After a gap of some 44 years, Stonehenge is once again being excavated. These excavations were not taking place at the centre of Stonehenge, but in what is called the 'Outer Corridor', located on the right hand side of the panorama below. Andrew Selkirk reports from the site.
This time there is only a very small hole, and it is only being dug for a fortnight. However, it is a very important hole, The excavations are being conducted by Geoffrey Wainwright (President of the Society of Antiquaries) and Tim Darvill (Bournemouth University), following up their research into the sources of the bluestones in the Preseli Mountains in Pembrokeshire. As the project is funded by the BBC TimeWatch programme, it is being carried out with maximum publicity.
What they are looking for is evidence for the dating of the arrival of the bluestones at Stonehenge. The bluestones’ story is a complicated one, as the present circle of bluestones is not in its original position. There is a circle of pits known as the Q and R holes, where it is assumed that the stones were originally set before they were put in their current position. However, there is no good dating evidence for the Q and R holes, so the present excavations aimed to uncover the base of one of the bluestone holes in the hope that they might find an antler-pick for radiocarbon dating. Antler-picks, which had been used to dig out the holes, are often found 'sacrificed' in the backfill. They had no luck – though perhaps even better, they did find some carbonised grains. These are, at present, with the laboratory to see if they are big enough to provide a date; if so, they will provide excellent evidence.
However, the most surprising discoveries so far have been Roman. In a small pit containing a small bluestone in the corner of the trench, itself cut into the main socket of one of the uprights, they found a Roman coin. Even more alarming was the excavation of the large pit in the centre of the excavation. Near the bottom they found a very small piece of Roman pottery – in fact, at the end of the dig, they found another Roman coin at the bottom of the pit. Was there a major re-ordering of the site in the Roman period? As Geoffrey Wainwright said, there were so many intercutting pits that their small trench resembled an urban excavation.
Were the Romans rather like English Heritage? When they came to Stonehenge, did they find a somewhat decrepit monument in need of tender loving care, and decide to send along a gang to tidy it up and pay due respects to whatever gods were originally worshipped there? If so, one wonders just how extensive this tidying up was, and how much of the existing plan of Stonehenge is due to Roman interference?
Indeed, how much is due to later interference? Everywhere, there was evidence of the ‘Stonehenge layer’, (a layer containing the rubbish of past visitors), which includes a high number of sarsen and bluestone chippings. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was possible to hire a hammer in Amesbury to chip off a bit of the stones to take home as a souvenir. Is this perhaps why the bluestone in the side of the trench that was being excavated had been chipped down almost to ground level?