Archive | Stonehenge RSS feed for this section

#StonehengeAnything

21 Nov

It only took a tweet to confirm what I had long suspected.

Stonehengism isn’t just a problem for archaeologists. It is a social problem too. It is not just us – archaeologists – that seem to be obsessed with Stonehenge.

Despite being relatively well known amongst a certain select audience as someone who has, let’s just say, reservations, about the amount of time and attention focused on Stonehenge, the most popular things I do always seem to be about the fun or even positive aspects of Stonehenge.

My most liked blog post dates back over five years – and I can’t help feel that the visual focus and passing mention of Stonehenge in relation to it’s brutal look and feel attracted 220 ‘likes’, several pingbacks, and literally hundreds of new followers of the blog in the space of a week.

And so it has happened again, this time with a tweet. Posted on the evening of Friday 16th November 2019, it was an innocuous suggestion that twitter-users play a game which I called #StonehengeAnything

By any stretch of imagination compared to my usual social media track record, this went mental. Over an intense 72 hour period I struggled to keep up with all replies to my initial tweet, those using the hashtag for the game, and replies to others who retweeted the tweet, including a big signal boost from Alice Roberts and Sarah Parcak, who both played along as well.

As of the evening of 19th November, impressions and interactions were off the scale for what I normally achieve, plus I probably picked up over 50 new followers.

I added some variants as we went along, such as #StonehengeYourself. I also introduced the concept of a #StonehengeWhack – a noun that when matched with Stonehenge simply produces google images of Stonehenge with no added weirdness. This was based on an idea that comedian Dave Gorman popularised a few years ago, Googlewhack, “a contest for finding a Google search query consisting of exactly two words without quotation marks that returns exactly one hit” (wikipedia).

Stonehenge Sausage (source: Chimmy Blog, tweeted by @HeyerdahlKing )

What prompted this? In part it was due to some research I have been doing with Gordon Barclay for a paper we are working on related to late Neolithic studies and Neo-colonial geographies. I was doing a lot of Stonehenge-this and Stonehenge-that searching online to follow up various lines of inquiry, and some of these got a bit silly. Then I realised that no matter how silly things got, I still seemed to get a directly related image.

Photos of the real Stonehenge with things in the foreground. Photoshopped images of Stonehenge added to things, or things added to Stonehenge. Stonehenge corporate branding. Stonehenge merch. Trilithons made of all sorts of weird and wonderful materials. Things that someone thought looked a bit like Stonehenge. Stonehenge memes. Cartoons of Stonehenge. Relentless bloody Stonehenge. And some deeply weird combinations.

Stonehenge Clothes / Clothesline
(Markus George, Die Macht Der Bilder,
tweeted by @pighilltweets)

But I had something else in mind. In his excellent 1999 book Metaphor and Material Culture, Chris Tilley included an essay which I have always loved (and believe me I don’t love everything he writes) on the genealogy and usage of the word megalith. The essay ‘Frozen Metaphor: megaliths in text’ is a gloriously granular exploration of how rigid adherence to archaeological vocabulary constrains interpretations. The legacy of the weird faux-Latin word megalith has been one of reductionism, leading to a narrow range of pre-figured interpretations of things we call megalith.

This was a study in archaeological banality. Tilley writes this about the word megalith but he might as well have been writing about Stonehenge: “The term creates a particular form of discourse and – such is its power – there appears to be an inability to reinscribe the past in a fresh manner” (1999, 83).

One of the things that Tilley explored in relation to text was words that were combined with megalith. He noted common matches in the archaeological literature: words related to burial, monumentality, ritual. Then, he did a curious thing which exposed the banality of our discourse and the inadequacy of our vocabulary: he created Table 3.3. Drum roll please.

Tilley 1999 Table 3.3 – one of the most important tables published in an archaeology book

It is no coincidence that in my initial series of #StonehengeAnything tweets, I included Stonehenge Volvo.

Stonehenge Volvo. No idea what this has actually got to do with Volvo and I now can’t find the source!

