thinking about archaeology

Posts tagged “Stonehenge

What did the world heritage site mean to people who built Stonehenge? Nothing

A303 byway copy.jpgYesterday I walked in the landscape around Stonehenge.

In a recent short video headed The Stonehenge Tunnel Begins, Tom Holland stands on Bush Barrow, near Stonehenge and one of the country’s iconic prehistoric monuments, and addresses the camera.

He describes “vans and lorries employed by the Highways Agency who are testing out the ground for what is planned to be a four-lane road tunnel.”

We see barrows – bronze age burial mounds – on Normanton Down, and Stonehenge in the distance. The only noise is wind in the grass.

“All this landscape will be seriously compromised,” says Holland. “The sense of incipient desecration is completely devastating.”

I too care about this landscape. I can be as emotive about it as the best. But I also care about “truth”. Tom Holland’s video, doubtless expressing passionately held and well-meant views, is manipulative and misleading.

Between where he stands and Stonehenge is a very busy road. The film is shot in such a way that we cannot see or hear it – we are vaguely aware of some soft focus vehicles in the distance apparently driving over downland. The proposed road tunnel – it remains a proposal under discussion, work on it has not begun – would not be visible from Stonehenge, or from Bush barrow. The video presents an unbalanced view on an important issue that deserves better.

Not wishing to add more than necessary to what is already out there on this subject, I want to show some pictures, all taken within the past 12 months – mostly yesterday. This is the reality of the Stonehenge world heritage site.

  1. The Stonehenge road proposals

stonehenge map.jpgThe Highways Agency recently concluded a public consultation about proposed alterations to the A303 road that passes Stonehenge. HA favours a tunnel past Stonehenge slightly south of the current road (above, Option 1), with open dual carriageway continuing to the west (one of the two green routes; there already is dual carriageway to the east). In the map above, the pink route is the existing A303; white spots mark that section which would be removed if either of the first options were to be adopted. Option 2 (F010) is a new road outside the world heritage site to the south and east.

Nothing has yet been announced or apparently decided, but public responses indicated four main positions:

1 Do nothing. (As I did yesterday sitting in a traffic queue).

2 Build a longer tunnel that starts and ends outside the world heritage site (supported by the Stonehenge Alliance). Option 1 in a big tunnel.

3 Move the A303 outside the world heritage site altogether, with a detour to the south (supported by a group who referred to themselves as “senior archaeologists who have carried out internationally recognised research within the Stonehenge WHS within the last ten years or more”). Option 2.

4 Support the HA proposal, but with serious reservations about the western portal that could be accommodated by changes that would almost certainly include extending the tunnel to the west (supported by the National Trust and Historic England). Option 1 with unknown revisions.

I last blogged about this subject in more detail here, and more recently summarised the state of play in the Society of Antiquaries online newsletter, Salon. My purpose here is simply to show what the roads, and the proposed southern route, look like now.

  1. The A303 inside the world heritage site

You might miss it from a lot of the presentations, but the A303 is a busy, dangerous, noisy road passing close to Stonehenge and through the centre of the world heritage site. It is there now.

These photos follow the route from east to west, starting at Amesbury.

Amesbury roundabout.jpg

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Avenue A303.jpg

This is where the Avenue crosses the A303

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A303 Shenge bottom copy.jpg


Normanton Down.jpg

These are barrows on Normanton Down (you can make out Bush Barrow, where Tom Holland was standing in his video, as the mound on the left with a small tree on it), with the A303 on the right

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Longbarrow crossroads.jpg

stationery at the Longbarrow roundabout

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The A303  approaches the roundabout, seen from the south; WHS to right of line (the border follows the north-south road)

2a. A detour through Larkhill

Larkhill routeLocals and regular A303 drivers in the know sometimes avoid the jams around Stonehenge by taking a small road to the north that passes through Larkhill, a growing military community with young families, shops, schools and a church. Yesterday that road was itself jammed.

