Fact 1: Stonehenge was once surrounded by barbed wire
Many people reading this will remember the battles that took place in the 1980s between the police and Peace Convoy travellers who wished to gain access to Stonehenge for their midsummer festivities. In June 1985, the Battle of the Beanfield led to the arrest of 537 travellers, the largest mass arrest of civilians since the Second World War. The authorities of the day feared that the archaeology of Stonehenge would be damaged by the lighting of fires and the digging of latrine pits by those planning to hold a free solstice festival.
A century earlier, the casual vandalism being routinely inflicted by tourists on Stonehenge was the subject of stormy letters to The Times on a par with those generated by 20th-century revellers. One correspondent complained in 1885 about the presence at the site of people with ‘no intelligent interest’ in the monument, and others pointed to the ‘irreparable injury to the stones constantly going on at the hands of thoughtless and mischievous visitors’, who, with the help of ‘neighbouring rustics’, were in the habit of hammering off fragments of stone to take as souvenirs.
In 1886, a deputation from the Wiltshire Archaeological Society visited the monument to inspect the damage and come up with a solution. Ironically, the group included Henry Cunningham, who had previously been forced to publish a public apology in the local press after being caught undertaking illicit excavation at the monument. Worse still, Neville Story Maskelyne, the author of a pioneering paper on the petrology of Stonehenge published in the Wiltshire Society’s journal in 1878, freely admitted that he had taken 20 fresh samples from the stones without seeking permission. Indeed, the owner of Stonehenge at the time, the third Sir Edmund Antrobus, was adamant that more damage was done by archaeologists than by ‘excursionists’, while a Times leader insisted that rabbits and the ‘natural processes of decay’ were a greater threat to the monument than ‘human wantonness and vulgarity’.
Scholars who disliked having to share Stonehenge with ‘people who use it merely for leisure’ nevertheless demanded ‘proper protection’ for the monument. Astonishingly, their solution was the digging of a deep ditch around Stonehenge, which they proposed to line with a ring of spiked poles and barbed wire. Admission to the site would thus be ‘confined to one entrance, where a janitor might be placed to admit only those who can undertake to behave themselves properly in the enclosed area’.
Sir Edmund, then the owner of Stonehenge, asked who would pay for all of this; although he appointed a caretaker – William Judd – to deter people from having elaborate picnics on and among the stones, he continued to insist on free and unrestricted access. His views were reflected in Judd’s response to an anonymous newspaper correspondent. Signing himself ‘Archaeologist’, the correspondent had written to express his ‘disgust’ at the presence of schoolchildren during his visit to Stonehenge. Judd mildly pointed out that ‘children have as much right to visit there as antiquarians’.
Despite this, Stonehenge did indeed get a barbed-wire fence – though without the ditch – in 1901. The Bishop of Bristol and former Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge, G F Browne, claimed to have been the originator of the barbed-wire scheme, and wrote in his memoirs (published in 1915) that ‘we all agreed that it was unsafe to leave this great monument open to the wandering public; it must be protected from mischief wrought by casual passers-by’.
Inevitably, the barbed wire aroused hostility: the Commons and Footpaths Preservation Society (the predecessor of today’s Open Spaces Society) challenged the legality of the fence. Even so, it remained in place long after Stonehenge passed into public ownership, and the subsequent history of Stonehenge has been one of greater constraints on entry to the stone circle, rather than a return to the days of unconstrained access.
Fact 2: Stonehenge is an Arts and Crafts monument
The Stonehenge that we know today is very different from the monument that visitors saw 100 years ago. From the mid-1820s to 1915, Stonehenge was owned by the Antrobus family, passing through the hands of four successive owners all called Sir Edmund. During the three decades of ownership by the third Sir Edmund (from 1870 to 1899), the number of leaning and fallen stones reached a peak, but just as he supported free access, so Sir Edmund rejected utterly the idea that Stonehenge should be restored or made more secure.