Tilley noted: Bearing in mind what the word megalith actually means ie ‘big stone’, why is it that we might laugh at megalithic (big stone) vegetable when it is apparently quite normal and unproblematic to refer to big stone evolution, big stone people, big stone territories, big stone rituals, etc?

And so, Stonehenge has been rendered banal through its ubiquity. Stonehenge limits and constrains our discourse as a word, concept, and image. Why is Stonehenge Ritual any less – or more – nonsensical than Stonehenge Whiskey and Coke? Why do we have to accept Stonehenge Age but laugh at Stonehenge Marmite?

The ubiquity of Stonehenge is something that has been playing on my mind for a while. And not just in terms of the disproportionate amounts of intellect, money, and time spent on the archaeology of this monument and its surrounding landscape. I have also been concerned about the dominance of Stonehenge in the public imagination when it comes to British prehistory (not even just the Neolithic period). For many people Stonehenge is British / English prehistory.

For some Stonehenge is a political symbol of Britishness / Englishness, which is deeply problematic, and in some senses is enabled by the ways that archaeologists fetishise this place, and probably not helped by its pop culture aesthetic.

The Sun, 12 June 2018

This ubiquity comes in many forms. For instance, the coverage of Stonehenge in Britain’s popular archaeology magazine, British Archaeology, is remarkable in its quantity and depth in comparison to any other site, never mind any other Neolithic site. (The only story that came close to competing in the last decade was the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III.) To quantify this, I considered the front page, the main selling point of this magazine in shops and online, to be representative of the main stories and headlines contained within each edition. I looked at every cover of this magazine published between November 2003 and May-June 2017 (83 editions in all). A remarkable 11% of these editions had as the main front cover feature Stonehenge. On seven occasions, Stonehenge was the cover feature two editions in a row.

In the same period, only one other Neolithic site was afforded cover story prominence (0.13%), and this was the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, the other dominant pole of British Neolithic studies.

Internal content shows an even stronger bias towards Stonehenge, with at least 29% of the issues containing an article about Stonehenge. A few stories were about Durrington Walls which is gradually adopting the role of ‘the place where the Stonehenge builders lived’ in the literature. For this dataset, I only focused on articles mentioned on the front cover of the magazine, and it is likely this underplays the true level of Stonehenge content. News stories about Stonehenge are commonplace and are not included in these figures. Only five other British Neolithic sites were mentioned on the front cover of any of these 83 magazines, and three of these are in Wessex (Avebury, Silbury Hill, Dorset excavations the name of which currently escapes me….).

I am not being critical of the editor across this period, Mike Pitts. He clearly knows his audience! And I have not looked at this for a few years so the balance may well have shifted.

Stonehenge ubiquity is therefore reflected in archaeology the discipline, and academic and popular publications. And it seems a vast array of other walks of life.

Did you know, for instance, that there are over 80 replica and fake Stonehenges around the world today, lovingly documented by the wonderful Clonehenge blog.

This is where #StonehengeAnything comes in.

I analysed 319 tweets that used the hashtag #StonehengeAnything or replied to a thread prompted by my initial tweet, over the period of 72 hours from evening of 15th to 18th November 2019. I may have missed some, and this data does not include some random latecomers to the party since that period so apologies if your bizarre suggestion is not reflected here.

Stonehenge Ice Cream (image: Whitby Morrison, tweeted by @DSAArchaeology)

I divided the Anything part of equation (Stonehenge being the recurrent ‘anchor’ word) into a series of rather arbitrary categories, with ‘Other’ capturing a miscellaneous assortment of things. So for instance Stonehenge Underpants was filed under clothing, Stonehenge Monty Python under popular culture. In some cases I had to guess what the tweeter had initially searched under. In other cases, searches produced unpredictable results eg Stonehenge Pineapple brought up Liver Salt tablets. Stonehenge Idiot produced a fabricated picture of Nigel Farage with Stonehenge behind him. (Hang on, is that really that unpredictable?)

In other words, this is dirty data.

