thinking about archaeology

Posts tagged “excavation

The Larkhill car burial

_MP26354.jpgThere’s a nice piece in the Guardian by Maev Kennedy about the first world war training trenches found by archaeologists at Larkhill. The cultural significance of historic military remains should not be underestimated. They are numerous and varied, and have enormous power to engage people in different ways with events we should never lose touch with.

Untitled-1.jpgWhen I visited the site last year, apart from the neolithic enclosure (of great interest in the context of Stonehenge of course) I was struck by a sports car that seemed to have been entombed whole in the 1930s. It was a sunny, frosty day, and you could make out “Pirelli” on the tyres. Long ago Forbes Taylor filmed a black hearse-like Rolls driving into a grave, watched by black-veiled young women in short black skirts, for a TV programme that featured the Sutton Hoo ship burial. No ritual at Larkhill: Si Cleggett tells Kennedy he thinks the sports car might have been stolen from an officer by mutineering squaddies.



Steve Thompson


neolithic ditches



Paul Nash: A Private World


Abbott and Holder are selling some terrific Paul Nash photographic prints. They were shot by Nash in the 1930s and 40s, and include well-known images of dead trees, a lovely ploughed field and archaeological sites. They are asking £9,250 for 25 prints, from an edition published in 1978 by Fischer Fine Art, as A Private World: Photographs by Paul Nash. If that doesn’t come off, they will sell them separately. Here are a few:

First are two images of the White Horse at Uffington, c.1937 (top and below):


This is a “Monster Field”, at Carswall’s Farm, Gloucestershire, 1938:


The “Avebury Sentinel”, 1933:


My last selection was apparently described by Fischer, or this description was perhaps given it by Tate, as “Rock recessed in grass (Portland?)”). But it’s actually another Avebury shot. Nash visited Avebury in the late 30s when Alexander Keiller was in full flight, ripping up trees and hedges, knocking down houses and raising megaliths, and setting them in concrete. Nash didn’t like it. But he took this photo. It appears to show the edge of a sarsen megalith in the medieval pit into which it was thrown: the dark colours suggest burning, which could mean it was buried and burnt in the 18th century, but that usually resulted in the stones being broken up. There should be photos of this stone in the museum in Avebury, taken by Keiller, which will reveal its story; it is now presumably erect.


In some ways the Private World selection tells us as much about John Piper (who made it) as Nash – here there are no aeroplanes (active and wrecked), people or cars that are so distinctive of the large collection of Nash’s negatives at Tate Britain. This includes two more of those “Portland” stones, at Keiller’s Avebury excavations:



There are couple of quasi-abstract images at Wheeler’s excavations at Maiden Castle in 1935, and these two fabulous shots at the “war cemetery”:



And (serious archaeological alert), a young “Lance Sieveking in bathing trunks”.

All photos, of course, are by Paul Nash, and the rest of the set of 25 can be seen on Abbott and Holders’ website.

All the world in Shoreditch

invest stage.jpgI was back in London this morning, for an interesting media event that puts some perspective on the fears some have about proposed developments across the road in Spitalfields. Here, when it’s built, will be a truly monumental tower. It’s residential. It’s on the edge of the City, but the PR focusses on artists, fashion and clubs, young entrepreneurs and street buzz and vibrancy. I doubt that many young creative types will be living there: prices for its designer suites, apartments and penthouses range from £695,000 to £2,570,000, and they are being marketed solidly at investors.

Architecturally (there are two lower-rise office and retail blocks adjacent) it puts me in mind of a compressed version of the Barbican. The flats look as if they might be really nice, with some spectacular views, at least from the highest floors. There’s some green space on the ground (in the sky too) and – here’s the most interesting bit – a theatre.

Or at least, there was a theatre.

The development is on Curtain Street, a name that goes back to The Curtain theatre, a playhouse that opened in 1577 and was probably the venue for the first performance of Henry V. That being the case, when the Chorus introduce the play, saying “…can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram/Within this wooden O the very casques/ That did affright the air at Agincourt?” we are technically hearing a description of this very site. (The developer has said it was where Romeo and Juliet was first performed, though I understand that to have been at The Theatre, opened the year before.)

Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) completed their desk evaluation and excavated many small test trenches a few years ago (you can see what “small” means from the photo below). Here is what Julian Bowsher wrote in his feature about London’s Shakespearean playhouses in British Archaeology (Nov/Dec 2012/127):

“A long, thin north–south evaluation trench we dug in late 2011 appears to have cut across the centre of [The Curtain playhouse]. Stone and brick foundation pads, 22m apart, almost certainly represent the outer wall footings. At the southern end of the trench, thicker brick foundations, 12ft 6in (3.8m) from the line of the outer wall, defined the inner wall. There was a brick relieving arch in this wall which may indicate the presence of an ingressus [entrance from the yard into the galleries]. A gravel yard, some 54ft (16.5m) across, lay within the inner wall. Traces of brick – and knuckle bone – surfaces between the inner and outer walls were evidence for later reuse, and may corroborate references to the building being transformed into tenements by the 1640s. Otherwise, these remains were all sealed by 18th century dumps.”


The Curtain’s inner wall, with a possible ingressus on the right and the yard surface in front. Photo MOLA 2011

This is extraordinary. Any nearer the centre of London, instead of being preserved beneath 18th century soil and rubbish, the theatre’s remains would have been punctured, if not mostly removed, by basements and deep foundations. There is real hope here that the archaeologists might find substantial remains of a theatre known to Shakespeare – and one, ironically, about which otherwise almost nothing is known.

So far so promising. But it gets more interesting.

The Rose theatre on Bankside, built 10 years after The Curtain, was famously the subject of archaeological excavation in 1988–89. There was a heated public argument that pitched the developers of a new office block against archaeologists and public figures protesting against the remains’ imminent destruction. It was only the developers’ goodwill that saved anything. It caused such a stir that national planning policy was changed. We still benefit from that change – the policy is responsible for the fact the MOLA archaeologists were the first people to dig into the ground at The Curtain, not a bulldozer.

And this time the developer is interested in the dig. Really interested.

the stage

Ed Vaizey, culture minister (centre) has just trowelled out a bit of pot from an 18th-century drain, with Jonathan Goldstein, chief executive at Cain Hoy, and Heather Knight, MOLA senior archaeologist

Galliard Homes has called the project The Stage. Its press event today was to launch MOLA’s excavation. When it’s all done, whatever remains are found will be preserved in situ and “transformed into a local landmark”, in a semi-subterranean public visitor centre. Rather as Richard III has transformed Leicester and set the city onto football glory, Shakespeare, Galliard must be hoping, will add gold and glamour to its new buildings.

This is quite fascinating. I can understand some people being cynical. However listening to Jonathan Goldstein enthuse about Shakespeare and “thousand of visitors a week”, I felt he was genuinely thinking about heritage as a positive part of development, life even, not just as a PR exercise.

So let’s see what the dig produces. I will follow it closely.




A bit of “street buzz” that will survive, though possibly looking rather like the old man’s house in the movie Up

Added April 26. Here’s the plaque celebrating The Curtain, that came down with the building. Photo of latter from London Remembers, and plaque from MOLA.

Curtain plaque.jpg



Janet Hodgson

Hodgson stonehenge 156.jpgMore sad news. Tomorrow’s Guardian paper will carry Janet Hodgson’s obituary, online now. She will have been known to quite a few archaeologists, as among other things she worked at excavations, and some of her creations were explicitly archaeological: “Piltdown Bungalow” (1993) was an archaeological trench exposing the top of a house; “The Pits” (2005) features sand-blasted impressions of excavations in Canterbury; and “My passage through a rather brief unity in time” (2010) is a short film featuring Maud Cunnington behind the camera. The latter was one of the works she created at the Stonehenge Riverside excavations, to which Helen Wickstead invited several artists for Art+Archaeology.

Wickstead wrote about the Stonehenge project for British Archaeology. The work Hodgson did there included films that jumbled archaeological process and social life, using Harris matrices and GPS mapping. Her Cunnington film was screened at Touchstone, an exhibition about Art+Archaeology at Salisbury Museum in 2010. Her work played about with the confusing nature of time, and was witty, surreal and stimulating. “Temporal landmarks”, wrote Wickstead, “are simulated and relocated. Like her installations, Hodgson’s films generate the sensation of being lost in time.” She was only 56.

At top Hodgson films at an excavation beside the Cuckoo Stone, near Durrington Walls, in 2007

Hodgson time nap still

Still from TimeNap: an archaeologist’s hands refit pieces of struck flint (Hodgson)

Hodgson thomas

A screen from a presentation by Wickstead, showing Hodgson interviewing archaeologist Julian Thomas


From the catalogue to Touchstone (Salisbury Museum)

invitation janet Hodgson.jpg

The University of Kent has posted an obituary, with this photo of Hodgson as Cunnington at Stonehenge:


Stonehenge: Not just a man thing

digging henge view (c) Mike Pitts.jpgPrehistoric Stonehenge is shown in reconstructions as a place where men shout at each other. We might catch a glimpse of a woman or two watching on the sidelines, but the important stuff was all being done by males.

We need to get the paints out. The largest analysis of human remains from Stonehenge ever conducted reveals that exactly half those buried there were women.

How has this come about? What does it mean?


The Stonehenge dead have long been with us. Ancient cremated human remains were first found there in 1920, and throughout major excavations that ran for a further five years. Yet until now, almost nothing was known about them. How many people were there? Were they typical of the wider population, or different? Male or female, young or old, fit or poorly, these individuals were anonymous, unstudied and unavailable for analysis.

The problem was that at the time the remains were dug up, no one knew what to do with them. Scientists thought they were useless. No museum wanted to store them. So in 1935, all the bones that had been kept – from at least 59 burials – were put back. Aubrey Hole 7, first excavated in 1920, was re-excavated, and the bones contained in four sandbags were poured in and covered up.

As a consequence, despite being the largest of its kind in the country – never mind that it was also at Stonehenge – the cemetery has been overlooked. It has played a bit part in histories and explanations of the monument.


Aubrey Hole 7 WEV Young 1935.jpg

Wiltshire Museum

We knew the remains had been put into Aubrey Hole 7 because of two short records. William Young, then curator at Avebury Museum, recorded the event in his diary, now in the collection of Wiltshire Museum, Devizes. As I noted in the paperback edition of Hengeworld, 15 years ago I found a letter in the Public Record Office that showed the “surplus bones” were indeed the human cremations (and not, for example, animal bones).


“Mr Newall arrived with the surplus bones at half-past two. There were four ordinary sand bags full. These were placed at the bottom of the Aubrey Hole, together with a stout leaden plate, which bore an inscription recording at length all the circumstances which led to their being deposited here, and the date.

 “The hole was then filled in immediately while Nr Newall was present, then after I had re-laid the turf bordering, and had put a layer of fresh, white chalk in the centre, there were hardly any indications to show that it had ever been touched. !!!”

WEV Young Diary, 28 January 1935

Excavating Aubrey Hole 7 (c) Adam Stanford.jpg

The ring of Aubrey Holes excavated in the 1920s marked with red circles. Photo Adam Stanford

In 2008 Mike Parker Pearson, Julian Richards and I led a team to re-re-excavate Aubrey Hole 7 (you may have seen us at work in a TV film first broadcast in 2010), one of the last excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project


lead plaque (c) Mike Pitts.jpgWe found the pit. We found the lead plaque. And we found the bones – sadly not in little tins or boxes, or even in four bags, but a dense layer of mixed fragments (so it was impossible to distinguish individual burials). We also found, as an unexpected bonus, a new burial. Perched on the edge of the Aubrey Hole was an undisturbed cremation burial (of a woman, as it turned out), that William Hawley in 1920 and Young and Newall in 1935 had missed. Which begs the question, how many more had they dug over and not seen?


excavating bones (c) Mike Pitts.jpgChristie Willis has spent years analysing the fragments of burnt bone, a monumental task. The first full results of her studies are about to be published in Antiquity (see reference at end). The new British Archaeology has a feature written by the same team, summarising these results and putting them into a bit of context.

