Legal Success for Stonehenge Alliance is great news, but…

The recent legal halting to the original plans for a tunnel to cut under the Stonehenge landscape may have slowed down one process of degrading the archaeological value of the monument’s extensive landscape, but it’s a temporary pause, and  plans are again back underway. But this massive road works within the landscape of Stonehenge is not the only degradation threat that is going on at England’s ‘National Temple’. In this post I want to point our another threat to our understanding of this monument, one which increasingly restricts the future interpretation of the design of the monument, what it was for, and what it represented.

Drayton’s poem, Polyolbion, concerns the fate of those who located and placed the stones at Stonehenge, and well sums up the subject of this article,

Ill did those mighty men to trust thee with their story;  Thou hast forgot their names who reared thee for their glory.

I first visited Stonehenge sometime around 1964.  I remember very little other than being overwhelmed at the size of the sarsen trilithons, and at how massively ancient the monument was, although in 1964, the Sarsen circle remained ‘officially’ dated to around 1750BC. This was before the radiocarbon revolution had fully hit home within British archaeology. There was resistance from within the professions, and Stuart Piggott even described the new fangled radiocarbon dates as being ‘archaeologically inacceptable.’

A man with a push-operated lawn mower kindly showed our little group around, and there were no other visitors present on the site. In the early 60s there were, as yet, no ancient vans with bearded occupants and emitting herbaceous odours. The only pot was strong tea and this was served in a VLT (very large teapot) with some scones and it featured highly in my remembered experience. And then we all left, resuming our journey in a Bedford minibus. The whole experience probably only cost the 1964 equivalent of Chubb’s maximum of ‘one shilling per person entry charge‘, the terms agreed when selling the land upon which Stonehenge stands to the nation, sometime during  or just after WW1.

Since then Stonehenge has had to endure the curse of having not just one but two Visitor Centres imposed on it. The first was so loathed that when it was to be ripped up and replaced by a shiny new Visitor Centre, no one believed its replacement could be other than an improvement, but my God, how wrong we all were! To adapt the admirable Drayton poem , Ill did those mindless men, who reared this dud for their glory (Perhaps the reader could fudge up a suitable second line)

I remain confident that this design fits perfectly into HRH, The Prince of Wales’s category of being classified as a ‘Carbuncle’, for it is veritably, for all sorts of reasons, a Blot on the Landscape. With its pre-rusted leaky outer roof and its apparent dependence on crookedly placed scaffolding rods to hold it all up, the rest resembles some third-world tin-pot ‘international airport’ terminal building. All it would need to complete this image would be some clapped out Dakotas parked up on the nearby straight runway formed by the now redundant A344.  One can only pray that God so loves nearby Avebury that here he will spare the site a visitor’s centre.

No one can look me in the eye and say that this grotty monstrosity has anything much to tell us about one of the most sacred monuments in the world. It tells us much concerning our present culture, for the new Visitor’s Centre is culturally equivalent to putting a fish & chip shop in the Narthex of Chartres Cathedral. 

But there are other things going on behind the scenes that cause me much more concern about the future interpretation of Stonehenge. It would appear that the interpretation of prehistory, of which Stonehenge continues to play a crucial role, is itself being slowly rewritten, and I want to suggest how this is happening and investigate why, and what are the most likely outcomes.

If one has ever worked for EH, or has read the (now) old 1999  110 page report on the future of the Stonehenge site undertaken by the architectural consultants, Chris Blandford Associates, they will be familiar with the average visitor time being measured at 45 minutes (p69; 3.4.17), with some extra time in the then envisaged enlargement of the souvenir shop, where our visitor could then buy a plastic paperweight of the centre of Stonehenge (the Sarsen circle) which, when shaken, would cause a snowy blizzard to descend upon the stones in a most ersatz manner. This was kitsch Disneyland for sale on Salisbury Plain.

Everyone who knows someone who works for English Heritage will probably have heard them relate that that Stonehenge is the perfect milchcow, a cash crop that keeps on giving, year after year, as visitor numbers consistently reach close to what is described in the Blandford report as ‘approximately 2.08 million overnight and day trips made to Salisbury, generating £93 million in tourism’.

Of the ‘less important aspects of the monument’s design‘, such as its astronomy,  geometry, and  measurements, (all three disciplines are objectively measurable), the report goes on, simply, to inform its readers, within a single paragraph headed ‘Spiritual Values’ on page 19 of  the 110 page report that ‘theories abound‘ and suggests ‘these can be but speculation‘. In other words, nothing from these sources can likely ever be proven. All that astronomy, geometry and measurement is untouched and unexplained within this report, clearly it is already ear marked for the lunatic fringe, don’t you know, so don’t even think or ask about these things. Don’t ask questions. Why would one think of going there, with all that complicated science and number stuff, when there’s snowy plastic paperweights of the middle bit of Stonehenge to be collected, and cherished on one’s mantelpiece?