#StonehengeAnything results over a 72 hour period, n = 319

The most popular connections were food, animals, and then household and garden items. The two most popular individual searches were Stonehenge Breakfast and Stonehenge Cheese. An image of a cat apparently taking a selfie was the individual image I saw most, four times.

Stonehenge Cat (source: a pinterest board about cats, tweeted multiple times)

As Chris Tilley found, combining an over-familiar archaeological word with a random noun is surprisingly powerful. The Bodily Matters category especially so in a sort of David Cronenberg way.

Stonehenge Nipple

Stonehenge Feet

Stonehenge Tampons

Stonehenge Penis

Stonehenge Hair

Stonehenge Fingernails

Stonehenge Dildo

Stonehenge Skull

Stonehenge Germs

Stonehenge Sex

Stonehenge Teeth

Stonehenge Teeth (source: Freaking News)

There was a focus on horror themes and professions which overlapped to an extent. Is a vampire a profession? What about a pirate? Astronaut is more cut and dry. Thus are the pitfalls of classification.

Stonehenge Astronaut (patch for sale on Amazon, tweeted by @wildgem23)

There were a range of #StonehengeWhacks, combinations so obscure that no-one anywhere in the world had thought to create or fabricate an image to fit this bill. Examples included Swingball, Finch, Vaccine, Turtle, Circus, Aardwark, Parrot, Rockabilly, Radiator, Japan, Wallaby, Covfefe, Pigeon, Narwhal and – surprisingly – Gorilla. (Stonehenge Monkey did work.) I am sure there are many more examples, and on balance I would imagine that searches that did not work were less likely to be tweeted than ones that did work. I failed with Stonehenge Two Ronnies for instance. But even as I write, someone might be messing about with a picture of a tapir at Stonehenge.

I think however that #StonehengeAnything works about 95% of the time.

One curious footnote to this searching frenzy was the identification of a series of weird cartoons, all of which are stock images for sale, using the same Stonehenge background. These are produced by VectorToons, all sell for 20 dollars a pop minus the watermark, and feature a foreground element and eccentric caption. I assume these are generated by a bot.

“A Vampire Standing Confidently And In Content and Stonehenge Background” (c) VectorToons

The example above, one option which is found searching for Stonehenge Vampire, includes some additional detail. Cartoon image of an immortal man, with graying hair, wearing a black coattail tux with pointed collar, red bow tie, white shirt and socks, black shoes, oversized head with pointed nose, ears and red eyes looking onto his right, lips sealed in a smirk showing his fangs.

Stan Sagrott @archaeostef tweeted that there are 102 pages of these, and with 32 per page, this means that there are something like 3264 variants on this! I have not had time to crunch the numbers on this but a lot of them are animals, often in anthropomorphic situations (eg a cat using a laptop in front of Stonehenge).

A man dressed as a pirate for Halloween (c) VectorToons

This one is confusing because it is not even a pirate, it is someone dressed as a pirate. Stonehenge Fancy Dress? Stonehenge Accountant letting his hair down?

“A Regular Cockroach and Stonehenge Background” (c) VectorToons

The rather simple and elegant description for this one is: A regular cockroach with brown outer wings, six legs, and two antennae.

Each of these cartoons has the same Stonehenge information: A mysterious landmark in England, made of large boulders of rocks forming a circle, on a green grassy area. I’ve read worse descriptions.

Talking of Cock-Roaches, one of my favourites was #Stonehenge Ken Barlow, submitted for consideration by @vopiscus_bm.

Bill Roach (middle, multiple sources of this image online)


Finally, it is worth noting how complicit English Heritage are in all of this. A lot of the results eg Stonehenge jumper, Stonehenge Ginger Wine, were merchandise that they market and sell. There are literally hundreds of products with a Stonehenge angle in their online shop, up to a piece of jewellery costing £1250.

Stonehenge Wooden Spoon, £6 (English Heritage)

As Aaron Watson preciently wrote in 2004, the word HengeTM had become in archaeology, through over-use, a brand. And so it is for StonehengeTM: the brand.