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  1. The southern route

Upper Woodford 2.jpg“[The Highways Agency’s] option for the surface road beyond the southern edge of the World Heritage Site (option F010) is the only one which does not have a severe impact on the WHS. Therefore it must be taken. The others have dreadful consequences for the world’s most famous archaeological site and its landscape setting.” So say (their emphases) these archaeologists:

Mike Parker Pearson, Umberto Albarella, Mike Allen, Barry Bishop, Nick Branch, Christopher Chippindale, Oliver Craig, David Field, Charly French, Vince Gaffney, Paul Garwood, David Jacques, Nicholas James, Joshua Pollard, Colin Richards, David Robinson, Peter Rowley-Conwy, Clive Ruggles, Julian Thomas, Christopher Tilley, Kate Welham.

There are many distinguished researchers and writers here (and longstanding friends and colleagues). Which goes to show that being an expert about the past does not necessarily make you an expert about the present. The southern route would be completely mad.

In these photos, I follow it from the west. Out there yesterday I experienced some of the most peaceful and beautiful landscapes that Britain has to offer. As an archaeologist I also knew that I was walking close to the some of the best preserved (and least explored) prehistoric earthworks in the world heritage site, around Lake and Wilsford. Where the new dual-carriageway A303 would go, just south of the world heritage site border, has been little researched by archaeologists, if at all. We don’t know what might be there.

We start at Druid’s Lodge. The southern route would go more or less through the middle of all these photos.

Druids Lodge 1.jpg

Druids Lodge 2.jpg

Druids Lodge 3.jpg

Boreland Hill 1.jpg

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Boreland Hill 3.jpg

Boreland Hill 4.jpg

All of these views from Boreland Hill are looking north; here, with a long lens, you can see the A303 descending into Stonehenge Bottom

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This and below is Middle Woodford, not on the immediate new road but nearby

Middle Woodford 2.jpg

Woodford Bridge 1.jpg

Woodford Bridge

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Note wide flat floodplain beside the river Avon, a common feature all along the river here and likely to contain remains of any number of mesolithic waterside camps like that at Blick Mead

Woodford Bridge 4.jpg

Upper Woodford 1.jpg

And we get to as precise as we can be to where a new concrete flyover would need to be built to take a southern A303 over the river

Upper Woodford 3.jpg

Upper Woodford 4.jpg

More interesting floodplain

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An unusually high and steep old chalk riverbank rising to right at Woodford Green

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Great Durnford church, beside the river

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Overlooking this lovely valley, a bronze age/iron age hillfort at Ogbury

That’s as far as I got. If you look at the map above, you can see Ogbury fort outlined in red at bottom centre. We’re about halfway along the proposed southern route. Perhaps someone else would like to walk the rest with a camera.

  1. Conclusion

Of course we all respect Stonehenge and its landscape, and want the best for it. Who on earth doesn’t? When you hear or see accusations that people don’t care, you know the speaker or writer is not thinking straight.

But the world heritage site border is a line on a modern map that has nothing to do with antiquity. It wasn’t there in the neolithic. It’s a reflection of what archaeologists knew about Stonehenge in the early 1980s – recent archaeological research, the historical accidents of survival, and modern history. The settlement of Amesbury is excluded because it’s a modern town, not because the place had no meaning in the neolithic. A large, significant early neolithic causewayed enclosure at Larkhill, is not included, although it may sit astride the border, because no one knew it was there until last year.

So to obsess about preserving the world heritage site on the one hand, and not to care a jot about the land outside on the other, is perverse and unthinking.

Take two extremes. We could tunnel and dual the A303 exactly on its present route (Julian Richards has more or less suggested this). Or we could build an entirely new, and much longer dual carriageway with a new bridge flying over the river Avon.

On the one hand, no cars would be driving where there are now none. No new landscape would be divided up and changed. A considerable amount of road would disappear.

On the other hand, several kilometres of entirely new road would be built across some of England’s most beautiful and peaceful rural landscape, close to quiet and idyllic riverside villages and over the river Avon, which we think (many of those archaeologists above say so) was a key part of the Stonehenge ritual world.

Why would you choose the latter, not least when you know that we have no idea what undisturbed archaeology lies on the route and would be destroyed?

And this doesn’t touch on the people who use the roads. The people who currently shortcut through Larkhill, and would be even more likely to do so, in larger numbers and through other villages as well, when faced with a long detour to the south.

Stonehenge has a long and honorable history of throwing up entertaining, eccentric and bonkers ideas. The A303 southern route belongs with aliens, ley lines and diluvial floods. And they don’t damage the countryside.

