for experimental archaeology, is that sarsens were quarried there, and you can see the process – buried sarsens poking out of the ground, sarsens exposed by excavation but still in situ, and empty quarry pits where the stones have been taken out. All that is early 20th century, but my point is that contrary to Whitaker’s comment, you do have to quarry them, which is critically important for the archaeological value of the sites – if we can only find them!

Once you’ve chosen your stone, the next question is not how do you move it, as Whitaker put it, but how do you shape it? You dig it out and examine it, and figure out if there’s a megalith in it – a sort of Michelangelo/Henry Moore job. If there is, you rough it out, dress it to shape. That’s a major operation. Grinding I think would have been a finishing job done at the site, not a primary shaping task.

But I did like her stone grinding sequence. Atkinson did something similar in an early film – but he used a neolithic maul on a Stonehenge megalith!

Neubauer’s presentation of the conventional view of the stone route from the river Avon was disingenuous or ill-informed, as I don’t think anyone’s suggested dragging stones across the hilliest straight line route – rather more or less along the avenue, which takes a gentler path (and small bluestones, not the big sarsens). However, his ideas about the marks along the avenue by Stonehenge and then continuing “towards the Marlborough downs” could be important. If he’s right. We got to see very little of what he had actually found… but what I could see looked suspiciously like things we’ve long known about, and are mostly historical in date.

Tony Johnson’s stuff – the lines on the sand in the film – is well described in his 2008 book. It’s all workable, but also in 2008, John Hill at the University of Liverpool, Centre for Life Long Learning, did something similar in a field, with school kids and no plans or geometry at all to get the same result.

The argument linking the Boscombe grave to the transport of bluestones, embodied in the name “The Boscombe Bowmen”, was a selective one apparently originated by archaeologists for press consumption after the excavation in 2003. Isotope analysis, in the film argued by Jacqueline McKinley to show that the individuals came from Wales, pointed more generally to Scotland, the Lake District, Wales and south-west England, and beyond into parts of Ireland and the continent. The only apparent reasons for plumping for Wales are that it’s closest, and it fitted with a media spin that linked the remains to the bluestones.

Radiocarbon dates are not precise enough to help with this issue, especially when you remember that there are two theories for when bluestones reached Stonehenge: Stage 1 (3000–2620BC) or Stage 3 (2480–2280BC). Dates for the Boscombe grave range between 2580–2340 to 2340–2140. That rules out Stage 1, but Stage 3 remains a possibility – as do both before it began and after it ended. So a link between bluestones and these burials cannot be supported by the chronology.

Later we get into further problems with dating human remains. “Three centuries after its construction”, we are told with reference to the burial of a man in the ditch at the monument, “Stonehenge became a site of human sacrifice”. I have no great argument with hypothesising sacrifice, it’s undoubtedly a possibility for an unusual burial – with death from perhaps more than the three arrows shown in the film – in an unusual place (it was a word I used in Hengeworld). But I question the narrative. Radiocarbon dates for this burial average 2400–2140BC. The story is placed in the middle of a section about “the Beaker period”, 300 years after Stonehenge was built. Yet the burial’s date is indistinguishable from the Boscombe Bowmen’s dates, for men who, the film earlier told us, came from Wales with stones to build Stonehenge, 300 years before. You can’t have it both ways.

Near the end of the film, we visit the new galleries at Devizes Museum, whom I am pleased to credit. This accompanies a bizarre experiment in making gold pins to match those found at the Bush Barrow burial (though the new products didn’t look at all like the old pins), leading to a theory that children destroyed their eyes in gold workshops, and thence to stories in the media.

Mike Corfield recently published an analysis of these pins, and proposed how they were made. He was so upset by this sequence in the film, he wrote to the Society of Antiquaries, who quoted him in their newsletter. “The programme’s description of the method of making the studs”, he says, “was utter bunk and made worse by the sculptor’s elbow apparently resting on a page from my paper… in which I describe in detail how the studs were made and how they were put into the wood.”

See “The decoration of Bronze Age dagger handles with gold studs”, by M Corfield, in Of Things Gone but not Forgotten: Essays in Archaeology for Joan Taylor, ed JR Trigg (BAR 2012).


And here, finally, is the rub. If you really want to make a film about Stonehenge, that shows viewers things they don’t know, that helps them understand Stonehenge and the way archaeologists think about it today, that stimulates and entertains but decidedly does not patronise – and along the way produces some entirely original programming – all you have to do, is tell the complete story revealed by archaeology, and tell it well. The last film that did those two things was directed by Paul Johnstone. It was broadcast in 1954.

