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Aerial photograph of Stonehenge taken on 10 July 1924. The restoration work has ended, but Colonel Hawley’s excavations are continuing on the south-east side of the monument.

Excavation and Restoration: Stonehenge in the 1950s and 60s

Published: 29 May 2018
Posted by: Susan Greaney
Category: History In-depth

It’s 100 years since Cecil and Mary Chubb gave Stonehenge to the nation, and we’re marking the anniversary with a series of blog posts tracing the care and conservation of Stonehenge since 1918. Here we look at the years between 1950 and 1964, which saw an explosion of research and conservation activity at the monument.

Not surprisingly, little happened at Stonehenge for an extended period during and after the Second World War. But in 1950, the Society of Antiquaries asked a team of three experienced archaeologists – Richard Atkinson, Stuart Piggott and J F S Stone – to write up a ‘full and definitive’ volume on the archaeology of Stonehenge.

New Excavations

The trio decided that some limited excavations would help to resolve some outstanding questions left unanswered by Colonel Hawley’s excavations in the 1920s. The areas they investigated between 1950 and 1956 included two of the Aubrey Holes (the ring of 56 pits just inside the bank and ditch that surround Stonehenge), the Avenue (which connects Stonehenge to the River Avon), the Heel Stone (which stands where the Avenue meets the earthwork enclosure), part of the bank and ditch, and a portion of the bluestone circle. They also temporarily raised one of the buried bluestone lintels so it could be recorded and photographed.

Richard Atkinson (in the trench, second from right) and team excavating the bluestone circle in 1954.
© Historic England Archive

Restore or not?

For many years the archaeologist R S Newall, who had undertaken small excavations at Stonehenge, had been campaigning for its full restoration. In 1952, after securing the backing of a wealthy financier, he wrote again to the Ministry of Works enquiring about the possibility and the costs of such a project.

At this time the Ministry had a policy of leaving Stonehenge alone. It took the view that any restoration would alter its well-known ruined appearance and that it might be difficult to ascertain the exact original positions of the stones. Moreover, it pointed out that restoration would be ‘a formidably large undertaking’.

The following year, however, Atkinson, Piggott and Stone wrote a report for the Society of Antiquaries in which they recommended the restoration of the entire trilithon – two upright stones capped by a lintel – that had fallen in 1797. The Society backed them. It also proposed that two other stones in the outer sarsen circle that had fallen in 1900 should also be restored, as well as any other stones that were in danger of collapse.

On this advice, the Ministry had a change of heart. It accepted the proposals for restoration on the basis that ‘it would enhance the value of the monument for the student and make it more intelligent to the ordinary visitor’.

Richard Atkinson (right) pointing out work needed at Stonehenge.
© Historic England Archive

The restoration project

This major engineering project and associated excavations began in 1958 and continued into 1959. Atkinson, Piggott and Stone together oversaw the archaeological work. The trilithon was re-erected from the position where it had lain for 161 years. An upright and a lintel forming part of the outer circle were also put back into position. One of the large sarsens of the inner horseshoe was set in concrete and a large hollow at its base infilled. The sarsen bases were set in concrete to prevent future movement. Finally, six fallen bluestones were lifted and straightened.

A lintel of the outer circle is lifted into place in 1958.
© Historic England Archive

Calamity strikes

These two seasons of restoration were supposed to complete the project. But on the morning of 10 March 1963, calamity struck: one of the stones in the outer circle fell during high winds. A long period of frost in the early spring, followed by a rapid thaw and heavy rain, was said to be the cause. However, this stone had also been given a hefty knock during the works to re-erect the adjacent stone.

Inspectors rapidly surveyed the whole site, amid fears that further stones would fall onto unsuspecting visitors. Monthly readings were taken to monitor any movement. This showed that three stones in the outer circle, as well as the so-called 'Great Trilithon', were indeed moving and needed to be secured. So in 1964, in the final phase of restoration at Stonehenge, all these stones were secured in concrete and the fallen sarsen in the outer circle was re-erected.

By now, the ruins of Stonehenge were far easier for visitors to understand, and the monument had been thoroughly investigated. Yet despite the Society of Antiquaries' stipulation, the research excavations (1953-6) were left unpublished, as were the 1920s excavations and those associated with the restoration works of 1958-9 and 1964. Only the 1950 excavation season had been published in an academic journal, and Atkinson had also published a popular book, Stonehenge, in 1956. It wasn't until 1995 that the results of all the 20th-century excavations were finally analysed and published, although by this time many site plans and drawings had been lost.

Stonehenge visitors viewing the works at Stonehenge in the early 1960s. The extended car park is visible in the distance.
© Historic England Archive

Meeting visitors’ needs

The excavations and restoration of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the popularity of archaeology on television due to programmes such as Animal, Vegetable, Mineral and Atkinson’s own programme featuring Stonehenge, Buried Treasure, encouraged more and more people to visit. Many now owned cars and had the time and money to take holidays. Stonehenge made a good stopping point en route to coastal resorts in south-west England.

Gradual changes were made to cater for visitors. In 1950, after 18 years without refreshments since the demolition of the Stonehenge café, the National Trust allowed a mobile tea-bar in the car park. By 1954 there were new underground lavatories, and in 1960 the car park was extended. Three years later an automated ticket machine was installed to alleviate queues.

More problematic was the interior of the stone circle, which the feet of countless tourists turned into a quagmire each winter. The interior was surfaced with gravel in 1963, protecting the fragile archaeology.

As the excavations of the 1950s and 1960s showed, the complicated archaeology at Stonehenge lies only just below the surface and has many more secrets yet to reveal.

Visitors strolling freely around the stones in the 1960s, after the interior had been gravelled over to help protect it.
© Historic England Archive

Find out more

Top image: 1958 photograph showing scaffolding around the re-erected trilithon. (© Historic England Archive)

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