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Stonehenge at Risk?
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There is a silent debate going on in Britain about the future of Stonehenge and its surroundings. The outcome of this debate has implications for what is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

Sarah Whittaker investigates.

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THE CURRENT debate concerns what to do about the two roads that pass close to the Stonehenge site and how any changes should be carried out. At the moment Stonehenge occupies a site on a triangle of land between the A303 trunk road and the A344. The A344 passes very close to the stones, with the Heel stone almost within an armís length of the fence along the edge of the road. Fortunately the A344 is relatively quiet with not much traffic, the majority being that going to and from the visitors centre. A greater problem, however, is the slightly more distant A303, which carries much more traffic and passes within 300 yards of the centre of the circle. The whole Stonehenge site, including its henge proper (an earthworks ditch and bank) but not including the many surrounding barrows and other archaeological features, is about 150 yards across which gives an impression of how close the A303 is to the outside of the circle.

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Naturally there has been debate, over many years, about what to do with Stonehenge and its surroundings but in recent years a plan has been proposed. The suggestion, supported by the likes of English Heritage, the National Trust, the Highways Agency, and the Department for Culture Media and Sport, is to close the A344 and place the A303 in a tunnel for just over a mile where it runs to the south of Stonehenge.

Since 1986 Stonehenge has been inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This designation gives World Heritage Sites special status in terms of how they should be treated by local and national governments, and other authorities. When World Heritage status was awarded at the request of the British Government there was an undertaking to close the A344 as well as the completion of a Management Plan with minimum delay. The current proposal would be part of the plan promised but not everybody is happy about the proposal.Image copyright Winged Feet Limited, 2002

The proposal, particularly the intention to extend the dual carriageway section of the A303 past Stonehenge, putting it in a "cut and cover" tunnel has seen considerable resistance and if it goes ahead we may see the re-emergence of roads protesters so prominent in Britain in the Eighties and Nineties. Amongst those who are against the proposal are the World Archaeological Congress, RESCUE (The British Archaeological Trust), Transport 2000 and various local branches of organisations such as the Green Party and Friends of the Earth. There are, also, numerous small scale but very local protest groups who are against the project. Furthermore the Prehistoric Society and the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) are undecided but have strong reservations. Perhaps these two undecided groups describe the situation most clearly when Peter Stone of the CBA says:

"While it is clear that there is a real opportunity to remove the vast majority of the modern intrusions in that landscape, the opportunity should not blind us to our wider responsibility to preserve and conserve as much of that landscape as possible".

Image copyright Winged Feet Limited, 2002The Prehistoric Society have said that:

"The Society believes it is essential that there should be an independent assessment of the cost of a long-bored tunnel to act as a comparison for the proposed cut-and-cover tunnel. The destruction [of] 13.5 hectares of the most archaeologically sensitive land surface in Europe, within a World Heritage Site, may be something which future generations will find hard to understand."

The point of all this is that Stonehenge does not exist in isolation. It has stood in a landscape for thousands or years consisting of a wide open plain surrounded by local features including round and long barrows, trackways, field systems and other earthworks such as the massive Cursus less than a mile to the north.

Image copyright Winged Feet Limited, 2002The site of the tunnel and the disruption that will be required to build it, according to RESCUE, covers 20-30 hectares of landscape. This area, whether it is 13.5 hectares or 20-30 hectares, includes a number of archaeological sites.

Members of the Stonehenge Alliance have compared the surrounding archaeological features to the buildings surrounding a mediaeval cathedral. Would the preservation of an ancient cathedral not also include the preservation of its cathedral close? In fact, Article 1 of the World Heritage Convention, where it concerns the protection of buildings, defines them as follows:

"Groups of separate or connected buildings which, because of their architecture, their homogeneity or their place in the landscape, are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science."

The relevant detail then is that the landscape should be as much a consideration of the preservation as is the building concerned. On the exact same subject the UNESCO web site, where it lists all the 721 World Heritage Sites says of Stonehenge "These holy places and the various nearby Neolithic sites offer an incomparable testimony to prehistoric times." (Emphasis added.)

