I have had the privilege of being involved in archaeology in both the UK and to a lesser extent here in New Zealand. If you have read my bio you would know that I taught archaeology to University students and adult education students in Cornwall and here in NZ I am a volunteer with the archaeology department at the Auckland Museum.
Recently as part of the latter I was involved in a Bioblitz event on the Coromandel Peninsula. Over this three-day event first the local schools and then on the Saturday the community were invited to participate in a range of activities, mostly to do with the natural environment. Members of the Auckland Museum, DoC Rangers and prominent locals encouraged the children and adults alike to look deeply at the world around them.
For the first time the archaeologists were also involved and for our part we conducted a mock excavation on the beach for the school children as a way of engaging them in what it is that archaeologists do – it was an interesting experiment and it certainly brought to light an issue that is prevalent within the average New Zealanders mindset.
At the beginning of each session the curator, Louise Furey, would ask each group what they thought archaeology was, ‘what do archaeologists do?’ And yes, you guessed it each and every group came back with, ‘digging for dinosaurs/fossils/treasure’. They can of course be forgiven after all they were just children and the forty-five minutes we had them with us was probably not enough time to get across the complexity that is archaeology.
However, what it did do was get me thinking – why is archaeology in New Zealand so invisible?
Even as a university student here in Auckland when people asked me what I was studying and told them archaeology/anthropology they either did not what they were or once again I would get the old, ‘so you dig up dinosaurs?’ It was frustrating in the least…
Moving to the UK, studying and teaching archaeology there was a completely different game. Archaeology in the UK does not need to explained, only the occasional person who thought they were being funny would mention dinosaurs and thanks to numerous tv shows (Time Team, Meet the Ancestors and others) it was much more main stream. As a teacher of adult education there was no end to those who were keen to learn about archaeology and when I came back to NZ I attempted to start adult education classes in archaeology locally but the uptake was so small (3 or 4 at the most) that it was not viable. So why might this be?
I believe ultimately it comes down to people’s perception of the past and perhaps comparing NZ to the UK is not fair, the two countries have vastly different histories but I do think we can learn something from the UK on how to promote the past as being a place everyone can visit and learn from.
I have on several occasions had people ask me if there was any archaeology in New Zealand – they are surprised to learn that not only is the answer is ’YES!’ but that is somewhere around 70,000 archaeological sites in the country, not bad for some 800 years of human occupation. Here is the problem, in comparing ourselves with other countries which have a much longer history we do ourselves a disservice, convinced that our past is not as exciting or as interesting as others we disregard it; archaeology, heritage, history take a back seat and in the case of archaeology become virtually invisible.
Archaeology in NZ has for many years been the domain of professionals and academics which has in effect built a wall between themselves and the general public that was almost impossible to climb over. Changing perceptions takes time and this process has already begun with events such as Bioblitz and New Zealand Archaeology Week which actively involve and educate the public, the enthusiastic amateur. But there is still work to be done, education is vitally important and whilst we do not want people digging up sites (please do not do this, not only is it highly illegal and get you into a whole lot of trouble – about $50,000 worth of trouble – it is ethically wrong), we do want to encourage awareness, understanding and respect.
“Archaeology is one of the most questioned aspects of heritage. The questions are often negative and many highlight a significant misunderstanding on the important role archaeology plays in Aotearoa New Zealand.”
Why is archaeology important in New Zealand? In essence, because our oldest heritage can only be found beneath the ground and reading the evidence in a careful and controlled way is the domain of the archaeologist. Andrew Coleman titled his column ‘Archaeology – the unsung hero of history and heritage’ and he is right it is the unsung hero. Without it our picture of the past would be incomplete, there is only so much standing buildings, documents, oral histories and the humps and bumps of the landscape can tell us. Each are important individually but together with the archaeological knowledge a much more complete picture can be had.
It is the kiwi way not to blow our own trumpet but instead we wait for someone else to notice what we are doing and then tell the world – are we as archaeologists too shy to say ‘hey look at us, we’re important too!’ Perhaps we are just tired of the dinosaur jokes and the Indiana Jones references…Maybe it is here we could look to the UK and the way in which archaeology has connected to the media (Daily Mail headlines not included). Television in particular has played a significant role in awakening the public archaeological interest but it does require the archaeologists to join in. There have been several interesting albeit short lived tv shows here in NZ that have attempted to follow in these footsteps and had the potential to show the masses our unique and fascinating past.
