You may have noticed that Blick Mead was in the press today. I’m writing a feature rounding up all the recent excavations in and around the world heritage site for a future British Archaeology (you will be astonished at how much there is!), so I thought I’d have a look at the story. Excavation at Blick Mead in October? Aurochs hoof prints? Highways England putting Blick Mead in the wrong place on a map? The site is actually “beneath the proposed footings of an 8m-high flyover that is part of the construction, according to David Jacques” (Times)? All news to me.
We’re hearing about Blick Mead now because a statutory consultation on the proposed A303 tunnel starts tomorrow (February 6). We had a consultation before, but the last one was non-statutory, ie it had no legal weight. This one does.
David Jacques, the Buckingham University archaeologist who is directing the Blick Mead project, is strongly against the tunnel. So the footprints and the dodgy map were designed to catch the attention of the media so he could promote his cause. It worked. The release was headed, “University of Buckingham archaeologist fears plans for a tunnel at Stonehenge will destroy unique archaeological site”. The press duly took the bait: “Stonehenge tunnel plans could ‘destroy’ Ice Age site” (BBC); “Motorway tunnel puts Stonehenge dig at risk” (Times); “Stonehenge tunnel could destroy ‘unique library’ of early history” (Guardian).
Having looked at what I can find, I can report that none of this can be supported by any evidence. It may exist, but as yet no one has felt ready to disclose it. You might imagine our better press would ask for evidence behind a story such as this, of international interest, and one where (a familiar theme at the moment) the competence of experts is called into question – and if you think about it, this includes a wide swathe of heritage specialists who advise Highways, as well as their unfortunate map-maker. If any journalist or editors asked and learnt nothing, they decided to go ahead anyway. Is this journalism? Or the press churning out free PR? You decide.
According to Buckingham U, archaeologists found “perfectly preserved wild cows (aurochs) footprints … under a stone surface, a sign that they were deliberately intended to be preserved for ritualistic reasons because aurochs were believed to be sacred. Carbon dating revealed they are more than 6,000 years old which is the oldest signs of real life yet uncovered at Stonehenge.”
And here is Jacques, quoted in the Times: “It looks like the hoof prints have been deliberately covered over by hunters because there is a stone surface immediately above them. Maybe it was to help the aurochs get down to the spring, which might aid hunting them.’
And here is the evidence:
I’m not saying those are not hoof prints. Nor am I saying they’re not over 6,000 years old (ie pre-neolithic). But we need more than this photo to back the claim. It would be quite significant, because it would imply the presence of some form of land surface and of stratified layers, neither of which has yet been demonstrated at the site in any publication.
We have no evidence for the stone surface, but the obvious as yet unanswered question, is if it exists (it was presumably somewhere other than the area in the photo, as it doesn’t seem to show in the sections), how can we tell it was deliberately laid over the prints to cover them up? It could equally, one imagines, have been akin to a layer of tarmac over a king’s grave.
“If Highways England and the government can’t even locate Blick Mead in the right place”, Jacques told the Telegraph, ‘how can we trust anything in this process. There should be perpetual inquiry here and the UK government, the National Trust and English Heritage either value that or they don’t. The tunnel scheme will clearly compromise the archaeology. Whose interest would that be in?”
Strong stuff. Highways has said the plan “shows indicative general features and was never intended as a geographical map”. I’m not sure what a non-geographical map is, but I think they’re saying it was just a working sketch. And indeed if you look at the map (handily provided by the university press office, though they offer no archaeological evidence), it has “draft” written across it in big letters. It explains that it is to show land owned by D Cornelius-Reid in relation to the consultation plan. There is no explicit mention of archaeology, because presumably this was not the purpose of the plan. But in the key there are entries for “potential burial site”, which sounds (hopefully) archaeological, and Trench 24 and Trench 19. These two are the numbers of two of the more prominent trenches excavated at Blick Mead. Are they in the right place? As Jacques has not to my knowledge published a site plan, I can’t tell. But they are at least in more or less the same place as the site as mapped by Jacques in his only academic article, bearing in mind there are other trenches as well (Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine 2014):
And to let Buckingham University have the last word on the subject (because I can’t think of anything helpful to say about this quote):
“The crucial place of evidence [Blick Mead], which is the only place in the country where British history can be traced back to the end of the Ice Age, will be destroyed by the flyover and the tunnel”