This is not a polemic, but a long reflection on Stonehenge, archaeology, conservation and the modern world. So as not to interrupt the read, I have put no links in the text. There are some at the end.
In 2014 the president of the United States visited Britain’s most famous ancient monument. Barack Obama was on his way home after a trip to Estonia and a NATO summit in Wales. What better chance to see Stonehenge, he said afterwards, and tick something off his bucket list?
The Marine One helicopter flew over the stones and landed at a nearby military base in rural Wiltshire. A long motorcade of great black vehicles drove Obama to the site – using a backroad to avoid the traffic – and with only a few hours’ notice, English Heritage curator Heather Sebire showed him round. “The visit was his idea,” she told me. “It was a gorgeous evening, and he asked very intelligent questions. He called it elemental.” Obama told Sebire he could imagine being there every morning. “I’d sit on one of these rocks,” he said wistfully, “and watch the sun rise. It would really cleanse your mind.”
Donald Trump is coming to Britain. He was to have done so in June; that slipped, it wasn’t mentioned in the Queen’s speech, and it seems it may now happen next year. Will he visit Stonehenge in June 2018? Might he join the thousands celebrating the midsummer sunrise that month? Or more probably, like Obama, arrange a secret tour on his own, after hours, when the evening summer light casts warm shadows across 5,000 years of monumental decay? If I were there, I’d have one question (not to spoil his moment with anything else): “Mister President, what would you do about the road?”
Stonehenge is constantly in the news: for ancient discoveries, for the latest, often loopy theory about how or why it was built, and for protests about entrance charges, fences, car parking and archaeologists who dig up ancient burials. The longest-running single story, however, is about roads. It is a local issue, and it is one that affects over a million visitors a year and the imaginations of the world beyond. It is a universal heritage challenge: how do you balance conservation and the personal with the pressures of tourism and everyday living?
Until 2013 Stonehenge was gripped in a traffic vice between the A303, a major route to the south-west, and the A344, a branch that served a car park immediately beside Britain’s most visited ruin. The smaller road and car park are now grassed over, leaving an ever more congested trunk route. The government would remove, or at least hide, that one too. David Cameron, then Britain’s prime minister, went to Stonehenge just three months after Obama. Ahead of a general election, he pledged to put the A303 into a tunnel, something that could now be afforded, he claimed, as part of a successful long-term economic plan for the whole country.
History moves on. Cameron was ousted and Britain talks only about Brexit and leaving the European Union. But to the surprise of many, the tunnel idea is still alive. On January 12 Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, announced a £2 billion project that would turn the entire A303 into what sounds like a motorway in all but name. Highways England, the government-owned company that manages the roads, described the vision as an “expressway, a new type of strategic road which is as safe and reliable as a motorway and where ‘mile-a-minute’ journeys are the norm.” Where this motorway passes through the Stonehenge world heritage site, it would be buried in a tunnel – or part of it would.
Reaction to the announcement was explosive. Tom Holland, historian, writer and broadcaster, described the tunnel as “an act of vandalism that would shame our country and our generation.” Columnist and former National Trust chair Simon Jenkins defended the existing road under the headline, “a monumental folly”. Archaeologists who have been excavating in the world heritage site have ganged up in opposition. Government plans endangered the unique site, said Dan Snow, broadcaster and president of the Council for British Archaeology, appearing to liken the proposals to the actions of Islamic State, “smashing the treasures of the past.” “Anyone who cares about our past, our origins,” tweeted historian Simon Schama, “must oppose the tunnel.”
How have we got here? Does the road really need to be “improved”? If so, are there better ways to do it that wouldn’t bring a huge construction project into a world heritage site? How could organisations like the National Trust and Historic England – corporate custodians of heritage and landscape – consider supporting such an intrusion? Doesn’t anyone in government listen to archaeologists, who fear the damaging impact of a tunnel, and who, after all, ought to know?
If I could choose, I would visit Stonehenge on a May afternoon when the blossom is out and sun-drenched showers roll across the great wilderness of Salisbury Plain. And I would do so in 1805, with William Cunnington.
