ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 53, June 2000


For and against moving monuments - and Seahenge

From Mr David Miles

Sir: Simon Denison equates the excavation of Seahenge with the transfer of Oxford's LMS railway station to another site (`One step to the left, two steps back', April). The two cases were not comparable. The Victorian station was moved to make way for a road-widening scheme. The Bronze Age timber circle was recorded because it was being rapidly and inevitably destroyed by the sea.

The Norfolk Archaeological Unit carried out detailed studies supported by the work of marine coastal experts. The Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee then gave careful consideration to the results and options. AMAC recommended what, in the good old days, was called rescue excavation - not to move the structure but to record it before loss. There was no viable means of in situ preservation.

Seahenge was a marvellously evocative site, though no more built in the sea than the Aswan temples were built in a reservoir. If left alone, we could have had the dubious pleasure of watching a unique structure disintegrate in perhaps a couple of years. I cannot accept Mr Denison's argument that `knowledge, for its own sake, is among the most trivial of substances'. As an archaeologist and human being I regard it as fairly fundamental.

Yours sincerely,
David Miles
Chief Archaeologist
English Heritage
5 May

From Mr David Baker

Sir: The problems associated with Oxford LMS railway station and Seahenge were different, and moving was done for quite different reasons, one arguably cynical, and the other at the very worst for well-intentioned reasons of research.

Moving Seahenge was indeed done in order properly to `photograph it, film it, write about it'. Conservation and preservation on a new site is a separate decision that does not have to follow. But if the decision is taken, it accepts the inevitability of loss of primary position, itself reflecting widespread public sentiment that Seahenge should in some way be kept.

The location of Seahenge in 1999 reflected a terminal stage on its decay-path, in an environment dramatically altered from that in which the mysteries associated with its original creation occurred. Many of the feelings aroused by Seahenge derived from what are just its modern surroundings - the potent combination of sky and shoreline.

It is well worth discussing tensions between feelings and knowledge, and why they got so intense over Seahenge. But apparently giving overriding priority to the former is bound to be misunderstood, given that archaeology is a knowledge-based activity. It opens the door to all manner of distortions that select from, ignore or deny the actual evidence.

Those who wanted to leave Seahenge to the sea were saying in effect that we should not interfere with the decay path, even in the interests of understanding more about past humanity. I'm not sure that everyone would agree.

Yours sincerely,
David Baker
25 April

From Mr Peter Pickering

Sir: Simon Denison argues against the moving of monuments in order to preserve them, claiming that after a monument has been moved `the magic has gone'.

I have recently visited open air museums in Stockholm, Riga and Lublin (Poland). Old buildings have been lovingly re-erected, and are much more accessible and atmospheric in a peaceful woodland setting than they would be modernised for the necessities of today's lifestyle and surrounded by incongruous developments. They are available to the student of different regional building techniques, and serve to keep local urbanised people in touch with their ancestral rural way of life.

Closer to home, think of Crosby Hall. Sir Thomas More's old house was not made sterile by being moved before the First World War from the City of London, where it was under threat of demolition, to Chelsea. Indeed, the fact of its movement has become part of its history.

As for Seahenge, any tears I shed at the Channel 4 programme were of laughter, and I was disturbed not by the excavation but by the signs that the forces of unreason are growing in our society. One serious problem with Mr Denison's emphasis on the priority of feeling over knowledge is that we can be as affected as much by fiction as by fact. It is knowledge that enables us to distinguish fiction from fact, and it is the thirst for knowledge that is the mark of humankind.

Yours sincerely,
Peter Pickering
London N12
26 April

From Mrs Valerie Fenwick

Sir: I was absolutely delighted to read Simon Denison's piece on the moving of monuments. The same pressure to move and rebuild is being applied to historic shipwrecks and needs equally to be resisted. For those who have dived upon an untouched shipwreck the experience is described as very moving indeed. Large numbers of people participate in recreational diving. For those who do not, technology is becoming available for `visiting' underwater sites using submarines.

Yet archaeologists who seek to prevent a shipwreck from being excavated and often moved to dry land as a commercial venture or to provide a museum display are criticised by the public for `keeping everything for themselves', and by their colleagues for countenancing a leave-alone policy which will lead to eventual destruction by human and natural agencies.

Yours sincerely,
Valerie Fenwick
17 April

From Mr Mike Williams

Sir: I was interested to read Simon Denison's opinions on the Seahenge excavation. However his comments on `pagans, druids, eco-warriors or any other form of crank' cannot go unchallenged.

He implies that these people should not be taken seriously when it comes to decisions about our archaeological heritage but instead prefers to listen to `intelligent people' or a `professional woman in her mid-30's'. Such an attitude is both divisive and exclusionist. If we are to have a multi-vocal archaeology that fully engages with the public at large then we cannot dictate whose views are to be listened to and whose should be ignored.

Ironically, many pagans, druids and eco-warriors would probably agree with the sentiments of Mr Denison's article. It is just a shame that he denigrates their views to advance his own.

Yours faithfully,
Mike Williams
20 April

From Ms Polly Bolton

Sir: I appreciated Simon Denison's article, and I was especially upset by the destruction of Seahenge which I regard as one of the worst cases of environmental rape I have ever seen.

I watched the Time Team programme on the excavation with increasing disbelief and horror as this ancient site was decimated. The site was said to be `fragile' - so fragile, in fact, that they had to use a JCB to drag the ancient timbers from where they had been carefully placed 4,000 years ago.

I could see no good reason for the removal of the monument other than the acquisitive barmyness of some archaeologists, one of whom, on the Channel 4 programme, was particularly unpleasant with her sneering trivialisation of the obvious grief displayed by onlookers at the henge's destruction.

Yours sincerely,
Polly Bolton
21 April

From Prof Philip Rahtz

Sir: Simon Denison's piece on the moving of archaeological sites suggests he has forgotten what archaeology is about. It's true that the creation of a facsimile of a monument in another place is a poor substitute for the original. But it is little short of archaeological heresy to suggest that anything found is more important than the knowledge gained by studying it.

The purpose of archaeology is to understand the past by studying its material culture. Mr Denison's view plays right into the hands of the lunatic, `feeling', tear-rolling non-archaeologists.

Yours sincerely,
Philip Rahtz
Helmsley, York
28 April

We welcome letters from readers. They may be emailed to Mike Pitts the Editor at or faxed to 01904 671384. They may be edited.

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology and individual authors, 2000