Image copyright Winged Feet Limited, 2002The British Prime minister, Tony Blair, as long ago as 1998 said that he did not support the building of a deep-bored tunnel on the grounds of cost. This objection from Blair comes even though English Heritage had published a list of 16 sites that would be affected by the cut and cover tunnel proposal. The list includes some of the barrows, trackways and field systems that make up the landscape of the site. Many of the barrows that will be affected by the proposed tunnel have already been damaged by ploughing. However, in archaeology as anything else, two wrongs don't make a right and if anything remains of them surely they are worth preserving.

Peter Alexander-Fitzgerald, of the Stonehenge Alliance, has commented on the argument of the cost of a deep-bored tunnel. He said that Practice Policy Guidance documents numbered 15 and 16 say that the key consideration in the preservation of World Heritage Sites should be the good of the site and not any financial issues.

It is interesting to see this whole project in the light of other plans to upgrade the A303 which is a major trunk road running East-West through southern Wiltshire. The rest of the plan is to build a four-lane bypass (two lanes in each direction), past Winterbourne Stoke, which would mean that the road was a continuous dual carriageway from the M3 Motorway, past Stonehenge to just beyond Deptford. The whole project would constitute a relatively short stretch of the A303, the whole of which runs from the M3 to Exeter. About half of the road is currently dual carriageway so adding a few more miles of dual carriageway would make only a small difference to the journey time to Exeter. However, if this project were to go ahead it might then open up the remainder of the road to widening if the bottleneck at Stonehenge had been removed.

Image copyright Winged Feet Limited, 2002Furthermore, it seems this is a Highways Agency project with support from English Heritage and the National Trust rather than the other way around. So one has to ask, just who is pulling the strings? The original commitment to UNESCO was to resolve the issues surrounding the World Heritage site, not to provide a few more miles of dual carriageway and a bypass for Winterbourne Stoke (no matter how much they might need one). If the motivation is to resolve the issues of the landscape then why has a smaller road not been proposed, when such a project would clearly be a lesser blight on the landscape?

Should this project go ahead, and it leads to the general opening up of the A303 from end to end, the future looks bleak for Stonehenge. The end result, in perhaps ten or twenty years, would be that there was an almost direct, straight route from London to Exeter, on a fast multi-carriageway road, that would be an alternative to the often congested M4 Motorway. The increase in usage of such a road could mean that in years to come we would be saying that the widened A303, with its heavy load of traffic and even with the Stonehenge Tunnel, was causing considerable impact on the World Heritage site. So we would be right back where we are now.

English Heritage, along with the Highways Agency and the National Trust, set up a web site which gave details of the whole master plan (the site is no longer in operation). Their site talked about supporters of the plan but it said little or nothing of the controversy surrounding the tunnel. Furthermore, the whole web site was revealed to be a PR exercise when you looked at the "Tell us what you think" page. They gave six questions, to which you could only answer "Agree" or "Disagree", with a small box for further comments. The questions are clearly designed to elicit agreements. Nobody visiting the site will have disagreed with any of these questions. No doubt, when the time comes, the responses to this so-called consultation will be wheeled out saying that not one disagreement was received from the public visiting the web site.

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Whatever the rights and wrongs of this debate there needs to be an increase in the public awareness of the project. Obviously something needs to be done about Stonehenge and its setting. Parts of the master plan seem very attractive, returning the landscape to its natural wildlife and removing the visual impact of fencing, car parks and visitors centres as well as the roads. But we have to be very careful that we don't accept the negative just because it is wrapped up with the positive. At the very least lets have a proper deep-bored tunnel or we could insist that the roads are removed from the World Heritage Site altogether. Investigations for the complete removal of the roads have been made but they have been rejected as too expensive. Expense, on the other hand, is a relative thing. If this was a village rather than an archaeological site, would they be suggesting a tunnel? There probably isn't a village in Britain with a tunnel instead of a bypass. Why is Stonehenge considered less important than a village full of tax paying people?

Archaeologists and pagans alike are now engaged in a campaign to bring this to the attention of the wider public, at the same time as campaigning to government ministers, members of parliament and the Director of the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO in Paris. The Stonehenge Alliance has a web site with a great deal of information. The Philosophers Stone is happy to publicise this campaign, and as a web site that gets more visitors from the USA than Britain we hope to make this a global issue. Of course, doing things globally is the whole point of World Heritage Sites.

Whatever you do next, donít stop after reading this article. Make this your first step in saving Stonehenge.

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