Here I will write just about the women. It seems to me this is a big thing to think about.

Because of the fragmentation and mixing, it was very difficult to distinguish between individuals. Of 21 pieces of skull that came from different people, Christie found nine were from men, five from women. She found 24 bones from the inner ear that were also from different people, and of these she was able to say nine were from men and 14 from women. I’ve already mentioned the woman whose burial we found on the edge of the Aubrey Hole, and another female burial had been found elsewhere at Stonehenge which was not reburied for us to dig up. You cannot possibly argue with this evidence that Stonehenge was a male preserve.


excavating burial (c) Mike Pitts.jpg

We found an undisturbed burial beside the Aubrey Hole, which had been missed in 1920

We think burial at Stonehenge was likely to be reserved for selected people of higher status. Why?

Stonehenge is the biggest, but it’s not the only circular cremation cemetery of this time, around 3000–2500BC. But they are not common: we know of less than 20 across the whole of the UK.

Secondly, those we do know are not big enough to represent everyone in a likely local population. At Stonehenge, we know from new radiocarbon dates from 25 different people that cremation burial occurred over at least six centuries (between around 3100BC and 2500BC). At the higher estimate of 240 burials for all of Stonehenge (my personal choice), that would be only 10 people/generation (25 years). At 150 burials (Mike Parker Pearson’s choice) it’s even less, six or seven. Neither number seems remotely big enough to represent the likely catchment area were everyone buried there.

Thirdly, this one is at Stonehenge!

We can only guess as to why more women were buried at Stonehenge than in earlier generations – though our guessing is backed by more scientific evidence than you will have seen in last night’s Silent Witness. It’s probably a reflection of wider changes across Britain, associated with the origins of the circular cremation cemeteries that replaced long barrows.

These earlier barrows were closed but accessible: remains were hidden away deep inside stone or wood chambers beneath large mounds. People seem to have entered the chambers repeatedly to add burials and possibly to take out bones for ritual use.

At the bigger cremation cemeteries like Stonehenge, as much effort was expended in digging and moving stones or timber as in building a barrow (at Stonehenge, for example, we have a ring of 56 Bluestones in the Aubrey Holes, surrounded by a circular ditch and bank 100m across). But after cremation (a demanding and spectacular event) an individual got their own, simple, grave. Their bones were not put into a communal chamber where in time they were muddled up with others. They remained separate, where they could be commemorated and remembered as individuals.

It seems these individuals could be women as much as men. Perhaps we are seeing a shift from a society dominated by male lineages and hierarchies – where the family or class was more significant than the person – to one where individual status or achievement stood for more. And that wider recognition extended to women as well as men.

Another of Christie Willis’s discoveries further suggests that in the early neolithic status was partly achieved by birth – and less so in the late neolithic. She found relatively very few children buried at Stonehenge compared to remains from long barrows – and even those we can see are probably an exaggeration of the relative quantities, as smaller younger bones will have survived the cremation and mixing better than larger adult bones, and thus be easier to spot.

It’s worth noting also that long barrows tended to be sited on hilltops or high ground, away from where people lived. Cremation cemeteries tend to be on lower ground, near rivers – not necessarily precisely where people lived (Stonehenge is conspicuously clear of any domestic remains), but in similar environments and near by.

This is a complete guess, but perhaps in line with a move from a focus on male lineage and hierarchy, to both genders and individuals, this reflects a parallel shift from markers of territory and land (barrows) to commemorations of communities (cremation cemeteries). Selective access to burial places (perhaps the ashes of most people were scattered in the rivers) suggests society remained hierarchical, but it doesn’t prove it.

It has been immensely rewarding to see these remains finally re-excavated and analysed (notwithstanding Pagan protests that would have stopped us). The remains of these forgotten people will change the way we understand Stonehenge. The journey of discovery has only just begun.

BA147 Stonehenge.jpgThe excavation of Aubrey Hole 7 and the subsequent research were conducted by Mike Parker Pearson, Christie Willis and Tony Waldron (UCL Institute of Archaeology), Pete Marshall (Historic England), Jacqueline McKinley (Wessex Archaeology), Mike Pitts (Digging Deeper), Joshua Pollard (University of Southampton), Colin Richards and Julian Thomas (Manchester University), Julian Richards (Archaemedia) and Kate Welham (Bournemouth University). Our report (“The dead of Stonehenge”) appears in the February 2015 edition of Antiquity [now slated for April 2016]. The project was part-funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Oxford Scientific Films, with the consent of English Heritage, the Department for Culture Media & Sport, and the Ministry of Justice

 “The Stonehenge people: senior and high status… and not all men” is in British Archaeology Mar/Apr 2016/147, online today and in the shops on Friday February 5

Alan Sorrell sledge

Not so much this perhaps (Alan Sorrell 1950s)…

Kelvin Wilson stonehenge.jpg

… as this (Kelvin Wilson for Archaeology magazine in 2007)

Added Feb 3 9.20am.

Stonehenge site plan.jpg

In response to Tim Daw’s comment, I’ve added this plan below. The yellow Aubrey Holes have been excavated, but have no record of cremated human remains being found in them. I’ve also put a yellow line in the south-east marking the edge of the excavated areas there (Hawley claimed to have dug up almost everything on that side of the site north and west of this line). You can see from this how little of the bank immediately adjacent to the Aubrey Hole ring, or the area beyond the ditch, has been investigated: Hawley trenched along the ditch, but barely touched the bank. If you read anything that suggests there is some kind of astronomical significance in the location of things found under the bank, you need to bear this in mind – what we’re seeing could easily be just where archaeologists have dug.

David Dawson, director of the Wiltshire Museum, has put a very interesting piece up about WEV Young’s diaries, which are in the museum’s collection.

And BBC News picks up the story. And Discovery News, and many others. The struggling-unsuccessfully-to-get-a-grabbing-but-relevant-headline prize must go to a Jezebel contributor.

Have archaeologists found Stonehenge quarries?

Bluestone open spread.jpgThey certainly think so – not all, but two important ones. I went to visit their excavations in Pembrokeshire this summer, and was sufficiently impressed to ask them to write about their discoveries for British Archaeology. You can read their report with many photos – including this fabulous opening shot by Adam Stanford – in the new magazine later this week. Digital on Wednesday December 9 (as an App and in web form) and print in the shops on Friday. Copies for Council for British Archaeology members and magazine subscribers are on their way.

Carn Goedog M Pitts.jpg

Excavations at Carn Goedog (photo M Pitts)

In the meantime, here is the UCL press release.

Stonehenge ‘bluestone’ quarries confirmed 140 miles away in Wales

Excavation of two quarries in Wales by a UCL-led team of archaeologists and geologists has confirmed they are sources of Stonehenge’s ‘bluestones’– and shed light on how they were quarried and transported.

New research by the team published today in Antiquity presents detailed evidence of prehistoric quarrying in the Preseli hills in Pembrokeshire, helping to answer long-standing questions about why, when and how Stonehenge was built.

The team of scientists includes researchers from UCL, University of Manchester, Bournemouth University, University of Southampton, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, and Dyfed Archaeological Trust.

The very large standing stones at Stonehenge are of ‘sarsen’, a local sandstone, but the smaller ones, known as ‘bluestones’, come from the Preseli hills in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Geologists have known since the 1920s that the bluestones were brought to Stonehenge from somewhere in the Preseli Hills, but only now has there been collaboration with archaeologists to locate and excavate the actual quarries from which they came.

Director of the project, Professor Mike Parker Pearson (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: “This has been a wonderful opportunity for geologists and archaeologists to work together. The geologists have been able to lead us to the actual outcrops where Stonehenge’s stones were extracted.”

The Stonehenge bluestones are of volcanic and igneous rocks, the most common of which are called dolerite and rhyolite. Dr Richard Bevins (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales) and Dr Rob Ixer (UCL and University of Leicester) have identified the outcrop of Carn Goedog as the main source of Stonehenge’s ‘spotted dolerite’ bluestones and the outcrop of Craig Rhos-y-felin as a source for one of the ‘rhyolite’ bluestones. The research published today details excavations at Craig Rhos-y-felin specifically.

The special formation of the rock, which forms natural pillars at these outcrops, allowed the prehistoric quarry-workers to detach each megalith (standing stone) with a minimum of effort. “They only had to insert wooden wedges into the cracks between the pillars and then let the Welsh rain do the rest by swelling the wood to ease each pillar off the rock face” said Dr Josh Pollard (University of Southampton). “The quarry-workers then lowered the thin pillars onto platforms of earth and stone, a sort of ‘loading bay’ from where the huge stones could be dragged away along trackways leading out of each quarry.”

Professor Colin Richards (University of Manchester), an expert in Neolithic quarries, said: “The two outcrops are really impressive – they may well have had special significance for prehistoric people. When we saw them for the first time, we knew immediately that we had found the source.”

Radiocarbon-dating of burnt hazelnuts and charcoal from the quarry-workers’ camp fires reveals that there were several occurrences of megalith-quarrying at these outcrops. Stonehenge was built during the Neolithic period, between 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. Both of the quarries in Preseli were exploited in the Neolithic, and Craig Rhos-y-felin was also quarried in the Bronze Age, around 4,000 years ago.

“We have dates of around 3400 BC for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 BC for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn’t get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 BC” said Professor Parker Pearson. “It could have taken those Neolithic stone-draggers nearly 500 years to get them to Stonehenge, but that’s pretty improbable in my view. It’s more likely that the stones were first used in a local monument, somewhere near the quarries, that was then dismantled and dragged off to Wiltshire.”

Professor Kate Welham (Bournemouth University) thinks that the ruins of any dismantled monument are likely to lie somewhere between the two megalith quarries. She said: “We’ve been conducting geophysical surveys, trial excavations and aerial photographic analysis throughout the area and we think we have the most likely spot. The results are very promising – we may find something big in 2016.”

The megalith quarries are on the north side of the Preseli hills, and this location undermines previous theories about how the bluestones were transported from Wales to Stonehenge. Previous writers have often suggested that bluestones were taken southwards from the hills to Milford Haven and then floated on boats or rafts, but this now seems unlikely.

“The only logical direction for the bluestones to go was to the north then either by sea around St David’s Head or eastwards overland through the valleys along the route that is now the A40” said Professor Parker Pearson. “Personally I think that the overland route is more likely. Each of the 80 monoliths weighed less than 2 tons, so teams of people or oxen could have managed this. We know from examples in India and elsewhere in Asia that single stones this size can even be carried on wooden lattices by groups of 60 – they didn’t even have to drag them if they didn’t want to.”

Phil Bennett, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority’s Culture and Heritage Manager, said: “This project is making a wonderful contribution to our knowledge of the National Park’s importance in prehistory.”

The new discoveries may also help to understand why Stonehenge was built. Parker Pearson and his team believe that the bluestones were erected at Stonehenge around 2900 BC, long before the giant sarsens were put up around 2500 BC.

“Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery of why Stonehenge was built and why some of its stones were brought so far”, said Professor Parker Pearson.

Further excavations are planned for 2016.