Cold stones

stonehenge gate.jpg

I was down at Larkhill this morning to visit a large excavation. The Ministry of Defence is building a new housing estate for soldiers and their families, and Wessex Archaeology has found all sorts of interesting things, among them the edge of a new causewayed enclosure, which you’ll be able to read about in the new British Archaeology, out next week.

_MP26303.jpgIt was cold, and there’d been a hard frost. Early at Stonehenge you could see scoring in the turf running parallel to the edges of the Avenue earthwork, most clearly between its banks, but also outside them. It’s a curious effect. The Stonehenge Riverside project excavated grooves that run like this in the soil, and interpreted them as natural periglacial structures left over from the ice age, that – because they are aligned on the solstice axis – were partly responsible for where Stonehenge is: neolithic people saw the grooves pointing at the rising midsummer sun and thought, this is where we want to build Stonehenge!

_MP26331.jpgMeanwhile, Tim Darvill and colleagues think the grooves are relatively modern wheel ruts. Their respective evidence is summarised in this diagram. Area 8 (enlarged at left) is a geophysics plot showing lines within the Avenue but not quite parallel to the ditches; these, say Darvill et al, are wheel ruts.

Avenue ruts.jpg

Adapted from diagrams by Darvill et al and Stonehenge Riverside Project

Trench 45 (enlarged right) is the Riverside team’s excavation in 2008. The periglacial stripes, they say, are deeper than many others recorded in the local chalk, and much deeper than the cart tracks which they agree with Darvill et al are what we can see in Area 8. They think there are natural ridges (blue) and a trench (green) on the exact alignment of the Avenue close to Stonehenge, and it all adds up to a “remarkable coincidence of a geological landform on a solstitial axis”.



Adam Stanford’s wonderful photo of Trench 45, from the Antiquity article

I’m not totally convinced by any of this. The alignment coincidence seems too remarkable to me, at least without more evidence to back it up (which would include a full understanding of exactly what these alleged geomorphological features are, how and when they formed, and why they are where they are). And if the grooves in Trench 45 are periglacial stripes, could it be that they are bigger than normal because the area within the Avenue was less ploughed up in recent centuries – which would account for the slight doming effect of the Avenue relative to the surrounding land? On the other hand, the interpretation of the geophysical lines as wheel ruts needs to be supported by excavation. Unsurfaced tracks across chalkland do not typically develop regular, parallel ruts to match the grooves we see in the geophysical surveys.

Down at Larkhill, they’d exposed a nice area of periglacial stripes. These are distinctively narrow, close together, long and thin (running downslope from top left to bottom right):

Larkhill stripes.jpg

As always, at Stonehenge as elsewhere, fieldwork throws up as many questions as it answers: but the new questions are better ones.


“Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK: High resolution geophysical surveys in the surrounding landscape, 2011”, by Timothy Darvill, Friedrich Lüth, Knut Rassmann, Andreas Fischer & Kay Winkelmann, in European Journal of Archaeology 16 (2013).

“Stonehenge’s Avenue and ‘Bluestonehenge’”, by Michael J Allen, Ben Chan, Ros Cleal, Charles French, Peter Marshall, Joshua Pollard, Rebecca Pullen, Colin Richards, Clive Ruggles, David Robinson1, Jim Rylatt, Julian Thomas, Kate Welham & Mike Parker Pearson, in Antiquity 90 (2016)

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)

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


In bygone and sensible times

Soul Bros

Guidebook, captain?

Martyn Barber, who works at Historic England and co-authored HE’s recent The Stonehenge Landscape, tells me he’s researching John Soul. Soul featured in my previous post as the man who linked free access at Stonehenge in the last century to a photo of a Victorian event there (at 3pm on a September 18, but in other respects not unlike a summer solstice gathering). Soul, it seems, had quite an active relationship with the site’s official guardians.

“Did you know”, writes Barber, “he used to cycle up to Stonehenge, buy a batch of guidebooks at sixpence each, and then re-sell them at his shop in Amesbury for a shilling. I suspect this was done partly to annoy the Office of Works etc, which he was very good at.”

