thinking about archaeology


Stonehenge at midsummer sunrise

I first saw Stonehenge in 1966, on the day England won the world cup. After reading Richard Atkinson’s 1956 book on the monument I decided I wanted to be an archaeologist, and to my complete astonishment, in 1979 I found myself directing an excavation there (a story I have told in Hengeworld, and elsewhere: right of centre in the photo above you can see the Heelstone in the distance, shimmering against the rising sun – we showed there used to be a stone in the space to its left). One way and another I have never really been able to escape from the stones, and much of my journalism, photography and original research has been inspired by the place.

I followed progress as the new visitor facilities and landscape improvements were implemented, and more recently I’m keeping an eye on the road tunnel debate. You can watch the changes at these posts, with many photos (other strictly archaeological Stonehenge posts are not listed here):

The strange case of the dog in the Stonehenge tunnel (October 18 2016):
“secret excavations” (and a mesolithic dog tooth goes walkabout)

Tunnel truths (October 29 2015): ICOMOS visits Stonehenge

What has the mesolithic got to do with Stonehenge? Not a lot (September 19 2015): claims about Blick Mead

The boring Stonehenge story takes off again (December 1 2014): latest tunnel announcement

The weeds are starting to grow at Stonehenge (May 9 2014): bedding in, spring arrives (The eagle eyed might spot Will Self in some of my photos, he wrote about the day in the Guardian, Will Self: has English Heritage ruined Stonehenge?)

Is new Stonehenge centre a disaster? (Feb 20 2014): immediate visitor responses, photos of Stonehenge, and “neolithic” houses going up

More snapshots at Stonehenge (Dec 18 2013): photos the day before it opened to the public

The new Stonehenge centre (Dec 17 2013): photos as it readies to open

A344 memories: Real archaeology at Stonehenge, as work continues to remove the road and car park (Aug 28 2013): photos from 1979/80 and 2013

Digging up the A344 (Jun 27 2013): photos showing the A344 newly closed off, and works elsewhere to roads

Spring (or is it summer?) (Jun 1 2013): photos of the (old) visitor centre

Stonehenge is changing (May 7 2013): photos of construction work at Airman’s Corner

Out in Wiltshire (Sep 12 2012): photos as roadworks at Airman’s Corner progress

The Airmen take off (Jun 26 2012): Airman’s Cross is removed and work starts in the field

And here’s another document I like (Jun 5 2012): job adverts and notices for the planned operation

Visiting Stonehenge 10 years ago (May 9 2012): photos of the Stonehenge car park in 2002

Visits to Stonehenge, 185 years apart (May 2 2012): photos of the car park and the stones in 2012

Airman’s Cross 1912–2012 (Apr 16 2012): before the works began

The metaphorical first turf (Apr 15 2012): English Heritage announces that it is ready to start creating a new Stonehenge landscape

A quick spin around Stonehenge (Dec 21 2011): discussion of road changes and problems with byways

How much is Stonehenge really “cancelled”? (Jun 18 2010): reflections on an announcement that the proposed Stonehenge visitor centre had been cancelled

Why axe Stonehenge Visitor Centre? (Jun 17 2010): a popular, effective and cheap solution supposedly scrapped by the government in its first round of project savings

The new new Stonehenge visitor centre (Sep 7 2009): first sight of plans that came to fruition in 2014

Stonehenge: still a choice (Aug 14 2009): text based on a presentation I gave to the Society of Antiquaries in London, May 2006

You will find all my Stonehenge posts here. I’ve answered quite a few common questions about Stonehenge on the Welcome page. This rant about a TV production, and what’s really going on at Stonehenge, was one of my post popular blogs ever! Operation Stonehenge: what the TV films left out (October 7 2014):



Select Stonehenge works

(For general reading about the archaeology of Stonehenge, see this list I compiled in 2008, bearing in mind that much excavation and research has since been conducted and has yet to be fully published.)


New era for Stonehenge (with C Chippindale, C Gosden, N James & C Scarre). Antiquity 88, 644–57.

Seven (new) things to do when you visit Stonehenge. British Archaeology 137, 16–23.


Context & significance of the stone assemblages, in A re-examination of rhyolitic bluestone “debitage” from the Heelstone & other areas within the Stonehenge Landscape, by RA Ixer & RE Bevins, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 106, 13–14

Introduction to A Year at Stonehenge (Frances Lincoln), photos by James O Davies


A year at Stonehenge. Antiquity 83, 184–94


A photo by Bill Brandt, and the intimacy of perceptions of Stonehenge and landscape. Landscapes 9, 1–27

Stonehenge: now what? British Archaeology 99, 10–15

The henge builders. Archaeology Jan/Feb 2008, 48–55 (cover story)

Response: Stonehenge is unique – the road tunnel would have respected that. Guardian Mar 11

Stonehenge [review of recent excavations]. British Archaeology 102, 12–17 (with extra reading list online)