“Craig Rhos-y-felin: a Welsh bluestone megalith quarry for Stonehenge” is published in the journal Antiquity today.

bluestones Antiquity.jpgAnd the new CBA book:

Stonehenge CBA book

Operation Stonehenge: what the TV films left out

Oh dear, BBC2. If this had happened in a hospital, the patient would have died. There was some lovely film and it was all put together well, but the good looks concealed some very odd archaeology. Some of it was fine but not explained. Some of it was misleading. Much of it was wrong. That was bad enough, but what made it worse was that so much recent research was omitted. Indeed, beside the work of the Hidden Landscapes Project, of which more soon, ALL of the most important research was omitted.

Why? There can be only one answer. It suited the programming.

Avenue top end 2008

Avenue top end 2008 (these photos show Stonehenge Riverside Project sites, see below)

I have no behind the scenes insights, but somewhere along the route from idea to screening, someone must have said, this needs to be unlike all the other recent Stonehenge films; and it must say something new. Much of the major research has been covered in recent films, and all of it has featured in magazines and articles. So to be completely different, you leave all that out. But then you have to fill two hours of programming with other stuff.

Fortunately, the University of Birmingham and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection & Virtual Archaeology were about to complete five years of a spectacular geophysics survey – the Hidden Landscapes Project. Much of this had been published, but it had not been seen in a TV film – and was presumably the cause of the subtitle, “What lies beneath”, as no excavation that had anything to do with Stonehenge was mentioned.

This was cutting edge geofizz, involving some pretty techy stuff. But it was for a BBC2 audience, who, on this evidence, the commissioners believed don’t like or understand science. So the opportunity to follow exciting developments in digital sensing technologies was missed. As was the chance to see a proper geofizz plot, or what any of the pieces of impressive kit paraded across the screen actually did, or anyone explain anything at all about geophysics.

So the question remained, how to fill two hours? Answer: drama, pretty shots, and anything we can find that hasn’t previously been roped into a film about Stonehenge.

Avenue bottom end 2008

Avenue bottom end 2008

The result was a ramshackle presentation, and doubly patronising. You might, I suppose, have just got away with omitting most of what we’ve learnt about Stonehenge in the past decade or so, if you said that was what you were doing, and explained why – two or three sentences would have sufficed. But the films didn’t do that. They gave the impression that they were rounding up all recent research. The films would, in the BBC’s words, answer questions such as “Why is [Stonehenge ] here? What is its significance? And which forces inspired its creators?”, thus “Solving many of the mysteries of Stonehenge.” You would reasonably expect anyone setting out to do all that would draw on all the evidence.

But they didn’t! And neither did they talk to any but a few of the dozens of archaeologists who have been working in the landscape and at the monument. How can you tell a sensible story about Stonehenge in 2014 without one of, to name only some, Allen, Darvill, Parker Pearson, Pollard, Richards, Thomas, Welham or Wainwright, without any English Heritage survey teams (landscapes and megaliths) or any petrologists (Bevins, Ixer)? You can’t!

Having decided the viewers didn’t need to know what’s been going on at Stonehenge unless it supported a contrived USP, the programme makers delivered their second insult: they didn’t explain anything useful about the work they DID feature. Indeed, they compounded the omission by throwing in a great deal of error and confusion.

I hope I’m being fair about this, but it makes me very cross. What is it about archaeology on TV that means it has to be served up like baby food? You wouldn’t see a film about Turner that treated his paintings like placemats, or a documentary about the solar system that thought gravity was a concept too sophisticated to mention. So why address people who might have an interest in Stonehenge as if they have an IQ of 30?

After that, I owe the programmers some evidence. A lot of questions were raised about these films on the Britarch discussion list, and I promised to try to answer some of them. So as best and as briefly as I can, here goes. First, to open positively, what we know (ie what the films left out).

“Stonehenge in its Landscape”

Colin Richards (centre) at the Cuckoo Stone 2007

Colin Richards (centre) at the Cuckoo Stone 2007

All modern understanding of Stonehenge begins with this book, published by English Heritage in 1995. It’s a monumental survey of the results of excavations at the site in the 20th century, most of which had not been published fully before, if at all. This is where we go when we want to learn details about stuff underground – all the Holes from Aubrey to Z, the stone pits, the earthworks, the artefacts and bones and more. The project included the first major radiocarbon dating of Stonehenge. The book does not say much about the landscapes around, very little about other monuments, and curiously almost nothing about the stones themselves. But fair enough – it’s already 640 pages long, which is a lot for an A4 format hardback with loose maps.

When I wrote Hengeworld, my aim was to present the story of Stonehenge as this book told it, to help the research reach a wider readership. I deliberately avoided going off with any major alternative theories. Hengeworld is a summary of the way we saw Stonehenge in 2000 (bolstered with some of the things I found out in the course of writing).

However, if you want to pursue original queries of your own, really you should also read the primary publications where they exist (listed in the long bibliographies in both books) and often unpublished archives, where much still remains to be learnt. This is what many of us have done as part of research since, and as a result things have moved on in many areas, not least in the site sequence.

Stonehenge in its Landscape: Twentieth-Century Excavations, ed R Cleal, KE Walker & R Montague (English Heritage 1995)

Site sequence

Paul Garwood at site near Palisade 2008

Paul Garwood at site near Palisade 2008

This has long been a focus of Stonehenge archaeology, sometimes obsessively so, with reason: unless we can say what was built when, we can’t tell the story of the site or possibly hope to understand it. There was not just one Stonehenge, but a long succession of events, structures and re-imaginations occurring across Europe-wide cultural changes. For most of the second half of the last century, the conventional story was the one told by Richard Atkinson. He constructed a series of phases on evidence from his excavations, and particularly from William Hawley’s before him, building on ideas set out by Hawley and Stuart Piggott. However, Atkinson never publicly presented most of this evidence, and when English Heritage published its fat book in 1995, few of us were surprised to find a new sequence that differed significantly from Atkinson’s. This has now changed again.

Woodhenge 2006

I have no doubt that further research is going to create yet more variations and corrections, but for now, this is what we work with. These are the key papers:

“The age of Stonehenge”, by M Parker Pearson, R Cleal, P Marshall, S Needham, J Pollard, C Richards, C Ruggles, A Sheridan, J Thomas, C Tilley, K Welham, A Chamberlain, C Chenery, J Evans, C Knüsel, N Linford, L Martin, J Montgomery, A Payne & Mike Richards, Antiquity 81 (2007), 617–39

“Who was buried at Stonehenge?”, by M Parker Pearson, A Chamberlain, M Jay, P Marshall, J Pollard, C Richards, J Thomas, C Tilley & K Welham, Antiquity 83 (2009), 23–39

“The date of the Greater Stonehenge Cursus”, by J Thomas, P Marshall, M Parker Pearson, J Pollard, C Richards, C Tilley & K Welham, Antiquity 83 (2009), 40–53

This is an essential paper, listing the entire suite of dated samples in all its nerdy and statistical detail:

Stonehenge, Amesbury, Wiltshire: Chronological Modelling, by P Marshall, T Darvill, M Parker Pearson & G Wainwright (English Heritage 2012)

And this one rounds it all up with some important revisions, to get to five “Stages”:

“Stonehenge remodelled”, by T Darvill, P Marshall, M Parker Pearson & G Wainwright, Antiquity 86 (2012), 1021–40

I summarised this sequence in my blog, Stonehenge in five easy stages (or perhaps six). The “perhaps six” was my own contribution. Some of the stuff in the BBC films makes this relevant, so here is the whole thing, with added “car park postholes” – the dated mesolithic pits that lie where the visitor car park used to be.

The first diagram summarises the scheme described in “Stonehenge remodelled”, which groups the key dated site features into five design or construction stages. I’ve put the relevant radiocarbon dates on the right side (all expressed as calibrated 95% probability ranges; a recurrent feature of all this is that there are not enough of these).

Stonehenge 5 stages

The next lists all the radiocarbon dates from things dug up at Stonehenge that are older than Stage 1 – ie that technically “pre-date Stonehenge”. Many of these things appear not to have been found in their original contexts, but in pits dug at later times. But some of them, at least, wouldn’t be on the site if people hadn’t been there to drop them or bury them, so they reveal an important but overlooked, and for now completely mysterious, part of Stonehenge’s story.

And finally the car park dates. Note that two of these overlap with the mesolithic date from Stonehenge itself, though the ranges are very wide, so that needn’t mean that any of these samples actually date contemporary events.

So having got that out of the way, we can look at some of the new work that’s been done in the field. First up is by far the biggest of the various projects.

Stonehenge Riverside Project

Aubrey Hole 7 2008

The Stonehenge Riverside Project began quietly in 2003, with soil augering and surveys, and returned in 2004 to conduct its first small excavations. Its inspiration was Mike Parker Pearson’s idea that Stonehenge was a monument for the dead (ancestors). It grew into a wider quest to give the stones contemporary worlds into which they could be placed, by investigating other nearby monuments and the landscape itself.

Mike Parker Pearson by river Avon 2006

Mike Parker Pearson by river Avon 2006

Durrington Walls 2006

Durrington Walls 2006

Julian Thomas inside Durrington Walls 2006

Julian Thomas inside Durrington Walls 2006

The last dig was in 2009, with major fieldwork in the summer every year in between. There are six directors: Mike Parker Pearson, then at Sheffield University (now UCL), Josh Pollard, then at Bristol University (now Southampton), Colin Richards and Julian Thomas, both at Manchester University, Chris Tilley, UCL, and Kate Welham, Bournemouth University. Two or three dozen other specialists contributed to the project, others (like myself, co-directing the re-excavation of Aubrey Hole 7) hovered on the sidelines, and many hundreds of students and other volunteers gained experience of excavation and survey.

Durrington Walls house floor 2007

Durrington Walls house floor 2007

Stonehenge Cursus 2007

Stonehenge Cursus 2007

Josh Pollard near Woodhenge 2007

Josh Pollard near Woodhenge 2007

Fieldwork has finished, and the massive task of analysis and publication is under way. We have been promised the results in three monographs. The first will describe the early landscape, and excavations that touched on the Cursus, Amesbury 42 long barrow, Woodhenge, bluestones (including Bluestonehenge), sarsens (including the Cuckoo Stone and the Tor Stone), the Avenue and Aubrey Hole 7. Volume 2 will feature Durrington Walls, including houses, middens, timber monuments and henge earthworks. Round barrows, the Palisade, and later prehistoric, medieval and 20th century archaeology will fill the third.

Bluestonehenge 2008

Bluestonehenge 2008

Palisade area 2008

Palisade area 2008

Amesbury 42 long barrow 2008

Amesbury 42 long barrow 2008

Stoneworking area near Stonehenge 2008

Stoneworking area near Stonehenge 2008

You can see just from the headlines that this project covered a huge amount of ground. As you’d expect, there were many new discoveries, some of them – such as the houses at Durrington Walls or the stone circle by the river Avon – of major significance. The opportunities to conduct ecological studies, examine new artefacts and the human remains that had been re-buried in Aubrey Hole 7, and radiocarbon-date new samples have also added enormously to the success of the project.

Bluestonehenge 2009

Bluestonehenge 2009

There have been many articles published along the way looking at particular aspects of this work, and a book by Mike Parker Pearson (published by Simon & Schuster as Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery in 2012 – and, confusingly, republished by Experiment in 2013 as Stonehenge, a New Understanding: Solving the Mysteries of the Greatest Stone Age Monument, while the first remains in print). All of that is interesting and very helpful for finding out about the project, and you will discover much to enjoy in Parker Pearson’s book. But most of what we are told is inevitably interpretive and relatively thin on data. The monographs, which should describe all we need to know, will launch a new era of Stonehenge understanding, and inspire new research (and may even lead to a Hengeworld 2 – there’s not a lot of point writing another book about Stonehenge until this project is fully published).