34 thoughts on “Operation Stonehenge: what the TV films left out

  1. You forgot to mention the so-called “shrines”.., discussed earlier on this blog as the probable remains of posts surrounding Bronze Age round barrows..

    1. Not so much as forgot as thought I’d already said enough. To be fair to the film, it didnt do much more with all those rings than to say they were there – which they are. Like much else in the geofizz, only excavation will tell us what they actually are. I’d thought I might say a bit more about Mesolithic pits, and may do if I get a moment.

  2. I was wondering what you thought about the long barrow/timber mortuary building postulated by Wolfgang in Ep. 1. And please don’t apologise for lengthy blog posts, because this is an excellent commentary.

    (P.S. Typo in a picture caption above – that’s not Julian Richards inside Durrington Walls in 2006)

    1. Woops apologies to Julian Thomas, will correct tomorrow! The long barrow building was derived from certain continental designs and to date not something we’ve really seen here. That seemed to me to be over-interpreted, but the forecourt and other trenches did look impressive. Thanks!

    2. Thanks again Simon. I got the Z Hole date wrong too, and have corrected them all. These pits are one of the great unexplained at Stonehenge. We’ve only got carbon dates for two pits out of nearly 60, and in one of those, three dates from what look like antlers all buried at the same time are not all statistically the same, and something clearly looks wrong. It doesn’t feel right that Y and Z Holes have different dates, either. And now from the parchmarks we have at least one more ring of pits (https://mikepitts.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/at-last-a-stonehenge-story-that-is-exactly-what-it-says). We really need new excavation of a few pits in each of these rings – for a better understanding of their nature and structure as much as for their date.

  3. Spotted another typo – 95% radiocarbon date for Y holes is 1630-1525 not 1340, the 1340 date is for the end_stone_settings date (from the EH Chronology Radiocarbon date research report table 10).

  4. “The Amesbury excavation is potentially important for mesolithic studies, but any connection with Stonehenge is entirely speculative, and in any direct sense meaningless” – sorry Mike that is just not true!

    We know from the car park post holes that the real Stonehenge ‘Phase I’ (as in the first construction on the site) was in the Mesolithic and can not be dismissed until it can be scientifically identified. The fact that the original theory of ‘nomads’ appearing in about 8300BC to plant a ‘totem pole’ in the ground, then returning again 300 years later for plant a second one (not in the same rotted hole?) – then return to the same hole over the next 500 years planting two more ‘totem poles’ until a third hole 1300 years after the first hole was finally dug – makes no sense to anyone. (even those with a IQ of 30) unless the site was in constant use over this period.

    Amesbury proves this case beyond reasonable doubt.


  5. The discussion of the jade bracers from Portugal was also quite bizarre. In the recent Hunter and Woodward bracer monograph the bracer is described as an amphibolite. I do not think Portugal is mentioned once in the volume.

  6. Very good commentary Mike. This single post gives better information than the wikipedia page.

    But are the program makers wrong to economise on their research? Where a topic may impact on the present or the future, getting a program wrong can be a cause for the dismissal of the producers. But where neither the economic nor social purpose (of socially funded research) is well defined, it is difficult to criticise programs makers for producing something that does not help advance the purpose of doing that research.

  7. Hi Mike.
    My own review of this broadcast can be found at:

    Not surprising, it mirrors yours, with attention drawn to the glaring omission of the vastly important work done in the last years. I also advise the viewer’s caution with the interpretations — several of which I find difficult to reconcile with obvious facts.

    The detailed analysis you have provided is in much greater scope than mine, but my conclusion was that this was simply a slickly produced commercial vehicle, made with the intent of generating funds for future excavation. I gave it 4 or 5 stars out of 10.

    Best wishes,

  8. “a slickly produced commercial vehicle, made with the intent of generating funds for future excavation”… I doubt any of the archaeologists had the control over anything in the films that this would imply

  9. Hi Mike,

    thanks for your kind words and I really enjoyed reading this post – great outline of the past ten and more years’ work, we’re going to have a good deal of reading to do as the publications stack up! I blogged briefly about the filming experience here: http://artefactual.co.uk/2014/09/21/operation-stonehenge-episode-2/ It would have been a man working granite in Wales if a mutual friend of ours hadn’t told the production team that I’ve been working on the Stonehenge hammerstone assemblage. And you are quite right – sarsens need to be dug out – I was referring to the contrast between the accessibility of surface deposits of silcretes and something underground like Beer or Mountsorrel. So much on the cutting room floor…


  10. To be honest I sometimes despair about the quality of BBC science programmes, not just in archaeology but in other areas too. They always seem to try to address the ‘man on the street’ to try to boost ratings, but leave those of us with even a basic understanding of science out in the cold. I stopped watching Horizon ten years ago for this very reason. Your comment about a programme on the solar system which doesn’t mention gravity was a joke I know, but in fact I have seen many such programmes!