He had a trick. A local businessman who effectively invented the archaeology of Stonehenge, digging among the stones and in ancient burial mounds, Cunnington would take guests in a horse-drawn chaise. Before Stonehenge was in sight, he’d stop the carriage and pull up the wooden shutters. Barrister Richard Fenton much enjoyed the experience:
“Thus in darkness and durance”, he wrote, “we travelled rapidly for a few miles, till our captain, with a most majestic tone, issued the word of command, ‘Stop, down with the blinds;’ when, lo! we found ourselves within the area of the gigantic peristyle of Stonehenge… the effect wonderful.”
The days of driving into the centre of Stonehenge are long gone, but in one respect the journey two centuries ago has a modern counterpart: the road we walk on from the new visitor centre to the stones is the road along which Cunnington drove his chaise – the former A344. This and the A303 to the south were created as toll roads in the 1760s, by private trusts known as turnpikes; their milestones still mark the routes. They had a profound effect on how we all see, and imagine, Stonehenge.
Before these roads, people reached the monument by riding over a carpet of downland turf broken by a network of short, braided tracks. Mostly they would come from Salisbury to the south – like the Swiss Herman Folkerzheimer in 1562, the first named Stonehenge tourist, who stayed with the bishop – and get sight of the stones as they crested a nearby hill. It’s a spectacular view, perhaps the best. We can still enjoy it, walking up a quiet wooded valley depicted in V S Naipaul’s melancholic novel, The Enigma of Arrival. Now that the National Trust has returned the farmland to grass, the landscape is not unlike that seen by Folkerzheimer. But for one thing. In the valley below, in the short distance between us and Stonehenge, is the A303.
We could keep walking, but at considerable risk. The two-lane road before us carries an average of 24,000 vehicles a day, twice its theoretical capacity; nearly four million vehicles pass by every year. A local blogger who writes under the name General Disquiet recently documented the terrifying progress of a group of cyclists crossing the road where new pedestrian gates have been installed; Highways England’s predecessor declined putting in a central island because of the risk to drivers. The injury rate is higher than the national average for A roads. A woman was killed there last December.
It didn’t go from downland rides to a funnel of congested traffic overnight, but the signs were there from early on. The 18th-century east-west route served a growing flow of traffic passing between Bath and Bristol in the west and south-east England, and between the south-west and London. Almost incidentally, it made Stonehenge accessible to anyone unfortunate enough not to know a local worthy or bishop to show them the way.
It prompted the first guidebooks. It brought artists – among them Turner and Constable, who both sketched a view of Stonehenge from the top of the hill. But this hill was more distant than that to the south, and the prospect, said old hands, inferior. It gave the first sighting of the stones on the journey from London, the view from the A303. In 1876, Salisbury museum curator and local guide Edward Stevens deplored it. “We scarcely see Stonehenge from the best point of view in going to it by the road from Amesbury,” he told the Wiltshire Archaeological Society who had just taken exactly that route. “It is seen to far greater advantage if we approach it by way of the Down” – from the south. Arguments about the road are as old as the road itself.
As visitor numbers grew, so did the complaints. People left food scraps and wrappers at Stonehenge, which attracted rats, and their horses scattered dung. Vandals bashed at the stones for souvenirs (you could rent hammers for the purpose). An eccentric guide took up residence, telling stories of the Apocalypse and flogging pamphlets and watercolours. It was a convenient site for impromptu events, from cricket matches and flower shows to hunt meets and music concerts. By 1901 the private owner had had enough. He fenced in the monument, and charged a shilling for admission.
This led to the first road show-down. Locals had been used to driving their sheep and waggons right by the stones, following the north-south route up the valley and across the plain. They had only to move a few yards to the side, but they felt strongly enough to take the owner to court. The case was heard in London in 1905. They lost.
