thinking about archaeology

Archive for December, 2015

Final British Archaeology of the year

British Archaeology 146.jpgAnd here it is, a farewell to 2015 with a great new magazine. As I wrote earlier, we lead with an exclusive feature about new Stonehenge research. Some of the stones came from Wales. But where? And how did they reach Wiltshire – by glaciers, or human transport? With the discovery of two prehistoric quarries in Pembrokeshire, archaeologists seem to be getting close to answering these age-old questions.British Archaeology 146 Glastonbury.jpgElsewhere we reveal the UK’s oldest iron-smelting site (next to Scunthorpe’s troubled Tata Steel plant), results of a new excavation at the famous Glastonbury Lake Village, and the discovery of strange animal-headed carved figures in Cornwall. Time Crashers’ Cassie Newland describes a life-changing moment in a Melbourne cinema. We report on a bronze age smiths’ house, and attempts to mitigate antiquities looting in Africa. And we celebrate 25 years of a planning policy that transformed British archaeology and our nations’ story – with the news that trends in commercial archaeology appear to be predicting an imminent UK construction boom.British Archaeology 146 Gulval.jpg

Have archaeologists found Stonehenge quarries?

Bluestone open spread.jpgThey certainly think so – not all, but two important ones. I went to visit their excavations in Pembrokeshire this summer, and was sufficiently impressed to ask them to write about their discoveries for British Archaeology. You can read their report with many photos – including this fabulous opening shot by Adam Stanford – in the new magazine later this week. Digital on Wednesday December 9 (as an App and in web form) and print in the shops on Friday. Copies for Council for British Archaeology members and magazine subscribers are on their way.

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Excavations at Carn Goedog (photo M Pitts)

In the meantime, here is the UCL press release.

Stonehenge ‘bluestone’ quarries confirmed 140 miles away in Wales

Excavation of two quarries in Wales by a UCL-led team of archaeologists and geologists has confirmed they are sources of Stonehenge’s ‘bluestones’– and shed light on how they were quarried and transported.

New research by the team published today in Antiquity presents detailed evidence of prehistoric quarrying in the Preseli hills in Pembrokeshire, helping to answer long-standing questions about why, when and how Stonehenge was built.

The team of scientists includes researchers from UCL, University of Manchester, Bournemouth University, University of Southampton, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, and Dyfed Archaeological Trust.

The very large standing stones at Stonehenge are of ‘sarsen’, a local sandstone, but the smaller ones, known as ‘bluestones’, come from the Preseli hills in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Geologists have known since the 1920s that the bluestones were brought to Stonehenge from somewhere in the Preseli Hills, but only now has there been collaboration with archaeologists to locate and excavate the actual quarries from which they came.

Director of the project, Professor Mike Parker Pearson (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: “This has been a wonderful opportunity for geologists and archaeologists to work together. The geologists have been able to lead us to the actual outcrops where Stonehenge’s stones were extracted.”

The Stonehenge bluestones are of volcanic and igneous rocks, the most common of which are called dolerite and rhyolite. Dr Richard Bevins (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales) and Dr Rob Ixer (UCL and University of Leicester) have identified the outcrop of Carn Goedog as the main source of Stonehenge’s ‘spotted dolerite’ bluestones and the outcrop of Craig Rhos-y-felin as a source for one of the ‘rhyolite’ bluestones. The research published today details excavations at Craig Rhos-y-felin specifically.

The special formation of the rock, which forms natural pillars at these outcrops, allowed the prehistoric quarry-workers to detach each megalith (standing stone) with a minimum of effort. “They only had to insert wooden wedges into the cracks between the pillars and then let the Welsh rain do the rest by swelling the wood to ease each pillar off the rock face” said Dr Josh Pollard (University of Southampton). “The quarry-workers then lowered the thin pillars onto platforms of earth and stone, a sort of ‘loading bay’ from where the huge stones could be dragged away along trackways leading out of each quarry.”

Professor Colin Richards (University of Manchester), an expert in Neolithic quarries, said: “The two outcrops are really impressive – they may well have had special significance for prehistoric people. When we saw them for the first time, we knew immediately that we had found the source.”

Radiocarbon-dating of burnt hazelnuts and charcoal from the quarry-workers’ camp fires reveals that there were several occurrences of megalith-quarrying at these outcrops. Stonehenge was built during the Neolithic period, between 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. Both of the quarries in Preseli were exploited in the Neolithic, and Craig Rhos-y-felin was also quarried in the Bronze Age, around 4,000 years ago.