This was because of his adherence to the values of William Morris’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), which saw restoration as a form of falsification. Morris’s SPAB manifesto, launched in 1877, called on architects and restorers to ‘stave off decay by daily care… and otherwise resist all tampering with either the fabric or the ornament of the building as it stands’.
Antrobus belonged to the more extreme end of the non-interventionist spectrum, and the most he was prepared to countenance was the erection of timber scaffolding to hold up those stones most in danger of falling. He explained that he did so reluctantly (‘so entire is my detestation of restoration’), and that the scaffolding was there ‘for the preservation of the [monument’s] observers, and not for the monument itself’.
At the third Sir Edmund’s death in 1899, the pendulum swung in the other direction: the fourth Sir Edmund took advice from the Society of Antiquaries and the Wiltshire Archaeological Society after the collapse of sarsen stone 22 and its lintel on 31 December 1900. They recommended straightening three of the leaning stones, and re-erecting three sarsens and two lintel stones. The proposal to return stone 56 to an upright position sparked a national debate, because this tall leaning stone was central to the powerful paintings of Constable and Turner, and had become emblematic of Romantic views of the monument.
Sir Edmund was determined, however, and the man he put in charge was the Arts and Crafts architect Detmar Blow (1867-1939), friend and disciple of William Morris. Blow made his mark on the Stonehnge landscape not only through his work on the stones, but also by restoring a number of buildings on the Antrobus estate, including the family’s Amesbury Abbey home.
Fact 3: Stonehenge has changed more in the 20th century than at any time since the Bronze Age
In the end, Blow’s work was limited to the straightening of stone 56, work that was undertaken over two months in August and September 1901. In writing about the monument in 1913, the author Ella Noyes characterised the stone as ‘this heavy monster, bowed under the weight of innumerable years, dragged up from its recumbency, bolted, concreted and stiffened into unnatural uprightness’. She described the newly vertical stone as now appearing ‘out of all relation to its fellows, each of which has some venerable stoop’.
Such sentiments did not stop the pressure for further intervention, which became all the more forceful after the monument passed into public ownership in 1918. Charles Peers, who was both Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries and Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, set about completing the recommendations of the 1901 committee, delegating the work to Colonel William Hawley. In a typical ‘Ministry’ memo, Peers sought to reconcile ‘as far as possible’ two perhaps incompatible values: ‘to do nothing that would impair the archaeological interest of the monument’ and ‘to ensure their stability, to accentuate their interest, and to perpetuate their existence in the form in which they have come down to us’.
Peers was confident that archaeological evidence could be found to guide the programme of repair and reinstatement; that confidence took a blow when Hawley conducted excavations in advance of the re-erection of the sarsens, and discovered that he was unable to tell where they had originally stood, neither could he tell how deeply they should be set into the ground. Similar complications arose when stone 30 was straightened and it was found that the lintel no longer fitted on to the adjacent stone 29, which in turn had to be adjusted and set, like the other restored stones, in a bed of concrete.
The result, in Peers’ words, was ‘architectural beauty… set reverently in a simple setting of grass lawns’, but others were not so sure: work stopped in 1920, and not simply because, as was assumed at the time, money ran out. It had become clear that the desire for perpendicularity and stability was taking precedence over archaeological evidence. The Office of Works itself admitted, in a memo written in 1938, that to continue work without clear evidence for the original position of the stones would result in ‘a fake’.
Those words continued to reverberate for two decades so that, in 1958, when the Society of Antiquaries revived its plan to deal with fallen and leaning stones, the Minister of Works had to persuade a House of Commons committee that ‘there was no intention of faking Stonehenge’, and that the only stones that would be re-erected were those that had fallen in recent times (since 1797) and whose original position was therefore known. The result of all these interventions has been that the appearance of Stonehenge has been transformed – and the monument has undergone more change during the 20th century than at any time since the Bronze Age.
