Why do we care about Stonehenge?


Stonehenge in the mists

England is a very densely inhabited country. It has been for many thousands of years. While the last century has seen a concentration of population in urban centres, the density of population has long been a result of intensive agriculture and other rural industries. Over those thousands of years religious beliefs have changed often, leading to different structures and sites of importance. Social inequality has been expressed in different ways; sporting activity has left different traces. In short, by any reasonable definition the whole English landscape is an archaeological site. There is nowhere that we can’t use to learn more about the past, to tell richer stories and to engage in the challenging and entertaining processes that archaeology involves.

But we don’t value all those places equally. Understanding how we come to value the heritage of some places more than others is complex and a number of projects have been working on this recently (see the Valuing Heritage Project). But few places are more valued than Stonehenge.

Is this because it was uniquely important at any particular point in prehistory? I would argue no. I suspect it is now more important than it has been at any other time in its long history of use and elaboration. Is it because we can learn more about our past there than anywhere else? I would argue no. The environmental conditions and the nature of the sites mean that whole classes of evidence (such as wood and textiles) are poorly preserved in the area. It has, however, had a very long and intensive history of archaeological research which has generated a lot of stories, questions and arguments that have in turn driven how we think about the past in England and indeed across the world.

For me, this is the essence of why we value it. We value it because it became part of a national story about the past early in the time that we were creating that story. We value it because our recent ancestors valued it. This value largely came from three features that had very little to do with the stones. Firstly its position on Salisbury plain was in the middle of a productive agricultural zone controlled by powerful families. It was therefore not industrialised or quarried when other important prehistoric sites, such as Thornborough, were.  Secondly, at the beginning of the 20th century, when the national heritage story was becoming more prominent politically, Salisbury plain became an important military training and development area. This meant that a new group of powerful people came to the area. More importantly, it was an early area for flight, and the birthplace of aerial archaeology in Britain. Thirdly, it was right beside the trunk road from London to Bath; an important route for a range of reasons but particular for the early development of tourism.

The road, of course, and the tourists, of course, are not only the source of value, but the bone of contention. Through the 20th century the number of people travelling on that road, and the number of people visiting Stonehenge both skyrocketed. While other similarly important routes through the country were widened, turning first to dual carriageways and then to motorways; the A303 was held in place because Stonehenge had become important. Widening the road would impinge on the value of the place.

Meanwhile, early excavations of the barrow cemeteries by people working for wealthy patrons gave way to excavations as part of excursions of field clubs, and then to researchers who were initially lured by the exciting finds of the earlier excavations, including gold and bejewelled weapons referred to as the ‘Wessex culture’.  This concentration of excavations also generated both interesting stories and tantalising questions both about the barrows and about Stonehenge itself (despite the fact that excavations there never produced such exciting material). So by the middle of the 20th century tourists, cars, and archaeologists all congregated disproportionately at Stonehenge; and each was a nuisance to the others.

The concentration of archaeological research unearthed material from the whole history of the landscape, but nonetheless it soon became seen as ‘timeless’. Visitors were invited to ‘step back in time’ and most of the archaeological research programmes focussed on prehistory. Indeed, until recently the county archaeological record would not include 20th century military material despite its obvious importance. The story shifted to suggest that the Stonehenge landscape was somehow frozen in time, a time capsule of sorts, giving us a precious window into the prehistoric past. People are often shocked to see the restoration photos of the early 20th century. It became valued as a pristine landscape, untouched by the modern world.stonehenge-restoration-1919

Stonehenge Restoration 1914 © Historic England archive  (see more)

By the time Stonehenge and Avebury became jointly nominated as one of the UK’s first World Heritage Sites in 1986, archaeologists and the new profession of heritage managers were convinced that the landscape surrounding the stones was immeasurably valuable. Tourists were less certain. Most people visited (and still visit) the site as part of a day tour on the way to Bath. Coaches pull up to the closest car park and visitor duly walk around the stones, marvelling, wondering, going to the loo and getting back on the coach. All plans to replace the 1970’s visitor centre included plans to encourage (or even require) tourists to appreciate and indeed explore the landscape

As the landscape came to be understood as precious, the road came to be seen as an intrusion. How could we imagine that we had stepped back in time when a constant stream of cars was speeding (or crawling) past close enough to see and hear. The road was also a problem for transport planners. The volume of traffic had led to widening of other stretches of the route, which in turn led to an increased volume of traffic and Stonehenge became a pinch point.

