It had been pretty quiet in Stonehenge media land. We had an excavation at Durrington Walls in August that got a bit of attention. This was thin stuff compared to the coverage given last year to the geophysics sensation that the dig overturned, though what we now have is far more significant (and so features in the new British Archaeology).
Then suddenly within a few days of each other in early October, two stories took off, and people were asking me what was going on? I had no idea, so it’s taken me a bit of time to catch up behind the scenes. This is what I found. (Quick summary. What was going on? Nothing much.)
Let’s start with the tunnel. Secret excavations. Solstice sunset view ruined. The government wants to concrete it over. The whole purpose and meaning of Stonehenge destroyed… A blog on October 6 set off an explosion of online indignation. Why didn’t I know about this?
The blog was by Tim Daw, the man who built a neolithic burial mound in north Wilshire for the recently departed. He noticed people excavating south of the A303 at Stonehenge. He drove down a byway to have a look, and realised the site was in line with the setting midwinter sun as seen from the monument. The dig meant “where the western tunnel portal will be has been decided”. The portal, being in line with said event, means the sun, dropping big and red through the centre of Stonehenge in late December, will be drowned out by street lights.
Heritage Action put it like this: “Hard to believe, but true. Even though Historic England, English Heritage and the National Trust say they are committed to ensure that ‘only schemes which protect and enhance the World Heritage Site are progressed’ it has just been revealed that Wessex Archaeology are secretly test digging at the very spot where the entrance to one version of the route would be and it’s at the very place where it would do maximum damage to the significance of Stonehenge.’ They could have said that as HE, EH and the NT want to protect and enhance the world heritage site, it’s unlikely they would’ve wanted the tunnel portal there. But where’s the fun in that?
The BBC turned it into this headline: “Stonehenge solstice sunset view ‘will be ruined by tunnel’.”
Stonehenge Alliance went ballistic on Twitter and Facebook, looking like the archaeological wing of Donald Trump’s social media campaign. They even got Tom Holland in a photo holding up their new leaflet (above), which features misleading imagery worthy of Putin-supporting trolls. Please, Tom, tell me this was a set-up job?
There can’t be many who don’t know a road tunnel may be built at Stonehenge (past, not under). But, notwithstanding all the fuss, no one knows anything about it. That’s because a decision to build a tunnel has not been taken. Its route is not known. Where the entrances might be has not been decided. Nor has how many lanes of road there would be, which brand of wine will be cracked at the opening or if anyone will be allowed to set up strawberry stalls inside it. Remember all this whenever you hear someone complain about what the tunnel will do. They’re making it up.
The place to go for what we do know is Highways England. This huge organisation is not brilliant at communication. An expected press announcement seems to be stalling from one week to the next. But it’s the best we have, so worth listening to.
There’s no question that Highways wants to upgrade the A303 as it passes Stonehenge. Its vision is “to make the A303 a free-flowing expressway, allowing mile-a-minute journeys.” Stonehenge, Amesbury and Berwick Down is one of nine schemes to effect this, with an estimated cost of £864–£1,321m – the huge range there (nearly half a billion pounds) is a hint as to how much is still undecided. The project timeline for Stonehenge begins in 1989, and ends, “to be confirmed 2020: Start on site”.
There’s not much more to say, but what there is is significant. From the timeline:
2015–2016 Route identification
TBC Early 2017 Have your say: public consultation on all route options
TBC Summer 2017 Announce our preferred/recommended option
TBC 2018 Submit planning application
So all this stuff about portals and midwinter sunsets is premature. Currently routes are being identified – not decided on (the picture above showing proposed routes is from my earlier blog on the topic). There will be a public consultation next year. The decided route then has to get planning consent, when there will be more opportunity for scrutiny. If I was an objector, I’d wait until next year. At least I’d know what it was I was objecting to, always a help in these things.
Why were archaeologists digging in a field south of Stonehenge?
Highways needs its plans to be approved by Icomos (a conservation outfit that advises Unesco). Put another way, Icomos probably also cares about where a tunnel portal might be, and my guess is it will probably ask Highways. It’s tough in road planning, but I don’t think Highways would be able to secretly put a tunnel portal just where the sun sets at midwinter. The eagle-eyed people at Icomos would notice.