Fact 4: The World Heritage Site has nearly 500 round barrows
Talking of the Bronze Age, this is when the fields around Stonehenge became the focus for barrow-building on a massive scale. Attempts have been made to characterise the barrows by size and form, and to detect patterns in their distribution; about all that can be said that cannot be disputed is that their general ubiquity means that Stonehenge is one huge extended cemetery. The earliest date from around 2200 BC, and thus overlap with late Neolithic activity, while the main development took place between 2000 and 1520 BC.
Most were opened up by antiquaries in the 19th century. A third of those that have been surveyed using modern methods of recording and analysis show evidence for multiphase construction; they thus defy a single interpretation, since different meanings may well have been attributed to different phases of a barrow’s development.
Amesbury 51 in the Cursus barrow group was excavated in 1960 by Paul Ashbee and published in 1978: here the barrow-builders first excavated the primary grave; a timber mortuary house was then constructed, into which the body was placed. A mound was constructed over this, and a ditch dug around the mound, resulting in the form classified by archaeologists as a bell barrow.
Further secondary graves were subsequently dug into the mound. Additional barrows were constructed nearby, sometimes overlapping or with conjoined ditches. Some barrows are clearly set in a deliberate alignment, and others share a causeway or platform. Picking consistent narratives out of the resulting patterns has proved impossible, though perhaps family groups and lineage histories are involved.
Fact 5: Stonehenge was once wet
Water may also have influenced barrow-building: few of them are located where you might expect them to be placed for maximum visibility, on the highest points of ridges and terraces in the landscape. Instead, many barrows are built on valley slope locations associated with watercourses and springs. Today’s Stonehenge landscape seems very dry: that is because the water authorities take huge amounts of water from the aquifers within the chalk. The environmental evidence points to a higher water-table in the past, and valleys that are now dry were probably much wetter in prehistory, if only on a seasonal basis.
Even in the 19th century, maps show numerous ‘winterbournes’ in this landscape, and parts of the landscape have water-related place-names, such as Spring Bottom, Lake Bottom, and Lake Down. ‘Bournes’ are small aquifers in the valley sides and floors that slowly fill as rainwater filters through the chalk, until they overflow in winter to create a stream. The seasonal appearance of these streams may well have been associated with the commemoration of the dead.
Fact 6: The Stonehenge landscape was once a patchwork of white and green
Building all those barrows involved the stripping of turf from across a wide area, leaving an expanse of exposed chalk as large as the barrows themselves. The contrast between white chalk and green barrow might well have contributed to visibility of the barrow groups, standing out in the landscape not by virtue of their prominent position so much as by the prominence of the green mound surrounded by a water-filled ditch in a white landscape. Green and white might, of course, have been colours with symbolic or spiritual meanings.
Fact 7: Not every monument at Stonehenge was built above the ground
An apparently unique monument, the Wilsford Shaft, was discovered in 1960-1962 after its slight standing earthwork had been bulldozed on the basis that it was ‘a danger to livestock’. What rescue archaeologists discovered was that this was not the remains of a barrow, but the top of the fill of a 30m-deep shaft cut into the chalk. The bottom of the shaft coincided with a water-bearing fault in the chalk, and the waterlogged bottom was filled with pottery, worked flint, bone, charcoal, personal ornaments, parts of wooden containers, fragments of wickerwork, basketry, and cord. The earliest objects dated from the Middle Bronze Age, and carbon-dating showed that the shaft filled rapidly from 1200 BC, though the upper part did not fill entirely until about 450 BC.
Was it a well dug to provide water for the livestock grazing the dry valley that divides Normanton Down from Lake Down? Did it have ritual significance? Perhaps both, but intriguingly the environmental evidence and the aerial photographic evidence for ancient field boundaries suggests that an area around Stonehenge extending for up to 600m was not cultivated, perhaps out of respect for this monument landscape, and increasing the likelihood that the Wilsford Shaft was more than just a water supply.