  11. Your link to the 1954 Broadcast was also interesting as it showed those great models of how Stonehenge was constructed for the first time, with the A-Frames and Ramps needed to position the stones.

    It’s a shame that this method was not kept in mind when the ‘parch marks’ and subsequent claims of a ‘completed circle’ was made on in the program (and in various media outlets) as the marks do not include any ramp parch marks which can be found with existing standing Sarsen stones. This ‘scientific evidence’ shows that either the stones were vertically dropped into position without a ramp or the most likely are wooden posts (like the Y holes of similar size) or smaller Sarsen/Bluestone stones – like the existing and unexplained Stone 11.


  12. Hi Katy:

    Are you the same person who did the presentation on how they shaped sarsen? If so, there is a way to remarkably improve the productivity of this process using the materials available at the time. It would leave the same traces as the method shown on the program.

    This would not be of immediate interest at this point in time because the process, and the reason that it would have been first used at Stonehenge, relies on knowledge development having occurred in a certain sequence (and people producing some of the things that we now call Monuments to suit that sequence of development). But if interest develops in the “geocentric” theories about various Neolithic monuments (including Stonehenge), it might be worth a chat.


  13. Hi Mike, splendid summary and a sadly all too accurate view of the recent TV programme. I was a little miffed however by your down beat reference to the 2012 laser scan survey. The 2012 scanning was commissioned by EH as really the first modern attempt to look at what the surface of stones could tell us about their long history, use and abuse. As such it was largely a technical exercise commissioned from Greenhatch (who have significant experience in the heritage sector) using new scanners which as the project proved could capture more information than the software could readily process and interpret. The work was however very clearly archaeologically informed, in that we (Archaeo-Environment) were commissioned along with Greenhatch to provide the technicians with a full briefing of past study and an idea of what to look for, without of course prejudicing any results. We then utilised the limited software available to assess the results and provided the first information on the level of surface damage, the finishing techniques on the stones and a variety of other interpretations. The scans were then looked at under a separate contract by Marcus Abbott and Hugo Anderson-Whymark, and who have been generous to acknowledge our work in their publications, who expanded on our intial findings). Our report can be downloaded from the on-line library on our web site at http://www.aenvironment.co.uk/online-library/ just click on Wiltshire and the password for the report is sarsen. Interestingly the briefing document we provided for the scanning technicians was left in EH site guides’ tea room at the time and promoted lots of interested debate with several guides telling us how interesting it was and how much more they now knew about the stones…take from that what you will!

    1. Well Done Niall and thank you for the link to you most welcome report – at last some real science!!

      Your Report suggests “The scanning has also shown that the smoothing process involved small adze like chipping of the stone’s surface and of counter smoothing across the ridges.”

      ADZE is a well known woodworking technique which would fits Stonehenge perfectly with its mortice and tenon joints. But it is normally used with metal tools although hard stone such as jade have been found to be used elsewhere in the world. Was you able to analyse the imprint of the marks to see whether it was round bladed or flat?


    2. Thanks for you comment Niall, and for providing the link to your report. Please don’t feel miffed, and if I appear downbeat about the laser survey, I certainly didn’t mean to (I did after all put it on the front cover of British Archaeology – as I did Tom Goskar’s pioneering laser study in 2003!).

      For the benefit of other readers, the Greenhatch Group conducted the laser scanning, and Atkins Global created a photogrammetry survey of the tops of the sarsen lintels. English Heritage then commissioned Archaeo-Environment to assess the survey’s potential, which Caroline Hardie did in the extremely useful report which Niall refers to (which also includes assessment of a ground surface survey within the “Stonehenge triangle” field).

      The full analytical study of the stones, using the Greenhatch and Atkins data, was later commissioned by English Heritage from ArcHeritage (Marcus Abbott) who was joined by Hugo Anderson-Whymark.

      I was part of a gang of archaeologists who used to meet every so often to discuss with English Heritage how Stonehenge and its stories would be presented at the new visitor centre. On one occasion we were told about the laser survey: we were all surprised to hear that the tops of the stones were not recorded – the kit couldn’t get high enough to do it in the same way as the faces were done. That is why the lintel tops were surveyed separately with photogrammetry. Yet even then, as I saw when I was on site, Anderson-Whymark had to take his own photos for photogrammetry of parts such as the tops of stones in the bluestone horseshoe – features critical to understanding Stonehenge.

