Recent history of Stonehenge
The recent history of Stonehenge is the period from the nineteenth century onwards when widespread literacy, affordable mass travel and a growing body of archaeological knowledge propelled the site towards its role as an internationally famous, public monument that has been studied, adopted and exploited by numerous different groups.
Stonehenge is a place of pilgrimage for neo-druids and those following pagan or neo-pagan beliefs. The midsummer sunrise began attracting modern visitors in 1870s, with the first record of recreated Druidic practices dating to 1905 when the Ancient Order of Druids enacted a ceremony. Later the sun-worshipping Church of the Universal Bond adopted the site for their neo-Druidic rituals from 1912 until 1932 and, for a time, had permission from the First Commissioner of Works to inter the ashes of their dead there. Despite efforts by archaeologists to stress the differences among the Iron Age Druidic religion, the much older monument and modern Druidry, Stonehenge has become increasingly associated with rituals practised by white-robed Druids and Druidesses.
By the beginning of the 20th century many of the bluestones were leaning precariously, probably due to the increase in curious visitors clambering on them during the nineteenth century. Additionally two of the trilithons had fallen over during the modern era. Three phases of conservation work were undertaken which righted unstable or fallen stones and carefully replaced them in their original positions using information from antiquarian drawings.
The first of the significant excavations at Stonehenge was led by Colonel William Hawley and his assistant Robert Newall after the site had come into state hands in 1918(see Deed of Gift of Stonehenge dated 26 October 1918). He excavated portions of most of the features at Stonehenge and was the first to establish that it was a multi-phase site.
After the Second World War, the Universal Bond was permitted to re-commence its ceremonies although archaeologists such as Glyn Daniel and Stuart Piggott continued to campaign against what they saw as bogus Druidry throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
In 1950 the Society of Antiquaries commissioned Richard Atkinson, Stuart Piggott and John FS Stone to carry out further excavations. They recovered many cremations and developed the phasing that still dominates much of what is written about Stonehenge. More recent minor excavations have been held to mitigate the effects of electrical cables, sewage pipes, and footpaths.
In 2005, excavations as part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project uncovered the remains of what may have been a village for workers or festival-goers near Stonehenge. The site, next to Durrington Walls, about two miles from Stonehenge is also the location of a large timber monument. The floors of several homes have since been discovered, as well as tools, animal bones, arrowheads and several more monuments. The head of the project - Mike Parker Pearson - speculates that Stonehenge and Durrington Walls may have been connected by the nearby River Avon, as both monuments have Avenues which lead to the river. He further considers it possible that the area around Stonehenge may have been the burial area for people living around Durrington Walls, and would have made up a 'Domain of the dead', whilst the village was in the 'Domain of the living'.
According to historical researcher Michelle Wilson, "What we have been looking at is a 20th Century landscape, which is reminiscent of what Stonehenge MIGHT have been like thousands of years ago. It has been created by the heritage industry and is NOT the creation of prehistoric people. What we saw at the Millennium is less than 50 years old."
Stonehenge Roundtable Access
Including the year of the Battle of the Beanfield (1985) no access was allowed into the stones at Stonehenge for any religious reason. This 'exclusion zone' policy continued for almost fifteen years and until just before the arrival of the twenty-first century, visitors were not allowed to go into the stones at times of religious significance: the two Solstices (Winter and Summer) and two Equinoxes (Vernal and Autumnal).
However, now due to the Roundtable process and the 'Court of Human Rights' rulings gained by picketing by campaigners such as King Arthur Pendragon, some access had been gained four times a year. The 'Court of Human Rights' rulings recognises that members of any genuine religion have a right to worship in their own church, and Stonehenge is a place of worship to Neo-Druids, Pagans and other 'Earth based' or 'old' religions.
At the Summer Solstice 2003 which fell over a weekend over 30,000 people attended a gathering at and in the stones. The 2004 gathering was smaller (around 21,000 people).
The earlier rituals were augmented by the Stonehenge free festival, held between 1972 and 1984, and loosely organised by the Politantric Circle. However, in 1985 the site was closed to festivalgoers by English Heritage and the National Trust by which time the number of midsummer visitors had risen from 500 to 30,000. A consequence of the end of the festival was the violent confrontation between the police and New Age travellers that became known as the Battle of the Beanfield when police blockaded a convoy of travellers to prevent them from approaching Stonehenge. There was then no midsummer access for almost fifteen years until limited opening was negotiated in 2000.
In more recent years, the setting of the monument has been affected by the proximity of the A303 road between Amesbury and Winterbourne Stoke, and the A344. Projects for moving the road or placing it in a tunnel under the site have been proposed in the past, but these have often been opposed, as they are either too expensive or too destructive. In early 2003 the Department for Transport announced that the A303 would be upgraded, including the construction of the Stonehenge road tunnel.
In 1993 Stonehenge's presentation was condemned by the Public Accounts Committee of the British House of Commons as 'a national disgrace'. Even so, the plans for the new centre had aroused significant controversy especially from nearby landowners and residents. English Heritage proposed a new purpose-built facility 3 km from the stones at Countess Road in Amesbury, on the edge of the World Heritage Site boundary. Visitors would be ferried to and from drop-off points near the monument by land trains. They would then approach the stones themselves on foot for the final kilometre. The plans were, however, cancelled in September 2007.
Finally, in December 2013, a new visitors' centre was opened at Airman's Corner, west of the monument and close to the old junction of the A344, B3086 and the A360. The A344 was closed to road traffic and used only for shuttle buses to ferry visitors from the new centre to the monument itself.
- Chippendale, Christopher (2004). Stonehenge Complete. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28467-9.
- Ronald Hutton (July–August 2005). "From Universal Bond to Public Free-For-All" (subscription required). British Archaeology 83: 11.