Stonehenge can be lots of silly things. Why this is the case is not easy to work out. There is of course something iconic about this monument? Where else has pictorial images with the Rolling Stones, God, Alice Roberts, St Patrick and Zombies. What other stone circle has been drawn by Vic Reeves? Which other monument was one of the stars of This is Spinal Tap?

But Stonehenge can be serious things as well. A World Heritage Site. A symbol. A synedoche. A metaphor. A noun, a verb, an adjective. It is a period of time, it is a cultural tradition. It is a phenomenon.

But does it also represent a narrowness of focus, a constraint on our imagination, a failure of archaeologists to lead us all beyond the shadow of an enormous, grey, looming trilithon?

Tilley concluded his essay by writing, Is it useful for us now to start to cross the word out in our texts, in a classic Derridean move, and accept that megaliths do not exist, while realising they will almost certainly continue to do so?

For megalith, replace Stonehenge.

#StonehengeAnything

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to everyone who tweeted, retweeted and joined in the fun.

In this post I have referred to a couple of essays:

Tilley, C 1999 Frozen metaphor: megaliths in text. From Metaphor and Material culture (Oxford: Blackwell), pages 82-101

Watson, A 2004 Monuments that made the world: performing the henge. From Rosamund Cleal and Josh Pollard’s edited volume Monuments and material culture (Hobnob Press), pages 83-97.

Pilgrimage

27 Sep

Dreams can come true –

Dreams of empty car parks and painted postholes –

Strange dreams –

Fluorescently illuminated – 

Electric, eclectic dreams.

Supplication

Photo: Jan Brophy

Pilgrimage involves a journey in hope, ritualised behaviour upon arrival, the slow walk with reverence and humility, supplication in front of reliquaries and relics, the leaving of an offering, the purchase of a souvenir, and a journey back cleansed and vindicated.

I had just this experience recently when I visited the lower floor of a multi-storey car park beneath a Waitrose and shopping mall in Dorchester, Dorset.

A multi-story car park.

This was the fulfillment of a long-held ambition of mine to make this pilgrimage to a place of urban prehistory. An ambition that began with the establishment of a folder in my urban prehistory memory stick on 5th June 2013 simply entitled: ‘Waitrose timber circle‘. A folder set up in expectation of this pilgrimage, six years in the making, and also a potential blog post finally now being realised.

In the folder, the photo that started it all.

A megalithic manel.

WaitroseTimberCircle

Photo: Tim Prevett

A link to the Megalithic Portal page that this picture came from was copied into a largely empty ancient MS Word document in the folder. Also written there was the excitable note: There is also a mural in the shopping centre all about the building of the timber circle!!

The 20 painted red circles in a line running across this car park were the target of my pilgrimage, indicating the (precise?) location of large Neolithic postholes that were excavated in 1984 advance of the shopping mall development by the Wessex Trust for Archaeology (now Wessex Archaeology, ‘welcome to the future of heritage’).

These postholes were part of the boundary of what was likely to have once been a massive late Neolithic (third millennium BC) palisaded enclosure, that is an oval space some 380m across, enclosing about 10 hectares, defined by hundreds of huge timber posts. The extent of this enclosure (of which only a small part was ever excavated) is such that much of central Dorchester sits within / atop its boundary, now of course invisible, buried, perhaps almost wholly destroyed. Five similar postholes were apparently also found at Church Street, a location some hundred metres away. Taken together with the projection of the curve of the posthole arc, dots were duly joined and a notional enclosure was born (or reborn) on the ancient banks of the River Frome (now much smaller than it was back in the day).

site plan

This monument, of which similar examples have been identified across Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia, may well represent one of the most monumental endeavors of British prehistory even although it now lies beneath Icen Way, Drumgate Street, the Dinosaur Museum and a pub called The Blue Raddle (‘laugher on tap’).