In my own rather humble opinion awareness of archaeology in this country begins with education, not just at university level but at primary and high school. Archaeology is after all one of those subjects which encompasses all aspects of the school curriculum regardless of level. Maths, English, geography, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, environmental science, economics, statistics, computer studies, art, history, technical drawing, photography and more are all subject’s archaeology includes in its parameters. So why isn’t it being taught as a part of the school curriculum, to our children who are the future custodians of our heritage? More specifically why isn’t New Zealand archaeology being taught to our youngsters?
We often encourage our children to be themselves, to not compare themselves with others, to accept their unique points, to celebrate that which makes them different. Perhaps it is time we started doing the same to our past, to celebrate not just the parts that are visible but that which is unseen and underground, to say cheers to the archaeology!
Addendum – I am sure there are some who might read this article and say why would I care, after all I did leave New Zealand to study and work in the UK and that would be fair to ask. At the time of finishing my BA at Auckland University in the mid-90s, I could see that opportunities for me would be limited, this combined with a desire to travel (it’s a kiwi thing) and a long-standing interest in British archaeology it was only natural for me to head overseas. But I have been back now for almost fifteen years watching from the side lines and my enthusiasm and love of the subject has not waned. It does not matter where I am, for myself it is the understanding of the past that matters and archaeology is central to this.
In this the
second part of my small study of land use and settlement in the Upper Waitemata
we are staying within the area defined in part one – from Island Bay to
Kendall’s Bay, keeping within the coastal strip. This part will take a look at the early colonial/settler
history of the area, with the emphasis being on the early or pre-WWII. After this point in time there is plenty of
written records and several good books written on the history of Birkenhead and
I have no desire to rehash already well-known information.
Captain James Cook sailed through the Hauraki Gulf past Waiheke Island and made
a note that there might be sheltered harbours to the west. The only other Europeans around at the end of
the eighteenth century were whalers and as of yet no records have been found of
any exploration into the upper Waitemata.
It appears that it is not until 1820 that Europeans began to show an
interest in this sheltered inland harbour.
Samuel Marsden is often credited with being the first to explore the area, in
his diaries he states that he left the HMS Coromandel at Waiheke and was guided
by Te Morenga to Riverhead where he then travelled overland to the Kaipara
River – a route travelled by Maori for centuries.
next twenty years there were undoubtedly forays by other Europeans into the
Waitemata, perhaps looking for timber and other such opportunities however
their stories are as yet unknown. In
1840 the HMS Herald was the next major ship to visit the Waitemata, onboard was
the Lieutenant Governor of NZ Hobson and the Surveyor General Felton
Matthew. They spent the next two weeks
exploring the harbour – Herald Island is named after the ship and of course
Hobsonville after the Governor who had initially favoured the place as the capital
of New Zealand.
further afield from our area of study there are records from around this time
which make a note of sailors rowing up Hellyers Creek to a place called The
Lagoon to restock their freshwater supplies, however, “it has also been recorded that in 1841 a Mr Hellyer, lived on the bank
of the creek which now bears his name.
He brewed beer which no doubt was a great incentive to those earlier
seamen who rowed up the harbour…”
In 1841 our
area of study was part of a large land purchase called the Mahurangi Block, it
extended from Takapuna/Devonport to Te Arai and encompassed the majority of the
present-day North Shore. The first parcels of land to be auctioned in 1844 were
between Northcote and Lake Pupuke. Much of the early purchases in the
Birkenhead area were part of a land speculation trend without the land being
settled or farmed. Significant chunks of
land sold were the area from Rangitira Rd/Beach Rd to Soldiers Bay which was
sold to William Brown in 1845 and the area from Balmain and Domain Rds to the
shore encompassing one hundred and ten acres being sold to a James Woolly also
in 1845. However, it does not seem that
either of them actually lived here. It
was common practice for land to bought speculatively and sold on in smaller
parcels to settlers fresh off the boat so to speak, such as the ‘Tramway
Company’ a land development company who bought large tracts of land in what is
settlers of the Birkenhead area who are known were Henry Hawkins, Hugh McCrum,
John Creamer, Joseph Hill, James Fitzpatrick and William Bradney. All of whom appeared to have had a go at
farming but little else is known about them.