Excavation by Darvill and Wainwright

Tim Darvill, Geoff Wainwright and Miles Russell 2008

Tim Darvill, Geoff Wainwright and Miles Russell 2008

In 2008 Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright, inspired by their work in Pembrokeshire and the idea that in the neolithic the Stonehenge bluestones were believed to have had healing powers, excavated a small trench at Stonehenge. It lay between the sarsen circle and the ring of bluestones it encloses, where an earlier bluestone structure once stood in what are known as the Q and R holes. They hoped to date the first arrival of bluestones at Stonehenge, something then thought from circumstantial evidence to have occurred around 2600BC.

They failed to achieve this, for interesting reasons: the picture of the area’s stratigraphy as we had come to understand it from Hawley’s and Atkinson’s excavations turned out to be wrong in some significant details. This meant some key conventional relationships between pits underground were overturned, allowing a new and perhaps more convincing megalithic sequence to be proposed.

This is what we see in the final report of those listed above under Site sequence. “Stonehenge remodelled” starts the megalith sequence with a ring of bluestones in the 56 Aubrey Holes around 3000BC – “Stones were probably present at the site from its inception” (page 1029). All the stones in the centre, bluestones and sarsens, appeared quite rapidly about five centuries later.

Darvill and Wainwright have published an interim article about their dig. I found the mix of archaeology and media these excavations stirred up fascinating, and wrote about theirs and the Stonehenge Riverside Project’s work in 2008, and the respective TV films then broadcast:

“Stonehenge excavations 2008”, by T Darvill & G Wainwright, Antiquaries Journal 89 (2009), 1–19

“A year at Stonehenge”, by M Pitts, Antiquity 83 (2009), 184–94

Stonehenge laser scan

Marcus Abbott and Hugo Anderson-Whymark 2012

Marcus Abbott and Hugo Anderson-Whymark 2012

In 2012 English Heritage published the results of an archaeological analysis of laser scan data of the Stonehenge megaliths, collected by a commercial contractor. This cumbersome phrasing reflects an awkward fact: the laser survey was not archaeologically informed, but conducted for English Heritage who then asked archaeologists to look at it. Consequently, not everything that might be there to see was necessarily seen. However, the analysis by Marcus Abbott and Hugo Anderson-Whymark was sophisticated and perceptive, and resulted in significant new insights into the monument – unsurprising, perhaps, as this was, astonishingly, the first ever proper survey of the stones.

Among the key discoveries were that almost every surface of the stones has been dressed – but that this dressing is uneven, and tells stories. First, the amount of damage done to the stones from visitors with steel hammers is vastly more than any of us had imagined. This will have had the effect of making the stones look rougher now than they were originally – finely dressed edges have often been bashed off.

lintels 158 & 154

The effect is so strong, it’s worth illustrating – I put the above images together for the feature Abbott and Anderson-Whymark wrote for British Archaeology. Sarsen lintel 158 was on the ground between 1797, when the uprights supporting it fell down, and 1958, when they were re-erected. William Stukeley drew it in the 1720s, with nice sharp edges (engraving at top). The lintel today (centre) shows what visitors did to it between 1797 and 1958. If that does not convince, look at lintel 154 (bottom). This has never fallen – and remains undamaged, beyond the reach of tourist arms. Records describe visitors chipping off souvenirs throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but this is the first time the results have been documented.

Secondly, some parts of the monument were better carved than others from the start. This is summarised in another diagram we prepared for British Archaeology:


Look at the contrast between sarsens to the north-east and those to the south-west. It seems the place was designed to impress as you approached from the north (along the Avenue route), to be seen from that direction inside (note finest surfaces face inward), and not really to be seen at all from the back, where there is relatively little dressing and the stones themselves are smaller and rougher.

This tells us something about how the site functioned (all eyes seem to be on the midwinter sunset to the south-west, for example). It also helps explain why so many stones are missing round the back – they were never big and muscular in the first place. This was the first new evidence to suggest the big sarsen circle was ever a complete ring, one more recently supported by the grass parchmarks seen in 2013.

Stonehenge laser scan: archaeological analysis report, by M Abbott & H Anderson-Whymark (English Heritage 2012)

Landscape surveys

As well as all the above, there have been surveys and many other small excavations in the world heritage site, often occasioned by work associated with the new visitor centre arrangements. Here are some of those you can find online.

Stonehenge Environmental Improvements Project. Archaeology & the Historic Environment: Baseline Assessment, prepared for English Heritage by Wessex Archaeology (2009)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: Stonehenge, Amesbury, Wiltshire, by D Field & T Pearson (English Heritage 2010)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: King Barrow Ridge, by S Bishop (English Heritage 2011)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: Stonehenge Cursus, Amesbury, Wiltshire, by T Pearson & D Field (English Heritage 2011)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: Level I Field Investigations, by S Bishop (English Heritage 2011)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: A344 Corridor: Level I Survey, by A Komar & D Field (English Heritage 2012)

Stonehenge Monument Field & Barrows, Wiltshire: Report on Geophysical Surveys, September 2010, April & July 2011, by N Linford, P Linford & A Payne (English Heritage 2012)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: Larkhill Barrows, Durrington, by S Soutar (English Heritage 2012)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project: Lake Barrows, The Diamond & Normanton Gorse, by M Bowden, D Field & S Soutar (English Heritage 2012)

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Synthesis: Prehistoric Landscape, Environment & Economy, by M Canti, G Campbell & S Greaney (English Heritage 2013)

Stonehenge, Wiltshire: Report on Magnetic Susceptibility Survey, January 2013, by N Linford (English Heritage 2013)

English Heritage has additionally published a detailed online guide to Stonehenge sources, which has much of real use in it.


Finally, Richard Bevins, Rob Ixer and colleagues have for many years been slowly tracking down sources for the many varieties of bluestone present at Stonehenge and in the landscape around, with surprises at every turn. They have published many technical reports. I recommend a general overview they wrote for British Archaeology (Sep/Oct 2014/138).

Film critique

This is already too long, but I owe the makers of Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath – and anyone wondering about some of the things in the films – a critique. Apart from introducing the work to those unfamiliar with it, my point is that there has been a huge amount of research at and around Stonehenge – the problem is not a shortage of data or stories, but, if anything, a surfeit. If you regularly read British Archaeology, you will be aware of much of this, as we have covered all the major projects over the past decade. I guess the programme makers didn’t get the magazines. (What follows will mean nothing to you if you haven’t seen the films!)

Episode 1

The Amesbury excavation is potentially important for mesolithic studies, but any connection with Stonehenge is entirely speculative, and in any direct sense meaningless – the site is thousands of years older than Stonehenge, and tells stories about people with radically different culture and mind-sets. We did, of course, long know that mesolithic hunters and fishers lived in the landscape, and we have material of this date from the site itself, and close by.

The Grimes Graves flint mines in Norfolk are extraordinary, but have nothing to do with Stonehenge. They are an exceptional group of late neolithic mines, dated to around 2400–2200BC. The evidence for flint-axe making is relatively slight, so the relevance of these mines to axes and Stonehenge, one of the links made in the film, is difficult to see. The link about monumental engineering is also obscure.

The Greater Cursus at Stonehenge is dated to before 3000BC, the Stonehenge earthwork was dug around 3000BC, possibly the first stones arrived at the same time, and the major Stonehenge monument is dated to around 2500BC. So all of this is older than the Grimes Graves mines.

There are big early neolithic flint mines in Sussex and Hampshire where axes WERE made, but curiously when people are building all these big timber henges like Woodhenge, when you’d think they’d need axe blades by the ton, there is relatively little sign of any big flint mines making them. It looks as if at that time they were relying more on surface and shallow flint (there are some small flint quarries up near Durrington Walls, for example – you don’t need to go to Norfolk). Grimes Graves is the LAST large scale engineering project we see in the neolithic, not the first.

The two big pits in the geofizz survey on the Cursus are quite dramatic discoveries. In the film lines are drawn to suggest they are aligned with Stonehenge, and the rising and setting sun at midsummer. The pits are of course undated without excavation. Among other things, they could be mesolithic, like the car park postholes. There was a big pit we know from early excavation at the far west end of the Cursus that has all the signs of being something similar to the car park post pits (I noted it in Hengeworld). They could be early neolithic, like the pit at Coneybury henge (named the anomaly, because it showed up as a big feature in early geofizz). They could be anything. If the solar alignment is correct and considered meaningful, they could be where posts were put up any time after Stonehenge was built.

Episode 2

A big sarsen in modern woodland, half buried

A big sarsen in modern woodland, half buried

Katy Whitaker experimenting with sarsen was one of the few things in either film, apart from the geofizz, worth watching. I blogged about a TV film I was involved in, when we went into woodland near Marlborough where there are sarsens mixed up with trees, I think a much more likely look for neolithic people in search of megaliths than the open downland we usually see (as in this film). But what really makes that location, and is useful for experimental archaeology, is that sarsens were quarried there, and you can see the process – buried sarsens poking out of the ground, sarsens exposed by excavation but still in situ, and empty quarry pits where the stones have been taken out. All that is early 20th century, but my point is that contrary to Whitaker’s comment, you do have to quarry them, which is critically important for the archaeological value of the sites – if we can only find them!

Once you’ve chosen your stone, the next question is not how do you move it, as Whitaker put it, but how do you shape it? You dig it out and examine it, and figure out if there’s a megalith in it – a sort of Michelangelo/Henry Moore job. If there is, you rough it out, dress it to shape. That’s a major operation. Grinding I think would have been a finishing job done at the site, not a primary shaping task.

But I did like her stone grinding sequence. Atkinson did something similar in an early film – but he used a neolithic maul on a Stonehenge megalith!

Neubauer’s presentation of the conventional view of the stone route from the river Avon was disingenuous or ill-informed, as I don’t think anyone’s suggested dragging stones across the hilliest straight line route – rather more or less along the avenue, which takes a gentler path (and small bluestones, not the big sarsens). However, his ideas about the marks along the avenue by Stonehenge and then continuing “towards the Marlborough downs” could be important. If he’s right. We got to see very little of what he had actually found… but what I could see looked suspiciously like things we’ve long known about, and are mostly historical in date.

Tony Johnson’s stuff – the lines on the sand in the film – is well described in his 2008 book. It’s all workable, but also in 2008, John Hill at the University of Liverpool, Centre for Life Long Learning, did something similar in a field, with school kids and no plans or geometry at all to get the same result.

The argument linking the Boscombe grave to the transport of bluestones, embodied in the name “The Boscombe Bowmen”, was a selective one apparently originated by archaeologists for press consumption after the excavation in 2003. Isotope analysis, in the film argued by Jacqueline McKinley to show that the individuals came from Wales, pointed more generally to Scotland, the Lake District, Wales and south-west England, and beyond into parts of Ireland and the continent. The only apparent reasons for plumping for Wales are that it’s closest, and it fitted with a media spin that linked the remains to the bluestones.

Radiocarbon dates are not precise enough to help with this issue, especially when you remember that there are two theories for when bluestones reached Stonehenge: Stage 1 (3000–2620BC) or Stage 3 (2480–2280BC). Dates for the Boscombe grave range between 2580–2340 to 2340–2140. That rules out Stage 1, but Stage 3 remains a possibility – as do both before it began and after it ended. So a link between bluestones and these burials cannot be supported by the chronology.