My own excavations (with Gordon Noble) at comparatively smaller sites at Forteviot and Leadketty, Perth and Kinross, brought home to me how massive these monuments must have been, not simply in terms of the resources, time and labour needed to build them, but also the impact they would have had on the broader landscape. A lot of oak trees had to be felled for starters.

David Simon reconstruction

Forteviot late Neolithic palisaded enclosure and squirrel (c) David Simon / SERF Project

Only 40m worth of the Greyhound Yard boundary was excavated in 1984. These were massive postholes, some almost 3m deep, and 2m to 3m across, with ramps to help with post erection. Using standard calculations (1m of depth can support 3.5m of post height above ground) then these postholes could have supported oak posts of up to 1m in girth and 14m length, perhaps 10m of that the height above ground. These would have been re-arranged tree trunks, bloody massive posts

post height 3

Doing some rough calculations on the back of Brexit propaganda from the nearby Wetherspoons (The Royal Oak), this enclosure would have had a circumference of something like 1.2km (if a complete circuit) defined by posts that were spaced between 1 and 2m apart. The boundary would have consisted of at least 600 oak posts, each weighing in the order of 10 tonnes. That is 6000 tonnes of oak alone, a similar figure to that calculated by Alex Gibson for the Hindwell palisaded enclosure, Wales, which he excavated. (This enclosure was bigger in plan but was defined by smaller postholes.)

Gibson gazetteer

Gazetteer entry for the Dorchester monument in Gibson (2002)

The Greyhound Yard (or my preferred name, Tudor Arcade) monument is only one part of a larger complex of Neolithic enclosures on the south side of the Frome, which also include Maumbury Rings henge, Mount Pleasant mega-henge and Flagstones causewayed enclosure, which puts this locality on a par with the Avebury and Stonehenge landscapes, although less celebrated due to Roman monkeying about, urbanisation and lack of World Heritage Status. (Maumbury is a sensational site despite the Romans buggering it up, and I’ll blog about this in the future.)

Castleden Neo Britiain book map

Source: Castleden’s Neolithic Britain (1992)

Exactly how the monument came to be memorialized in red paint and artworks is less clear (given that this was certainly not a normal thing to do in 1984 never mind today) although I heartily approve of this way of doing things. There are even a couple of metal plaques in the lift concourse area of the car park that explain what the painted circles mean and offer some context which give a space-age start to this prehistoric-car park experience. One has to travel down to get to the good stuff and make Star Trek door noises for the full effect however.

lift concourse

noticeboard in lift concourse

Marked in Mosaic in the floor of this car park are the positions of 20 huge posts the text begins, with the reverent tone of a giant fantasy novel.

The posthole paint circles are a deep brick red, about 1m in diameter each, and spaced less than 2m apart, arranged in an irregular line. These are highly stylised depictions of what the postholes would have looked like and I have my doubts if they the originals were quite disposed like this being both too regular, too small and too close together if the stats given above are to be believed.

line of painted circles

The paint circles offer rich juxtapositions with the more normal paint marks and urban furniture one would expect to find in such a car park.

juxtaposed with u

juxaposed with me

Looking more closely, it is clear that not all of the circles are painted, and indeed some are ‘mosaic’ like, as suggested by the shiny metal noticeboard. These were concentrated on the north side of the car park and seem to be the cover of circular voids, drains or (ritual?) shafts of some kind. This indicated the artifice of this rendition of the monument, suggesting the floor level of the car park is not at the same level as the Neolithic postholes, which would have floated somewhere above or below the tarmac level.

This is urban prehistory with depth, with stratigraphy.

mosaic

After a period of paying my respects and documenting the occasion with an undue level of excitement and diligence, in a surprisingly empty Sunday lunchtime car park, we headed into the lift shaft and arose to the mall level, levitating over the Neolithic.

Here, we saw the aforementioned mural and it did not disappoint.

the mural

Dynamic ceramic images are set into a brick wall, immediately outside the entrance to Waitrose, position to be admired by shoppers with jute bags placed between their legs. A timeline moving from the Neolithic forwards, left to right, not stopping at the New Stone Age but hinting at deep time and the continuity that such big monuments tended to demand.