By the time I joined English Heritage in 2001, proposals for new roads that would dissipate the tensions between all the groups had been through many cycles. The complexity of archaeological, geological, management, and engineering data had led to the deployment of the earliest GIS in use within English Heritage and I joined the organisation to manage and develop that system. I was immensely excited to be working on such an important place. Looking at the data sets and the various proposed and discarded route plans for new roads I was immediately struck by the truth of the first paragraph of this blog. There is nowhere that you can run a road to take the traffic from the A303 that will not disrupt or destroy archaeological material. Of course the planning for the new roads had also led to yet more research and therefore yet more recorded archaeology.


screen shot of GIS in 2005 showing all recorded archaeology at that time. The red line is the boundary of the World Heritage Site. Stonehenge itself is approximately central.

The other surprise for me was the sheer number of people working on or in the landscape. The organisational chart of committees alone needed an A0 piece of paper to print out. The volume of paperwork generated through these committees would fill several rooms. Many people had spent their entire professional lives considering how tourists, cars and archaeologists could use this landscape.

The the main option on the table at that time was a ‘cut and cover tunnel’. Earlier proposals for a ‘bored’ tunnel, that wouldn’t disturb the surface had been dismissed as too expensive. Proposals for other routes had been dismissed because they disturbed too much archaeology, or too many villages. All road planning in England is subject to similar proposals and inquiries, this one simply had more people and their concerns involved. The main question was the length of the tunnel. The decision to drop the road below ground at King Barrow ridge was reached. To keep both entrances to the tunnel outside the bounds of the World Heritage Site and allow visitors the full benefit of roaming freely across the landscape would double the cost of the project.

But even that cost was too high for the government to bear. Under pressure to improve visitor experience before the 2012 Olympics, English Heritage decoupled plans for a new visitor centre from plans for a new road layout. More archaeological investigations followed and more archaeological significance was established for the landscape. Finally a new visitor centre opened with the usual mixed response from reviewers but largely welcomed by tourists. The landscape is explored much more fully in the interpretation and some of the exciting finds, including human remains are on display.

Finally the road question rumbles back into view. The government are looking for infrastructure spend and here is a road that has been through the expense and agony of inquiries and just needs money. So this week Grayling announced that he was ‘greenlighting’ the tunnel. There is a consultation period that runs until March and many archaeologists are asking you to make your feelings known. The main concern is the tunnel entrance being inside the World Heritage Site.

I am not suggesting that you make your feelings known through the consultation. I may not even contribute to the consultation myself. I don’t have any knowledge that hasn’t been taken into account. I don’t live there. I have opinions and it’s a place that I care about. But I also recognise that the current configuration of archaeologists, tourists and cars is not working well and a new one is needed. The decades of planning and consultation are enough for me.

But one of the main ways that we decide on which places we will value as heritage is through endangerment. Or as Joni Mitchel says ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone’. Saving Stonehenge is a core part of the mission to rescue the endangered heritage of Britain. If, like the Giant Panda, it were taken off the endangered lists it would lose some of its value. The arguments about how it may be saved have been going on all my life. And I don’t suppose they’ll stop any time soon.







5 thoughts on “Why do we care about Stonehenge?

  1. Great analysis! I am pleased to see that your emphasis of the significance of Stonehenge in relation to the national story about the past and the role of endangerment in its valuation basically confirms my argument that heritage matters when the stories and meta-stories about heritage matter. Heritage and any established facts about the past in relation to heritage do not matter in their own right. 🙂

    • As a landscape person, I’m bound to say that its location is also important. But yes, its how we use it that matters. Its snowballing now, we think its important, we think its endangered, we do more research and visit it more because its endangered, more people think its important as a result, so any change is perceived as a threat, so its more endangered and we care more, etc. etc.

  2. Pingback: Sarah May – why do we care about Stonehenge? | Archaeology, spatial planning and economic development

  3. Stonehenge has seen many iterations of human ‘life-world’, or culture, and, due to its durability, is likely to see many more. Who are we to say that our future will include cars for any significant period of time? Is it not a little myopic to alter the geology (not just the landscape, or ‘character’ or materiality) of a place for the sake of an evanescent technology?
    It is also clear that Stonehenge has achieved symbolic value, that is, its materiality has agency, and,we have thus empowered it to speak back to us about ‘who’ ‘we’ ‘are’ (including me, who does not live on that island).

    • Thanks Colm, I’m interested in why Stonehenge stands in this cultural space while other stone circles, and indeed other multi period complex landscapes don’t. Why does it speak to us? And while I agree that the materiality matters, I think the significance and the power has been created through our agency and we keep ramping it up.

      As for changing geology, we do that all the time. And, of course, one of the things that Stonehenge is famous for is doing just that – lugging bits of geology from one part of the island to another. Is keeping Stonehenge as it is a sacrifice, that allows development elsewhere? Or is it a holdout, to demonstrate our intention to change the way we engage with the world around us?

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s