This remarkable photo shows an excavation team in Dorset in 1970. At the time of posting this, we’ve been able to identify 35 of the people there, but 18 remain unknown to us [updated, currently 36/17]. Can you help?
The story begins in Wiltshire, near Stonehenge, in 1966. The council had decided to straighten a road that passed close to Woodhenge. Unfortunately, it passed through a significant prehistoric monument, but one about which little was known: Durrington Walls. In an unprecedented decision, the Department of the Environment approved a proposal by Geoffrey Wainwright, an archaeologist then at the beginning of a distinguished career, to excavate before the road was moved.
The result was dramatic. Wainwright upset the archaeological establishment by bringing in a large crew and machinery – including a fleet of excavators and dumper trucks. They dug a huge area, and discovered two great circular, ritual timber structures of the same era as Stonehenge. Up to then, only two comparable constructions were known, at Woodhenge and up at Avebury at the Sanctuary; it was assumed they were unique.
Inspired by this, Geoff Wainwright went on to dig at two other large Wessex henges, at Marden in Wiltshire and Mount Pleasant in Dorset. Both sites were under plough, and again the Department of the Environment paid for the work. The project to investigate the three henges was one of the great achievements of 20th-century British archaeology.
The excavations were run by a core team of highly skilled archaeologists, backed by paid labour at Durrington and volunteers on subsistence pay at the others. People lived on site, in tents and caravans. The digs were temporary, secret communities with a mission, where friendships were made and broken, drunken labourers were sacked, discoveries and setbacks were shared. There was little health and safety, and fashionable dress consisted of sandals and shorts.
The photo at the top shows the Mount Pleasant gang. It surfaced after British Archaeology magazine carried a feature by Susan Greaney about her new research into that great henge. The earthwork, known then only as cropmarks, was sampled by Wainwright and his team in 1970 and 1971. They discovered a long sequence of events between 2600 and 2400BC, including the construction of a circular timber and megalithic monument (above, a clip from the magazine feature), and a massive palisade encircling the hill top.
In the magazine feature, Susan Greaney asked if anyone had photos of the dig: most of the original photographic archive has been lost. The search continues, but this is one shot that was sent in. It was taken by Peter Sandiford, Wainwright’s photographer at the time, and sent to the magazine – which I edit – by Peter Addison. He was a Mount Pleasant digger, and says that anyone who paid and left their address was sent a copy. This is his print.
I was a bit surprised to see it, as I’d been among the volunteer diggers at the site and knew nothing about the photoshoot. But then I saw someone in the back who I thought might be me, and others confirmed it was! I have no recollection of it at all, and my poor memory also means there are many there I probably knew at the time I don’t now recognise.
Some of them became archaeologists (among them myself and Keith Ray, now Honorary Professor in Archaeology at Cardiff University – we were at school doing A levels at the time). Some pursued entirely unrelated careers. Some married each other, and some are no longer with us.
Do you recognise anyone? Are you there? Do you have a story to tell?