In the beginning, erection by beast.

mural panel 2

Then centuries, maybe even a millennium later, but in reality a few centimetres to the right, the age of land divisions as Parker Pearson would have it was depicted. Farmers haunted by the ghosts of the palisade, inexplicable holes which they dare not fill in but perhaps deign to drop some potsherds into just for luck. Or maybe one of their cows shits in one of these ancient hollows, the stuff of life.

mural panel 1

Underneath it all a commentary, a mapping of time to contextualise the images above, words in English almost breaking the spell. But not quite.

The narrative continues into the Iron Age and later still, and once again a metal sign lies nearby to explain all to the curious consumer. As well as annoyingly using the word history to describe what is largely prehistory, the information board informs us that the murals here were funded by the John Lewis Partnership (owners of Waitrose) and again date to AD1984.

metal sign 2

It also tantalizingly notes that the ‘frieze from the original panels’ is now in the ‘Waitrose’ staff canteen area, suggesting these murals are actually replacements or at least based on another piece of art. I did not try to get into the dining room to see it – perhaps I should have but it felt rude to intrude.

Another information panel related to the Neolithic monument which lies beneath this shopping mall was missed by us on our visit, but documented on twitter by Susan Greaney and replicated here with permission.

Noticeboard Sue Greaney tweet

Image reproduced with permission of Susan Greaney

Part of the Dorchester Dormouse Trail, this noticeboard erroneously calls this monument a henge. Nonetheless the reconstruction drawing is evocative of this being a big monument defined by some mighty posts although here people (men of course) are doing the erection and not yoked cattle. The text gradually descends into Stonehenge fetishism and some story about Thomas Hardy. There are however a couple of nice pics from the excavations, a site plan, a cartoon mouse (the eponymous dormouse) and one of those QR codes which I have neither the desire nor the inclination to use.

This noticeboard is located on Acland Road for those who possess local knowledge or want to visit.

The pilgrimage ended with the partaking of victuals at the aforementioned ‘Spoons, safely outwith the boundaries of Greyhound Yard.

Thus I have squeezed all I can from my visit to Dorchester, and the time spent within the confines of this mighty Neolithic enclosure will long live with me, even when viewed through the lens of a 1980s shopping mall.

The noble attempt to inform patrons of this mall of the deep time beneath their feet and underneath the tyres of their cars is surely an example of hyperprehistory in action, the added value that prehistory can add to a place of consumerism and transactional behaviour.

Let’s face it. You will never look at a red painted circle the same way ever again.

Sources and acknowledgements: I was accompanied on my visit to Dorchester by Jan Brophy and Andrew Watson, and they helped to keep my emotions under control. I am also grateful to Susan Greaney for sharing with me and allowing me to use the photo of the noticeboard which we shamefully missed on our pilgrimage. 

The mural was the handiwork of John Hodgson – his website mentions it briefly. Thanks to Zooms@freespiritspice for pointing this out on twitter.

The excavation report for the Greyhound Yard Dorchester enclosure is:

Woodward, PJ, Davies, SM & Graham, AH 1993 Excavations at the old Methodist chapel and Greyhound Yard, Dorchester 1981-1984. Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Monograph. 

A good general source of information (including the gazetteer entry reproduced above) on the site and parallels is: 

Gibson, A. 2002. The Later Neolithic palisaded sites of Britain. In A. Gibson (ed.) Behind wooden walls: Neolithic palisaded enclosures in Europe, 5–23. Oxford: BAR International Series 1013.

And for a more recent and even broader overview (with lots on Forteviot), see: 

Noble, G and Brophy, K 2011a Big enclosures: the later Neolithic palisaded enclosures of Scotland in their Northwestern European context. European Journal of Archaeology 14.1-2, 60–87.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Car park prehistory

11 Feb

The well-publicised recent news that the skeleton of Richard III has been found by archaeologists in Leicester is not the first archaeological discovery that has been found beneath a car park. The desire for places to park cars and cover flat locations with tarmac and straight white lines describing car-sized boxes has uncovered all sorts of prehistoric traces in recent decades and one in particular sprung to mind when I read about the twisted bones of a king. Urban prehistory is paradoxical though: the three huge postholes found near Stonehenge just about survived having a car park extended over them, only to be further threatened today by the removal of the same car park.

