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.
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.
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”
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)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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)
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).
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!)
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.
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.
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.