It is hard to square this rough and hapless account of Stonehenge’s ‘spiritual values’ with some of the other commentaries concerning our national temple.  Having called the monument ‘the most famous stone circle in the world‘ (p19, 2.4.10) the authors never refer to the monument as a Neolithic temple, although there’s a sentence reminding its readers that ‘Today, the Henge continues to have a role as a sacred place of special religious and cultural significance in the minds and faiths of some visitors.’ Interpretation: “clearly, only some visitors share these beliefs, so we’ll move quickly on and away from this aspect“.

So just what does Stonehenge offer to be awarded the WHS (World Heritage Site) seal of approval? Fortunately, on Page 17 (2.4.5), the authors bullet list the required qualities,

  • represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
  • exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in monumental arts or town planning or landscape design;
  • bear a unique or a least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation which is living or which has disappeared.

It must be clear to almost anyone who has studied Stonehenge in the slightest capacity beyond the trivial level that the monument fits all three of these criteria, almost rendering this big fat Consultation Draft redundant and unnecessary.

The draft report rambles on, and by page 82 it gets to discuss the management of visitors to Stonehenge, and cites the Principles established in a Governmental ‘sustainable tourism‘ report, acronymically but inadequately called ICOMOS [International Council on Monuments and Sites UK]. It promotes a list of objectives, including the following(p83 4.5.1);

The design of new buildings, sites and transport systems should minimise the potentially harmful visual effects of tourism. Where sites of great natural beauty are concerned, the intrusion of man-made structures should be avoided where possible.

It is hard to know here whether this implies that Stonehenge, itself an intrusive man-made structure set in a site of outstanding natural beauty, thereby needs to be avoided, i.e. demolished.

The above perfect description of Stonehenge within its environment is a really basic error,  but to its credit, it must surely herald the kiss of death for the future of the New Visitor centre, just as surely as was the fate of any new wife for Henry VIII.

Even the above review  paints a more cheerful scenario for the monument than do the following observations, gleaned over the past twenty five years of visiting, surveying, photographing, and taking visitors from all over the globe on special access tours of this temple monument. So gird your loins and let’s cut to the chase.

STONEHENGE – A STUDY IN SELECTIVE PREHISTORY  

A close inspection of the historical images of Stonehenge held by Google Earth will quickly reveal that one of the most important features of the monument, indeed, the earliest known geometrical construction on the henge site, has become a steadily diminishing feature. I am, of course referring to those ‘cavities’ first discovered during a day’s hunting through Stonehenge by that greatly connected scholar, socialite, scientist, gossip, author and chronicler of the seventeenth century, John Aubrey. A founding fellow of the Royal Society, Aubrey’s discovery at Stonehenge led on to the eventual excavation of these ‘cavities’ to reveal  fifty-six regularly spaced holes spaced in a very accurate circular formation that are today named after him – the eponymous Aubrey holes.

My first Special Access tours took place in the late 80’s, a few years after the brouhaha of the 1985 midsummer ‘Battle of the Beanfield‘ had begun to fade a little. In those days, those fifty-six holes, now filled in and silted up were archaeologically described as ‘once might have held’ wooden post holes. Their average diameter was 1.07 metres (42.136 inches), so we are talking hefty posts here.

The construction of the Aubrey holes was the earliest example of geometry being applied to the henge site, taking place around 3100 BC.  It is the largest circular structure on the site, the accurate circular structure averages a mean diameter of 283.6 ft (86.456m). The only other accurate circle within the vallum or circular boundary is the sarsen circle, whose average mean diameter 100.8 feet (30.724m), and which was erected around 2600 BC.

Readers who have studied Plato will remember the number 504 as being a key number in defining the recommended radius of a circular temple. At Stonehenge, the mean sarsen radius is 50.4 ft (15.362m). Coincidence it is not, as will be made clear.

Aerial Photographs of the site taken around 1987  clearly show over thirty whited Aubrey holes (see photo). In 1994, these photos were kindly given to me by the then director of the English Heritage site, Clews EverardOn site At that time one could easily and rapidly identify over thirty Aubrey holes , the tops of their concrete markers all marked out in white lime-wash, and the grass kept cut very short, by the fit man with the push lawn mower. By 2005, this number had declined to twenty-one markers,  while by 2017 there were just seven fairly easily marked out and in 2018, at midsummer, one had to scratch up the the grass to locate any of these markers, and none were whited out.  This failure to present and maintain adequate visibility of this earliest geometrical feature at Stonehenge is  wholly unacceptable. At best it shows a serious flaw in the management of the Stonehenge site, at worse, there’s the hint of this feature somehow not fitting into the archaeological narrative of the monument, which has always been highly speculative and avoiding of astronomical, geometrical or metrological information.

