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.
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 out 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 the inside of 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. 1964 was a time before the consequences of radiocarbon revolution had fully hit home within British archaeology. There was resistance from within the professions, Stuart Piggott was to describe 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. The site did not smell of illegal substances. 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.
In 1964, the whole experience probably only cost the 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. Now the price is a minimum of £25 and double that if one wishes to enter the inner sanctum of the monument.
Since those hopeful times, Stonehenge has had to endure the curse of having not just one, but two Visitor’s 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, people like me danced in the street, and no one believed it possible that its replacement could be other than an improvement. 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 more poetic reader could fudge up a suitable second line).
I remain confident that this design fits perfectly into HRH, The Prince of Wales’s admirable category of being classifiable 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 tawdry image would be some clapped out Dakotas parked up on the nearby straight runway formed by the now redundant A344. Instead we get clapped out coaches ( after clapped out Landrovers with worn out gearboxes). One can only pray that God so loves nearby Avebury that here she will spare that other very special site, the need of a Visitor’s Centre.
No one can look me in the eye and say that this grotty monstrosity has much to tell us about one of the most sacred monuments in the world. It does, however, reveal 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 from such tampering.
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 pure kitsch, Disneyland for sale on Salisbury Plain yet my brother (Richard) was informed during a tour to Stonehenge that this single item was the most popular must-have in the Stonehenge souvenir ‘shop’.
Everyone who knows someone who works for English Heritage will probably have heard them relate that that Stonehenge is the perfect milch–cow, 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 of these disciplines are objectively measurable and are about measuring), 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 their own sentence :’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.’ defines Stonehenge as exactly that – a temple = i.e. a sacred place of special religious and cultural significance. The writers of this consultation document failed to tackle the implications of Stonehenge being a temple.
So just what did Stonehenge have on 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, where WHS sites must,
- 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 we call Stonehenge fits all three of these criteria, almost rendering this big fat and no doubt enormously expensive Consultation Draft redundant and unnecessary.
This 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 an early death for the future of the New Visitor centre, just as surely as was the fate of any new wife for Henry VIII.
The following observations have been 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 now cut to the chase.
A STUDY IN SELECTIVE PREHISTORY
Any 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 refer, of course, 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 them as having once been 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 caused by the 1985 midsummer ‘Battle of the Beanfield‘ had begun to fade a little from public interest . 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. Or bluestones from West Wales.
The earliest known Surviving Geometry at Stonehenge
The construction of the Aubrey holes was the earliest example of geometry being applied to the henge site, taking place around 3150 BC. It is the largest circular structure on the site, an accurate circular structure averaging 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 is 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.
The Ever Diminishing Aubrey Circle
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 Everard, on 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, perhaps by that fit man with the push lawn mower. By 2005, this number had declined to twenty-one markers, while in 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 present archaeological narrative of the monument, which has always been highly speculative and avoiding of astronomical, geometrical or metrological information.
In 2021, I led a special access group of twenty-five people onto the site, including an English Heritage employee, 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 fibreglass tape, accurate to better than an inch in 20 feet, 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 cisumference of the Aubrey circle is minutely different from this figure. When divided by pi, 891.464 ft becomes the mean radius of 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 exact positions of the centres of the Aubrey holes were each identified by Professor Richard Atkinson, and they were then 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 and identify them, during 1972 and 73, as surveying data points, 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 JHA in 1974. This extensive report was largely ignored by archaeologists, who on any case do not read the JHA. 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 concerning these dimensions for the original circle laid out at Stonehenge. From them 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 could locate the individual Aubrey holes. But they have mysteriously and quite slowly, year on year, become an endangered species.
The Dimensions of the Sarsen Circle
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, listed the inner diameter of the lintel circle as 97.32 ft, the 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 lunatic fringe? And 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 earlier 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 figure is within 99.92% of the numerical value of the megalithic yard, or 2.7, recogniseable only because we still know and employ the foot measure. Think on that!
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 (±0.03 feet). You may also like to ponder on origin and ancestry of the foot measure.
Summary of Part One
A second article is in preparation in order 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. Those of you who have read my three part article on Woodhenge (available on this website) will only too clearly understand that there’s plenty of new evidence available on this site that would be lost forever by any major disturbance to the Stonehenge landscape caused by the proposed new road system.
The crisis is very real, for archaeologists do not yet recognise the significance of megalithic science within their remit, and those in Government who will press the trigger on the future of Stonehenge may have never been shown the material described in the above article because any consulting archaeologist won’t be making it available! What a mess!
This vexatious threat to the future safety of the area around Stonehenge urgently needs people who understand that the lunatic fringe is and always has been the shadow side of those that refuse to consider megalithic science as being other than a fantasy.
End of part one