It wasn’t long before a car park was opened – Stonehenge entered public ownership in 1918 – and then enlarged. All this time, the main road had not been the one we now know, the A303, but the A344, the northern branch that passed immediately by the stones and was closed in 2013. The southern route, the A303, became more popular only as summer holiday traffic down to the south-west and Exeter grew; it took priority in 1933, and was finally classed as a trunk road in 1958. Local traffic and tourists ensured the A344 remained busy. In 1968 an underpass was dug so people could park and walk to the stones without risking their lives.
Visitor numbers rose. Traffic grew. The roads became an issue of real concern. In the late 1970s the government commissioned a study that recommended removing the car park and the road by Stonehenge, building a proper visitor centre in the nearby valley, dualling the A303 and sinking it into a cutting, “to lessen the visual impact and noise.” Nothing was done.
Now, nearly 40 years later and after more studies and considerably more argument and grandstanding – not to mention the government’s costs, said to have been £38 million by 2008, and who knows what by now – we are sort of half way there. The car park and road by the stones are gone, moved out of sight next to a new visitor centre. (The newly seeded grass over the course of the road was just settling in when Obama visited, and as his shoes sunk into the soil, Heather Sebire joked that the president had left his footprints at Stonehenge; you read it here first.) And finally, after decades of committees, public inquiries and failed projects, the government seems determined to turn the A303 into a dual carriageway.
Since the 1970s vehicle and visitor numbers in the area have ballooned. Management aspirations have also risen, partly the result of the Stonehenge landscape becoming a world heritage site in 1986: what would have been a conservation pipe-dream half a century ago would be unacceptable now. So it is no surprise that the visitor centre opened in December 2013 is bigger than that envisaged in the 1970s, and further away – it is on the world heritage site boundary. And instead of sinking the enlarged A303 into a cutting, the government wants to hide it, at vastly greater expense, in a tunnel.
This idea began seriously in 1991. Over the following decade and a half, tunnels of varying lengths, designs and locations were fought over, dropped and revived. Over 50 alternative routes were considered: coming up with new options is a popular public pastime, but anything that doesn’t require a jetpack or a hovercraft has assuredly already been scrutinised, probably more than once. The push for a tunnel came mostly from English Heritage and the National Trust (the first responsible for the stones, the other owning the land around), though they often disagreed on details. The cause was a better environment for Stonehenge, created by removing the sight and sound of traffic as experienced at the monument, and by turning the surrounding industrial farmland into what English Heritage rather misleadingly called “an ancient landscape” of permanent grassland (whatever we do with this landscape, it will always be contemporary).
Hand in hand with the tunnel came improvements at Stonehenge itself, where the whole set-up from leaking toilets to stale rock-buns had been dubbed a “national disgrace” by a parliamentary committee in 1993. Better road conditions were a factor, of course, but the government never really seemed to have its heart in it. When then prime minister Gordon Brown quashed a scheme in 2007 that had been developed under his predecessor Tony Blair, Margaret Hodge, his new arts minister, told me the tunnel had never been affordable. “I’d have killed it off years and years ago,” she said.
That changed in 2014. “The green light is on,” said David Cameron, addressing cameras about the tunnel as he stood in the centre of Stonehenge. “The money can be spent.” His deputy prime minister got a word in too, though Nick Clegg had to pose outside the fence. For this was a Coalition moment. The A303 passes mostly through their respective Tory and LibDem constituencies, and an election was imminent. This was money for drivers, for people in the south-west who had been complaining for years about congested roads, bottlenecks and being overwhelmed by holidaymakers in the summer. And the biggest bottleneck of them all, where a lorry with an urgent delivery could spend an hour driving five miles, was at Stonehenge.
The origins of Stonehenge are, appropriately enough you might think, a bit of a mystery. The puzzle is not one you will read about in guidebooks, or even much in academic research. It is a story that tells us much about how archaeologists think about Stonehenge.
You will hear often that the first structures, the beginning of the monument, are 56 pits (the Aubrey Holes) in a ring surrounded by a ditch whose chalk spoil is piled in banks on either side; the whole ensemble is about 100m across. The particular arrangement is unique, but what especially distinguishes it is what was buried in it: cremated human remains representing more people than found at any other such cemetery in prehistoric Britain. We don’t know exactly how many people (excavations early last century were not always well recorded, and part of the area has yet to be examined), but current estimates range from 150 to 240; there could be more. Like a Christian cathedral, right from the start death and burial were an important part of the meaning of Stonehenge.