Throughout the 20th century, Stonehenge became increasingly entangled with the local and regional economy, and the financial fortunes of whoever claimed ‘ownership’ to the extent that access to Stonehenge is now mediated by bus tours, and expensive exclusive pre-dawn access arrangements. Such arrangements appear to date back to attempts by the then owner Sir Edmund Antrobus to charge one shilling for access to the stones in 1901. Such financial disincentives to visit, however, have never put people off. In 1966, the car park at Stonehenge had to be extended. This was because by then Stonehenge was becoming an increasingly popular ‘tourist attraction’ drawing ever larger numbers of visitors who had access to their own car or who could afford to jump onto a touristic omnibus. The ‘excellent’ road links at Stonehenge (the A344 runs a few metres away from it, the A303 nearby) meant that the car (and bus) was increasingly the main way of accessing the monument, and parking on verges on the roadside became untenable.

stonehenge in the 1930s NMR photo

Stonehenge in the 1930s: commerce and cars

hotel advert

The first formal Stonehenge car park was actually constructed just across the A344 from the standing stones in 1935. This was constructed on National Trust land, to service the some 15,000 visitors per month who were drawn here even in the 1930s. This car park was furnished with a small ticket kiosk and toilets, and ice cream vendors soon swooped like confectionary vultures. This facility was described by John Piper in 1948 as, ‘a clearly visible eyesore and the custodian’s chalet in a tasteless and decorative art style, flanks a car park, a turnstile revolves in the wire fence and the ladies and gents is a good solid eyecatcher’. Yet compared to the bloated and extended car park that for now serves Stonehenge, the ‘phase 1’ car park could be said to have had ‘an atmosphere of quiet, almost pastoral charm’ (Lloyd Jones & Crosby 1992).

the first car park

Demand for the monument continued to grow, to such an extent that the original car park and the much abused road verges and tracks around Stonehenge were no longer adequate, and so the aforementioned 1966 car park extension was undertaken. This work was carried out by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works between 7th February and 18th March in that year, with the car park extended quite considerably to the west. The ground level was initially stripped and levelled by a JCB, under the monitoring of archaeologists Faith and Lance Vatcher. In their report on this work, published in the Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine in 1973, they state what happened next. ‘During the cleaning down of the surface to the chalk, three circular holes appeared….in a line running approximately E-W, with a fourth disturbed patch in the chalk of more irregular shape at the western end of the line’. Upon subsequence excavation, these three regular features were shown to be very large pits that had once held timber posts. The fourth ‘blob’ was more amorphous and thought to be a tree throw, that is an irregular pit indicating the location where a tree once stood. There followed in the excavation report a description of the large postholes – which were up to 1.5m deep – and their arrangement relative to one another, and Stonehenge itself a little to the northeast.

excavation details

These postholes could have supported timber posts with diameters of 60cm to 80cm, and using a simple posthole depth / post height ratio of 1:3.5 (the standard measurement for such things) these posts could have been up to 6m in total length, 4m or so of that above ground. These would have been impressive posts, but what was most surprising about the Vatcher’s discovery was that the posts appear to have been made of pine. As Mike Allen has noted, pine would not have been native to the chalk downs of southern England in the Neolithic, yet the Vatcher’s supposed these posts to have been Neolithic in date. But, radiocarbon dates undertaken on samples in the mid-1970s revealed the remarkable discovery that these posts had been erected in the Mesolithic period, making these perhaps the earliest monumental structures ever found in the British Isles, dating to over 8000 years ago, millennia before Stonehenge was constructed. It is not known, however, if all these posts stood at the same time, or if one replaced another over time.

What were these posts doing here? There is little consensus on this, other than that archaeologists typically describe them as ‘totem-pole like structures’, which conjures up visions of colourful posts with carvings, perhaps to be worshipped. This is as good an explanation as any, although we have little concept of what Mesolithic rituals may have entailed, and no parallels for posts of such antiquity have since been found in Britain. The tree throw has been interpreted by Mike Allen as also once having held a post, although its position on the post line may also suggest that a living tree was once part of this monument. Further work in the car park in 1988-1989 by Martin Trott of Wessex Archaeology discovered a rather amorphous pit or posthole feature in the vicinity of the current ticket offices. This again dated to the Mesolithic. These ‘whole trunks of pine’ (as Tim Darvill has called them) suggest a synergy between posts and trees, and seem to indicate the first instances of monumentality in this incredible landscape.

white painted posthole marker

Immediately after they were excavated, the postholes were backfilled with gravel, and then aluminium tubes were places into the centres of the holes where the posts once stood. These then were used to position concrete markers which were set into the car park tarmac. These are indicated in the modern car park surface by three quite regular white painted circles, which may or may not be the upper surface of the concrete post markers. Little is made of the three holes beneath the car park (never mind the tree throw) and it is walked across, driven across, and generally ignored by most visitors in the clamour to get to the stones. The car park and amenities have stimulated a number of excavations – in 1935, 1966, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1989 and so on – but these are the only discoveries to date of such significance and the only finds to stimulate the use of white paint, concrete and aluminium in such a way.

stonehenge car park may 2012

Stonehenge’s much expanded car park, May 2012

And now the postholes are about to undergo another transformation. With the ongoing construction of the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre, the current car park is now about to be decommissioned. The fate of the postholes is unclear, but from what I can gather online, it appears that English Heritage will continue to mark the postholes for visitors, using ‘sensitively designed low level markers’ . The postholes will also sit within a very different context. The major transformation of the Stonehenge visitor experience will involve a new visitor centre in an entirely new location, with the current kiosks, subterranean bogs and the shops being replaced by – according to EH – ‘a very small hub … near the stones to provide emergency toilets’.

???????????????????

The marking of these posts has always struck me as strange. On the one hand, it is commendable that the location of such ephemeral features (that do not fit comfortably into the Stonehenge narrative) have been afforded some paint in the car park. On the other hand, the lack of information on site means that they have been rendered meaningless, just another tarmac variation. The renewal of the visitor amenities at Stonehenge offers an excellent opportunity to rethink the presentation of these Mesolithic marvels to the visiting masses; EH should act while car parkaeology is in fashion.

Sources: For the original excavation report of the tree throw group, see Vatcher, G and Vatcher, F 1973 Excavation of three post-holes in Stonehenge car park, Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine 68, 57-63 (source of the excavation plans reproduced above). Subsequent reporting on the radiocarbon dates can be found in the journal Radiocarbon volume 29, although it is better to go to Mike Allen’s comprehensive synthesis of the Vatcher’s work, subsequent dating and the 1988-89 excavations. This can be found in Cleal, Walker and Montague (eds) 1995 Stonehenge in its landscape: Twentieth century excavation published by English Heritage. For a more accessible overview, see Tim Darvill’s 2006 book Stonehenge: the biography of a landscape (Tempus). For an excellent summary of the ‘treatment’ of Stonehenge over the past 150 years, including touristic developments, see Peter Lloyd Jones and Theo Crosby’s excellent 1992 book Stonehenge Tomorrow (the source of the first Stonehenge car park photo) . The Old George Hotel advert came from Frank Stevens’s 1929 booklet Stonehenge Today & Yesterday, while the black and white image of 1930s Stonehenge is reproduced from a Guardian article, and is part of the National Monuments Record. The Stonehenge posthole marker photo belongs to ‘AngieLake’ and was initially published on the megalithic.co.uk website; this was also the source of the comment on the fate of the postholes. The John Piper quote comes from the Architectural Review, and the Antrobus anecdote from Julian Richards’ book Stonehenge: a history in photographs.