those early settlers who chose the Birkenhead area were in for a hard time, as
mentioned in part one the soil was not conducive to farming in the traditional
sense. Settlement was a rather slow
process particularly when compared to other parts of the North Shore and
Auckland. Not surprising when faced with
the prospect of clearing the bush before they could even build themselves a
dwelling. Many of the early dwellings
were simple one room nikau whares, constructed of sod walls with a raupo or
nikau thatched roof. As they cleared the
bush often deposits of kauri gum would be found and sold ensuring a source of
most of these early farmers only managed a subsistence living, there were the
occasional success story. Birkenhead
became quite well known for its fruit orchards, the first of which was
established by Henry Hawkins. There are
two differing accounts as to where Hawkins had his orchard, some maintain it
was near Soldiers Bay and others say it was on the ridge where Birkenhead Ave
now runs. It is of course possible that
both are correct, one of the earliest estates to be subdivided and sold was the
Balmain Estate (also known as the Balmain Township) which extended over a much
wider area than just the Balmain Rd of today.
The steep sided valley of Soldiers Bay would appear to not be conducive
to a fruit orchard, the thick kauri groves would have been quite a hindrance to
say the least. However, an advertisement
in the local paper for 1855 has H J Hawkins selling 700 fruit trees from his
farm at The Glen, Soldiers Bay. Later in 1870-71 Hawkins is recorded as owning
allotment two and three in Birkenhead – this is situated on the ridge which is
now Birkenhead Ave.
early settler is mentioned in relation to a dwelling on a map dated to 1849,
the house was owned by a John Crisp and was situated close to what is now
Fitzpatrick Bay. Unfortunately, I have been unable to corroborate this.
a local history study of Island Bay and surroundings (Island Bay. A Brief History) there is an 1844 map which shows a
dwelling occupied by a Mr George Skey. The bottom part of the block was
developed into a small farm and sold as a going concern around 1849. It had its own jetty and a farm boundary
ditch, unfortunately I have been unable to track down this map to verify this
information and the area where the farm is said to be (and relatively well
preserved) is part of the Muriel Fisher Reserve which is currently closed due
to kauri dieback. Having said that, it
is definitely something to consider and requires further investigation.
1880-81 electoral roll lists a small block (allotment 148 – a trapezoidal block
which ran from what is now Rangitira Rd to the western edge of Soldiers Bay) of
twenty-three acres owned by a Mr Clement Partridge who is described as a
settler. The area of Island Bay was one
of those places where early land sales were of the speculative kind. It wasn’t until the “Tramway Company”, a land
development company, bought large tracts of land in the Birkenhead area
including Island Bay, that small dwellings began to appear. Like many of the
bays in the area, Island Bay was a summer place with the majority of dwellings
being bach’s and only a handful were occupied all year round. The road began as a dirt track mostly used by
gumdiggers and was previously known as Victoria Rd West prior to 1913.
What’s in a Name?
often hold clues as to the early settlement of an area and its changing
history. In part one we already looked
at some of the Maori names for places and how they relate to not only how the
landscape was used but also how the people saw themselves within their
world. For Europeans the naming of
places can be a lot more prosaic and, in some cases, the reason for the name is
obvious such as Island Bay, so named for the small island at the end of the
road which was once separated from the mainland and only accessed at low tide
via stepping stones.
however, are much more difficult to ascertain – Kendall Bay is obviously a
European name but at this point in time there are no records of anyone with the
name of Kendall after whom the bay was so named. One possibility is that Kendall may be the
name of gumdigger or gum buyer situated at the bay – gumdigger camps were often
situated at the head of sheltered gullies near fresh water and near to the
coast. Kendall Bay satisfies all of
these requirements. Interestingly, the
bay is also known locally as Shark Bay, undoubtedly because of the shark
fishing grounds exploited by Maori and later Europeans.
Kauri Point is the one placename not to change and to be consistently included
in the majority of maps dating back to 1842 and up to the present day. It would be a fair guess to say the name came
about as a result of the large kauri stands which would have been easily
visible to the first people to sail up the harbour.
also changed through time or have been forgotten. The Upper Waitemata was once called Sandy Bay
on a nautical chart from 1841; another early map refers to Pt Shortland (1842),
the headland where the Naval Base currently is; on other maps the bay we know
today as Onetaunga Bay was once called Quarryman’s Bay.