Later we get into further problems with dating human remains. “Three centuries after its construction”, we are told with reference to the burial of a man in the ditch at the monument, “Stonehenge became a site of human sacrifice”. I have no great argument with hypothesising sacrifice, it’s undoubtedly a possibility for an unusual burial – with death from perhaps more than the three arrows shown in the film – in an unusual place (it was a word I used in Hengeworld). But I question the narrative. Radiocarbon dates for this burial average 2400–2140BC. The story is placed in the middle of a section about “the Beaker period”, 300 years after Stonehenge was built. Yet the burial’s date is indistinguishable from the Boscombe Bowmen’s dates, for men who, the film earlier told us, came from Wales with stones to build Stonehenge, 300 years before. You can’t have it both ways.

Near the end of the film, we visit the new galleries at Devizes Museum, whom I am pleased to credit. This accompanies a bizarre experiment in making gold pins to match those found at the Bush Barrow burial (though the new products didn’t look at all like the old pins), leading to a theory that children destroyed their eyes in gold workshops, and thence to stories in the media.

Mike Corfield recently published an analysis of these pins, and proposed how they were made. He was so upset by this sequence in the film, he wrote to the Society of Antiquaries, who quoted him in their newsletter. “The programme’s description of the method of making the studs”, he says, “was utter bunk and made worse by the sculptor’s elbow apparently resting on a page from my paper… in which I describe in detail how the studs were made and how they were put into the wood.”

See “The decoration of Bronze Age dagger handles with gold studs”, by M Corfield, in Of Things Gone but not Forgotten: Essays in Archaeology for Joan Taylor, ed JR Trigg (BAR 2012).


And here, finally, is the rub. If you really want to make a film about Stonehenge, that shows viewers things they don’t know, that helps them understand Stonehenge and the way archaeologists think about it today, that stimulates and entertains but decidedly does not patronise – and along the way produces some entirely original programming – all you have to do, is tell the complete story revealed by archaeology, and tell it well. The last film that did those two things was directed by Paul Johnstone. It was broadcast in 1954.

What makes the new Richard III Visitor Centre “insulting”?


You might notice a bit of a theme going on here. First Stonehenge opens a visitor centre that is roundly trashed by the press (and subsequently praised by their travel journalists). Then the British Museum’s new extension and Vikings exhibition is labelled boring – and attracts huge numbers of visitors. Now we have a third archaeological museum milestone, in the shape of a visitor centre for Richard III in Leicester. And while the press seem largely to like it, not everyone does.

Perhaps we should have expected that those who want Richard’s remains in York were never going to let it go quietly, though the judicial review found against them. Their online comments are frequently racist, rude and, it seems, universally stupid. We can leave them alone.

But neither are Philippa Langley and her supporters happy, and they deserve an audience. One of them has described aspects of the new centre as “insulting”, “grotesque”, “ghoulish” and “spurious”; says the Looking For Richard Project team feel “belittled” and “sidelined”; and claims their expressed concerns were “overridden by the university’s insatiable desire to position itself as the driving force behind the search for Richard III, rather than – as all Ricardians know [All? Did they hold a poll?] – the interlopers who stepped in and grabbed overall control.”

Oh dear.

Let’s start with something positive. I was in Leicester on August 7 to hear the announcement about the reburial ceremony, which we now know will be in March next year. It’s going to be a big event, described by the cathedral as having “the character of a state funeral” (while admitting that it is neither state nor funeral), with the royal household represented (by who knows who). There will be a week of events:

Sunday March 22
Leicester University transfers Richard III’s remains into a lead-lined coffin which travels to Bosworth, accompanied by a cortege. It arrives back in Leicester, at the cathedral, in the early evening where there is a service of reception.

Monday–Wednesday March 23–25
The king lies in repose by the cathedral font, his coffin covered with a pall. The cathedral will be open to visitors, as always, but this will be a unique moment, with people coming from around the world to witness a coffin holding someone who died nearly 530 years ago, before it is buried.

Thursday March 26
Service of reinterment, broadcast on Channel 4, which has exclusive live rights, with an evening programme of highlights (whatever else she receives, Philippa Langley deserves a big gong from this British broadcaster).

Friday–Saturday March 27–28
The sealed tomb is revealed, with a service to mark the completion of reinterment and to think ahead.

While this is going on, there is a programme of events, featuring preparations for the reburial, results of scientific research into the remains, the story of Richard’s reign and the impact of the discovery on Leicester; and, after reinterment, looking to the future. In this as in much else, it will be an unusual occasion: lectures as sideshows.

The Richard III Society has said it is also planning its own events for the week, which will include a special service at the cathedral for members on Monday March 23.


So where last time we had a panel announce the result of the judicial review, on this day the cathedral hosted Matt Webster (Fairhurst Ward Abbots Conservation), the Very Reverend David Monteith (Dean of Leicester) and Phil Stone (Richard III Society chairman) – you can watch the video of the presentations here. Monteith began with the date and details of the reburial events, and news that His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester is to be patron of the cathedral’s appeal in support of the reinterment – their target is £2.5m, of which they say they have raised nearly £1m. There will be no admission charges to the cathedral, said Monteith in answer to a question. The memorial stone on the floor, on the site of the future tomb, will be removed and cared for, but where it will end up has yet to be resolved (“We hope it will be somewhere in the environs of this part of the city”).

FWA Conservation have already started work in the cathedral, with alterations to the wooden screens and furnishings, and stone floors.


David Monteith talks to Radio Leicester

David Monteith talks to Radio Leicester

Screened works starts beyond the existing floor memorial

Screened works starts beyond the existing floor memorial



Outside, the cathedral’s landscaping project is nearly done, and work continues to tidy up and pedestrianise the street. When it’s all finished, there will be a lovely open space with trees, gardens and memorials that reaches from beyond the visitor centre across St Martin’s and the cathedral grounds, and embraces the medieval Guildhall. For now it takes a bit of imagination to see through the muddle.



Dallas Pierce Quintero’s new sculpture looks the corporate confusion the name suggests. I didn’t like the proposal on the screen (as I say in my book, I opted for Michael Sandle’s idea, while recognising it was never going to be selected), but these things can look quite different in reality. If this is different, it’s worse: ugly, clunky and difficult to read (even if you have it explained, which it shouldn’t need). It looks as if it may have to be permanently fenced off for fear of accidents with kids, it doesn’t respond to changes in the light and it evokes no emotions in me at all. But please defend it if you disagree!


In its favour, it gives the old and now refreshed Richard III bronze – which doesn’t do much for me either – added strength in its new site. Sentimental meets flat.



Which leads through to the visitor centre in the converted old school. In the next photo you can see how the site looked in 2013, when the second excavation was in progress in the school playground. The space is now filled with the entrance lobby, which doubles as a small shop (so you exit AND enter via the gift shop – of which of course I approve, if it means you look at my book).



Looking back out towards the cathedral

Looking back out towards the cathedral

Getting this visitor centre right was a double challenge for Maber Architects and the exhibition creators Imagemakers and StudioMB: it had to be fitted into a historic and complex building with limited space over two floors separated by steep stairs, and, furthermore, incorporate a grave with the appearance of no more than a rough hole in the ground; and the schedule was ridiculously tight, requiring an opening date before research into its subject was completed. My immediate impression is that it has been done remarkably well – there are some very clever moments. Yet I also have misgivings. There are some fundamental points I think it may have got wrong, whether for reasons of policy or practicalities.

display arrival

It begins with a video wall, with characters in period dress wandering about in a candle-lit stone chamber. When I entered, there was a man in a cap and leather waistcoat measuring up another man’s deformed, naked back. My first thought was, it’s Blackadder (and I’m afraid I heard someone else say the same thing) – then, no, Horrible Histories! But the quality of the thing soon became apparent. It’s very well done, and if you take the seven minutes and concentrate, you can learn a lot.

The display then proceeds with two themes: Richard III’s reign and death on the ground floor, and the story of the dig to find his grave, and the science that followed, above. Down is dark, noisy and theatrical. Up is bright and clean, with different typefaces and a yellow and white colour scheme (for the dig) and silver and various bright colours for the science. There are lots of effective videos, graphics and text boxes (aided by high quality university photography and video clips from Darlow Smithson), with a surprising amount of stuff to get through – the centre suggests you need around 90 minutes for the tour.




When you move from one floor to the next, you get a sense of the problems presented by the site. You leave Richard dead on the battlefield, and enter a stair well with doors off to a café, toilets, a lift and who knows what else. There is a big notice, but you do wonder where you are. The spell is broken.


Those bricks cleaned up nicely

Difficult decisions must have been made about what to show of the original building, and what not. Is Newton still there somewhere, for example? I missed him if he is.


Upstairs, the dig story is told in two parallel narratives: by the archaeologists on the wall, and by Philippa Langley and the Richard III Society on the table (and both versions are very much in the protagonists’ words). It looked to me like an effective solution to a difficult problem, as the stories really are quite different, yet ran at least partly concurrently. Before this starts, there is a scene setter – equivalent to the video wall downstairs – that asks us to think about how Richard III has been portrayed and understood (a striking exhibit here is a replica of Ian McKellan’s costume for Richard III as dictator).

Richard Buckley


Philippa’s story ends “At my book launch”, with a photo of her behind a pile of books like a shop preview

There are some imaginatively chosen artefacts, including the digger bucket that found Skeleton 1, Philippa Langley’s wellies and Mathew Morris’s hi-vis jacket.

A pre-dig sketch plan by John Ashdown-Hill

A pre-dig sketch plan by John Ashdown-Hill


Or some of them at least

There’s a nice view out over the courtyard and entrance lobby below, where you can see (if you know what you are looking for) the sites of the friary church and Richard III’’s grave (under the furthest copper and brass roof, beyond the wall), and the cathedral spire in the near distance – soon to mark Richard’s second grave.

LeicesterFor comparison, here is a similar view in 2013, just a year ago, when archaeologists were still digging:


All of this pretty much follows the same narrative as my book, so I’m not going to complain about it. Finally, if you can find your way there, you get to see the grave, in a private room of its own back down on the ground. You approach through a wide corridor at the back of the shop, which looks across the courtyard and has a pleasant cloister-like effect. The burial chamber is really the only entirely new space (the reception area is bounded by existing walls). The roof rests on a ring of glass, that allows natural light to settle on the stone floor and walls. At the back a long glass panel runs across the floor, through which you can see dirt – the ground level reached by the dig in 2012 that found the grave, and in 2013 that expanded the area around it. If you know what you’re looking for (to coin a phrase), you can see the edge of Trench 1, the first one excavated in 2013.

The king's remains light up if you make a noise

The king’s remains light up if you make a noise


This could easily have gone very wrong, but it’s calm, respectful and contemplative. There’s plenty of space should large crowds come, and no intrusive branding or information panels – which on the downside can leave you wondering exactly where you are, or even what you are looking at.

So overall, there’s a lot to see and discover. It’s not tacky or cheap. Apart from a wall of hinged shields on the ground floor (you open a shield and read a text), which is starting to come apart, it all looks well designed and well made. I didn’t read everything (which I will on another visit), but what I did contained no obvious errors. A remarkable amount has been achieved on a budget of £4m – and the council didn’t sell anything off to pay for it.

But as I said at the top, I do have reservations. Some of the problems undoubtedly arise from the nature of the site, abetted by the rushed schedule. It’s a shame you have to pass through so much clutter between the history gallery and the dig upstairs (as I emerged into the light with the sound of medieval battle in my ears, I could hear a hand dryer not far off) – though that could be mitigated perhaps by a more ambitious cafe, whose aromas of coffee and fresh baking might pervade the hall (not something that looks about to happen).