Among correspondence in the Office of Works archives at Kew, Barber found this comment from George Engleheart, Wiltshire secretary to the Society of Antiquaries, in a letter to Charles Peers, Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments (Engleheart was himself a man not to shy away from stirring things up):

“…in bygone and sensible times we should have had [Soul] assassinated, but I can’t undertake the job in the face of miserable modern prejudice” (January 25 1921, TNA WORK 14/487).

Soul sounds like someone to have got on well with Arthur Pendragon. Has the latter ever thought of setting up shop in Amesbury?

Photo at top is from Jim Fuller

How the Magpie Musicians came to stand for free Stonehenge

Magpie Minstrels JFuller.jpgFour years ago (time, even immemorial, flies) I was working on an exhibition about Stonehenge for English Heritage, and I wrote a blog about a frequently reproduced photo of the stones. The image shows a crowd of people, bicycles and carts and horses, and had been commonly said to show a protest in 1901 against an admission charge. In fact the photo was taken in 1896 (along with at least one similar shot), on the occasion of a visit from a travelling musical troupe called the Magpie Musicians.

To my delight Jim Fuller recently got in touch with me through this blog, and supplied information and photos that tie up the story of these remarkable images. He sent me several photos, which he has kindly allowed me to publish here. One of the two prints I described, at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre (WSHC), is stamped “T.L. Fuller, Press and Commercial Photographer, Amesbury, Established 1911”. Jim is Thomas Lionel Fuller’s grandson. He has what remains of his grandfather’s collection of prints and negatives; all those reproduced here are his copyright.

As you can read on my earlier blog, the photo of Victorian festivities in the WHSC had been said, on the occasion of the opening of a pedestrian road underpass in 1968, to show “the villagers of Amesbury who massed at Stonehenge in protest against the charge” for entry introduced in 1901. Whoever wrote that could not have been TL Fuller, as he died in 1962. Neither did he take the photo, which was the work of James Russell & Sons from London. So how it came to be linked with an imaginary 1901 protest, and what Fuller’s connection was, remained unanswered. Until now.

At the top is an albumen print TL Fuller had in his collection of the more commonly reproduced image, showing a couple with two children standing by the Slaughter Stone (in the other, they are seated). The inscription shows the print was mounted by Russell & Sons. Someone has added a pencilled caption (partly inked over), and pencilled lines around the stones. The caption reads:

“THE RIGHT of FREE ACCESS enjoyed by THE BRITISH PUBLIC from TIME IMMEMORIAL” (above), and below:

ENCLOSED with barbed wire and a charge made for ADMISSION. 1901.

Fuller note.jpgJim Fuller has teased out what is going on. First let’s consider a pair of glass negatives, stored together with a handwritten note by his grandfather. Jim has transcribed the note (above), which is stamped with TL Fuller’s name and address and dated August 17 1938.


Copied from an old Photo given to me by Mr J. Soul (Shep[h]erd of Stonehenge) / this might be saleable to some of the weekly’s
Taken 68 Years ago /
Also see closing the gates Neg. taken June 1936. when the New Pay Turnstile was used first/


I understand a large number are being charged @ Salisbury Court last week concerning damage etc at Stonehenge some time ago –
the second party who visited Stonehenge during the night –
the Office of Works probably can do with plenty publicity concerning these places.

Fuller neg 1.jpgFuller neg 2.jpgAs Jim says, this seems to suggest that TL Fuller submitted a couple of images (as above) to a press agency (“this might be saleable to some of the weekly’s“) when arrests at the stones were in the news. The incident caused quite a stir at the time.

On the morning of June 16 1938 it was discovered that the Heelstone and four other stones, along with some nearby signposts, had been daubed with green paint. As well as this, as Time Magazine put it in its Foreign News section when the culprits were in court in August, “Atop great menhirs sat shining chamber pots.”

“Sixty Army officers” were asked “as officers and gentlemen to own to daubing part of Stonehenge”. Four came forward. It emerged that the “prank” began “after a rowdy guest night at nearby Larkhill Artillery School”.

The four men, all aged 20, having completed their course at Larkhill, were due to leave the following day. William Laurence Sherrard and William Howard Skinner, of the School of Anti-Aircraft Defence, Biggin Hill; John Edward Passingham Pierce, of the 22nd Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery Experimental Camp, Watchet; and John Lambert Shearne, of the Coast Artillery School, Shoeburyness: left the Mess about 10.30pm and got into Peirce’s car. They drove around, and, as you do, “decided to paint Stonehenge”.

