WILTSHIRE, England – Britain’s most famous monument is back in the news this week, with an update on the progress of the proposed A303 road tunnel beneath the World Heritage Site.
The BBC reported today that the proposed scheme may finally obtain approval from the Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps: a Development Consent Order (DCO) has a revised deadline of 13th November for the decision, following a six-month Public Examination in 2019.
As we have reported previously in The Wild Hunt, the scheme has been highly controversial, with an array of archaeologists, historians, and Pagans aligned in opposition to the Highways England development.
In order to evaluate the situation, it is important to note that this is an iconic, emotive issue. Some of the language used has reflected that, like this meme:
The implication is that the monument is going to be sealed off from public view forever.
Mention of ‘bulldozers’ has also had some sections of the Pagan community up in arms, and there has also been the implication that the new road will run directly beneath the stones themselves, which is not the case.
However, many campaigners against the road scheme also concur that the A303 is a problem at this point. It is heavily congested, as it is too narrow for the volume of traffic at certain times of the day.
The current A303 runs across the winter sunset line, and traffic lights and noise are intrusive for those standing within or around the henge. Moreover, cars tend to slow down at this point, precisely so that their occupants can take a look at the stones. Much of the opposition agrees that a tunnel is necessary, but there is some consensus that a longer tunnel would be preferable, with growing calls for rescue archaeology to precede construction.
The Stonehenge site itself is huge, consisting of far more than the monument itself, and there are fears among both archaeologists and Pagans that artefacts which will tell us more about the site will be lost when the tunnel is excavated.
This is a legitimate concern: important discoveries about the site as a whole are still being made. The Unesco World Heritage Committee cautions that the new road could “impact adversely” the area. Professor Mike Parker Pearson, a leading expert on the site, points out that the proposed exit point will destroy the remnants of an ancient camp which may have been used by the henge’s builders.
TWH spoke to Pagans and asked for their views on the new road.
Esoteric writer Caroline Wise said, “I have so little faith in the cynical way works are tendered out in Britain, that I suppose I fear that the tunnel will be … shoddy, a track-and-trace type fiasco, jobs for the boys and girls in the chumocracy.”
She continued, “And fears of hiding archaeological finds, (or not recognising them), rather than stopping work. Workers who might pocket small finds, because they have no investment in the site except as a job for money… I have little faith these days in English Heritage, Historic England, National Trust, who give the impression of being all PR and marketing…
Wise also expressed her dislike of much of the modern magical usage of the site, “I equally don’t like the pagan rent-the-stones thing, as some kind of theatre backdrop for their ceremonies, whether Wicca, Modern druids, Thelema, Hermeticists, or any other malarky, it seems self-indulgent, so magically off, to project different magic onto the site and its own magical matrix, which has nothing to do with modern paganism or GD style occultism.”
Others, however, point out that the henge itself was substantially changed in 1958 when some of the stones were concreted into place, and it has also been pointed out that the Bronze Age barrows themselves are an intrusion on the Neolithic landscape: an interesting question of where we are to draw the temporal line when it comes to monuments in what is essentially a small and overcrowded country.
“For me personally, I know that the road is as it stands a major hazard and an eyesore. I would like to see the tunnel built, but with a serious programme of rescue archaeology put in place with all the time that may take, before works begin,” Charlotte Rooney said.
Activist and Druid Arthur Pendragon has taken issue with the road plans, stating in The Guardian that the light pollution from the western portal is aligned with the sunset at the winter solstice. However, we would note that this is not now correct, given that the road plans have changed. The proposed road is not now aligned with the Winter Solstice and will not intrude upon it, although the early 2017 iteration did have this configuration.
This was changed in September 2017 when the Western portal and alignment of the road was altered.
There is a general view among archaeologists that the initial proposal for the emergent point of traffic at the western end of the tunnel would have been disastrous according to the 2017 plans and there is some evidence that, although an early report in 2014 from English Heritage and the National Trust involved archaeological input, it did not take local knowledge sufficiently into consideration.
A local Pagan with an engineering background tells us that the report involves a “combination of … flawed methodology and appalling maths” and the report itself states that it was written in haste.
This Western portal question has now been substantially revised. Sources familiar with the project tell us that the new road and the proposed line is the path of least resistance. Putting the A303 in a cutting will take it out of the landscape, so on the current plans, unless you are right beside the road, you won’t see either the A303 or the traffic.
From the perspective of the Stonehenge landscape, the road will disappear and on the current plans, the interplay between all the monuments in the vicinity of the road will be preserved for anyone trying to understand the landscape. In addition, so will any site lines between all the known monuments.
There have been concerns that English Heritage and the National Trust have been backing this plan to remove the free view of the henge from the A303 and thus make more money. There is, however, no evidence for the claim and it does not make a great deal of sense, since the A303 is (unless you are stuck in a traffic jam) an extremely dangerous road on which to stop. Much of the surrounding National Trust land is open access and will remain so, and the current A303 itself will become a footpath since the main road is being diverted into a tunnel.
Vigilance among the British pagan community remains, however.
Wise expressed her concerns about those in charge of the decision process, “It appals me that decisions such as this and other road schemes are decided by the likes of Grant Shapps and Rishi Sunak and other MPs who don’t see the bigger picture of Stonehenge.”
She is also concerned about how any artefacts lying in the path of the tunnel might be handled, “I don’t like the idea of the tunnel, and I hope that it can be overseen and ultimately directed by really on the ball archaeologists, and that there is proper time for rescue archaeology. That Normanton Down and other remaining barrows are protected.”
Wise pointed out past failures, “A bit of context, remembering that successive governments have allowed the army to run riot over for Salisbury Plain for about 100 years, damaging hundreds of barrows and heaven knows what, with no understanding that structures like Stonehenge are not ‘stand alone’ phenomena, but part of a much bigger ritual landscape that works together.”
If the tunnel is to work, there is general agreement that:
- it must be drawn up properly and not in haste,
- Highways England, an organisation which does not have a stellar reputation in the U.K., gets construction right,
- at least a degree of rescue archaeology should be mounted and that due consideration must be given to the sites at the Western portal. The construction process itself will, obviously, be exceedingly disruptive and unsightly.
Anna Eavis, English Heritage’s curatorial director, whose responsibilities include Stonehenge, notes that the line of the road has already been archaeologically evaluated:
“We already have a good idea of what’s there and there will be a full programme of mitigation to ensure that any archaeology that isn’t preserved in situ is fully recorded.”
There are positive signs in this direction. The government announced at the end of October that Highways England has selected Wessex Archaeology, a major contractor in the sector, to undertake its Archaeological Mitigation Contract work. Wessex Archaeology will start their pre-planning, with fieldwork expected to continue until late spring 2021, if planning consent is granted for the scheme tomorrow.