The Stonehenge tunnel will bring us closer to a mythic past

The newly confirmed road tunnel under Stonehenge has archaeologists up in arms, but removing traffic noise will help recreate the bleak mood that so inspired Hardy and Constable

The Stonehenge tunnel will bring us closer to a mythic past
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Wonder … Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.
Photograph: Chris Hepburn/Getty Images

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This article titled “The Stonehenge tunnel will bring us closer to a mythic past” was written by Jonathan Jones, for theguardian.com on Thursday 12th January 2017 13.13 UTC

Visiting Stonehenge becomes ever harder. You have to book ahead as if it were a swanky West End show, endure a visitor centre when what you really want to do is commune with the mysterious past – and when you do finally get your chance to walk around (not among) the stones, you need to assiduously ignore the hum of traffic from the heavily congested nearby A303.

That, at least, is going to change. The government has decided to go ahead with a tunnel that will take this very busy road underground for 1.8 miles, removing the horrible stream of honking traffic from the visible surroundings of Stonehenge, and so making it much easier to concentrate on the wonder of Europe’s greatest neolithic monument.

Archaeologists are understandably delighted… oh wait, they’re up in arms. Campaigners claim the road project will wreck the extraordinarily rich and complex archaeology of the area. “We have recently started to realise that the standing stones are just a beginning,” protests Dan Snow, president of the Council for British Archaeology. “They sit at the heart of the world’s most significant and best-preserved stone age landscape. The government’s plans endanger this unique site.”

Winter solstice celebrated at Stonehenge in 2016.
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Winter solstice celebrated at Stonehenge in 2016. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
This is a battle between the aesthetic and the archaeological. The A303 really is a monstrous intrusion into the immediate landscape of Stonehenge. A tunnel will make the site more peaceful, more romantic, more emotionally powerful. It should therefore make it much easier to appreciate the grandeur of Stonehenge. How can that be a bad thing?

It is true that modern research keeps expanding Stonehenge in time and space, until experts can see the stones just as the tip of an archaeological iceberg. One study has even explored the acoustic archaeology of the site. Above all, instead of seeing Stonehenge as an isolated stone structure in the middle of an empty Wiltshire plain, archaeology now conceptualises it as part of the “Stonehenge Landscape”, a multilayered ceremonial space extending far beyond the stone circle itself and including everything from lost henges to barrow tombs. It seems this really was an incredibly important place in ancient times.

But archaeologists are putting fashionable theories before the pressing need to make Stonehenge a better place to visit. It may not be just a stone circle – but it does include the world’s most impressive stone circle, and it needs to better presented. Researching the past is important, but so is making it accessible to modern eyes. Stonehenge has been blighted by the A303 for too long. This and other modern intrusions make it impossible to see it as John Constable or Thomas Hardy did, as a bleak romantic marvel.

Constable’s painting Stonehenge, c.1835.
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Constable’s painting Stonehenge, c.1835. Photograph: Paul Robins/Bequeathed by Isabel Constable, daughter of the artist
The very name Stonehenge suggests romantic bleakness, for it comes from Anglo-Saxon and means “hanging stones”. Medieval people must have thought it had a gallows-like darkness out there on Salisbury Plain. The chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth attributed this strange marvel to the wizard Merlin. In Romantic art it is a remote secret, and in in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles a place lonely enough for a fugitive to take refuge.

The 20th century changed all that. Modern blights from busy roads to army manoeuvres to mass tourism have made it much harder to experience the mystery and magic of Stonehenge.

These angry archaeologists can’t see the stones for the sonar studies. It is actually not news that Stonehenge is part of a vast ancient landscape – the antiquarian William Stukeley observed as much in the 18th century. He published vivid drawings of such nearby monuments as the Cursus, a huge ceremonial earthwork. Yet the sculptural and architectural authority of Stonehenge itself, those silent yet eloquent stones, can touch us across time in a unique way. Putting the A303 underground will get us closer to this ancient power.

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