Stonehenge deserves better than this

Amesbury

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:

6,000-year-old Aurochs hoofprints UNIVERSITY OF BUCKINGHAM

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):

 

map 1
Detail of Highways map published by Buckingham University
map 2
Detail of archaeological map of same area published by David Jacques

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”

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5 thoughts on “Stonehenge deserves better than this

  1. I assume the careful archaeological excavation of the area next to Blick Mead – or of Blick Mead itself depending on whose plan is the right one – before any tarmac is poured does not count as ‘destruction’, And if it does how is it different from what David Jacques doing to the site? If the location of the infrastructure will affect the current state of preservation of the site (which I gather may be a concern) then that is a factor to be considered. Presumably David Jacques will be making these points in a sober, referenced and evidence based submission to the consultation. And those making the decision will give it due weight.

    There is no doubt Blick Mead is an important site. As an amateur all I know about it is what I have read in British Archaeology and Current Archaeology so I cannot comment any more about the impact on the site. Mind you from what Mike says I am as well informed as anyone else who has not actually dug on the site. If the road is going to destroy Blick Mead at least the finds for publication will come along with the finding of the pre construction excavations!

  2. These arguments simply demonstrate the paucity of intellectual rigour in this generation of planners, archaeologist s and journalists. Recognize that and you can conclude that building anything in the area should not proceed. The damage has already been done; do no more; the passage of time and the march of technology will erase the present-day difficulties.

    Anything else is just vandalism – and we all know it.

    Steve Kaye

  3. Hi Mike,
    Brilliant name for an archaeologist!
    I’m concerned about the proposals for a tunnel. Firstly, tunnels are frighteningly expensive compared to an equivalent surface road. This shouldn’t preclude it, but more importantly there is no guarantee that important archaeology will not be damaged.
    Such damage could be caused by physically digging through it, by excavations causing it to slump, by plant & machinery impacting on it, or by traffic vibration disturbing it.
    If rock solid (!) guarantees can be made that no archaeology will be damaged in any way, ever, to the satisfaction of the overwhelming majority of archaeologists who know the site – including, but not limited to, Mike Parker Pearson & Phil Harding – I could be persuaded, reluctantly, to favour the tunnel (or tunnels).
    As a native & resident of the north east my experience of the A303 is limited to holidays, but something needs to be done, and consideration should also be given to the location of its intersection with the future update of the Southampton to Bristol road, also much needed. These two roads should ideally have been planned together from the start.
    I would be interested in your remarks, knowing that you are a supporter of the tunnel.
    Cheers, Paul

  4. Yeah, I thought Mike was pretty good too for an archaeologist 🙂

    I do as you say support the tunnel (or more precisely, A tunnel). It’s not a simple thing, and it involves compromise. Doing nothing compromises the ecology and perception of the landscape, and the experience of visitors to Stonehenge, as well as drivers and local residents and businesses. Moving the road out of the world heritage site severely compromises precious landscapes elsewhere, on a grand scale, and would create its own traffic issues. Building a tunnel, and especially the entrances and approach roads rather than the tunnel itself, compromises those parts of the world heritage site where this would happen. But on balance, there is a substantial net gain from a tunnel more or less on the present A303 route.

    Changing the roads would damage the landscape, and destroy archaeology. But that would be preceded by archaeological excavation, so in practice there would be a gain – we’d learn more about the world of Stonehenge. This is exactly what happens when people like me, Mike Parker Pearson and so on conduct research excavations: we dig, we destroy stuff, we learn more. With the tunnel, any works would be paid for by the Highways Agency.

    I’ve written a lot about these issues on this blog, you’ll find more if you look through it.

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