“We have dates of around 3400 BC for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 BC for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn’t get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 BC” said Professor Parker Pearson. “It could have taken those Neolithic stone-draggers nearly 500 years to get them to Stonehenge, but that’s pretty improbable in my view. It’s more likely that the stones were first used in a local monument, somewhere near the quarries, that was then dismantled and dragged off to Wiltshire.”

Professor Kate Welham (Bournemouth University) thinks that the ruins of any dismantled monument are likely to lie somewhere between the two megalith quarries. She said: “We’ve been conducting geophysical surveys, trial excavations and aerial photographic analysis throughout the area and we think we have the most likely spot. The results are very promising – we may find something big in 2016.”

The megalith quarries are on the north side of the Preseli hills, and this location undermines previous theories about how the bluestones were transported from Wales to Stonehenge. Previous writers have often suggested that bluestones were taken southwards from the hills to Milford Haven and then floated on boats or rafts, but this now seems unlikely.

“The only logical direction for the bluestones to go was to the north then either by sea around St David’s Head or eastwards overland through the valleys along the route that is now the A40” said Professor Parker Pearson. “Personally I think that the overland route is more likely. Each of the 80 monoliths weighed less than 2 tons, so teams of people or oxen could have managed this. We know from examples in India and elsewhere in Asia that single stones this size can even be carried on wooden lattices by groups of 60 – they didn’t even have to drag them if they didn’t want to.”

Phil Bennett, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority’s Culture and Heritage Manager, said: “This project is making a wonderful contribution to our knowledge of the National Park’s importance in prehistory.”

The new discoveries may also help to understand why Stonehenge was built. Parker Pearson and his team believe that the bluestones were erected at Stonehenge around 2900 BC, long before the giant sarsens were put up around 2500 BC.

“Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery of why Stonehenge was built and why some of its stones were brought so far”, said Professor Parker Pearson.

Further excavations are planned for 2016.

“Craig Rhos-y-felin: a Welsh bluestone megalith quarry for Stonehenge” is published in the journal Antiquity today.

bluestones Antiquity.jpgAnd the new CBA book:

Stonehenge CBA book

A vote in a Wiltshire field about drainpipes

Woodhenge view 1.jpg

The last time I visited Woodhenge, the site of a great ritual timber structure near to, and of the same age as, Stonehenge, there was a small community notice on the back of a road sign. ‘BEWARE!’ it read, ‘THIEVES OPERATE IN THIS AREA!’

They do indeed, and they’re not just after our ‘mobile phones, wallets and bags’. Some time in November a pair of bronze plaques that told the visitor about the site were prized off their concrete pillar and taken away.

Woodhenge plaques.jpg

It may not sound much if you don’t know the site, but it would be dreadfully sad if the plaques were not seen again. We don’t know of course, but it’s unlikely that whoever took them understands (or understood) their significance. They have no market value – a tiny amount of metal, and they are too recognisable to be sellable without being caught. If you’ve got them, they might look nice over your fireplace, but what will you tell your friends? Better to slip the plates in a jiffy bag and quietly drop them into a police letterbox. They’ll know what they are.

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Woodhenge, an iconic part of the Stonehenge world heritage site, was discovered from the air in 1925 by a first world war air ace and VC flying a Sopwith Snipe. The pilot, Squadron Leader Gilbert Insall, could see rings of pits as dark marks in a growing crop. He told Wiltshire archaeologist Maud Cunnington. She mounted a dig with her husband and nephew, and William Young, an experienced excavator. In 1926 and 1927 they uncovered the whole area, exposing 168 postholes, mostly in six concentric rings.

All of that was not only a dramatic turn for understanding the ancient Stonehenge landscape, but was pioneering both as an aerial discovery and as a large scale excavation, with a full report that included many specialist contributions. It didn’t stop there.

The Cunningtons bought the site in 1928, to preserve it and to allow the public to visit. They put a marker over each posthole, a concrete drainpipe sealed with a cement top (bushes had been considered – these would grow into a “shapeless tangle” and their roots would destroy the pits – and wooden posts would rot). The pipe tops were painted with colours that matched those in the printed report, to distinguish the different rings. The ground was laid to grass, and the whole given over to the care of the Office of Works who, eventually, accepted responsibility. The Works department then installed the plaques as a guide for the public.

