After a gap of some forty four years, Stonehenge is once again being excavated. Admittedly, this time it is only a very small hole, and is only being dug for a fortnight, but it is a very important hole, and on April the 9th, we were invited down to Stonehenge to inspect it.
It was a wonderful trip, not least because the weather was perfect. After the heavy snow fall at the weekend the sun decided to shine and since we were allowed inside the circle, I took the opportunity to take hundreds of photographs.
The excavations are being conducted by Geoffrey Wainwright (ex-English Heritage) and Tim Darvill (Bournemouth University), following up their research into the sources of the blue stones in the Prescelly Mountains in Pembrokeshire: but as they are being funded by the BBC TimeWatch programme, they are being carried out with the maximum publicity.
What they are looking for is evidence for the dating of the arrival of the blue stones at Stonehenge. The blue stones story is a complicated one, as the present circle of blue stones is not in the original position. There is a circle of blue stone 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 aim to uncover the base of one of the blue stone holes in the hopes that they may find an antler-pick for radiocarbon dating.
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, where right near the bottom they found a very small piece of what was indubitably Roman pottery. Was there a major reordering of the site in the Roman period? As Geoffrey Wainwright said, their small trench looked like an urban excavation, there were so many intercutting pits.
Were the Romans rather like English Heritage, people who abhor untidiness, and when they came to Stonehenge, they found a somewhat decrepit monument in need of tender loving care, and said: Oh these wretched druids, they never look after their ancient monuments properly – we had better send along a gang to tidy it up and pay due respects to whatever gods were originally worshipped there? But just how extensive was this tidying up? How much of the plan of Stonehenge that has come to us is due to Roman interference?
But Stonehenge is not the only site in the complex that is being excavated. After the official tour, we went on to Woodhenge and to Durrington Walls, back to the site where Geoffrey Wainwright first came face to face with Stonehenge when he carried out major excavations 40 years ago in advance of a new road: we had just launched Current Archaeology at the time, and we reported on it in CA 5 way back in 1967. More recently Mike Parker-Pearson of Sheffield University has also been digging at Durrington, with remarkable results – the full details are still embargoed as his excavations are part-funded by National Geographic magazine. But he has two sites, one down by the river where he is uncovering an approach processional way to the site from the river and the other site is within the great enclosure itself where he is discovering large numbers of very small house platforms: he would like to see them as the workers huts for the building of Stonehenge, even though the pottery is Grooved Ware, which is uncommon at Stonehenge.
So we now have two major research projects being undertaken in the Stonehenge area, both driven by very different research agenda. Tim Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright believe that the bluestones have healing powers, and they would like to see them arriving at Stonehenge as early as possible. Mike Parker-Pearson however, at Durrington, sees such sites being divided between areas of the living and areas of the dead. Stonehenge, he would like to believe, is an area of the dead, whereas Durrington is an area of the living where the workers lived who built Stonehenge. There are two very different sets of ideas: will they produce different sets of results? Watch out in the future; and if the results ‘prove’ that ‘Stonehenge was a place of healing’ , or ‘another Lourdes’, be just a teeny weeny little bit suspicious. . .