What did the world heritage site mean to people who built Stonehenge? Nothing

A303 byway copy.jpgYesterday I walked in the landscape around Stonehenge.

In a recent short video headed The Stonehenge Tunnel Begins, Tom Holland stands on Bush Barrow, near Stonehenge and one of the country’s iconic prehistoric monuments, and addresses the camera.

He describes “vans and lorries employed by the Highways Agency who are testing out the ground for what is planned to be a four-lane road tunnel.”

We see barrows – bronze age burial mounds – on Normanton Down, and Stonehenge in the distance. The only noise is wind in the grass.

“All this landscape will be seriously compromised,” says Holland. “The sense of incipient desecration is completely devastating.”

I too care about this landscape. I can be as emotive about it as the best. But I also care about “truth”. Tom Holland’s video, doubtless expressing passionately held and well-meant views, is manipulative and misleading.

Between where he stands and Stonehenge is a very busy road. The film is shot in such a way that we cannot see or hear it – we are vaguely aware of some soft focus vehicles in the distance apparently driving over downland. The proposed road tunnel – it remains a proposal under discussion, work on it has not begun – would not be visible from Stonehenge, or from Bush barrow. The video presents an unbalanced view on an important issue that deserves better.

Not wishing to add more than necessary to what is already out there on this subject, I want to show some pictures, all taken within the past 12 months – mostly yesterday. This is the reality of the Stonehenge world heritage site.

  1. The Stonehenge road proposals

stonehenge map.jpgThe Highways Agency recently concluded a public consultation about proposed alterations to the A303 road that passes Stonehenge. HA favours a tunnel past Stonehenge slightly south of the current road (above, Option 1), with open dual carriageway continuing to the west (one of the two green routes; there already is dual carriageway to the east). In the map above, the pink route is the existing A303; white spots mark that section which would be removed if either of the first options were to be adopted. Option 2 (F010) is a new road outside the world heritage site to the south and east.

Nothing has yet been announced or apparently decided, but public responses indicated four main positions:

1 Do nothing. (As I did yesterday sitting in a traffic queue).

2 Build a longer tunnel that starts and ends outside the world heritage site (supported by the Stonehenge Alliance). Option 1 in a big tunnel.

3 Move the A303 outside the world heritage site altogether, with a detour to the south (supported by a group who referred to themselves as “senior archaeologists who have carried out internationally recognised research within the Stonehenge WHS within the last ten years or more”). Option 2.

4 Support the HA proposal, but with serious reservations about the western portal that could be accommodated by changes that would almost certainly include extending the tunnel to the west (supported by the National Trust and Historic England). Option 1 with unknown revisions.

I last blogged about this subject in more detail here, and more recently summarised the state of play in the Society of Antiquaries online newsletter, Salon. My purpose here is simply to show what the roads, and the proposed southern route, look like now.

  1. The A303 inside the world heritage site

You might miss it from a lot of the presentations, but the A303 is a busy, dangerous, noisy road passing close to Stonehenge and through the centre of the world heritage site. It is there now.

These photos follow the route from east to west, starting at Amesbury.

Amesbury roundabout.jpg

A303 jam amesbury.jpg

Avenue A303.jpg
This is where the Avenue crosses the A303

A303 king barrow ridge.jpg

A303 Shenge bottom copy.jpg


Normanton Down.jpg
These are barrows on Normanton Down (you can make out Bush Barrow, where Tom Holland was standing in his video, as the mound on the left with a small tree on it), with the A303 on the right

longbarrow xroads.jpg

Longbarrow crossroads.jpg
stationary at the Longbarrow roundabout
Longbarrow crossroads 2.jpg
The A303  approaches the roundabout, seen from the south; WHS to right of line (the border follows the north-south road)

2a. A detour through Larkhill

Larkhill routeLocals and regular A303 drivers in the know sometimes avoid the jams around Stonehenge by taking a small road to the north that passes through Larkhill, a growing military community with young families, shops, schools and a church. Yesterday that road was itself jammed.

Larkhill 1.jpg

Larkhill 2.jpg

Larkhill 3.jpg

  1. The southern route

Upper Woodford 2.jpg“[The Highways Agency’s] option for the surface road beyond the southern edge of the World Heritage Site (option F010) is the only one which does not have a severe impact on the WHS. Therefore it must be taken. The others have dreadful consequences for the world’s most famous archaeological site and its landscape setting.” So say (their emphases) these archaeologists:

Mike Parker Pearson, Umberto Albarella, Mike Allen, Barry Bishop, Nick Branch, Christopher Chippindale, Oliver Craig, David Field, Charly French, Vince Gaffney, Paul Garwood, David Jacques, Nicholas James, Joshua Pollard, Colin Richards, David Robinson, Peter Rowley-Conwy, Clive Ruggles, Julian Thomas, Christopher Tilley, Kate Welham.

There are many distinguished researchers and writers here (and longstanding friends and colleagues). Which goes to show that being an expert about the past does not necessarily make you an expert about the present. The southern route would be completely mad.

In these photos, I follow it from the west. Out there yesterday I experienced some of the most peaceful and beautiful landscapes that Britain has to offer. As an archaeologist I also knew that I was walking close to the some of the best preserved (and least explored) prehistoric earthworks in the world heritage site, around Lake and Wilsford. Where the new dual-carriageway A303 would go, just south of the world heritage site border, has been little researched by archaeologists, if at all. We don’t know what might be there.

We start at Druid’s Lodge. The southern route would go more or less through the middle of all these photos.

Druids Lodge 1.jpg

Druids Lodge 2.jpg

Druids Lodge 3.jpg

Boreland Hill 1.jpg

Boreland Hill 2.jpg

Boreland Hill 3.jpg

Boreland Hill 4.jpg
All of these views from Boreland Hill are looking north; here, with a long lens, you can see the A303 descending into Stonehenge Bottom

Boreland Hill 5.jpg

Middle Woodford 1.jpg
This and below is Middle Woodford, not on the immediate new road but nearby

Middle Woodford 2.jpg

Woodford Bridge 1.jpg
Woodford Bridge

Woodford Bridge 2.jpg

Woodford Bridge 3.jpg
Note wide flat floodplain beside the river Avon, a common feature all along the river here and likely to contain remains of any number of mesolithic waterside camps like that at Blick Mead

Woodford Bridge 4.jpg

Upper Woodford 1.jpg
And we get to as precise as we can be to where a new concrete flyover would need to be built to take a southern A303 over the river

Upper Woodford 3.jpg

Upper Woodford 4.jpg
More interesting floodplain

Woodford Green 1.jpg

Woodford Green 2.jpg
An unusually high and steep old chalk riverbank rising to right at Woodford Green
Great Durnford 1.jpg
Great Durnford church, beside the river

Great Durnford 2.jpg

Great Durnford 3.jpg

Great Durnford 4.jpg

Overlooking this lovely valley, a bronze age/iron age hillfort at Ogbury

That’s as far as I got. If you look at the map above, you can see Ogbury fort outlined in red at bottom centre. We’re about halfway along the proposed southern route. Perhaps someone else would like to walk the rest with a camera.

  1. Conclusion

Of course we all respect Stonehenge and its landscape, and want the best for it. Who on earth doesn’t? When you hear or see accusations that people don’t care, you know the speaker or writer is not thinking straight.

But the world heritage site border is a line on a modern map that has nothing to do with antiquity. It wasn’t there in the neolithic. It’s a reflection of what archaeologists knew about Stonehenge in the early 1980s – recent archaeological research, the historical accidents of survival, and modern history. The settlement of Amesbury is excluded because it’s a modern town, not because the place had no meaning in the neolithic. A large, significant early neolithic causewayed enclosure at Larkhill, is not included, although it may sit astride the border, because no one knew it was there until last year.

So to obsess about preserving the world heritage site on the one hand, and not to care a jot about the land outside on the other, is perverse and unthinking.

Take two extremes. We could tunnel and dual the A303 exactly on its present route (Julian Richards has more or less suggested this). Or we could build an entirely new, and much longer dual carriageway with a new bridge flying over the river Avon.

On the one hand, no cars would be driving where there are now none. No new landscape would be divided up and changed. A considerable amount of road would disappear.

On the other hand, several kilometres of entirely new road would be built across some of England’s most beautiful and peaceful rural landscape, close to quiet and idyllic riverside villages and over the river Avon, which we think (many of those archaeologists above say so) was a key part of the Stonehenge ritual world.

Why would you choose the latter, not least when you know that we have no idea what undisturbed archaeology lies on the route and would be destroyed?

And this doesn’t touch on the people who use the roads. The people who currently shortcut through Larkhill, and would be even more likely to do so, in larger numbers and through other villages as well, when faced with a long detour to the south.

Stonehenge has a long and honorable history of throwing up entertaining, eccentric and bonkers ideas. The A303 southern route belongs with aliens, ley lines and diluvial floods. And they don’t damage the countryside.