A revised date for the early medieval execution at Stonehenge. Wiltshire Studies 100, 202–3 (with D Hamilton & A Reynolds)

Stonehenge. In Gaimster, D, McCarthy, S & Nurse, B (eds) Making History: Antiquaries in Britain 1707–2007 (London: Royal Academy of Arts), 227–31


The real Stonehenge. Society of Antiquaries of London presentation, May 5

Letters to Times (with Julian Richards & Aubrey Burl) Feb 23, Guardian Jun 17, Daily Telegraph Jun 24 (on the A303 tunnel)


Hysteria gloom and foreboding [Allan Sorrell at Stonehenge]. British Archaeology 83 (Jul/Aug), 16–19

Stonehenge… Live. Channel 5, June 20–21


A future for Stonehenge. Current Archaeology 185, 197–201 (with J Richards)

Stonehenge for All. Report for English Heritage (66,000 words)

Don’t knock the ancestors. Antiquity 77, 172–8

Obituary Gerald Hawkins. Guardian 24 July


An Anglo-Saxon decapitation and burial at Stonehenge (with Alex Bayliss, Jacqueline McKinley, Anthea Boylston, Paul Budd, Jane Evans, Carolyn Chenery, Andrew Reynolds & Sarah Semple). Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 95, 131–46


Hengeworld (2nd ed). Arrow


Hengeworld. Century

Murder at Stonehenge. Channel 4


Three exhibited photos in Visions of Stonehenge, Southampton City Art Gallery


On the road to Stonehenge: report on investigations beside the A344 in 1968, 1979 and 1980. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 48, 75–132


Stones, pits and Stonehenge. Nature 290, 46–7

The discovery of a new stone at Stonehenge. Archaeoastronomy 4.2, 16–21


Excavation in 1979 looking west, emptying the stone pit beside the Heelstone. Crouching on the grass are Richard Atkinson (left) and Mike Pitts; standing are Andrew Saunders and Collin Bowen; in trench are Hilary Howard and Sue Davies (photo Arthur ApSimon)

The same looking east. This shows the extent of the 1979 dig. Unknown at the time, we were to return in 1980 to open another trench immediately to the west (photo Arthur ApSimon)

17 responses

  1. Ronald Kaye

    To Mike Pitts

    Would they move the large rocks during the winter over the frozen ground to stonehenge to set them in the summer ?

    July 16, 2009 at 12:04 am

    • No – the climate was as warm if not warmer than now. I’ve more on my blog about moving the rocks.

      November 29, 2011 at 4:26 pm

      • I think that to answer how rocks were moved we should answer how the 67 ft megalith at Carnac was moved-this is another order of difficulty.Stonehenge must have been a piece of cheese in comparison.

        October 5, 2012 at 11:53 am

  2. mikepitts

    This is (to me) a surprisingly common question. I commented on it at some length elsewhere on the site (on the Welcome page,

    November 29, 2011 at 9:44 pm


    A new, fictional interpretation of the tale of Arthur, set back in prehistory and using
    real archaeology and anthropological evidence from the Stonehenge landscape where I’ve lived and worked these last six years. Marden, Durrington and Avebury are featured. When it comes out in the Autumn you can have a copy, Mike. I’d be curious to see what you think!

    July 2, 2012 at 8:43 pm

  4. Washington’s Testament, 21 January 1653
    Little Braxted, Essex County, England

    On his deathbed Rev. Lawrence Washington (1602-1653) ancestor of U.S. first President George Washington (1732-1799) who inherited from his father Sir Lawrence Washington (1579-1643) ownership of Stonehenge in Great Britain said;

    Embedded in the Ancient’s Concrete mixture of 1 part Bluestone and 3 parts Limestone cement, four feet (4 ft, 1.2 m) below my Helestone in Wilts, is my brass Altar of Burnt Offering (5c-5c-3c) containing my Seven (7) golden Tabernacle relics:

    My gold Mercy Seat (2.5c-1.5c), my gold Ark of the Testimony (2.5c-1.5c-1.5c), my gold Table for the Shewbread (2c-1c-1.5c), my gold Candlestick, my gold Ephod-Girdle, my gold Breastplate, and my gold Altar of Incense (1c-1c-2c), are there.

    Elizabeth Washington, baptized at
    Tring Parish, 17 August 1636
    Herefordshire, England


    March 24, 2013 at 2:08 pm

  5. john stringer

    Just a thought but would it have been possible as well as easier to raft the stones along rivers and across somerset if flooded. Then where the path leads up to Stonehenge you use the wet logs of the raft to provide lubrication to pull the raft over timbers placed along the path. You pull up side on to top of first part of path and then end on up to where the stones stand now

    May 27, 2013 at 3:04 pm

  6. Good news mates. Druid leader King Arthur Pendragon does not oppose Radiocarbon (C-14) dating of Jewish Moses’ bones and Rev. Washington’s artefacts below Heelstone. (BBC News-16 May 2013). King Arthur Pendragon claims the Druid cremated bones (2008) are remains of the royal line, but not Jewish Moses’ bones (2013) and other Rev. Washington’s artefacts. “We shall not take this development lightly and will oppose any such intention by English Heritage at Stonehenge,” said King Arthur Pendragon.

