Stonehenge, the world’s most famous Neolithic megalith, is under crisis. Built around 4,500 years ago, it is only recently that archaeologists have begun to understand the true complexity of this ancient site. Unfortunately, time is running out on archaeologists as the modern world encroaches on the ancient one.
For centuries it was believed that Stonehenge was simply an isolated outcropping of stones put there by ancient men to celebrate rituals that we no longer understand. In the early 2000’s a new archaeological project was begun to study the surrounding area. It discovered that Stonehenge is far more than the large standing stones everyone recognises. It is, in fact, part of a much larger complex spanning several miles which encompass up to 17 other henges including Avebury, Woodhenge and the newly discovered Bluestonehenge. Also unearthed are various pathways, pits and dozens of burials.
In 2013 a brand new visitor centre opened its doors to better accommodate the site’s 1.3 million yearly visitors. It replaced a smaller centre opened as a temporary structure in 1968. By 1989, that same structure was dubbed a ‘national disgrace’ yet somehow it remained in place for a further 20 years.
The original visitor centre sat directly across the A344 road from the ancient monument. Visitors could park in its small car park, pay the entrance fee then use an underpass to take them under the busy main road and out into the large field where Stonehenge resides. From here they could get a 360° view of the ancient monument.
For those not wanting to pay the entrance fee and not worried about seeing Stonehenge from all angles, they could walk along the footpath on the main road, getting almost as close as the paying visitors. While the nearness of the road was great for tourists wanting free access to the site, it was a disaster for traffic as drivers inevitably slowed their cars down to look.
The solution to both the ‘national disgrace’ of a visitor centre and the traffic, was to close the A344 altogether and move the visitor centre to Larkhill, a mile and a half from the monument. The new visitor centre cost £27 million and is simply amazing. It holds archaeological finds, replica Neolithic houses, and even the reconstructed face of a Neolithic man, based on a skeleton found on the site.
Closing the A344 was an important step, however the nearby A303 road also runs within eyesight of Stonehenge. Although the monument is now further off in the distance, tourists can still get a decent look at the ancient stones from the road, making slow traffic a continuing problem.
In response, central government has approved a plan to build a 1.8 mile long tunnel as part of a £2 billion scheme to improve the A303. Leading cars underground will stop them from slowing down as they will no longer be able to see the monument. The problem is that Stonehenge isn’t just what people can see from their cars. Not only will underground archaeology be compromised by a tunnel, the sightline from Stonehenge will also be in danger. The Western entrance to the proposed tunnel would be bathed in artificial light creating a permanent glow over the horizon, blocking the last rays of the setting midwinter sun.
The Hard Place
It has long been known that Stonehenge aligns with the sunrise during the Summer Solstice. On the longest day of the year, the sun can be seen rising over the nearby ‘Heel’ stone, casting a shadow into the centre of the stone circle. Recently, it has become apparent to historians that Stonehenge hosts another solar phenomenon in the winter. On the shortest day of the year, the tallest stone, Stone 56, aligns with the midwinter sunset.
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and was a significant time for early civilisations. Animals would be slaughtered both for food and because it was difficult to keep them fed during the harsh winter. For people living during the this time, the Winter Solstice was potentially far more important than that of the Summer Solstice. Unfortunately, the creation of a tunnel will stand directly in the line of site of the midwinter sunset, thus stopping any future study of its alignment.
During a public consultation, archaeologists raised concerns that a tunnel would require “expensive and time consuming” work to recover and record findings. As a World Heritage Site, they also worry that the tunnel “lowers the bar for allowing development to overrule conservation”.
The council has asked why Ministry of Defense land, which surrounds Stonehenge, was not being considered for use. However, the ‘big guys’ in historic sites, English Heritage, the National Trust and Historic England have stated that the tunnel “has the potential to deliver huge benefits if designed and sited well”. On the other hand, they have particular concerns over the location of the western portal of the tunnel, presumably as this will be the point which compromises the sightline for the Winter Solstice.
With the public consultation finished, it is now up to the Highway Agency to consider all of the options and come up with a final plan. In the meantime, we wait to learn the fate of Stonehenge.
What do you think about the proposed plans to build a tunnel near Stonehenge?
To see for yourself how close the road is to Stonehenge, follow the link below for Google Street View. Then click on the Satellite button along the bottom menu and zoom in to see the location of the A344 and the old Visitor’s Centre :
To learn more about Stonehenge follow this link to the English Heritage website: