The early 21st century was an immensely exciting period of archaeological discovery within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. These years also saw the long-awaited opening of a new visitor centre.
In the last of our blogs charting 100 years of care since Stonehenge came into public ownership, Amanda Chadburn explores these developments.
Stonehenge and its setting
At the dawn of the new millennium, attention focused on the wider environment around Stonehenge, which had become a World Heritage Site (WHS) in 1986. The need to care for the monument’s setting was overwhelming. Two major roads – the A344 and A303 – were damaging the setting of the stones and other monuments, in some cases even cutting right through them. Hundreds of barrows (burial mounds) and other archaeological sites within the WHS were under the plough, causing damage to fragile and irreplaceable archaeological evidence.
A new management plan in 2000 recommended that sensitive parts of the WHS should be taken out of cultivation and returned to pasture. Between 2003 and 2011, local farmers restored an extraordinary 25 per cent of the whole WHS to grassland. This took important monuments such as the Lesser Cursus out of the plough and improved the setting of barrow groups such as Normanton Down.
A decade of digging
A great advance of the ‘noughties’ was the sheer amount of archaeological research undertaken in and around the WHS.
One of the biggest projects was the Stonehenge Riverside Project, a collaboration in 2003–2009 between the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Bristol and Bournemouth and University College London. Professor Mike Parker Pearson led the team, and decided to make the river Avon a focus for research, including the sites along it. Mike felt that there were zones within the Stonehenge landscape where different sorts of activities took place during the Neolithic period – with Stonehenge itself being a ‘zone of the dead’, and monuments such as Durrington Walls a ‘zone for the living’. Although not everyone agreed with this theory, the project undertook a huge amount of excavation, with spectacular results.
The team made many unexpected discoveries. They found a new henge at West Amesbury – revealing that the Stonehenge Avenue didn’t lead to the river Avon after all, but instead to this little monument beside the river. Another avenue was found in the Durrington Walls area, this time leading to a wooden monument (now buried) known as the Southern Circle.
Perhaps most impressive of all, houses were discovered for the first time. They may have been part of a ‘village’ which once existed near Durrington Walls during the Neolithic period. It is difficult to overstate how exciting this was for archaeologists, who for years couldn’t answer the simple question ‘where did people live?’
Even more exciting was the discovery that the dates of the houses were extremely close to the date of the Stonehenge stone circle – around 2500 BC. Was this where the builders of Stonehenge lived? Today, the remains of the original houses have been reburied, but some have been recreated at the English Heritage visitor centre.
More evidence of life in the Neolithic was also uncovered – such as the fact that these people were fond of feasting on young pigs during the wintertime. Perhaps this was after celebrating a midwinter solstice festival at Stonehenge or nearby Woodhenge?
A healing monument?
Another major project of this decade was the Strumble-Preseli project, led by the retired English Heritage Chief Archaeologist Geoff Wainwright and Professor Tim Darvill of Bournemouth University. They had a different theory about Stonehenge – that it was a place of healing, and that the bluestones which make up part of the monument had healing powers.
Tim and Geoff undertook the first excavations within the stone circle for 44 years in April 2008, when they dug a small trench to investigate the bluestone circle. The surprise results were that the Romans were much more interested in Stonehenge than we had previously thought. They had dug a large, deep pit beside the bluestones, perhaps for ritual reasons.
Yet more research within the WHS included the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project. This was led by Professor Vince Gaffney of Birmingham University, who undertook geophysical surveys of the landscape on a massive scale. An extraordinarily detailed laser survey of Stonehenge was made for English Heritage in 2011, part of a much wider project investigating the Stonehenge landscape through detailed earthwork survey, historical research and analysis of aerial photographs.
Another famous discovery of this time was the grave of the Amesbury Archer. Found in 2002 just outside the WHS by Wessex Archaeology, this is one of the richest early Bronze Age graves in Britain. New techniques showed that the man himself came from an Alpine region, possibly Switzerland. Buried with him were a great number of grave goods, including special pots called Beakers and beautifully worked flint arrowheads. Most impressive of all were gold hair ornaments and three copper knives.
The grave dates to around 2300 BC, making these some of the very earliest metal objects in Britain. It also shows the international fame and appeal of Stonehenge at this period.
It is difficult to overstate how important this decade was for archaeological discoveries at Stonehenge, and how much our understanding of the monument and its surroundings has improved because of these digs and research.
Roads and visitor centres
After Stonehenge became a WHS in 1986, plans were made to build a 2.1 km tunnel near the stones which – together with the closure of the A344, recommended by UNESCO – would remove the roads from the centre of the WHS. At the same time, English Heritage announced an ambitious plan for a large new visitor centre near the Countess Roundabout, east of Stonehenge and outside the WHS.
Public inquiries in 2004 and 2006 recommended both these developments. But in December 2007 the government announced that the tunnel scheme would not go ahead. With it, the scheme for the visitor centre at Countess East died.
However, at the same time the government also announced that new visitor facilities should be built, and arrangements for shutting the A344 should be investigated.
The Stonehenge Environmental Improvements Project swung into action and a new WHS Management Plan was published in January 2009. After various possible sites for new visitor facilities were considered, Airman’s Corner, on the edge of the WHS, was chosen. At the same time, the closure of the A344 was looked at. Eventually – after two public inquiries – permission was given for it to be closed and partly grassed over. Stonehenge could finally be reunited with its Avenue.
The new visitor centre also received planning permission and opened in December 2013. At last, Stonehenge had the facilities deserving of its status as a world-famous heritage site.
Finally, this was also a time to move on from the years of conflict that had marred solstice celebrations for many years. To the relief of everyone, in 2000 the razor wire and heavy security were replaced by managed open access to the stones. The same policy has run successfully since then, allowing everyone to celebrate in their own way.
Top image: The Stonehenge visitor centre