      Something else that might have been better done if archaeologists who knew Stonehenge had been involved in the survey itself, concerns the axe carvings. On two or three sarsens previously known carvings were quite close to the ground. Potential unknown carvings might have been missed because the grass had not been cut when the laser survey was done.

      The surveys created an enormous amount of data, perhaps the largest set of its kind, which presented analytical challenges. Even so, some of the difficulties that Abbott and Anderson-Whymark had, derived from the way the data were presented and the survey itself. English Heritage gave them laser scan survey data in the form of point clouds, with 1mm resolution mesh models for every stone and 0.5mm models for four selected stone surfaces. To enhance this, Abbott and Anderson-Whymark created their own photogrammetric data set, and they recommended further high resolution photogrammetric survey – cheaper to do and analyse than laser surveys.

      They found the 1mm mesh data was not always clear. Graffiti were “very difficult to identify”, partly because many incisions are less than 1mm or even 0.5mm across, and partly because “oblique scans simply cannot penetrate the full depth of narrow incisions”. This data “did not prove suitable for the enhanced study of rock art [axe carvings etc]”. They suggest that “with higher resolution data and enhancement more discoveries might be made”.

      Some “artefacts” and blurring in the mesh data were encountered, which they thought were “related to the original laser scan”, perhaps because of occasional misalignment of 2–3mm in cloud-to-cloud registration.

      Much of this could have been avoided if the survey team had included informed archaeologists who were going to analyse the data at the end of it all. I’m a great fan of what English Heritage has achieved at Stonehenge, but I don’t think this was one of their great moments.

  14. Excellent article, Mike. As you note, there is an extensive amount of engineering and scientific study of Stonehenge and its ritual landscape that is not being reported by media nor included in ongoing archaeological research and analysis. The ‘Grand Design’ constructed across the landscape ca 3500 BC and the architectural symbolism and purpose of the megalithic Stonehenge ca 2500 BC were identified recently (Stonehenge: As Above, So Below’ by archaeo-engineer Paul D. Burley, New Generation Press, 2014), yet BBC and English Heritage continue to encourage the public to consider the landscape and monument to remain mysterious and incomprehensible. This is a disservice to people of Britain and the world as a whole. I would encourage everyone to consider Stonehenge within the context of a holistic undertaking requiring prehistoric capabilities ranging from surveying and engineering, to architecture, astronomy and cosmology. Archaeology can yield much more information and attain better understanding of Neolithic Britain when teamed with these other arts, sciences and engineering in a holistic approach to research. ‘Stonehenge: As Above, So below’ presents findings and conclusions consistent with all archaeological, architectural and engineering evidence gathered to date. The results are testable and supported by the evidence, whereas the BBC programmes presented conclusions virtually unsupported by evidence presented therein. BBC’s sensationalism presented as science in the referenced programmes is a disservice to everyone.

  15. “The ‘Grand Design’ …were identified recently (Stonehenge: As Above, So Below’ by archaeo-engineer Paul D. Burley, New Generation Press, 2014), yet BBC and English Heritage continue to encourage the public to consider the landscape and monument to remain mysterious and incomprehensible. This is a disservice to people of Britain and the world as a whole. “

    In what respect is it a disservice Paul? Many other people have equally good theories about the purpose of these monuments. However, the field of study (the ‘why people did stuff’ of pre-historic archaeology) presents itself as being irrelevant to modern society. For example, there are no easily accessible internet resources devoted to explaining what good will come of knowing what happened in that era.

    Where there is little known benefit to society in undertaking research on a subject, society devotes few resources to that subject. In this light, public bodies (such as the BBC and English Heritage) can hardly be blamed for prioritising their spending in an appropriate manner.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Jonathan. The disservice I refer concerns preference on the part of BBC and EH to publicly support the ‘mysterious and incomprehensible’ nature of Stonehenge rather than encourage and support well-researched and scientifically analyzed study of the monument and its landscape from the standpoint of an holistic science approach – meaning application of a breadth of scientific, engineering and arts-related analyses to discover answers to the mysteries. BBC and EH appear to approach the subject based purely on the point of view of certain archaeologists – not in tandem with architects, engineers, land surveyors, archaeoastronomers, anthropologists, multi- and cross-cultural researchers, and so forth – which is an inherently self-defeating approach, thus encouraging continued speculations and aura of mystery about the site. Most of the general public around the world may very well have little to no interest in humanity’s ancient past. I believe the lack of interest is at least partly due to the general lack of ability or interest of the scientific and media communities to inform the public of the facts and pertinence of ancient indigenous people with regard to the state of the world in the past, present and future. Is this due to the all mighty needs of the economy? Certainly! Should this be changed for the better? certainly! Will it? Not in the foreseeable future. Yet hope lives eternal. I do not ‘blame’ BBC and EH. However it is readily evident that each should be held responsible for their share of discouraging reporting of facts rather than educated speculations on the part of certain segments of the scientific community in this matter.