This past year, 2021, I led a special access group of twenty-five people onto the site, and they could not find more than four or five Aubrey markers, and all of these were hidden from view under grass, except one or two near the station stone 93. Some of this group measured the spacing between each hole centre, using a builder’s fibreglass tape, finding it averaged 15 feet and 10 inches.

The  56-sided polygon   that connects all the stones thus has a perimeter of 56 x 15.833 ft (4.826m) which totals 891.464 feet (271.72 m), the mean diameter of the Aubrey circle is minutely different from this figure 891.464 ft when divided by pi, is 283.6 ft (86.456m).  These figures are identical to those values arduously obtained through lengthy processes of accurate surveying ‘ground level’ of the Stonehenge monument, during the early 1970s. 

The 1972/73 Thom-Atkinson Theodolite Survey of Stonehenge

During this survey, the Aubrey holes were each identified by Professor Richard Atkinson, they were clearly marked out, each with a concrete circular marker having small hole at the centre, into which which Thom and Atkinson stuck a marker pole which was used to mark them up as surveying data points, during 1972 and 73. Antiquity rejected the detailed report on the survey. It was instead published by Mike Hoskins, the astronomer-editor of The Journal of the History of Astronomy [JHA]. 

Most of the original survey was published in The Journal for the History of Astronomy in 1974. This extensive report was largely ignored by archaeologists. Here, Thom stated that the previously mentioned mean diameter of the Aubrey circle, from an individual hole centre to the opposite hole centre, averaged 283.6 feet (radius 141.8 ft). The perimeter of the Aubrey circle can thus be assumed to accurately have been 283.6 ft multiplied by ‘pi’, making the mean perimeter 891.464 ft (‘pi’ = 22/7) or 890.95 ft (using actual ‘pi’).

There is little wriggle room for argument or debate surrounding these dimensions for the original circle laid out at Stonehenge. From these measurements the average distance between each of the 56 Aubrey holes to its adjacent neighbours can be calculated to be an average length of 15ft and 10 inches. This can readily be checked on site, if one can locate the individual Aubrey holes.

The same techniques can be applied to the sarsen circle, erected some 500 years later. The inside diameter, first accurately established by non other than the ‘founding father of modern archaeology’, Sir William Flinders Petrie during the 1860s, and subsequently found to be just that figure in more recent surveys, has the inner diameter of the lintel circle as 97.32 ft, outer value 104.27 ft, making the mean value 100.795 ft. I am not aware of anyone contesting Petrie’s survey figures, or terming them ‘speculative‘ or having emerged from the luunatic fringe? These lengths can hardly  be classed as ‘theoretical‘. They are what they are – fundamental lengths incorporated into the design of the only other circle to be built at Stonehenge, after that of the Aubrey circle.

So let me make it perfectly clear  what is implied within these measurements, which are neither theoretical nor can they be classed as speculative or nebulous. A good builder’s tape measure, or Google Earth are all that is required to check out the figures given above to well within a fraction of one percent. Even employing a good surveyor’s theodolite, the above values are extremely close, (within a quarter of one percent) to those triangulated lengths derived from angles to various points on these two circles, as was done during the Thom survey.

The Ratio between the two circles at Stonehenge 

Taking the mean values for the numerical diameters of each circle, then, forms the ratio 283.6/104.18. Expressed as a fraction, this which is within 99.92% of the value of the megalithic yard, or 2.72 ft.  Thom’s original estimate of this megalithic measure was derived from the original statistical treatment designed by the leading statisticians of the time (mid 1960s), of the measured diameters obtained from over 200 stone circles. His later mid 70s surveys at Stonehenge and Avebury, Brodgar and Carnac, lead him to amend this originally calculated value of 2.72 ft, to 2.722ft, which numerically is within 99.85% of the fraction given above.

For those with time on their hands, you may like to suggest what the  chances would be for these two fundamental measurements that define the only accurate true circles within the Stonehenge ditch and bank structure, to define numerically, in feet, the independently ‘arrived at’ value ascribed to this length by the top statisticians of the time, 2.72 feet (plus or minus 0.03 feet).

A second article will appear shortly to conclude this foray into the hoary recent history of Stonehenge and the interpretation of our national temple, with a view towards showing how unwise would be any major upheaval to the landscape around this sacred landscape.  There will also be some nice illustrations of the key issues concerning this vexatious threat to the future safety of the area around Stonehenge.

End of part one – Robin Heath, March 6th 2022]