Quarryman’s Bay, like Brick Bay further up the harbour, refer to the early industrial endeavours of the area’s inhabitants. Both quarrying and brickmaking were popular industries in a land where traditional farming was problematic. One of the occupations of a potential early settler in the area was brickmaker (see below).
is an interesting case of a name that has been around for a long time but its
origins are hazy. The earliest mention that
I have been able to track down is dated to a map of 1863. Today the stream that runs down from the high
ground and empties into Soldiers Bay would have been a lot less silted up and
most likely navigable by waka or rowboat as far as the present-day
carpark. Today there is a causeway which
joins the bottom of Balmain Rd to the reserve which would not have been there
in the early days. This causeway was
most likely constructed in the early twentieth century when a caretakes lived
at the end of the reserve above Fitzpatrick’s Bay.
which gives us any clue as to why Soldier’s Bay is so named…it has been
suggested that the bay gained its name as a result of an encampment of militia
during the unsettled times of the mid-1800s.
At the time, Hone Heke was ‘making life unpleasant’ for settlers in the
north, particularly the Hokianga, and many had moved south to take up land in
Birkenhead. To allay the fears of the
settlers a contingent of soldiers may have been positioned in various
places…hence Soldiers Bay. As mentioned
before the stream would have been navigable to the bottom of present-day
Balmain Rd, just before that though there is a flat spur which would have
provided a good position for an encampment, with a clear view of the harbour
and a fresh water supply.
placename to consider is that of Fitzpatrick’s Bay, this small sandy bay is
today part of the Kauri Point Domain and is a popular recreational reserve for
the local area. There are two possible
people responsible for naming of the Bay – Charles Fitzpatrick or James
examination of Jury Lists and Electoral Rolls shows that a James Fitzpatrick
arrived on the Jane Gifford in 1842 with his wife and daughter. The Jury List of 1842-57 lists James as
living on the North Shore as a brickmaker; in the 1850s and 1860s he was still
living on the North Shore but was now a farmer and a freeholder. Whether or not he was actually living in the
Birkenhead area is difficult to say; Birkenhead itself was not so named until
1863 and up until that point there was very little distinction between
areas. In the 1870-71 electoral roll
James was listed as residing in Takapuna, allotment 15 – a survey of the
cadastral maps of 1868 shows that allotment 15 is in fact in Northcote
(Takapuna refers to Takapuna Parish of which included todays Takapuna,
Birkenhead, Northcote, Hillcrest, Birkdale, Beachhaven and so on). In 1890, James was still in the Takapuna
Parish but was now listed as a gumdigger.
Fitzpatrick only appears twice in the lists; first in 1867 and as having a
freehold land and house at Kauri Point however by 1890 he had moved to
Morrinsville. Whilst only Charles is
listed specifically as living in our area of study and he would appear to be
the best option for the naming of Fitzpatrick Bay it is still not possible to
rule out James.
Fun in the Sun
area today is made up of three different zones – residential (Island Bay),
defence (Onetaunga Bay) and recreational (Fitzpatrick Bay, Soldiers Bay and
Kendall Bay). In 1888 Governor William
Jervois permanently reserved for the purpose of recreation 133 acres of land
(allotment 162 and 163) in the Parish of Takapuna. It had been his hope that the area was turned
into a national park, a place of tranquillity for Aucklanders. This was the
area from Kendall Bay to the eastern end of Fitzpatrick Bay. In 1913 the Harbour Board acquired a further
forty-two acres which included Kauri Point (allotment 164) which had previously
been owned by Sir John Logan Campbell until his death in 1912. Further to this the area around Fitzpatrick
and Soldiers Bay were then added to the park in 1916. An article in the New Zeland Herald in 1916
stated that the reserve had a fine waterfront and had in the past had been much
used as a camping and picnic ground. It
also mentions a ‘good five roomed house’, our first mention of what was to be
known as the caretakers’ house.
An article from 1900 also in the New Zealand
Herald also mentions how the Kauri Point Domain board had agreed to allow
campers for a small fee. Interestingly
they also denied a request for funds for a wharf. Reading through multiple articles the request
for a wharf in the area is one which is constantly brought up, eventually a
wharf was constructed but not at Fitzpatrick’s or Soldiers Bay but at Onetaunga
Bay and it was paid for and built without the help of the board or their funds.
a new era for this inner harbour landscape; each of the small bays were
transformed in the summer months as families from the city side would spend the
warmer days living under canvas. In the 1920s and 1930s there were seven or
eight families holidaying at Kendall Bay, their camp was at the western end of
the bay where there is a level space and a freshwater stream. At Fitzpatrick’s the camp site was at the
northern end of the bay on the grassy area above the beach. Unlike elsewhere this part of the reserve was
owned by the Birkenhead Borough Council from 1929 who improved it and put in
place a caretaker.
recorded caretaker was a William Henry Rickwood who lived in small house with
his family on the hill above Fitzpatricks.