That sense of fragmentation continues with the grave, which is physically remote from everything at the centre. Many would argue that is how it should be – it’s a grave, not an exhibit, and should be respected in its own right, not roped into a wider scheme. But should that also apply to the connection between the former grave and the cathedral, soon to be the site of the actual grave of Richard III? Nothing I could see drew the visitor’s attention to the link, either physical or narrative. Perhaps that’s to do with timing – the judicial review into the reburial found for Leicester only in late May. But neither did the grave seem to have much to do with the exhibits upstairs.

A second reservation I have is about things. I’ve mentioned a few exhibits, but there really are very few. In the long term, any display that hopes to convey the impact and story of the dig needs more original artefacts (I didn’t see one thing that had actually been dug up). It’s great to have Morris’s jacket, but its impact is diminished by an adjacent exhibit, described as “This kind of mattock was used in the excavation” – supplied by ULAS, perhaps, and exactly what they would have used on site, but not THE mattock.

The empty grave as first excavated

The empty grave as first excavated

Which leads me to my next point: there’s no tarmac. If no one at the time thought to rescue the white R (marking a reserved space) that inspired Philippa Langley, there can have been no shortage of broken tarmac around when the king’s remains had very likely been found. Not only is there none in the display, the whole context of the grave in the car park seems to have got lost.

Where's the tarmac?

Where’s the tarmac?

Perhaps that results from a misconceived idea about respecting the person, but whatever the reason, it’s a serious mistake. That Richard III was found in a municipal parking lot is indelibly written into folk history – it’s arguably one of the key things the world now knows about the Plantagenet king. It’s also an important part of the story, an apt symbol for the Henrician desecration of the friary and tomb, and subsequent events that led to the almost miraculous survival of the grave underground. Yet, notwithstanding references in the exhibition upstairs, nowhere at the centre, even at the grave site, does the sense come across that all this land was once a couple of car parks, now entirely removed or hidden behind a new stone wall. For that you have to nip down New Street and see how the now famous view into the Social Services car park looks (see here for earlier views of this development). From here you also get a view of the former school, looking rather odd with its whited-out windows, and what in the local context seems to be an inappropriate stone wall on the site of the original brick wall. And you are reminded, perhaps, that there was more to this site than a grave: the medieval friary, which for the archaeologists was a significant discovery, has also got rather overlooked.


You might think this leads into others’ complaints about the show, but only in the sense that others do have reservations. The latter are entirely different from mine.

A specific point has been expressed by Philippa Langley, in what she describes as an advance copy of a letter to the editor of the Ricardian Bulletin, published by the Richard III Society.

Langley was invited by Leicester City Council, she says, to write the Looking For Richard Project’s story for the new visitor centre. She was later “dismayed” to see her text had been changed by Leicester University, who removed her reference to “£800 remaining from the Ricardian International Appeal”, which she believes paid for the excavation of Skeleton 1. In its stead, she says, the text reads, “Richard [Buckley] says he isn’t digging up any burials until he knows for certain about their ‘context’, that is how they relate to the layout of the church.” She sees this as the University “suppress[ing] the role of Ricardians and their funding”. “It was your funding”, she tells them, “that allowed me to give instructions for the remains in Trench One, which proved to be those of the king, to be exhumed despite the scepticism of the archaeologists.” She also complains that John Ashdown-Hill’s genealogical research has been subsumed within a university presentation. Elsewhere she has written, “we are fighting behind the scenes and lawyers letters have been sent”.


If you have read both her book (co-authored with Michael Jones) and mine, you will already have noticed that Langley and the archaeologists have different views of how Skeleton 1 was excavated (as in other matters). Having spoken to many people on the dig, and also from my understanding of how any archaeologist would have acted in the circumstances – and ULAS’s are particularly experienced in just this type of work – I have no doubt the archaeologists’ version is nearer the truth. I have no reason to think that Langley does not believe her version to be correct, but that does not make it so. The display text seems a sensible compromise.

So why the fuss? Why, in Annette Carson’s words, is the Looking For Richard Project “saddened and profoundly disappointed by the exhibition”?

This is getting tedious, and I’m not going to go through it all blow by blow. You can read about it on Carson’s blog. She has edited a little book (Finding Richard III: The Official Account) written by Ashdown-Hill, Langley and David and Wendy Johnson. Absurdly – given that it includes almost no description of the excavation or science, and no references to any archaeological publications about these in the bibliography or footnotes– it is described as “the full story of how Richard III was found”.

That last point is germane. You cannot expect sensible, busy people to take you seriously if you appear deliberately to confuse the record. Some might feel that that is what Finding Richard III: The Official Account does, in a petty way that diminishes everyone, not least the important role of the Richard III Society and its members in the whole project. Let me offer just a couple of examples.

Part of the book is given over to an explanation of how Ashdown-Hill established a genealogical link between Richard III and a living person, enabling potential DNA verification should the king’s remains be found. The emphasis, as often elsewhere, is on exactly when Ashdown-Hill did what, as he is keen to establish primacy in his research – a sign of amateurism that bedevils this debate. It really doesn’t matter. Good research will speak for itself. Evidence suggests that comprehensive documentation of the genealogical link (as well as the important discovery of more than one) was done by the university, in particular Kevin Schürer, and by not recognising that (as the exhibition correctly does), Ashdown-Hill damages his own work.

However, my point is that notwithstanding the space devoted to this issue about genealogy and DNA, elsewhere the book seems to show that for them it had little impact on the discovery of Richard’s remains. As Philippa Langley has often said (and as she told me, as I describe in my book), Ashdown-Hill’s research was critical in giving her the confidence to pursue her quest for the grave. But when it came to it, the Looking For Richard Project put little weight on DNA. They didn’t like the “intrusive” scientific studies. They don’t mention the overwhelming cost of pursuing DNA verification in their excavation budget (page 52, which thus allows them to claim the Richard III Society funded just over half of it, the omitted DNA research being paid for by the university). They had decided before DNA analysis began that Skeleton 1 was Richard III’s. So in their eyes, the DNA doesn’t matter. So why bother with it?

My second point relates to an already public dispute – it came up in court in the judicial review – about a contract between Leicester University and Philippa Langley that supposedly gave her protective rights over the king’s remains, pending reburial. It seemed an odd thing, but neither side had published the “contract”. Finding Richard III: The Official Account, has.

The key passage is in the Written Scheme of Investigation (published here in full for the first time), para 5.7. When the research is complete, it says, any remains identified as those of Richard III are to be “transferred to the custody of the Client [Philippa Langley] … for reburial. At this time, the remains will be placed in a hand-made coffin… [and] transferred to the nearby Abbey of Mount St Bernard… where they will lay in a place of continual prayer and worship before private reburial in Leicester Cathedral.”

This is indeed an odd arrangement, surely one that ULAS would now wish it had not agreed to. On what basis would we expect the newly found remains of an English monarch to be given into the private custody of an individual with no special qualifications for the purpose, and no guarantees for the safety of the remains, or indeed anything that might happen to them? It seems likely that Langley insisted on the clause, and that ULAS acceded, as we know highly sceptical that the royal remains would be found, or the project would not have gone ahead.

In the event, the exhumation licence, obtained after the WSI was drawn up and issued by the Secretary of Sate for Justice – on both accounts making redundant WSI para 5.7 – explicitly places the responsibility of looking after human remains onto ULAS, who were obliged to keep them “safely, privately and decently… under the control of a competent member of staff.” ULAS was in no position to break that condition.

Even without the exhumation licence, it seems highly unlikely that para 5.7 would have been followed. It was one thing to make such an arrangement before the remains had been found. Events entered another world when they were. Suddenly the dig, and the finds, were of international interest, and the concern of many more than the Richard III Society and ULAS. Para 5.7 would have been forgotten about. Flexibility and common sense would have prevailed.

As indeed they have done with reference to other conditions in the WSI. In both this (paras 4.3.5–7) and a private Reburial Document drawn up by Langley and colleagues (page 63 in the book), are strong restrictions on photography and filming. They are complex, but give close control to Langley over how Richard III’s remains, if found, should be recorded, and who should see the images. Again, you wouldn’t have expected either archaeologists, or a TV company (which Langley had herself brought in), to have agreed to such clauses. One can only imagine that they thought that if the unlikely event of finding Richard III actually occurred, everything would change.

It could hardly have come as a surprise that, when Richard III was found, Darlow Smithson wanted to amend this part of the WSI. So Philippa allowed them to film, on “the strict understanding that [it] would be for the historical record and not for wider dissemination” (page 55). Though not mentioned in the book, there must have been another amendment. Which is fine and sensible. As is amendment of any other unreasonable clause in the WSI.


Leicester celebrates its king

cathedral entrance

So Skeleton 1 will be buried back in Leicester next spring. It will be some two and half years since it was dug up, and two since it was identified as the remains of an English king.

The exhumation licence proposed in effect that reburial would occur by October 3 2012 (“within 4 weeks”). Extensions on dates quoted in these licences are not uncommonly obtained, but I doubt anyone thought the reburial would be postponed so long. Neither do I imagine that many informed people expected that the burial would occur anywhere other than in Leicester, though (depending on your point of view) you might have feared or hoped otherwise.

The judicial review has been an expensive process that seems to have achieved little beyond causing a lot of anguish. We learnt today that the legal costs for the defendants were around £245,000 – £85,900 for Leicester City Council, £82,000 for the Ministry of Justice, £70,158 for Leicester University and around £7,000 for Leicester Cathedral. It cost the claimants, the Plantagenet Alliance who lost the case, nothing. But we can take more from it. For one thing, the delay is no bad thing.

The original plan was for the reburial ceremony to have taken place this spring. That looks wildly optimistic when you see the state today of the place where the remains were excavated and where they are to be buried (see photos below). For different reasons, the cathedral (a £2.5m landscaping project that was planned before any of this archaeology malarkey began) and the car park (frenzied visitor centre construction) are useless for any public gathering, let alone a major burial ceremony watched around the world. The bronze statue of the king that used to stand down near the river by Bow Bridge, and will in time be resited at the cathedral, is in Lincolnshire for restoration (Richard is to get a new sword). And most of the peer-reviewed research into the remains has yet to be published. We might have been burying Richard III to a eulogy replete with pendings and forthcomings.

a new home



cathderal 2

Grey Friars

Grey Friars

visitor centre entrance to be

visitor centre entrance to be

the car park and the site of Richard III's grave

the car park and the site of Richard III’s grave

So reburial in a year’s time allows for the dust to settle on the developments around Peacock Lane, for the grass to grow and for the people of Leicester to accommodate the changes. It will allow the scientific and archaeological community, and all of us, to digest the detailed research into the king’s remains. And, hopefully, we will be able to distance the ceremony from the often unhelpful and at times deeply ill informed debate that has been happening since February last year.

The other dividend is the judges’ analysis. One wouldn’t necessarily wish it this way, but now that we have it, the judgment on The Queen (on the application of Plantagenet Alliance LTD) -v- Secretary of State for Justice and Others, is a fascinating document. If you enjoy these things as much as I do, you won’t need me to summarise the 19,000-word report (and if you don’t, you wouldn’t want me to). But there are a few points worth drawing out.

The Plantagenet Alliance’s case was that where Richard III’s remains were to be reburied should have been subject to consultation (at least that is how it was turned to practical argument – its true case, of course, was that Richard III should not be buried in the ungrateful Leicester, but far away in his loving York). You can see from what I wrote at the time about the hearing on March 13–14, that I (and I believe many others) felt that any case it thought it might have had was roundly demolished. And so it turned out: on May 23, the application for judicial review was dismissed.