“We collected some paint and a brush from the tennis court”, read their statement to the Salisbury court, where they pleaded guilty, “and went over to Stonehenge. Mr. Peirce and Mr. Sherrard each brought a piece of china. We parked the car by the fork road, got out, climbed the fence, and went over to the stones. We painted four stones in the group with green paint, climbed the stones and placed the pieces of china on the top of the stones. We came back towards the fence and painted a part of one side of the Hele stone.”

As a departing flourish they “added a letter” to “Exeter” on the road sign by the car park.

“It will take perhaps a thousand years for the stones to weather,” said the prosecution, referring to the cleansed sarsens. They were each fined £1, and charged £20 for court costs and repairs. The Larkhill commander, said Time, promised an “official reprimand”, while “keeping a straight face”.

I’ve put this together from online local press reports, so details may need correcting, and perhaps someone has some photos or drawings. But it would seem that TL Fuller, in the absence of photos of the actual event, rummaged in his archive and found something suitable for the press, which he copied (pencilling around the stones to make them clearer) and posted; Jim says he has a buff envelope, addressed to his grandfather and postmarked London 1938, which could have been how they were returned.

When Fuller wrote that one of the negatives was copied from a photo given him by J Soul, he was referring to John Soul (1866–1942), an eccentric family grocer who had a shop in Amesbury. Soul sounds like a latter day Henry Browne, obsessed with Stonehenge, writing guidebooks, popular with locals and visitors, dressing up as a shepherd and a Druid, and no doubt spinning remarkable stories. He was also, says Jim, a champion for the right of free, public access to Stonehenge.

It was Soul, thinks Jim, who wrote on the mount of the 1868 Russell print. That it was owned by him is confirmed by stamps on the back:

Soul stamps.jpgThe Stonehenge Bureau, “antiques and curios”, must have been a sideline to the bread and camp requisites – the same stamp is over this trade postcard (putting an entirely new slant on Soul Brothers):

Soul Bros.jpgSo the idea that the Magpie Musicians’ visit was actually a protest against the privatisation of Stonehenge originated with John Soul’s proselytising: he used the 1868 image to represent unfettered public access, in contrast to the 20th century fences and gates. There’s no evidence here that either Soul or Fuller argued that the image actually showed a protest, and both acknowledged its Victorian date (they thought 1870). The notion of a 1901 rally seems to have arisen later, through over-casual reading of Soul’s (or Fuller’s) caption.

This also allows us to see the photo of the man at the turnstile (higher up) in a new light. Usually imagined to be an unknown rambling visitor, we can now see it was John Soul, presumably posing deliberately by the new gates in a continuing fight for free public access.

Thank you Jim Fuller!

Here’s why I think that Stonehenge photo is fake

Yesterday I blogged a photo that won the British Life Photography Awards 2015. It was a striking image of dawn at Stonehenge, captured on a field of camera phones. There was something odd about it though: as I noted in parenthesis at the end, “why do I have a faint wonder if it’s been Photoshopped?”

I had a closer look at it last night. It may be real. But I think the photographer, and the award, need to prove it. There are too many things with the image that don’t seem right.

Here are some recent views of the same event.

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The above image is a still from a video on the Guardian website, published in June last year. The video shows a typical recent scene at Stonehenge as the sun rises on the midsummer solstice dawn.

Here is another screenshot from the same video.

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Here is a photo taken on the same day, published by the Telegraph:


And finally a photo taken at the same event in 2010. This was published by the Daily Mail:


What do we see? Overall, the British Life Photography Awards picture (BLP) has a quite different look about it. It shows a relatively monochrome view of people crammed together all apparently holding up phones at a similar height (see the crop below). None of the other photos shows this. We see a lot of phones, but most people are not taking photographs. The crowd is more varied and colourful (note how the colour in the sky is reflected in the foreground, which doesn’t seem to be the case with the BLP image). If you look in particular at the BLP hands, light seems to be coming from a variety of directions, which is odd as there should be no direct light on the back of the hands at all.