So far so good. The way funerary remains were buried, scattered around the area almost furtively in small bags or boxes, seems to suggest that the ditch and the pits were not just repositories for the dead. If the ditch marked the edge of a sacred space, what of the Aubrey Holes? For long it was said they were just empty hollows dug in some lost ritual. Then 20 years ago, archaeologists decided they had supported large oak posts, and more recently it has been suggested they held not posts, but megaliths – bluestones, the site’s smaller stones from Wales. You can find archaeologists to back any of those theories; only new excavation is likely to offer a resolution.
The real puzzle comes when we ask, when did this happen? We cannot directly age an entirely prehistoric event, only certain things susceptible to scientific analysis. The best known technique is radiocarbon dating. With this we can estimate the age of bones left in the ditch, and then infer when it was dug. For obvious reasons, the best samples come from tools used in the quarrying, picks made from deer antler. These date the ditch to some time between 3000 and 2900BC – the figure we all quote for the start of Stonehenge.
But there is a complication. As well as the picks, the ditch contained a lot of old bones, some of them a century or more older than the tools apparently used to dig it out. Among them are a skull and two jaws from large cattle, buried by entrances into the circular enclosure; half a millennium before, in a different age when long burial mounds were being raised over uncremated bodies, we sometimes find such large cattle bones where we might have expected to see human remains. In three other cases Stonehenge bones dated to a century before the ditch are from cremation burials.
So we appear to have signs that Stonehenge was a place for the dead – shown by human cremations and great symbolic cattle heads – generations before Stonehenge existed. This is not a Stonehenge you will read about, because it’s not one archaeologists much talk about. It’s a ghost of which we know only of its apparent existence, and its association with the dead. Invisible for us, perhaps: but I’ll warrant it mattered at the time.
A lot happened in the eight centuries or more after the ditch was dug, architecturally at least, mostly involving big stones – look at the ruin today and imagine that restored in various permutations, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of it (naturally, there are many details that archaeologists do not understand). I tell the origin story, however, because of how it helps us picture the way we see the past. Almost everything that happened on Salisbury Plain thousands of years ago is unknown to us, like the ghost henge with no form. But we make a great mistake if we let our ignorance define what the past must have been like.
In 1805 William Cunnington, excavating furiously for his sponsor Sir Richard Colt Hoare, understood that the past was everywhere. Every mound he dug into, in every ditch and every backyard, he expected to find something – and usually did. That sense of an unlimited history, with a never-ending supply of new discoveries and information, was lost in the last century. Archaeology self-consciously shaped itself from a Romantic pursuit into a science. It dealt with evidence, not imagination.
Occam’s razor cut deep: relentlessly pursuing the simplest hypotheses about the past led to a gross over-simplification of what ancient societies were like, or were capable of achieving. It assumed that what you saw was all there was. At Stonehenge you gazed on a magnificent, sophisticated construction, but all around was a modern prairie: the stones seemed to spring from nowhere. Some archaeologists devoted themselves to excavating what they could of below-ground prehistoric remains, mostly burials, as ploughs and rotavators sliced into them. Others told the authorities there was nothing there to save. The losses were dreadful.
We have moved on, and thanks to the National Trust (and European Union grants) great swathes of downland have been returned to pasture, and what’s left of their archaeology survives. But the idea that what we see is what there was, has been harder to change. Every new discovery – and there have been many – is still greeted with astonishment. In the hands of the media every find rewrites history.
If you see it like that, then the discovery of an ancient broken pot, say, or a grave, let alone the remains of something bigger, is a warning to leave the ground alone. If the find is on a proposed route for a new road, the road should go somewhere else. Inside a world heritage site, of all places, you don’t build over unique ancient remains.