To put its case to Icomos, Highways needs evidence, which includes descriptions of what survives of archaeological interest below the soil. To get this, Wessex Archaeology was contracted to conduct yet another evaluation. In this particular case thirty trenches were dug over a wide area south of the A303. If each trench was a sign of where a tunnel would end, we’d have a portal that reached half way across the world heritage site. And note that “evaluation” is not the same as “excavation”: the idea is to dig down until you come to undisturbed remains, and then stop. Done well, little if any archaeology is touched.
So if we don’t know if or where a tunnel will happen, how can it be said that it threatens “our chance of piecing together the jigsaw to explain why Stonehenge was built”? This is what David Jacques said when he was quoted in the Guardian. His concern is with the portal at the other end, to the east, where he thinks it will damage the site of his excavations at Blick Mead. All evidence to date suggests that a tunnel wouldn’t be anywhere near the site (see map above), so why the fuss?
David’s colleague Andy Rhind-Tutt, chairman of Amesbury Museum and Heritage Trust, says “Blick Mead is without doubt one of the greatest national discoveries ever made in the Stonehenge landscape.” The latest addition to the list of discoveries is a tooth. It got a lot of attention in the media, but that simple fact is almost the only thing about the story that I’m happy not to question.
Blick Mead is important, and has considerable potential, as I explained in a feature I wrote for British Archaeology last year. To date, however, we have not had a single peer-reviewed publication about the dig or anything from it, despite the fact they began excavating there a decade ago. That’s not great for an excavation, especially in a world heritage site – but it happens. What’s not acceptable, I think, is to fail to offer your work for scientific scrutiny if you make exceptional claims for it, and regularly take them to the public, who are undoubtedly interested.
Francis Pryor writes about Blick Mead in his new book (see below). He says the artefacts are in situ; that the site has produced the largest collection of wild cattle bones yet found on a British mesolithic site; that the mud turned the flints bright pink; that it features the longest proven occupation of a British mesolithic site; that dates prove it was occupied at the same time as large posts were erected near the future site of Stonehenge. But no evidence has yet been offered to prove any of those claims.
Francis’ book was too late for the tooth. This, we are told, is evidence for “a 250-mile trip from York to Wiltshire made 7,000 years ago by a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer and his dog” (Guardian) – “evidence of the earliest journey in British history” (BBC). A leader in the Times announced, “A Mesolithic Alsatian from Yorkshire is now Stonehenge’s earliest recorded visitor.” Yet the only solid evidence we were given for this is a photo. Yup, it’s a tooth.
The argument is that the tooth is a domestic dog’s; that stable isotope analysis shows the dog grew up in the Vale of York; as the tooth was found in Wiltshire, the dog must have walked there from Yorkshire; the tooth was found in a mesolithic context at Blick Mead, so the journey occurred 7,000 years ago; and that is the oldest demonstrated journey in British history.
Is the tooth from a wolf or a dog, and if the latter, what did it look like? Did a dog walk to Wiltshire, or did a person carry a tooth – perhaps in a necklace? Published mesolithic radiocarbon dates from Blick Mead range from 9,500 years ago to 6,250 (note at the nearest this is over a thousand years before Stonehenge began, so pace the Times leader writer, no mesolithic dog visited it). So, given the apparent lack of stratigraphy at the site which means items can be dated only by typology or direct carbon dating, has the tooth been dated, and if not why 7,000 years ago? And the key question: do the isotope data show the beast grew up in Yorkshire?
First I asked David Jacques, as site director, for information. He declined.
Then I asked Bryony Rogers, a research student at Durham University supervised by Janet Montgomery, who worked on the isotope analysis. She was very helpful, and what she told me was more or less what the media had reported, but with a little more detail and no hype. I learnt the tooth was a lone find. So it was not attached to a jaw or skeleton to prove a whole dog, as opposed to a tooth which might have been carried.
Bryony’s main focus was on reconstructing diet, she told me. Her data show the dog was not eating marine food, and was most likely consuming aurochs (wild cattle) and other large herbivores with the possible inclusion of freshwater fish. The dog’s diet “remained relatively constant across the time period represented by the tooth”. This is the first time that this technique has been carried out on a dog and on a sample of this age, she says. Pioneering stuff.
They also looked at the tooth enamel: this is where various stable isotopes might throw light on the creature’s migratory history. Oxygen, says Bryony, is not consistent with the dog drinking water local to Blick Mead when it was a puppy. “We suggested that the dog came from the north-east of the site,” she said, “but did not specify York as an origin. We are currently carrying out strontium isotope analysis to try and get a better understanding of the dog’s origin, as these oxygen results could also suggest an origin of higher altitude.”