There were essentially two reasons for this (notwithstanding the expected bluster from both sides). Firstly, other things being equal, there was no legal requirement for the Secretary of State for Justice to consult about the matter. Secondly, he knew enough about what everyone thought, so consultation would not have achieved anything useful.

One of the interesting things along the way is the judgment’s lucid excursion on what it describes as the English Common Law principle of “fairness” (para 83ff). The Burials Act 1857 (which concerns archaeological exhumation, something the act’s creators had clearly not designed it to cover, as archaeology barely existed then) is what’s known as a “sparse” act – indeed, it is a “paradigm example of a sparse Victorian statute” (para 88). This means the act itself is pretty restrained on what it says, but, to see that the act’s implementation was always fair, the gaps were expected to be filled in by courts interpreting Common Law.

The judgment quotes a passage written by Lord Mustill (para 89). Arguably this seems at least partly to offer a case against the need for a UK constitution. We do, it seems to say, in effect have a constitution (“there is a presumption that [an Act of Parliament] will be exercised in a manner which is fair in all the circumstances”, etc), but one that can be interpreted according to the mores of the time (“the standards of fairness are not immutable”, etc). In this manner (for example), we do not end up with something that was deemed appropriate in 1791 (the right of individuals to keep and bear arms) carried forward unchanged into times when it might seem less appropriate. But who knows. As I’ve said before, I’m no lawyer.

In any event, that leads into, first, the observation that the Burials Act 1857 allows for a consultation were that deemed necessary for a fair decision (para 92), but that none of the circumstances under which Common Law would recognise a duty to consult actually applies (para 98).

That, then, leaves a requirement to consult, if there be any, a matter of the Secretary of State for Justice needing to be fully informed (para 99ff and para 136ff). So what, ask the judges, did the Secretary of State know? A great deal, it seems, including ten points which link Richard III’s place of burial to Leicester (“The Cathedral was close to the battlefield where the men who fought for and with Richard III were killed, and were probably buried”, etc). The 11th says the Secretary would have been more than aware that “there was a great deal of strong public feeling” about the reburial (para 143).

In other words, the Secretary knew all he needed to, including the facts that Henry VII and our present Queen were both happy for Richard III to be buried in Leicester. “It is difficult to see what more the Secretary of State needed” (para 145). Proving the point, nothing new came out in Mr Clarke’s presentation of the case for the Plantagenet Alliance (para 146).

It didn’t help that, as I described in my review of the hearing, the Court was not impressed with Mr Clarke’s inability to explain exactly what he meant by a public consultation. “His fundamental problem”, says the Judgment, “was that he was not able to formulate any limit to the generality of the duty to consult” (para 156). The fact is, it continues, regarding the reburial site, there are “only two possible contenders (Leicester and York), and the rival arguments are clear and known to the decision-maker” (para 158).

Leicester Mercury's Peter Warzynski before the result

Leicester Mercury’s Peter Warzynski before the result

That I think is the key stuff. But there are several little gems it would be a shame to miss. Here are some.

1. We learn that the Ministry of Justice (which does not routinely publish such figures) receives annually about 1,200 applications to exhume named individuals buried generally less than 100 years ago; and about 200 to exhume “ancient”, unnamed persons “for archaeological purposes” (para 106). Note that these applications might be for more than one person; as we know, Leicester University’s was in this case for six, but they can be for many more than that.

2. The Ministry of Justice could recall only one other instance of a request about “named ancient remains” (para 108). He or she remains unnamed: does anyone know who that was?

3. The Plantagenet Alliance “put some weight” on a document published by English Heritage and the Church of England in 2005, called Guidance for Best Practice for Treatment of Human Remains Excavated from Christian Burial Grounds in England (see my earlier blog). Another document relied upon by the Alliance was Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums, published by the government in 2005 (see this other blog).

The former, says the Judgment, “is neither MoJ guidance, nor guidance adopted by it, nor guidance adopted by ULAS or the [Leicester City] Council” (para 112). The latter, “By its title, …has no direct relevance to the issues here” (para 115), nor was it “guidance which any body promised that it would follow or represented itself as following” (para 117). That’s telling them.

4. There is an interesting, and it seems reasonable clarification on exactly what constitutes an exhumation licence. This was discussed on the hearing’s second day, as I reported (starting a little before the image of the application form). Mr Justice Ouseley rightly said that, read on its own, the licence issued to ULAS by the MoJ allows reburial of Richard III’s remains anywhere. Counsel for the university said no, you need to take into account the application form as well, which says reburial will occur in Leicester Cathedral: so the licence only allows reburial there.

The Judgment agrees with Ms Proops. “The licence must be construed in the light of the circumstances known at the time of grant.” They were planning to dig up six groups of human remains. If they found Richard III’s, the intention was for them to be buried in the cathedral, and if they found any others, they were not expected to be buried in the cathedral. So “the licence means that Leicester Cathedral is the only place in which ULAS can inter the remains of Richard III” (para 122). “There is no reason why the application form, and the letter from the MoJ which accompanied the licence, should not be read together… The letter and form confirm that the meaning of the licence… is the one which both applicant and grantor understood and agreed” (para 123).

This has use beyond the present case.

5. Were the Secretary of State for Justice to think the terms of a licence wrong, he could put them right. Had ULAS proposed to bury Richard III in a common burial ground, for example, he could have amended the licence (124).

This immediately disposes of one of the Alliance’s points, regardless of any other views on the matter, that there should have been a consultation when the licence was issued. At that stage, “the possibility the remains might be those of Richard III was remote”, and if in the event they were proved in fact to be so (remember at that point, none had been excavated), the Secretary could if he had so wished have amended the licence (para 128).

6. This leads into an interesting consideration of whether or not the licence might have been “quashed”. This was mentioned early in the hearing, when (apparently contrary to a position taken by the Alliance’s lawyers, who had explicitly stated that the terms of the licence should be quashed), Mr Clarke seemed to prefer to “revisit” rather than “quash”

Yet Mr Clarke’s argument, says the Judgment, if followed through, had the consequence that either the licence, or the reburial condition, would have had to be quashed. If the licence was quashed, the (unlicensed) exhumation would have been a criminal offence. Meanwhile, no new licence to exhume could be issued, as the remains have already been dug up (para 130). QED.

So the only option left would be for the Court to impose a different condition on the permission, after it had been acted on. That would be too much. “If the Court had the necessary power, the arguments against its exercise as a matter of discretion would be very powerful” (para 132).

7. Neither the university nor the council should have been in court at all. The former was not exercising a public function (para 162), and the latter “had no legal duty to consult nor power to intervene” (para 164). The claim against both “was bound to fail”. One might wonder why that was not apparent to all earlier in the proceedings.


8. Among information we see for the first time are quotations that explain the curious business of Leicester City Council, when late in 2013 it said it saw itself as “the official owner of the [king’s] remains”. This was a nonsense – in England and Wales the law does not treat human remains as property. How could the council be so ignorant of such a basic matter? And why did it want to claim ownership, anyway? What could it possibly have to gain, beyond costs and responsibilities which the council could not afford?

The immediate effect was to close down the hearing being held on November 26; it was moved to March this year and extended to two days. And this time, the council were added to the list of defendants (which alone, as we saw, cost it £85,900).

Now we know what was going on. If I was a city ratepayer, I would not be impressed. Neither were the judges. On one particular point, “The Council’s intervention… was unnecessary, unhelpful and misconceived” (para 164). It’s all to do, we are told, with Sarah Levitt, Head of Arts & Museums at Leicester City Council.

Ms Levitt has featured rarely in the huge media coverage about the excavation of Richard III’s remains. Earlier this year we learnt that she is on the board of trustees for the visitor centre under construction at the former Alderman Newton school. The building was bought by the council for £891,000 and it is spending £4,190,000 on the development. However, said Ms Levitt, the centre is not expected to make a profit.

In our respective books, Philippa Langley and I both make it clear that Ms Levitt, as a council representative, was important to Philippa in the months of planning and permission-seeking before the dig took place. We learn from the Judgment, for example, that it was Ms Levitt who introduced Ms Langley to the Dean of Leicester Cathedral (para 36). In her book’s acknowledgments, Ms Langley calls Ms Levitt a “colleague and friend”. Perhaps, without her help, the dig would never have happened.

Perhaps that is how Ms Levitt sees it.

“From late April 2011,” says the Judgment, “the Council started developing its view of its own role in the project. It saw itself as very much party to it. Ms Levitt wanted to work on the specification for consultation on deciding what to do with any remains which might be found, and who would be responsible for reburial. Consultation would take time. She saw consultation as important to the Council, and in her application of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (“DCMS”) “Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums”. She expressed the point to Ms Langley in August 2011 that adherence to set guidelines included an “obligation to consult and respect the wishes of living decedent [sic], the Royal family, or any other descendant”. The Council claimed to be responsible for all human remains found, and to have decision-making responsibility. This was not, however, made public.” Neither did the archaeologists express any views on it: “The Written Scheme of Investigation [prepared by ULAS, MP] was silent on this aspect.” (Para 38, entire.)

Skeleton 1, that would in time be identified as that of Richard III, was excavated in September 2012. Now Ms Levitt saw her “decision-making responsibility” come into play.

“The likelihood of the remains being those of Richard III prompted Ms Levitt of the Council to take up the question of consultation again. She said that it was agreed that she would be the lead officer on the reburial process, both as to whether the remains should be buried in Leicester, and if so, where and how. The remains should be treated as if they belonged to the Council. It should implement its policy on “consulting key stakeholders”. These were the Council, the Society, the Cathedral, the Royal Household, possibly the Council of Faiths, the Secular Society, the University “and other funders”. This would cover the principle of reburial, the manner of reburial and the location. She said, “[p]rovided no major objections, we would request the cathedral to inter there…”. The final decision would be with the Council, which would be mindful of public opinion. The first task was to develop a decision-making process, which she was to lead. She saw it as requiring of the Council the impartiality of an electoral returning officer. She referred to the strong local support for burial in Leicester Cathedral, but others supported York Minster, and Westminster Abbey. She stated that other candidates could emerge.” (Para 51, entire.)

Ms Levitt informed the mayor that the Queen should be involved.

“Ms Levitt confidentially briefed the City Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, on 20th September 2012 about this process. She envisaged a decision-making process group, including the Council, the Dean and the Lord Lieutenant as representing HM The Queen, with various expert bodies in support. Part of its work was to identify a decision-making body, which was not to be the Council because of its interest. She said that the Council nevertheless had a duty to consult on significant matters and so there would be consultation as part of the process.” (Para 53, entire.)

Richard Buckley urged caution. “[C]oncerned that the field should not be opened to all claimants, [he] emphasised that the starting point had to be that reburial would take place in Leicester, unless some there were good reasons to the contrary [sic, MP]. He made the point that ULAS was the licensee of the remains with a duty to rebury them, and the MoJ would have to be involved were the remains to be buried elsewhere” (para 54).

But Ms Levitt was not to be stopped.

“Ms Levitt had developed her thinking further by 3rd October 2012, when she presented another confidential briefing to the City Mayor of a proposed announcement of the Council’s intentions in mid-to-late November. The joint announcement by the Council, ULAS and the Diocese was to be that re-interment would be in Leicester Cathedral, with a reasoned justification. That was to be followed by a process for considering claims from other locations, representations from those who felt they had a legitimate interest and the views of the Palace and Cathedral. There would be consultation via the Council’s website; an advisory panel would then consider requests for re-interment.