There are several things wrong with this. First, it is more likely to be the act of discovery that is unusual, rather than what was found. As Cunnington knew, there will be other things out there we don’t yet know about, some with spectacular implications for our knowledge of the people who built Stonehenge, lying safe in the ground; of greater significance for the bigger picture. Meanwhile elsewhere, where life goes on beyond the sight of archaeologists, conservationists or developers, other remains are being lost, and no one notices. A new water pipe here, a bit of minor road widening there, the tiniest works can take out pieces of the ancient puzzle. We cannot freeze the past.
Some of the most destructive works are conducted by archaeologists. Recent excavations revealed the site of a great village at nearby Durrington Walls that may have housed Stonehenge’s builders. It is an extraordinary discovery which is going a long way to help us make sense of the world heritage site. Who would begrudge such research? Yet the precious remains would still be there if the archaeologists hadn’t destroyed them. Excavation is no different from roadworks: both eat the evidence.
But, you might counter, the archaeologists knew what they were doing. They saved the finds, took scientific samples, recorded everything diligently and created a new opening into the past. Roadworks just bulldoze it all.
I would agree with your first part. In fact, I’d say that excavating at Durrington Walls, as anywhere, did more than that. For thousands of students and volunteer diggers, for visitors to the site and for watchers around the world, the dig was a great theatrical event that created its own stories and memories. Excavation doesn’t just peer into the past; it makes waves in the present as well.
But the same happens with roadworks. Since 1990 – and as long as cash-starved local authorities can still afford it – caring for historic remains has been an integral part of the planning process. All significant new applications, for anything from a bungalow to High Speed 2, are scrutinised by specialists. If required, archaeologists are dispatched to excavate before the works start. It’s an efficient system that respects developers’ need for clarity and certainty, and has created an unimaginably vast archive of new data about our early history.
At Stonehenge and in a world heritage site, conservation ideals are naturally set higher. There is more scrutiny, and a greater willingness to put archaeologists to work ahead of any ground disturbance. And here’s the best bit: the developer pays. If any works on the A303 were to risk damaging an ancient site, Highways England would pay archaeologists to excavate it and analyse the finds. It would be exactly the same as digging at Durrington Walls – but with an all-professional staff and a larger budget. Discovery of archaeological remains by roadworks and their proper excavation and study is nothing less than a bonus.
Where does this leave proposals for an enlarged A303? A good place to start is with the objections. Archaeologically, these have focussed on an excavation on the edge of Amesbury, a mile (1.6km) east of Stonehenge at a wooded spring known as Blick Mead. Under the direction of David Jacques, a senior research fellow at Buckingham University, archaeologists have been working there since 2005, uncovering thousands of flint artefacts and animal bones dropped by hunter-gatherers between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. The site is just yards from the present A303. Even were new roadworks not to physically damage it, says Jacques, the effect of the proposed tunnel on the water table would be to dry it out and threaten the survival of rare animal remains preserved in wet mud.
Jacques put his name to two letters opposing the tunnel published by the Times. He told Time magazine that the government was “arrogant” to “take the opportunity for future research away from us all. Stonehenge … should be available to be studied in perpetuity.” The Stonehenge Alliance agrees with him. A lobby group set up in 2001 expressly to fight new works on the A303, it decided, on learning about Blick Mead, that if a tunnel had to be built, it should start outside the world heritage site (the proposal runs through a third of that area; the rest of the route would be open dual carriageway). Tom Holland made a video featuring Blick Mead. The tunnel would destroy “the most archaeologically significant landscape anywhere in Europe,” he says, as he drives past Stonehenge. “Perhaps Britain itself,” he adds, standing at the site, “began here, beside these springs.”
Blick Mead is the first mesolithic hunter campsite to have been excavated in the world heritage site, and its discovery is a major achievement. It is not the only one known, however. Others have been found, but not excavated, nearby, and undoubtedly more remain unrecognised. Outside the world heritage site several have been explored in greater detail and can tell us more about “how Britain began”. One of the most significant in the region is at Newbury to the east, but a dig at a sewage farm has less appeal on Twitter than one within shouting distance of Stonehenge.