      1. The disservice I refer concerns preference on the part of BBC and EH to publicly support the ‘mysterious and incomprehensible’ nature of Stonehenge rather than encourage and support well-researched and scientifically analyzed study of the monument and its landscape from the standpoint of an holistic science approach

        Not sure I agree with that Paul

        Within any corporation there may be people who wish to make an argument for supporting investigative research. However, to make the choice to spend their own resources in an investigative capacity, they would also need to present a case showing that there is some form of educative value and/or public benefit to that action: If they have no commercial reason to provide support, any external organisation would usually need to make a public benefit argument in order to provide resources to archaeologists,.

        However, if the field of research is generally viewed as having no purpose other than entertainment, then it would be appropriate for a broadcaster to select the least cost and most entertaining viewpoint. The ‘mysterious and incomprehensible’ viewpoint is both low cost and entertaining: This either indicates that such research has little or no known potential benefit or that archaeology has failed to communicate the purpose its existence.

        Here’s an example of a remit from one of the broadcasters:


  16. Dear Mr Pitts, what are the little dolerit stones in the middle of the trilithe ring? Like Number 6 in your plan of british archaeology 2012 ?I tried for weeks to find a plan, which names them and explains them. Thank you for this very helpful explanation blog/site.

    1. Many Stonehenge books have numbered plans of the stones. The best plan remains the big fold-out in the back of the old official guidebook. It’s common on eBay, published by the Office of Works, Ministry of Works or Department of the Environment, with a blue cover.

  17. You’re welcome! The old guide books are worth a shot just for the plan. In some ways the best one to get is a green cover 1959 edition. When it went from green to blue, they took out a lot of detail from the plan (postholes etc). A few stones were re-erected around then, so the pre-1959 versions don’t show the present stone plan. You need to make allowance for an old text of course, and it can be difficult to tell on eBay exactly what is on offer.

    1. Fantastic. The green one would be much better, but if it will be the blue one it is fine, too. I am sure i will end up with both. I am a patient person. I was happy to get the quest for arthurs´s britain by Geoffrey Ashe to read some old excavation reports. So sooner or later i will get that plan. I am very grateful, that you have shared those information with me. Thank you.

  18. UPDATE

    Around the time I wrote this, English Heritage published a substantial and significant study of radiocarbon dating at Grime’s Graves, which you can read online: Healy, F, Marshall, P, Bayliss, A, Cook, G, Bronk Ramsey, C, van der Plicht, J and Dunbar, E, 2014. Grime’s Graves, Weeting-with-Broomhill, Norfolk: Radiocarbon Dating and Chronological Modelling. http://research.historicengland.org.uk/Report.aspx?i=15259&ru=%2fResults.aspx%3fp%3d1%26n%3d10%26ry%3d2014%26a%3d4784%26ns%3d1

    This cleared up a lot of confusion about dating, which had plagued the site since the 1970s. It shows I was wrong about Grime’s Graves: deep mine shafts were indeed dug around the time the large stones at Stonehenge were carved and erected. Deep galleried pits probably began to be sunk to the floorstone around a little after 2600BC, continued for two or three centuries, and ended around 2400BC.

    I’ve left my original text alone, but the general points still stand: as far as we know the mines were not dug to make flint axes, and while they are “monumental”, there were large monuments elsewhere in Britain, not least in the Stonehenge landscape, long before, which required similar engineering skills to those needed to build Stonehenge, and which are different from specialist mining skills.

    1. Based on a flawed assumption that the most effective tool to dig a mine is a stone axe rather than an antler pick? Looking at the abandoned mines in Africa if we use this methodology one would assume that the mine was built by individuals with sticks..LOL B-) If we look then at the carbon dating evidence of hearths and fires – the dating goes way back to the 5th – 6th millennium BCE.

      1. It’s actually a bit of a puzzle. There is copious evidence at other neolithic mines (mostly older than Grimes Graves) that axes there were a major product, and it was assumed that was also the case at GG. But exhaustive study of quarry waste found little evidence for axes, though there do seem to be occasional axe blade marks in the pits.

      2. If you want to resolve your puzzle…. then consider for what purpose did the British Civil War miners use of the same kind of flint from the same area B-)

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