Fact 8: Stonehenge was not built in an empty landscape
Quite the contrary: Stonehenge was placed into a landscape already crowded with Neolithic monuments. The earliest known feature is the so-called ‘Coneybury anomaly’, a term adopted from the language of geophysics, which led to its discovery. Excavation showed this to be a large pit filled with feasting debris dating to the early 4th millennium: finds include eagle bones, grain, and a flint axe (CA 293). There are nine long barrows and at least one mortuary enclosure in this landscape, an early Neolithic causewayed enclosure (Robin Hood’s Ball), and one of the largest prehistoric monuments in Britain, the 3km-long and 130m-wide Greater Cursus.
Named by William Stukeley in 1723 in the belief that this was a Roman racetrack for horses or chariots, archaeologists really have no idea what this and other similar monuments were used for. Did they demarcate a territorial boundary, were they used for processions (by the living or ancestral spirits), do they enclose a sacred space, or was it a symbolic construction project, the emphasis being on the construction, not the finished product?
The authors of the Historic England study have contributed a further suggestion, based on the fact that numerous arrowheads have been found near the terminals: perhaps the cursus was used for a hunting-based rite of passage, comparable to bull-running in modern Spain, where young men and wild boar are let loose within the monument to battle it out.
Fact 9: Stonehenge might be an unfinished monument
Much ingenuity has been exercised in the past over the question of whether Stonehenge was ever completed. The idea of ‘completion’ is itself a contested idea: Stonehenge was rethought and remade on numerous occasions between c.3000 BC, when the first true henge – an earthwork enclosure with external ditch and internal bank – was constructed, and c.1639-1520 BC, when the Y and Z stone-holes were dug, apparently with the intention that some of the bluestones were going to be moved to new settings.
The question of completion relates principally to the sarsen and lintel outer circle. Parchmarks were recorded in 2013 (CA 284) that were interpreted at the time as showing the locations of some of the missing stones, but even this is not conclusive, because some stone-holes remain undetected, even using geophysics, and some of the parchmarks could conceivably represent unrecorded excavation trenches or places where scaffolding and lifting machinery was erected during the early 20th-century restoration work.
The current evidence at Stonehenge points to a number of possible scenarios: the setting might never have been intended to be a complete circle, the supply of sarsens might have run out, or the monument may never have been envisaged in terms of a finished or complete monument – the builders might well have been improvising as they went along, confronting and resolving difficulties and exploring possibilities on an ad hoc basis, perhaps abandoning the construction for a period, returning and reworking, and then abandoning again. There is also evidence that some stones fell in antiquity – Hawley believed that stones 8 and 12 had probably fallen ‘at an early date’ – and it is possible that they came crashing down during the construction of the Great Trilithon, causing further work at the monument to be abandoned.
Fact 10: The Stonehenge story is far from complete
Which brings us full circle, so to speak: early 20th-century scholars thought they could restore Stonehenge. The problem with that concept, as Ruskin, Morris, and others recognised, is that it assumes a Platonic ideal: that there was such a thing as a perfect and complete Stonehenge representing the builders’ pure and final intentions. We now know that frequent change and development is a characteristic of Neolithic and early Bronze Age monuments generally, and that many henges and stone circles are ‘incomplete’, with gaps or missing elements. There is no single moment in the long and complex history of Stonehenge that could be regarded as the one to which we should return.
Equally, there is no risk that we will ever run out of new questions, nor exhaust all that the Stonehenge landscape has to teach us. Intensively studied as it is, Stonehenge bears out the archaeological maxim that your attempts to answer one set of questions simply lead to a whole lot more – and with the prospect of a new road tunnel on the horizon, Stonehenge is likely to provide archaeologists with plenty of opportunities for targeted excavation and new fieldwork for many years to come.
Mark Bowden, Sharon Soutar, David Field, and Martyn Barber, The Stonehenge Landscape: analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, Historic England, ISBN 978-1848021167, £30.00.