This is not to deny the importance of Blick Mead. The key point, however, is that we know about it because of the determined efforts of Jacques and his colleagues. As they excavate, they destroy it, turning the site into knowledge about the past. This is the Faustian nature of archaeological fieldwork, but it is a deal in which good recording and analysis can make the bargain work for everyone. If research showed the site was indeed at risk from a tunnel, Highways England would fund its full excavation. Closer to Stonehenge, we know early hunters erected huge pine posts, great trunks rising singly into the sky, one of them five centuries before the first camp at Blick Mead. They are all but unique, and to say the least, a tantalising – and quite inexplicable – find so close to the future site of Europe’s greatest stone circle. They were found when the old car park was extended, the first in 1966. Without the car park, we would know nothing of the posts.
Whenever new works to the A303 have been proposed in the world heritage site, archaeologists have explored the ground to see what might be at threat. They do this with small, superficial excavations they call evaluations (these are not, as was claimed of the most recent by tunnel protestors, Highways England starting roadworks in secret). If archaeologists find something, full excavation would follow only if the works were to go ahead.
Such archaeological survey has partly determined the route of the current proposal, designed to minimise the need for excavation (a world heritage site principle is that, other things being equal, ancient remains should, in Jacques’s words, “be available to be studied in perpetuity”). The surveys have shown two things. First, it seems unlikely that the tunnel would require the excavation of any truly spectacular remains. The most significant might be at Blick Mead, which of course are already being excavated.
Second, there is archaeology everywhere. This is backed up by other surveys such as the intensive hi-tech geophysical work featured in the media, which revealed many new potential prehistoric sites. This is a critical discovery. It means that, from a heritage perspective, moving the A303 to a completely new route, whether a few miles away within the world heritage site or entirely beyond it (the further you go, the more landscape you dig up, as the road loops around the Wiltshire countryside), is unnecessarily destructive. Following strict scientific criteria, given a choice of routes, most archaeologists should back an enlarged road as close to its present line as possible. Which begs the question, why change the A303?
Whether or not you think traffic on the A303 needs easing often seems to be a matter of fancy rather than figures, but here are a few of the latter. The journey westwards from the county border and past Stonehenge should take ten minutes. Having been four-lane dual-carriageway all the way from London, the road falls to two lanes just as Stonehenge comes into view. In a typical month the resultant delay adds nine minutes. At its busiest, the journey can take an hour or more. Drivers who know the roads take alternative routes, spreading the local impact and creating new traffic jams; businesses avoid going out on Friday. Obama’s planners knew what they were doing.
Dualling the road solves the traffic problem, and the tunnel would reduce its intrusiveness. To put it at its most simplistic, there are currently 5.5km of A303 inside the world heritage site; of those, 2km are already dual carriageway, making a total of 15km (9.3 miles) of individual traffic lanes. The proposed new route passes through a tunnel south of Stonehenge. Inside the world heritage site, there would be 2.7km of exposed dual carriageway, or 10.8km (6.7 miles) of lanes. The road is now all dualled, but the visible amount has fallen by more than a quarter. As seen from Stonehenge, it has disappeared.
Even more significant, but often overlooked, is the effect of a tunnel on the wider landscape. The current road has a profound impact on how we all perceive Stonehenge and its setting. Very few of us go south of it, with our feet or our imaginations. When David Cameron pledged to improve the A303 in 2014, Historic England launched an intensive archaeological survey south of the road; it’s in progress now. Phil McMahon, who initiated the project, told me that all the well-known monuments that have recently attracted big research programmes are to the north. “We need to understand what’s going on to the south,” he said – where two thirds of the world heritage site lies.
That is where some of the best preserved ancient remains are, where Cunnington dug into some of his most spectacular burial mounds (which still stand) and where the landscape is at it most enticing. Were we once again able to walk to Stonehenge from any direction across fields and tracks, or gaze outwards over uninterrupted downland, our creative, scientific and emotional engagement with the place would change. An internationally famous ancient site would be reborn.