The same process occurred soon after at the Sanctuary, in the Avebury part of the world heritage site, where the Cunningtons again excavated the entire area of a series of concentric pit rings, in this case a mix of stone- and postholes. The Office of Works erected an information plaque there too, but it disappeared many years ago when the signs were renewed. In those days people cared less publicly about these things, and a civil servant might have innocently taken the plaque home; now is perhaps the time for them to drop it into an anonymous jiffy bag.

Woodhenge plans.jpg

At Woodhenge the plaques survived in situ until November. There was a plan, and below that a text. As you can see above, the bronze plan was a direct copy from the fold-out printed plan in the excavation report, published in 1929 – in effect a peer-reviewed study monumentalised for public consumption in cast bronze and coloured enamels.

Woodhenge pipes.jpg

“The pillars,’ wrote Maud Cunnington in her report, “though perhaps not aesthetically pleasing, seemed on the whole the best method of preserving a permanent record on the site.”

We were able to see the concrete markers from the inside when Josh Pollard re-excavated part of the Cunningtons’ trenches in 2006. These three pipes from the outer ring (above) show two tops and a base; weathering and lichen growth distinguish the parts that were exposed above the carefully mowed turf. In the photo below, you can see a line of blue-topped pipes and a pair of pits in the same ring, refilled by the Cunningtons after excavation.

outer ring.jpg

As they weathered in, the pipes and plaques became Woodhenge, which otherwise, for all but the nerdiest of archaeological specialists, would have been indistinguishable from an empty field. The painted pipes are a full-scale replica of the excavation report’s site plan, just as the upper bronze plate was a scale copy. Helen Wickstead and Martyn Barber write about this and wider issues in “Concrete prehistories: the making of megalithic modernism”, in Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 2 (2015).

The pipes and plaques also became Woodhenge in the sense that, through nearly 90 years, they impressed themselves on visitors and recorded their passage. The bronze plates were so covered in graffiti and random scratches to have acquired an abstract background to the original engraved messages, in which scratched texts are all but unreadable. Strange snatches of phrases or words could occasionally be made out:


What looks like the date, above right, February 25 1952.


Is this a military ID, MHUS 1854?

was entered by.jpg

A treble clef.

Martyn Barber kindly directed me to a report on a visit to Woodhenge by the Wiltshire Archaeological Society in July 1931 (in the society’s Magazine 44, 1931, 475–76). It’s worth quoting the relevant passage in full. Maud Cunnington described their dig, after which her husband talked about the pipes.

“Capt. Cunnington mentioned that they had purchased the site, and marked the position of the holes with drain pipes of different sizes as being the best way that could be thought of, of preserving and showing the plan of the place. The drain pipes filled with concrete were not beautiful, but they did mark the site of each hole, and the plan could be seen. A difficulty, however, had now arisen, they desired to hand over the site to the Office of Works, for preservation, but that body would only accept it, on the understanding that the drain pipes should be removed and the holes marked as the Aubrey holes at Stonehenge are, by a patch of chalk only [the chalk Aubrey Hole markers were later replaced by flat concrete discs, painted white]. The obvious objection to this was, that unless the grass was regularly kept cut closely it would be impossible to see the chalk patches at all, and even if you could see them it would be impossible to distinguish the different circles from each other.

“Capt. Cunnington said Mrs. Cunnington and himself were quite willing to lessen the height of the pipes if that was thought desirable, but unless some definitely better means of marking out the circles was proposed, they were unwilling to consent to remove the pipes altogether. He wished to put it to the vote of the members present as to whether the pipes should be done away with or not. Admiral Hyde Parker then proposed that the pipes be retained as they are. This was seconded and was put to the vote by the President, when the entire company, except two members, voted in its favour, and it was desired that the result should be communicated to the Office of Works.

“Members then returned to their cars and went on to the George Hotel, at Amesbury, for lunch, and after lunch visited the Church.”

On the day after Parliament voted to extend the air war against IS from Iraq into Syria, and of Hilary Benn’s landmark speech delivered with a touch of Laurence Olivier, I like to imagine a group of archaeological enthusiasts standing in a corner of a Wiltshire field. They are not far from a military camp, established before the first world war and still active today. They vote, with proposer and seconder, on painted concrete drainpipes arranged in patterns in the field. And they resolve to pass the result on to the government.

It is not just a pair of bronze plates that have been stolen. It is a part of Woodhenge and its memories.


Mark Harrison, national policing and crime advisor for Historic England, has asked people who knew anything about the plaques to contact Wiltshire Police (101) or Crime Stoppers (0800 555111).

In this photo below, the concrete pillar with the plaques (rear right) looks like a lectern, facing the congregation.

Woodhenge view 2.jpg