ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 55, October 2000


Are we really going to dig a tunnel under Stonehenge? If so, those to come may wonder how it came about that this feature was added to the monument in a late flurry of activity.

There are going to be enough difficulties in the here and now explaining why drivers on the A303 should plunge underground for a while, but interpretation of the tunnel in the future will pose as difficult a problem as any previous Stonehenge conundrum. Succeeding generations of archaeologists will soon get to grips with Stonehenge itself and its surrounding cursus and barrows (although by reading our books they will rapidly find out that we didn't have a clue). But what will they make of the tunnel?

Presumably they will try out old theories, such as that it is lined up on some rising or falling heavenly body. Then they will dabble with new theories, like the one from Madagascan parallels that no one went to the monument after it was built, so the tunnel was intended as an underground bypass for the living to avoid a place of the dead. Or perhaps they will consider whether it augments sounds, as in Irish passage graves, so that a drum in the tunnel can be heard in the snug of the Rusty Trowel in Amesbury.

Or will they puzzle over whether it was a Bronze Age shaft, like the one nearby at Wilsford, that got its angles wrong and instead of going straight down shot off to the side? Or, more radically, will they suggest instead that Wilsford was intended to be horizontal but its diggers lost their bearings in all that chalk?

All of this came about because a group of MPs from the Commons public accounts committee were dragged away from the metropolis, poor things, and shown around Stonehenge - whose visitor centre they promptly declared a national disgrace (no classy eatery?). Little did they guess the number of meetings and committees their afternoon out would lead to. Actually there's a point of view that the visitor centre is on rather a homely and unimposing scale, and that as the years go by it will become more of a rarity amongst those that overawe their attractions. We might come to miss it.

Come to think of it, any culturally sensitive person who went to one of the rare debates on archaeology in the House of Commons would very likely brand the debate a national disgrace (ie, the value of our heritage? - billions to the tourist trade).

Anyway, the heritage world took the MPs to mean that it would be nice to get rid of cars near Stonehenge, and so shifted the whole question of its presentation onto whether cars should be in attendance. One can think of many places that cars would preferably be banned from. What about all the asthmatic children at city black spots, or the perplexed pensioners trying to get the broken-down crossing lights to change, or the crumbling buildings in medieval cities trembling amidst the incessant roar? There must be places that suffer more from traffic than Stonehenge Bottom.

Shouldn't archaeologists apply their time scales to the present? After all, the lifespan of the motor car will probably be roughly AD 1930-2030 - from the time perspective of Stonehenge, the equivalent of a flint settling into an Aubrey hole. It looks instead as though we are trying to protect our ancient sites from our modern day selves. Maybe the next thing is that all visitors to sites will have to dress in appropriate costume.

In the case of Stonehenge it seems that we will not allow the poor monument to see how we got there. The cars and coaches will all have to cower out of sight with only limited numbers of pedestrians in view. The message then would be that our heritage has nothing to say to the present - surely not what we think?

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