thinking about archaeology

Archive for October, 2015

Tunnel truths

ICOMOS and UNESCO are visiting Stonehenge this week, to ponder the current set of road tunnel proposals. A lot has changed since we were last thinking about such a tunnel. Despite stories in the press, these changes add up to a much better proposition than the one that had, in principle, been accepted a decade ago.

The government has apparently promised funding for an unprecedented 2.9km-long bored tunnel and further beneficial works. After so many years of failed projects, I still find that promise difficult to believe, welcome as it is. However, I was assured it really is true by National Trust and Historic England representatives on a helpful tour put on for Council for British Archaeology trustees (who kindly invited me along) a couple of weeks ago.

HE-NT mapA 2.9km-long tunnel is (in my opinion) the best of three options, none of which has been examined in detail and for none of which precise routes have been agreed. So talk of threats to archaeological remains at Blick Mead (which is a kilometre beyond reach of any proposed roadworks, not “within 20 metres”), and even vague comparisons to the destruction wreaked on heritage by ISIS, is premature and quite silly. The National Trust and Historic England are not heritage terrorists.

With any proposed tunnel, this road would disappear

With any proposed tunnel, this road would disappear and we could continue on this track to Stonehenge 

Here is where we are now:

  1. A new visitor centre has been opened on the western edge of the world heritage site.visitor centre
  1. Former, much-derided facilities close to Stonehenge have been removed, and the A344 road that passed close to the stones has been closed and grassed over.
    Mesolithic pits marked by concrete, once in a car park

    Mesolithic pits marked by concrete, once in a car park

    A344

    That was a road

  2. A new concept of “outstanding universal value” (OUV) has been introduced to world heritage site thinking. In the past, greater conservation emphasis was given to the area around Stonehenge (known as the “Stonehenge bowl”) than the rest of the world heritage site. OUV gives equal weight to the entire area. This means the conservation demands that have to be met along any future road route are greater than they were. (Thus, scored this way, the approved 2004 tunnel loses its benefits, and comes out “neutral” – no point).
  1. Traffic on the A303, the main road passing through the Stonehenge world heritage site, continues to grow, and major delays are becoming commoner.
  1. The government, in a pre-election pledge, says it is determined to improve traffic flow along the entire route of the A303.
  1. As part of that project, the government says it is prepared to fund works through the Stonehenge world heritage site. Option 3 (A1–E on the map above) includes a 2.9km tunnel past the stones; beyond the western tunnel entrance, the present A303 would be moved south to leave clear land around the important Winterbourne Stoke barrow group.
  1. In a joint statement, the National Trust and Historic England have described this option as “a huge improvement on the previous 2.1km tunnel scheme and in line with the initial preliminary assessment work which suggests that a tunnel of at least 2.9km might have a substantive beneficial impact on the World Heritage property, subject to detailed design.”

On available evidence, I can’t find any reason to disagree with this statement. What is on offer is extraordinary. It would greatly extend the already radical improvements to the immediate surroundings at Stonehenge, and to the world heritage site as a whole.

A344 gates

coach park

Byway 12, north of Stonehenge

Byway 12, north of Stonehenge

cars byway 12

Byway 12 close to Stonehenge, cars parked having left the A303

Cursus bank looking north

Cursus bank looking north

Earthworks of an apparently unfinished road north of Stonehenge, perhaps dug in the mid 18th century (looking east towards King Barrow Ridge)

Earthworks of an apparently unfinished road north of Stonehenge, perhaps dug in the mid 18th century (looking east towards King Barrow Ridge)

sunset 1


Shameless plug for new British Archaeology!

I’m really proud of the new edition, it’s a classic example of our best and most popular archaeology magazine. It leads with an exclusive feature about British mummies. Tom Booth and colleagues tell the story of how they came to realise that mummification was a common way to dispose of the dead in bronze age Britain.

We hear about an Egyptian mummy, too – or at least the possibility that Nefertiti’s remains lie at the back of Tutankhamun’s tomb – told by the man who thinks she’s there, and who has just obtained permission from the authorities to electronically scan the tomb.

Back in England, Northampton Council sold a remarkable Egyptian statue – we review the controversy and reveal the man who is thought to have brought Sekhemka to England in the 19th century.

We have an important interview with Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s first chief executive.

With excavations, reviews, news (heard the story about the new stone row near Stonehenge? We reveal it’s even bigger than you thought) and much more, this is a showcase for what’s happening and what matters in archaeology today.


Now who will get to keep Sekhemka?

Last year Northampton Council sold an Egyptian statue of Sekhemka for a lot of money. The Department for Culture, Media & Sport has deferred a decision on the export licence application for a second time, now giving themselves until March 29 2016. It seems there is a realistic chance that someone will buy it back for Britain. The DCMS has received “notification of a serious intention to raise funds to save the Sekhemka statue for the UK,” and thus “ensure there will be public access to the statue.”

This apparently good news came a few days ahead of the launch of the new British Archaeology, which has two features on the statue (see above, available online on October 7, and in shops on October 9). Stephen Quirke and Alice Stevenson review the sale and future implications, and I ask about the man thought to have brought the statue to England in 1850. Two things are apparent from these articles. First, that the sellers’ right to auction the statue remains far from clear. And secondly that the sale creates difficulties that potentially reach further than this one object.

A stay of export is normally a welcome opportunity for public institutions to rally thoughts and funds. As Quirke and Stevenson explain, the problem on this occasion is that the nature of the sale (by a public institution holding the object in trust and selling into the private market) means that the usual public buyers can’t touch it – doing so would implicitly support the sale.

So could a private buyer be the solution? That has problems too. At the end of the day such an outcome would mean that while the public might have full access to the statute (and I bet after all this they’d delight in seeing it), the Northamptons – the borough council and the 7th Marquis – would both get their money. The message? It’s a dodgy thing to do and makes you unpopular, but you can get away with selling off something you shouldn’t. So if you really don’t give a monkeys for education, art, culture, local worthies, current opinion and the judgment of posterity, why not empty your museum?

The DCMS announcement comes against a confusing background. We don’t know who bought the statue. It has to be someone outside the UK, and they are likely to be very rich. There have been rumours that it was a member of the Qatari Royal Family looking for a trophy to show off at the 2022 World Cup.

Meanwhile in Egypt there have been at least three proposals to see the statue taken back to where it came from. Mamdouh Eldamaty, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, thought Egyptians around the world might buy it and send it home. This was never an official option: the UK government’s approach has been to allow people to buy it to keep it in Britain.

In a characteristic bluster, Zahi Hawass launched a petition aimed against Northampton’s sale. More on the nail, Egypt’s Heritage Task Force rejected fundraising to buy back the statue, and instead suggested putting political pressure on the British government to “correct such unethical dealing and using all possible international legal ethical ways to repatriate the statue”.

It remains possible that something in this area lies behind the extended export ban. Could the government be considering the legality of the sale, which many have questioned? The sellers have not proven their ownership or their right to sell. And, as Quirke and Stevenson point out, neither has anyone shown that an appropriate licence was granted to take Sekhemka in the first place. The paperwork to show that position, they say, may yet be found in Egypt. So before large cheques change hands, it might be felt a bit of research is in order.

Nice to see my photos being used, which is why I took them (more here). A proper credit would be good too :).