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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?
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.