    Dig programme.

    June 2, 2013 at 2:17 pm

  7. Hi Mike. Really good site. Good work. Me and a friend are trying to work out which of the “Stonehenges” (I assume it must be a good replica somewhere) is the one being constructed in the photos on the page below. I’ve pretty much ignored the text which accompanies the photos. It’s just the photos which are baffling. Any light on this would be welcome. Cheers.

    June 13, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    • mikepitts

      Hi Mateo, thanks for your comments, glad you like the site. This idea that Stonehenge was built in the 1950s (which is what the article on your link claims) is one of the silliest conspiracy theories I’ve come across. But people do ask about it, so here is why its promoters are either mendacious or stupid:

      1. Stonehenge was around before the 20th century: there are late medieval illustrations that show it looking pretty much as it does today, and a survey done in 1740 showing it almost exactly as it is now.

      2. Much of Salisbury Plain has been under military use since the late 19th century, a function of it being what was then the largest area of barely inhabited open land in southern England – and ever since almost completely uninhabited. Stonehenge is immediately south of that area, so the site, or the immediate environs, have inevitably got caught up in various military activities from time to time. But there is no link between Stonehenge and the military.

      3. There was a major restoration programme (not the first) at Stonehenge in the late 1950s. Stones known to have fallen in recent times were re-erected and set in concrete. It’s all been widely described, one recent example being in my preface to James O Davies’ book of Stonehenge photos published last year by English Heritage.

      The photos in “SHOCK: 1954 PHOTOS SHOW STONEHENGE BEING BUILT” are all real, showing restoration work at Stonehenge. They are a small selection from the English Heritage archives website: click through here

      June 14, 2014 at 2:51 pm

  8. Cheers Mike. That clears that up. I never gave the claims much attention. It was the photos that baffled me. So thanks for the reply. I’m well aware that some renovations of historical sites often change considerably said sites. I’d love to hear what you have to say on that issue. I’m also aware that it can be a touchy and controversial subject in your profession.

    June 16, 2014 at 1:14 am

  9. mikepitts

    Superficially, at least, things have been pretty well done at Stonehenge, in that restoration has not sought to change or rebuild the monument – it really does now look pretty much as it did before 1797 (three stones that fell then were repositioned in 1958), the main differences being relatively minor surface damage and weathering and one or two visible patches of concrete. What is more controversial is how the work was done, as in both of the major restoration events (1920s and 1958–64) archaeological intervention went beyond what was strictly required for reasons of conservation, and was not always well done even by standards of the time.

    June 16, 2014 at 7:01 am

  10. Simon GT

    Mike, I have just watched a very interesting documentary in which you feature which used a Bronze Age sewn plank construction boat called ‘Holgar’ to move a bluestone towards Stonehenge. Where can I find more information on this, has anyone published on this and related technology or thinking? I have an interest in transportation in prehistory, particularly the use of rivers for transport and communication, which also encompasses water tables, river depths and changes to river structures through time. Any advice or pointers would be gratefully received. Thanks, Simon

    August 3, 2014 at 6:08 pm

  11. mikepitts

    Where did you see it? Assuming it’s what I think it is the film was about one of three sewn boat experiments done at around the same time. The Morgawr is a full-scale “replica” based on remains from Ferriby, launched in Falmouth in 2013. She was made with replica bronze age tools (see British Archaeology May/Jun 2013/130, page 8). I don’t know of any academic publications about the project yet. A half-scale replica was made of the bronze age Dover boat in Kent, and successfully launched in the sea in late 2013; British Archaeology featured the project in the Sep/Oct 2012/126 edition (search online for Dover boat “Beyond the Horizon”). A third was made specifically for a TV film which has not yet been broadcast: a proper sewn boat, but not documented in the same way as the other two.

    August 4, 2014 at 9:38 am

  12. Simon GT

    It was on the Discovery History channel, broadcast last week. The constructor of the boat was Swallow Boats in Cardigan (, you featured and the University of Exeter were also credited. As I mention in my post it is of interest to me as the whole issue of river navigability and boat construction of the period interests me. I am a part time Archaeology student at the University of Bristol, which goes some way towards explaining my obscure interest. So, any more information or written papers would be of great interest

    August 4, 2014 at 10:18 am

    • mikepitts

      I guess it has been broadcast then! I was brought in to talk about the boat that was made in Wales (and impressive it was), but I wasn’t involved with its construction. The key people to talk to are those who took part in the Falmouth and Dover projects, both of which you can find online. When I’ve seen the film, I might post some photos I took at the time.

      August 4, 2014 at 11:43 am

  13. Simon GT


    August 4, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s