Oral histories record how Williams’ wife would keep a small store
selling sweets, soft drinks and other useful supplies. There was also a ‘ponga-house’ where Mrs
Rickwood would provide hot water and often sold tea and scones to the visitors. There is very little that remains of this
house today, just a level area with an overgrown collection of European garden
plants such as figs and a rambling rose.
However, there is evidence of both the campers and the caretakers in
form of the rubbish they were throwing away.
Often along the bay sherds of old ceramics dating from the late 1800s to
the mid-1930s can be found, undoubtedly there is a European midden that has
eroded onto the beach.
As well as the tent sites at Kendall
Bay, there were other camping places, near the wharf at Onetaunga Bay and at
Fitzpatricks bay which is the beach at the present Kauri Point Domain. Pre-World War Two and back through the
Depression years, tents appeared each summer for a back-to-nature holiday by
bush and sea. Much of the housework was
left behind at home and there was no problem keeping the children amused. There
were good sandy beaches and the harbour water was clear and clean in those days
before the march of suburbia. (From a pamphlet of remembrances celebrating twenty years of
Kauri Point Centennial Park, available in the Birkenhead Library).
whilst listed as residential today was up until the construction of the Harbour
Bridge mainly a summer town, full of bachs occupied only in the summer by
families from across the water in the city. Unlike the other bays the land
around Island Bay was owned by a land development company, being subsequently
subdivided and sold off. However,
because of issues of transport and roads only a few of the blocks were
permanently occupied. Newspapers from
the early 1900s often have articles describing summer outings by the Ponsonby
Yacht Club to Soldiers Bay and area.
chapter in the history of land use in our area is that of defence. Just prior to the Second World War in 1935
ninety acres of the Kauri Point Domain was taken for defence purposes. The area of Onetaunga Bay (once Quarryman’s
Bay) was developed for a storage facility for naval armaments. This unfortunately put paid to those carefree
summer campers who no longer came in the large numbers, the caretaker at Fitzpatrick’s
was still Mr Rickwood in 1938, as listed in the Wises Directory, but with the
outbreak of WWII everything changed.
In 1942 the
Americans had arrived in response to the Japanese threat in the South Pacific.
Kauri Point Domain, Fitzpatrick’s bay included, were given over to the Americans
and a large number of powder magazines were built. There are several unusual features on the
beach at Fitzpatrick’s Bay, which may relate to these days.
After the war the Domain reverted to being parkland but never again were campers allowed back to any of the bays. Today the Naval depot forms a large wedge between Kauri Point Domain and Kauri Point Centennial Park.
Just recently the husband and I had a child free weekend away, during this time we spend two days exploring the town of Napier in the Hawkes Bay. Naturally I was drawn to the town’s heritage and as per usual my first stop was to the local museum – MTG Hawkes Bay.
Situated in the main part
of town near the seafront, it is attached to the library and spread over three
floors. The ground floor gallery is
taken up by two exhibitions – Tenei Tonu and Turuturu, Fingers, Feathers and Fibre.
Tenei Tonu showcased the taonga, both historic and contemporary, alongside the
stories of the local Iwi Ngati Kahunguru. Turuturu took up a space which joined
the museum to the library and is a fascinating albeit brief look at the
importance of weaving in Maori culture.
Turuturu are weaving pegs used to keep a
garment off the ground when it is being made. The main peg is the right one and
can be elaborately decorated. It represents the mana of Te Whare Pora – the
knowledge-bank of the art-form. The peg itself upholds the mana of the growing
garment and it spiritually connects the maker to the world of thought and
concentration. The peg also grounds the maker so they do not get lost in their
intellectual world. (quoted
from the MTG Hawkes Bay website)
On the second floor was three collections – one of an amazing display of heirloom silverware whilst the second was called Five Pakeha Painters – Perspectives on the Hawkes Bay. This small exhibition of artwork acknowledged the importance of art as a form of dialogue between the artist, the land and the social norms of the time. The third exhibition was titled The House of Webb – A Victorian Family’s Journey to Ormondsville. This is a temporary exhibition (it finishes on the 3rd November) showcasing life in Victorian Napier through the belongings, diaries and letters of the Webb Family. In 1884 the Webb family left their comfortable life in England and travelled to Napier and then further south to Ormondsville, this exhibition showed what life was like for these early settlers, some of their trials and how they survived those early days.