11 thoughts on “What did the world heritage site mean to people who built Stonehenge? Nothing

  1. I wonder.., what if that new Larkhill Early Neolithic enclosure would have been found on the southern side of Stonehenge instead of the northern side..? I guess the best option, which does the least new damage to the landscape, with the risk of hitting any new important site, would be a longer and deeper tunnel..

    1. I agree (and who’s to say there isn’t another enclosure to the south as well?). Tunnels are very expensive, so there has to be a point where we might say if we actually had the money, would we make the tunnel longer or would we find something more creative to do with it?

  2. There also exists another cheaper option other than a bored tunnel, which is to temporarily divert the A303 and then dig a canyon along the exact route it now follows. Into this canyon, you engineer a dual carriageway road, stacking one carriageway atop the other, roofing it over and covering the roof with a thin skim of soil to create an apparent tunnel.

    This would probably cost less than a bored tunnel, and be easier to engineer as well, and could finally be set up such that emergency access points to both carriageways of the tunnel could be placed at intervals along the length of the structure.

    1. It’s called Cut and cover in the UK Dan. More economic. It wasn’t on the list because the value of the archaeology of the site appears to have been enhanced using a method known as Contingent Valuation. It’s an innovative use of this technique and one that could easily be challenged were developers not to want this type of precedent to be set. However, it is Stonehenge and that is a bit of a unique monument.

      However, the 21 archaeos appear to have opened the door to it being challenged, so it will be interesting to see how Highways respond. Without the CVS, the proposals would become a low value scheme and therefore would not satisfy treasury Green Book principles: Cut and cover or road widening would then be the only types of scheme that fit the value criteria.

      Hope you’re still doing well. Haven’t heard from you in a while.

      1. The fundamental problem with this idea is the great swathe of land close to Stonehenge that would be literally cut away (and tunnelling on the precise route of the present A303 doesn’t work). Archaeologically you’re in the same place as you would be with a new surface dual carriageway, a destructive solution (and you have Stonehenge sitting near a great chalk crevasse during construction which might be a touchy issue)

  3. Agreed: Both cut and cover and widening would take out a swathe of land. However, both would be significantly less expensive than the current options. But any form of development is destructive and society has to make choices about what to keep and what to let go. This is why the value studies are done.

    A potential weakness in the current evaluation is the CVS: There didn’t seem to me to be any way to tell from the documents provided, but if that study was weakly constructed it could unravel. If that were to happen, the above options could well be back on the table unless the pro-WHS lobby can prove value by other means. It surprised me that the 21 challenged the proposals in the way they did because that challenge could itself provide a reason to re-evaluate the CVS. But the 21 may know something that we do not; in which case it may be a brilliant (rather than brave) strategy.

  4. Thanks for this post. Living in Andover I get annoyed when a load of balls is talked about the road proposals by those who don’t know the area or are not used to being stuck on the A303 at Stonehenge. The site is already damaged by the A303 (which has likely removed a lot of the surface archaeology on its line) – so we are looking at the least worst option to reduce the damage. Which of the Option 1 proposals does this is a valid subject for debate. But Option 2 is a nightmare. How will archaeologists look to the outside world when they says “Damm the birds and trees and frogs and peace and quiet (and killer shrimp!), archaeology is more important – oh, and sorry about the archaeology we don’t know about to be destroyed on the new road line!”
    Unless of course the pre-construction excavation on the new road line is fully funded, given all the time it needs and the road can be moved if something extraordinary is discovered. In which case there may be plenty of articles for future editions of British Archaeology. And the pigs at the west end of the A303 Stonehenge section will fly.

  5. I really enjoyed this article and must say it to be extremely well balanced and thankfully spotted the blatant misdirection by Tom Holland in his ‘watch, weep. protest’ piece on Youtube which has thankfully only received 429 views to date. Having worked and been taught by a lot of the Archaeological-intelligensia referred to above who prefer Option 2, I think i can only comment on what to me appears a very blatant jobs-for-the-stonehenge-boys club that a lot of those names have made their name from through years/decades of hard work and research.
    The cynic in me says that Option 2 provides years worth of archaeological research, investigation, TV programming and analysis the likes of which will never be provided by any possible housing development within the obvious landscape beauty that anyone without cataracts would instantly appreciate.
    Any archaeologist who is worth their qualifications and professional integrity should weep and protest at the prospect of Option 2.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s