“Ms Levitt envisaged that requests for re-interment elsewhere than Leicester Cathedral would be decided upon by adapting the DCMS “Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums”. This was thought to offer a reasonable approach, albeit that the remains were not in a museum. The decision would be made by the Council and the University. There would be an appeal process for disappointed claimants.

“The Council’s plans continued to develop, and become more specific as to what was to be done, both before and after the announcement about claims for alternative reburial locations. The decision-maker was then to be the Council in consultation with the University, and ultimately the City Mayor. However, the attempt to agree a memorandum of understanding with the University ran into opposition from ULAS, which contended that the Council had no responsibility for reburying or deciding on reburial for the remains. It argued that had been dealt with by the licence and/or was for the MoJ. Mr Buckley did not agree with the Council’s proposals for handling competing claims for re-interment. In the end, nothing came of the Council’s proposals for consultation, which were not made public. Reference was made in a draft City Council press release to a more general public consultation as follows: “If and when the identity of the remains are confirmed [sic], there will be an opportunity for the public to comment on the plan [for re-interment in Leicester Cathedral]”. This sentence was, however, removed from the final draft after Mr Buckley voiced objection to it.” (Paras 55–57, entire.)

All this led to the council claiming, at the first substantive hearing on November 26 2013, that it was the “legal sentinel” of the remains, and “the sole body entitled to take the decision as to where the remains were to be reinterred”. The council’s counsel, Mr Norman Palmer QC (Hon.), “indicated, to considerable surprise, that the Council would make its decision after carrying out a public consultation” (para 78).

And so the hearing was adjourned until this March. The council subsequently said it realised it had been “misconceived”, but sadly for the ratepayers of Leicester (£85,900), the Plantagenet Alliance, “undeterred by that volte face, nevertheless continued with the claim against the Council, even to the extent that the Council became its second target, ahead of the University” (para 79).

It seems unnecessary to add much. Encouraged by Ms Levitt, Leicester City Council came to the view that it should take responsibility for the remains of Richard III, above all other parties. Richard Buckley, at least, pointed out that there were matters such as the exhumation licence that would interfere with what even the council came to accept were “misconceived” views. But perhaps the most damaging claims were that consultation was required and would take place. This would, it seems, have been a form of consultation that meant one thing to the council, who apparently believed the remains should stay in Leicester, and to the public, who would, one imagines, have seen a consultation as something that would not just listen to their views, but take them into account and act on them. Could it even be, had not Ms Levitt cooked up the prospect of consultation about the reburial, there might not have been a judicial review at all?

When Mr Justice Haddon-Cave ordered permission for the review proceedings in August 2013, he listed as the first challenge from the Plantagenet Alliance, “The Decision of the Secretary of State for Justice… to grant the Licence “without consulting, or attaching requiring the licensee to consult…”” (para 9).

His first “arguable proposition” was that “There was a legitimate expectation that the Secretary of State for Justice would… consult widely…” (para 22). In evidence, he offered several points, starting with the English Heritage and Church of England Guidance noted above. Then, at point 5, comes this:

“…there is evidence that a plan to consult interested parties was mooted at an early stage by the University of Leicester, but then appears to have been quietly dropped. In an e-mail dated 25th September 2012, the Head of University of Leicester Archaeological Services (Mr Richard Buckley) wrote inter alios to the Head of Leicester Arts and Museums Services (Ms Sarah Levitt) [and, MP] another member of the University (Mr Richard Taylor) stating: “I accept that there are conflicting views of where the reburial should be and that these need to be taken into account.” Mr Taylor replied: “We should work together to make sure that we retain as much control as possible. I think that the question is ‘Leicester is the plan, are there reasons why not?’ rather than ‘Where should he be reinterred?’. The Claimant [the Plantagenet Alliance, MP] has not (yet) been provided with a copy of Ms Levitt’s reply. Further, an undated press release prepared by the University of Leicester (which has come into the possession of the Claimant) states under the heading “What about alternative locations to Leicester?” as follows: “If and when the identity of the remains are confirmed, there will be an opportunity for the public to comment on the plan.” This sentence does not appear in the press release as published on 14th January 2013. It is not clear why.” (Para 29, entire.)

With hindsight, we might see Mr Buckley and Mr Taylor’s unexplained remarks as being some form of response to a discussion involving Ms Levitt. We might also wonder if whatever had become available of such correspondence to the Plantagenet Alliance, encouraged a belief that consultation was a proper expectation. It seems unlikely that the Plantagenet Alliance have any grounds for appeal. But the story is not yet over.

Ather Mirza, Leicester University Press Office, after the result

Ather Mirza, Leicester University Press Office, after the result







Easter Island – alive and well in Soho?

Soho strip

The April 1986 edition of World of Interiors has a feature headlined “Soho strip”. It’s written by Doris Saatchi, as Doris Lockhart then was, a New York-born writer and art connoisseur married to advertiser Charles Saatchi. There is a great portrait of her by Robert Mapplethorpe, though somewhat undermined for me by Red Dwarf – when I look at it I can’t help but think of Holly condescending to the inane spaceship crew…

Doris Saatchi 1983 by Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989

Doris Saatchi by Robert Mapplethorpe (1983, Tate)/“All right dudes?” (Hattie Hayridge as Holly, 1989–91)

The article describes a London flat rented by David (“Dave”) Cluff, a “perfectly ordinary young man” and graphic designer working nearby. Cluff had recently moved in, taken out the clutter and restored the “decrepit” Georgian residence, burning off paint to reveal wood but apparently retaining the original structure. Then he commissioned two men to paint the walls: “an art school drop-out and failed pop musician” Christos Tolera, and “a former fashion designer… [and] one of the original New Romantics”, Simon Withers. Cluff wanted “a mural with images related to Easter Island”. Which he got with spades – in fact, two murals.

World Interiors 1986

What’s all this about?

By 1986 London clubber Christos Tolera had already sung in a band which signed up to Virgin, worked as a model and done some specialist decorating. The band, which didn’t last long, was named after Dave Brubeck’s astonishing composition, Blue Rondo à la Turk. Chris Sullivan has posted a nice bright remix of their most successful track, Me and Mr. Sanchez, which made it big in Brazil. Later Tolera finished a degree at the City & Guilds of London Art School, graduating in 2003. He has done some striking portraits, some of his recent work looking distinctly Hieronymus Bosch-like.

Simon Withers, like Chris Sullivan, was a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road. Another active clubber, he’d helped design the emergent Spandau Ballet, and his name pops up in reminisces of Blitz, New Romantics and the early 80s London style scene. Christina @ Fashion’s Most Wanted posted a good interview with Tolera in 2010. “I kept getting asked to decorate people’s places”, he says, “and then Simon Withers and I created a business together. Simon used to work for Malcolm [McLaren] after he split up with Vivienne [Westwood]. We called it Rot Inc. But we ended up being called The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

When Christina asked Tolera about his interiors, he said they did quite a few clubs, the Galliano shop and, their last job before quitting, make-up artist Mary Greenwell’s residence (“I was living on the floor in someone’s attic”, says Tolera, “and we’d spent over £100,000 on Mary’s house. I just thought, I can’t do this anymore”). Along the way, they did “this amazing house in Soho that still exists, it’s been preserved. Doris Saatchi did a piece in World of Interiors about it.”

So there it is. If the murals are still there now, I’d love to hear from whoever lives in the flat. Meanwhile, what do we make of them?

In the magazine’s photos we can see trompe l’oeil peeling plaster, in the style of the murals, around three shelf-boxes that Duff has punched through a wall above a doorway; a bathroom wall painted and textured to look like antique plaster; and two Easter Island scenes. The larger scene, showing four statues, completely fills a living room wall. The smaller, apparently across the room on the opposite wall, covers a mantelpiece and frames the fireplace below (in the photo-spread at the top, you can also see a chair made “from a skeleton found in a Welsh bog”, and a human skull in the grate).

Photo from Christina @ Fashion's Most Wanted

Photo from Christina @ Fashion’s Most Wanted

The only other photo I could find of these works, presumably supplied by Tolera, is in Christina’s blog (above). It shows a wider view of the fireplace, with one of the wall-openings in the corner (top left) and a ceiling painted to look a little like sunlight shining through branches. I’m guessing that perhaps the two men are Tolera and Withers, left and right.

Doris Saatchi tells us that when Cluff was nine years old, he was invited by a friend of his parents to help himself to a pile of books before they went off to the dump. He found a title about Easter Island. “As a child in Hertfordshire”, he said, “Easter Island seemed so far from my lifestyle that it stayed in my mind.”

I can identify with that. I was at school when I read Thor Heyerdahl’s Aku-Aku, his page-turning story about exploring the south Pacific and Easter Island, which brazenly mixes adventure, archaeology, history and fantasy, with a bit of racial prejudice (as we called it then) and a lot of ego. It was one of the things that made me think it would be cool to be an archaeologist, and it left me determined that I too would one day visit the island – and maybe find my own stories.

Aku-Aku in Penguin, 1968 (centre) and 1972 (right)

Aku-Aku in Penguin, 1968 (centre) and 1972 (right)

Until quite recently there were few other books in English about Easter Island – the other popular one was also a translation, Alfred Métraux’s Easter Island: A Stone-age Civilization of the Pacific, published by Andre Deutsch in 1957. So I guessed that Cluff’s childhood find was also Aku-Aku. Perhaps it was. It was certainly the inspiration for the main mural.

Photo Thor Heyerdahl

Photo Thor Heyerdahl

Photo Thor Heyerdahl

Photo Thor Heyerdahl

Photo Thor Heyerdahl

Photo Thor Heyerdahl

The statues on the wall are based on photos in Heyerdahl’s book. Two of them show statues he had excavated out from the silts and slopewash around the edge of the quarry (he falsely claimed to be the first archaeologist to excavate on the island – that was Katherine Routledge, who also dug out some of the quarry statues). Note the abrupt colour changes in the stone, reflected in the paintings, which mark the soil level before excavation. The other two, I think, are based on further statues at the quarry, seen at centre and right in a double spread rising from sun-parched grass (I’ve flipped the image of the left statue, below).

four statues

Of the painting over the fireplace – which is what I assume Saatchi is describing when she refers to “the mural’s short fat figure” – she says Tolera and Withers “bumped into [it] … while doing research in the Museum of Mankind”. This would make sense. Heyerdahl was not excited by the island’s petroglyphs, which in their own way are as extraordinary as the statues, and his book has no photos resembling this mural. Katherine Routledge, however, photographed some “birdmen”, which appeared in her 1919 book and articles.

Routledge birdmen


This photo is not an exact match for the mural, but it comes pretty close. Significantly, the pointed tips of the beaks of the photographed figures are concealed by a boulder. In the mural, the beaks are drawn with rounded ends, giving the figures an alien-like look. No beaks on Easter Island look like that, but the artists could well have imagined they did. Initially Cluff didn’t like them, he thought they were “too phallic”. But he was persuaded to keep them.

In one distinctive room, these paintings embody a brief era of early 1980s fashion-led art and music, with a whiff of south Pacific adventure, 1950s style. David Cluff should be proud of what he brought into being.

* * *

Antiquaries Journal

Both statues and birdmen feature prominently in our study of Hoa Hakananai’a’, which I have written about here before, and is now completed. We have a handful of peer-reviewed papers about the research on the way. The first, about the statue and its carvings, has just been published in the Antiquaries Journal in “first view”. This paper is copyright Cambridge University Press/Society of Antiquaries of London.

Hoa Hakananaia'a is steadily buried, while standing at the south-east tip of the island

Hoa Hakananaia’a is steadily buried, while standing at the south-east tip of the island