The final gallery to be
explored was in the basement of the museum – here the visitor is taken through
that fateful day in 1931 when the Hawkes Bay was hit by a massive earthquake
which destroyed almost all of Napier and killed over three hundred people.
At 10:47am on 3 February 1931, a devastating
earthquake struck Hawke’s Bay. In that moment it seemed the end of the world
had come. People were thrown off their
feet; buildings shuddered and collapsed as the ground pitched violently. In
central Napier, fires broke out within minutes and rushed through the city.
Amidst the burning, falling buildings, the bright blue sky of a summer’s day
was obscured by smoke and dust. People
could only watch as their home was destroyed around them. In desperation the
injured screamed for help, others ran for the safety of the beach, or home to
find their families. (Quoted from the MTG Hawkes Bay website)
As well as the thoughtful display of objects and stories, there is also a short film of ‘Survivor Stories’ which brings home how devasting the earthquake was to the people of the Hawkes Bay. Time here will forever be divided between ‘before and after the earthquake’.
The second place to be visited was the Napier Prison…yes on purpose…and no not in shackles…
Napier Prison is New Zealand’s oldest prison, it was first opened in 1852 and was closed to inmates in 1993. Situated on Bluff Hill and next to the quarry where early inmates were expected to do hard labour extracting the stone that would build walls which now surround the prison. In 2002 the prison was restored to the state it is in by a local family who turned it into a back-packers (not my first choice of accommodation) but nowadays it is a tourist attraction and even on the cold wet day we visited there were a quite a few visitors.
As a visitor you can either go on a guided tour or do the self-guided audio tour which we did. The facilities also host scare tours in the evenings and has an Escape Room Experience for those wanting something a bit different. On two separate occasions and for quite different reasons, the prison has been the focus of a TV show – one looking to enhance the visitor experience from a heritage perspective and the other capitalising on the prison’s spookier stories. The prison has also through its time been used as a psychiatric unit, a lighthouse and a meeting place for Alcoholic Anonymous groups.
Above is a block called ‘The Pound’ – the padded cells and caged exercise area chilling reminders that once upon a time mental illness was treated with a lot less compassion.
The above photos show a small selection of numerous information boards that provide a light moment amongst the many somber ones.
The above photos are of the main block and exercise yard, the bottom picture is of a well discovered a short while ago. The well room is in what was once the infirmary before being divided into other rooms during the prisons back packing days.
On a personal note, it was a fascinating place, however the sense of relief when I walked back out the front gates was immense. The heavy sense of foreboding made for an uncomfortable visit, there were places I simply could not enter. I took no photos of the ‘hanging yard’ or the graveyard (where only three burials are had), the feelings of deep sadness were enough to stop me pressing the shutter. The ‘hanging yard’ in particular had an effect on me…but having said that I am glad I went, it was educational and an eye-opener to life behind bars in New Zealand’s oldest prison.
The remaining photos are just a few from around a city well known for its art deco architecture and seafront gardens.
Please note that all photos are my own – the MTG Hawkes Bay do not allow photography in many of their galleries, hence the paucity of photos from this lovely museum.
Stonehenge – a name that evokes a great many emotions in a great many people. For some it is a place of pilgrimage, a place to connect with the ancestors and for others it is seen as a tourist trap or something to tick off the bucket list. For centuries it has captured our imagination; never has a heritage site been so controversial – something which continues to this day. In this post it is not my intention to give a full on thesis about Stonehenge, there are plenty of books/websites who do this already. Instead it is simply an overview of what is currently understood about the site, its surrounding landscape and my own personal thoughts.
Stonehenge is situated on the Salisbury Plains, to the south is the busy A303, a main road between the south-west and London, and for many years the equally busy A344 ran alongside the site. This latter road was removed sometime ago to improve the visitors experience. Today there are ongoing discussions regarding the upgrading of the A303 and a proposed tunnel. It is a highly emotive subject, on one hand I understand the need to improve the road situation (ask anyone who is stuck in a traffic jam on the A303) but as an archaeologist I am also aware of the sensitive nature of the surrounding heritage landscape (and yes I am on the fence). Mike Pitts in his recent post discusses the pros and cons for those of you who are interested.