A strong body of objectors, however, believe it is this very vision that a tunnel threatens. In their minds the portals would be the largest monuments in the world heritage site (“What sort of message does that send to the world?”, one archaeologist asked me). The dual carriageway would bring noise and intrusion into a peaceful, rural idyll.
Few, I imagine, would wish to put a mile-a-minute expressway across a pristine ancient landscape. But that does not describe Stonehenge. The A303 is already there. A cutting and embankment are the biggest landscape features in the world heritage site now, and they are visible from Stonehenge.
The devil is in the detail. Since the initial proposal last year, Highways has nudged its 2.9km tunnel (1.8 miles) a little to the east. At that end, the portal would now be beyond the Avenue earthwork, allowing that ancient processional way, brutally severed by the present A303, to be reconstructed. Only a visit to that tawdry location, where traffic-jammed drivers can gaze on fly-tipped furniture, can convey the benefits of extending the tunnel in that way.
At the other end things are not so good. The western portal is uncomfortably close to iconic groups of ancient burial mounds. It’s not far off the line of the midwinter setting sun as seen from Stonehenge – henge watcher and former custodian Tim Daw fears the effect of tunnel lights on an increasingly popular evening spectacle. But as the National Trust and Historic England have argued, with a bit more thought and money these are issues that could be resolved. The sums would be trivial compared to the huge costs of an alternative popular with objectors, a tunnel the entire width of the world heritage site. Another protest choice, recently supported by a large group of archaeologists, is an A303 that disappears to the south in a loop outside the world heritage site. This madness, which would mean an entirely new dual-carriageway through currently quiet countryside while traffic nearer Stonehenge rat-runs through local villages, is indicative of how confused the issue has become.
Portal design is critical. If there are waterlogged mesolithic deposits at Blick Mead (we await peer-reviewed reports), there may be more along the river banks: what effect might a tunnel have on those? How would the old road be recorded, removed and landscaped? (Dan Hicks, an Oxford archaeology professor, has argued against the tunnel on the grounds that the A303 is part of history and should be preserved; it is, but so are roadworks.) Archaeological excavation must be of the highest standard, and the results made publicly available: for no explicable reason, digs by Highways England are treated confidentially. These are the sort of engaged debates we should be having. A public shouting match may raise personal profiles, but it does nothing to help Stonehenge.
There is no easy solution to the Stonehenge roads problem – were that so, it would have been settled decades ago. Infrastructure has not been allowed to change with the demands it supports, so anything that might work inevitably looks dramatic. There are experts, it seems, to back all possibilities, and a large blogging, Tweeting, letter-writing public who imagine we can go even further. Perhaps Donald Trump would find comfort in such company, where bluster and personal attacks are enough; where no one really cares if things get better or not. Or perhaps, as one who says he likes to get things done, he’d force a compromise with which few individuals would be entirely happy, but one that finally allowed the world heritage site to stop holding its breath, and its nose, and reveal a landscape of beauty, mystery and wonder for all.
The White House published a video of Obama’s visit to Stonehenge. The former president is laid back, joking with Heather Sebire as she guides him round the site. There is just one other person with them, the former US ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun, a good friend of Obama’s. But at one point the president makes it clear he wants to be alone. “I’m just going to stand here for a second,” he says. And he walks away from his two companions, hands behind his back, his shirt collar open and sleeves rolled at the wrists, on his own, into the still centre of Stonehenge.
The only noise is the steady rhythm of traffic on the A303.
June 28 2017
I have written much about Stonehenge in this blog. An overview to the lot can be found here.
With reference to the above article, these blogs are particularly useful (and admittedly sometimes opinionated), and they have further links and references:
Current road proposals (2015):
The proposed A303 southern route (2017):
What did the world heritage site mean to people who built Stonehenge? Nothing
An overview of recent Stonehenge excavations and research (2014):
Operation Stonehenge: what the TV films left out
Blick Mead excavations (2016):
The strange case of the dog in the Stonehenge tunnel