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Most significantly, I think, as with the BLP image, in the press images above we can see pictures on phone screens. But they are not all identical (see a selection in the lower row above). They show different views, as we would expect, and the clarity depends on the type of phone and the angle of the phone relative to the camera that shot the photo. In the BLP image the cameras all show an almost identical shot, the same view, the same light, and all extremely clear (look at the highest phone on the left: is that really the view that would have been seen from that point?). There’s no depth in the image. It has something of the manic impact of a John Heartfield photomontage, but it’s not a straight photo. It’s a clever desktop composition.

Why does this matter? Could we be seeing a new Heartfield in the making? That would be good, the world needs more satirists.

The BLP Awards is a website competition, with an impressive list of judges, including Chris Steele-Perkins and David Yeo. It’s cheap to enter (you can submit three images for £10, and up to a total of 40). The entry requirements are simple and open, and encourage phone images. This is the second year of the awards, and it comes with the second book… which has the Stonehenge image on the cover:


There are submission guidelines. They include this:

Not permitted:

Physical changes e.g. adding or removing objects, people; or stripping in sky from another image etc.

Digital collages, sandwich shots and composites.

The rules allow “digital adjustments” (“Minor cleaning work including removal of sensor spots and dust, moderate adjustments of: contrast, tonal values…” etc). But the winning 2015 image seems to me to go well beyond such tinkering. If so, whatever we think of it, someone else should have won.

Elena Marimon Munoz appears to be a student at the Centre for Digital Entertainment, working on image acquisition and image enhancement in digital radiography. She clearly knows a thing or two about digital imaging. But was her entry to the BLP Awards fair?

Brilliant winner of British Life Photography award

2015-winner-51920.jpgVisiting Stonehenge at midsummer over the years has been an experience of time passing, marked by portable camera technology. The worst year was when video cameras with side viewers were in fashion, you looked over a forest of hands raising up the blank gadgets which no one could see into. What works so well here is that the large electronic viewing screens show the view, with most of the photographers trying to get the stones without the crowd: taking all that trouble and ending up by not recording what’s in front of them (and doubtless having fun while doing it). A great shot by Elena Marimon Munoz. (Though why do I have a faint wonder if it’s been photoshopped?).

British Life Photography can be seen at the Mall Galleries, London March 7– 13 March, and Banbury Museum March 25–July 9

Below: The Kodachrome days

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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.

The heart of the Stonehenge bluestone problem

Chronicle 1972.jpg

For some of us old archaeologists last night’s Timewatch film was as much about memories as Stonehenge, but it was great for both (and good to see Salisbury Museum’s new prehistory gallery).

I enjoyed Magnus Magnusson talking to Richard Atkinson and Geoffrey Kellaway about bluestones for a Chronicle film in 1972, like a polite Newsnight interview (love that rug!). Glyn Daniel sits beside Atkinson, struggling to conceal a quizzical smirk. (Photo above is from the film.)

Did the bluestones get to Stonehenge by human transport or glacial action?

The fundamental problem with resolving this issue is clear in the film clip, and it hasn’t changed a bit. Kellaway (a geologist) talks about archaeology and the motivations of people who built Stonehenge. Atkinson (an archaeologist) talks about geology.

Kellaway: What nobody has explained is why were rotten stones that have in fact come out of a peat bog, which are absolutely useless for building, which have come from north or central or south Wales, we don’t quite know which, why those should be gathered together in heaps on Salisbury Plain?

Atkinson: If the bluestones were brought by ice to somewhere on Salisbury Plain, it seems to me highly improbable that what was brought was subsequently sufficient just for the needs of the builders of Stonehenge and left nothing over.

It began like this:

Magnusson: Professor Atkinson, do you think that Mr Kellaway is talking nonsense?

Atkinson: If I were to say yes, that would be rude.

Things are not always so polite now, but it’s an enduring academic shouting match that hasn’t moved on in 40 years. We’ll only progress if geologists and archaeologists work together, rather than lean on their ignorance of the other’s field for support.

On TV tonight

timewatch.jpgA rummage in the BBC Stonehenge archives, should be entertaining, presented by Alice Roberts with Tim Darvill, Mike Parker Pearson and myself. I don’t know who wrote the script (fingers crossed…), but there’s some great film stashed away! BBC4 tonight.