For the visitor today the focus is on the large stone circle with its trilithons, they marvel at how it could have been built by ‘primitive man’ often leading to suggestions of alien intervention and lost technologies. But such thoughts only serve to belittle our ancestors and our past. Others may ask why did our ancestors build Stonehenge? Often the answers are unimaginative and simple – sun-worship; display of power; ancient computer; druid temple – once more when we look only for one answer to a what is obviously a complicated site of great longevity we belittle their achievements. Instead if Stonehenge was understood in terms of the wider landscape and as a site whose history spanned several millenia we might come to some small understanding of how and why.
In today’s world of instant gratification where everything has a beginning and an end, it is hard to imagine beginning a project knowing you might not see it finished but this was a reality for the builders of Stonehenge. It has lead some to suggest that it was not the end product which was important but the doing, the act of building which was in fact the purpose. Suggesting a cyclical thought pattern which can be seen in other aspects of prehistoric life – round houses, stone circles, round barrows. in addition, time itself was most likely viewed in cycles, the phases of the moon and the movement of the seasons are all cyclical events which would have been of great importance to prehistoric people trying to make sense of their world.
“So was Stonehenge ever ‘finished’? The answer to that has to be no, because completion was never the intention of the people who created it.” (Pryor F. 2016 ‘Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape).
It is well known that Stonehenge itself had many incarnations, perhaps meaning new and different things with each alteration or rebuild. To understand Stonehenge it is important to consider it in the wider context of the surrounding landscape (there are literally hundreds of prehistoric monuments around it) in all the different phases.
The Mesolithic Story
The story of the Stonehenge landscape begins back in the Mesolithic, ongoing recent excavations at Blickmead are providing archaeologists with tantalising clues as to why this area was important to our ancestors. The site is situated near a spring by the River Avon, excavations began in 2005 and almost immediately were fruitful. Basically, the deposits consisted of an array of Mesolithic settlement debris, mostly flint fragments (tens of thousands) but also a great number of animal bones. Interestingly, the site also yielded the largest collection of auroch bones ever found on a Mesolithic site in Britain so far. Other animals which were hunted and consumed included red deer, wild boar and salmon – this has led archaeologists to suggest that feasting was a common occurence around the spring. The spring itself is quite unusual as it has the tendency to stain flints and other materials a bright magenta pink – the importance of springs in later prehistory is well attested to.
In 1966 row of four large pit like features were found during upgrades to the old carpark close by Stonehenge. When excavated one was found to be a the root-hole of a tree and the other three were holes dugs to hold large poles. Examination of the material from these features gave a date range from between 8500 and 7000BC. The posts would have been approximately 75cm in diameter and were from pine trees. Later in 1988 another post-hole was discovered south and east of the original pits but it was contemporary.
So here we have a landscape already well populated by hunter-gatherer communities who revered certain natural features long before Stonehenge makes an appearance. A landscape which had meaning to the people who inhabit it; who had traditions and memories of place.
At around 3500BC (Neolithic) with the arrival of farming these communities and their traditions had evolved and more permenant features began to make an appearance on the landscape. Long barrows such as those at East and West Kennet or Winterbourne Stoke were the first to appear and by 3400BC the Stonehenge Cursus and Lesser Cursus was under construction.
3000BC – The first official phase of construction
In many parts of Britian at this time a new type of monument was being constructed, these were earthwork enclosures which are referred to as henges. They consist of irregular cut ditches encircling a defined area with corresponding banks. Stonehenge’s earliest phase was one such earthwork. Here there were two entrances one faced north-east and the other faced south. The north-easterly entrance remained in use for much of the sites lifetime and appears to be important to its function. The entrance is aligned along a line of natural gullies which face towards the midsummer sunrise in one direction and the midwinter sunset in the other.
These natural gullies would have been visible to the people of the Mesolithic and may have been why the large pine posts were erected where they were – the midsummer and midwinter solstices were just as important then as they were to the later prehistoric communities.
Inside the earthwork enclosure around the inner edge of the bank were fifty-six regularly spaced pits – these are now known as the Aubrey Holes. There is some discussion as to what they were or what they contained – small stone uprights or wooden posts? However, what is known is that eventually they did contain cremated human remains. Similar deposits have been found in the partly filled ditch and cut into the bank suggesting that at this stage in its history Stonehenge was used as a cemetary, among other things.
