Sunday 7 November 1993

Stonehenge Past Present And Future

Low, the famous Evening Standard cartoonist, gave a
characteristic interpretation of the 1929 Stonehenge Fund appeal.


Every generation has puzzled over the question of who built Stonehenge, and at one time antiquarians thought the monument was built by the Romans.

The meeting room at Warminster Library was packed on the evening of 1st November 1993, when archaeologist Julian Richards gave a talk on Stonehenge, Past, Present And Future, to the Warminster History Society.

Mr. Richards, who described himself as a pre-historian with a particular interest in the Neolithic Bronze Age, spent nearly eight years working for Wessex Archaeology on an intensive study of the prehistoric landscape around Stonehenge. He lives at Shaftesbury.

"Our understanding of Stonehenge and its environs has grown since the 17th and 18th century antiquarians first looked at it," said Mr. Richards. "Their concept of time scales was different, and they regarded the monument on Salisbury Plain as Roman, because of its structural elements of classical architecture."

One of the first field observers was a fascinating character called Dr. William Stukely (1687-1765). He saw a landscape of untouched downland, and was the first person to note the linear enclosure now known as the Stonehenge Cursus.

He encouraged people to look at features in the landscape beyond the stone circle, but, by the time the results of his findings were published 20 years later, he had unfortunately become obsessed with druid theories.

Two men, Richard Colt Hoare of the Stourhead banking family, and William Cunnington, a self-made merchant from Heytesbury, collaborated on great programmes of investigation in the early 1800s.

Hoare was fascinated with the past, and Cunnington, who suffered from ill health, was told by his doctors to "ride out or die". While on horseback on Salisbury Plain he became interested in the many tumuli he saw.

The Hoare/Cunnington partnership proved a long and fruitful one. Together, with great zeal, they investigated the incredible number of Bronze Age burial mounds in the Warminster area, and were eventually drawn towards Stonehenge.

Their recording of finds was very good for the time, and they used the services of a draughtsman called Philip Crocker to illustrate the archaeological features. His drawings of the Winterbourne Stoke barrow cemetery show every type of burial mound, including disc, pond and long barrows.

The method of excavation by Hoare and Cunnington was rudimentary compared to today. Using the labouring help of the Parkers (father and son), they dug down from the top centre of each barrow in search of objects. They left the bones of any human occupants in the mounds.

Hoare's work with Cunnington was published in the book The Ancient History Of Wiltshire.

Colt Hoare said of Stonehenge: "How grand? How wonderful? How incomprehensible?"

The richness of finds in the Stonehenge area prompted the term 'The Wessex Culture', and was typified by the goods discovered in the Bush Barrow. From these we learn that Bronze Age man was an imposing person of great wealth and power. Julian was quick to point out that the individuals who built and used Stonehenge were not the skin-clad savages often portrayed in books.

More recent excavations around Stonehenge concern our understanding about people in the landscape - how they lived and farmed. They cleared the dense woodland, growing the first cereal crops in clearings, and by the early part of the Bronze Age the downland was being maintained by keeping goats and sheep.

Bronze Age man had well-defined settlements - small farmsteads in the midst of regular fields with trackways between them.

What of the present and future for Stonehenge? Julian Richards reminded his audience that MP Kim Howells had described Stonehenge as: "a national disgrace." Another well-used phrase was: "Something must be done." The current facilities for Stonehenge have been called basic and ripe for improvement.

A crude attempt at portraying chronology had, thankfully, now gone. You saw the drawings as you approached the stones via the tunnel under the A344 road; and the illustrations, on signboards near the well-trodden path around the monument had raised a few smiles. Julian highlighted the artistic licence of the painter who was commissioned to do the signs - here could be seen Kirk Douglas, George Best and Michael Heseltine, of all people, disguised as the men who built Stonehenge!

The annual free pop festival at Stonehenge, now banned, had a horrendous effect on the archaeological features in the landscape, but Julian reminded the audience that Stonehenge was built neither as a tourist attraction nor as an ancient monument. "1983 BC," he said, "was probably no different to 1983 AD, with crowds gathering for the midsummer celebration."

The future? Plans to improve facilities with a visitor centre, to re-route the A303, and the grassing over of the A344, are raising contentious issues between English Heritage, the National Trust, the Department of Transport, the Army, archaeologists and the many interested parties. These include a group of ex-Hell's Angels motorcyclists who passionately believe they are the reincarnate souls of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Opinions are divided, but Julian said the proposed 'grey route' for the new A303 road would most likely be chosen. Julian said this was archaeologically damaging, and was probably an attempt to prevent passers-by from getting a free glimpse of a world heritage site.

The route goes near the North Kite, a quiet area of the Stonehenge landscape, and this, said Julian, was "a great shame." The visitor centre would probably be built in the Larkhill area, despite the prospect of a multi-million pounds expansion of Army resources there.

Julian concluded: "The results of the current discussion and proposals for Stonehenge had the potential for both enhancing and damaging the landscape."

A vote of thanks for a very informative evening was given by Warminster History Society Chairman Mike Ednay.

Report written by Danny Howell.