The phrase “north-east of the site” rang a bell. This was exactly how Paul Budd, Jane Evans and Carolyn Chenery described the home of the beheaded Anglo-Saxon man buried at Stonehenge. They interpreted oxygen and strontium data to suggest he had grown up in an area “primarily to the north and east of the monument” (see “An Anglo-Saxon decapitation and burial at Stonehenge,” Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 95 (2002), 131–46, and my book Hengeworld).
The Anglo-Saxon man’s potential home territory was quite limited, and did not reach further north than Cambridge. Is it possible, I asked Bryony Rogers, that the Blick Mead dog grew up in the same area?
She said it was.
“It could be a possibility for the dog to have moved from a similar locality,” she wrote in an email. Now strontium isotopes may show the dog came from much further north. But until the analyses are done, and we have that evidence, all we can say is that the dog was not local. “We can’t say how far it travelled to the site on this evidence alone,” concludes Bryony.
Suppose it did come from Yorkshire. Would we then have the oldest demonstrated journey in British history? The key word is “demonstrated”. Hunter-gatherers can cover very wide distances over the course of a year. But do we have any evidence for this from the British mesolithic? How about the final palaeolithic, older still?
In 2012 Paul Pettitt, Marcy Rockman and Simon Chenery published a peer-reviewed article in which they claim to chemically characterise surface flint outcrops in various parts of England (Quaternary International 272/273, 275–287). Applying the analyses to artefacts made in the Creswellian era, 12–13,000 years ago, they found “some flints [had been] transported over distances ranging from the local to >200km”. More than 200km sounds like a journey to me. The mesolithic hadn’t even begun then.
The good news, is that we have been promised a peer-reviewed book on Blick Mead, edited by David Jacques and called Blick Mead: Spring Excavations. It will contain an article by Bryony Rogers, K Gron, J Montgomery, DR Gröcke & P Rowley-Conwy, “Aurochs hunters: the animal bones from Blick Mead”. Peter Lang expect to publish it early next year.
Meanwhile, we’ve had some more gentle news from Stonehenge. In late September, locals in Wylye were able to watch the latest Stonehenge replica being built. Shoots for the forthcoming Transformers: The Last Knight, gave Arthur Pendragon an opportunity to complain that setting off explosive effects in front of some polystyrene megaliths ten miles down the road from Stonehenge (and out of sight) offended the ancestors. It’s a good thing the ancestors don’t keep up with politics, or they’d be really miffed. The movie’s set to be released in June next year, to add a bit of needed colour to the summer solstice events.
Speaking of colour, over at the Society of Antiquaries’ newsletter (Salon, which I edit along with British Archaeology), a Fellow wrote in about Victorian flower shows at Stonehenge. He was reading Richard Davenport-Hines’ biography, Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes, and was surprised to learn that the great economist’s grandfather had put on displays of dahlias at Stonehenge in the 1840s. Apparently Sir Edmund Antrobus, who owned the stones, was president elect of the Salisbury Plain Dahlia Society when John Keynes snr was honorary secretary. They conspired to move the annual flower show from Everleigh to Stonehenge. As you’d expect, attendance rocketed. John “dahlia” Keynes had to issue a notice commanding that “no vehicles, booths, or standing pitches” should be put within 50 yards of the stones.
Back in 2016, “Hundreds of druids and pagans” at the site for the September equinox sounded like a very low-key affair – and quite posh, judging by the Mail Online’s photos. English Heritage now opens the stones up for full public access for the equinoxes as well as the solstices. While the solstice case is quite compelling, there is no evidence that people in 2500BC were any more aware of an equinox than they were of Christmas or April Fool’s Day. But why not?
And a couple of books are out to add to the Stonehenge canon. Jane Brayne’s long-awaited – by those of us in the know – comic book inspired by the Amesbury Archer is finally done and self-published. It’s a lovely thing which I highly recommend: my daughter and I enjoyed a long Sunday breakfast in bed reading it together. Jane tells me you can find it in the shop at Stonehenge; I interviewed her for the new British Archaeology. The other title is Francis Pryor’s Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape, nicely made by Head of Zeus, in a smallish gift format with tinted paper and much full-page art and photography. The text is a useful introduction to where we are now, in an ever-changing story (see above) of competing ideas and new evidence.
Below: map added October 20 in response to Tim Daw’s comment.