The Building of the Stone Monument
At around 2500BC Stonehenge began to resemble a site we are much more familiar with. It is at this time that the massive sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs were moved to the site and erected. If that was not all at the same time the smaller but no less cumbersome, blue stones from the Preseli Mountains in Wales were transported and erected at Stonehenge. The Heel stone was moved to its current position and four smaller sarsen stones (the station stones) were erected inside the enclosure just inside the bank.
The first two diagrams above demonstrate one theory of how the trilithon stones were erected. The third diagram shows the sophistication of the construction, with each lintel fitting neatly into each other – borrowed from the Univeristy of Buckingham’s MOOC “Stonehenge”.
In a mere one hundred years it seems the two main structures of the trilithon horseshoe and the circle was completed. Interestingly it seems that greater care was taken in the shaping and construction of the stones visible from the north-east side and the main entrance. The bluestones were also erected at this time but not in the form we see today at Stonehenge. Excavation has shown us that there were two concentric arcs of stone holes, known as the Q and R holes were found on the north and east sides of the central area. It has been suggested that these were not representative of a complete circle as there is little to no evidence on the southern or western sides of corresponding holes.
2200BC – Consolidation and Alterations
From this time on Stonehenge underwent a series of minor alterations although the large sarsen stones remained in their positions although much later in the Bronze Age shallow carvings of axeheads and the occasional dagger were added. There are some 115 carvings and these have been dated stylistically to between 1750 and 1500BC.
The smaller bluestones however were rearranged and by 2200BC the incomplete circles were dismantled and repositioned to form a circle concentric to and just inside the circle of larger sarsen circle whilst a second oval of bluestones (spotted dolerite) was also formed within the trilithon setting. Later a number of stones were removed from the oval to form the horseshoe setting which is seen today.
At around the same time the ditch was recut and a small bank was constructed and the Avenue was constructed. This later feature follows the solstice alignment with ditches and banks for part of the way and then veers off to the east ending in a valley of the River Avon. Recent excavations at the place where the Avenue meets the River Avon have uncovered evidence for a previously unknown henge monument made up of bluestones. These were likely to have been removed to supplement the bluestones already at Stonehenge.
Surrounding the monument are significant numbers of round barrows dating from the Bronze Age, some of which contained rich burials with artefacts made of bronze, gold, jet and amber. Suggesting a society rather different from the one which was able to come together communally to construct Stonehenge and yet the place, the landscape and the site still had a powerful pull to these people – it is no different today…
Above are two of the many round barrows littering the landscape around Stonehenge.
The pictures above show a reconstruction of houses found during excavations at Durrington Walls which date to approximately the same time as when the main phase of construction at Stonehenge was underway. It is interesting to note the layout of the houses with the ‘dresser’ opposite the door and the beds to the right as you enter. This layout is reminiscent of house layouts at Skara Brae and later similar layouts are seen in Bronze Age roundhouses.
Stonehenge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain; it evokes a variety of emotions; it is a British icon and yet so many people still only today see the stones. Yes they are impressive but there is so much more to their story than what you see. To really understand Stonehenge the curious need to look at the wider landscape and then look further again. Afterall, not too far away is the equally astounding landscape surrounding Avebury. What was the relationship between these two sacred landscapes? What can they tell us about the people who lived at the time? These landscapes were created by a people who viewed the world very differently to ourselves and carry a language, a dialogue that would have been obvious to those who lived in the Neolithic and even the Bronze Age. In our modern world where landscapes are viewed as places to use – either to make money or in terms of leisure pursuits – it is often hard for us to step back in time to view the landscape as living breathing entity without which we could not survive.
Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape undoubtedly meant many things to the people who occupied it (and probably those further afield too), the stones themselves were taken from the land and perhaps used to create a space where the natural world could be contained; where a semblance of control was maintained; where perhaps a balance was found between the natural world and the constructed world.
There are a great deal of books and websites which delve into the Stonehenge enigma in far greater detail. I have listed some of those below (browse Amazon for comprehensive lists). In particular I would like to recommend the free online course run by Buckingham University via Iversity (click here for more details).
Pryor F (2016) Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape
Parker-Pearson M et al (2015) Stonehenge: Making Sense of Prehistoric Mystery
Parker Pearson M (2013) Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery
Bowden M et al (2015) The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.