Hidden Landscapes: Stonehenge

Stonehenge is one the UK’s most visited tourist attractions – and one of the world’s most enigmatic ancient monuments. People come from all over the world to stare at the iconic stone pillars and wonder how, and why, they were put in place.


The site may be instantly recognisable, but there is far more to it than first meets the eye. As archaeologists study this area, mystery after mystery unfolds. But a coherent story may be beginning to emerge.

That has been particularly true over the last decade. Researchers have been studying not just the monument itself, but the area around it, hoping to find clues in this intriguing landscape of prehistoric monuments.

Underground imaging and excavation have revealed that Stonehenge was once part of a complicated network of structures: ancient burial mounds, unknown settlements, processional routes and even gold-adorned burials. The finds paint a picture of a far more mysterious and elaborate Neolithic and Bronze Age world than previously thought.

One such project that looked at Stonehenge in this holistic way was the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, which ran from 2010 to 2014. Underground radar and magnetic imaging techniques revealed that Stonehenge lies at the centre of a complex web of structures covering an estimated 4.5 square miles (12 sq km). The project caused a media frenzy in 2015, when scientists announced the finding of a potential ‘Superhenge’ at nearby Durrington Walls – a huge 500m (1,640ft) diameter stone circle.

However, this frenzy was short-lived. When excavating the site, the archaeologists didn’t find any stones. Instead, they found that timber posts once stood here. After they were removed, the holes were filled with chalk and then covered in earth to form a henge bank. On radar scans, the gaps in the loose chalk had looked like stones.

Today, Durrington Walls is a field surrounded by banks.

Despite this setback, UK lead for the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project Vincent Gaffney stressed that the project revealed hundreds of new features and many sites never seen before. “Following this survey, we know not only where things are but where they aren’t as well,” said Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford.

These kinds of surveys are key, Gaffney said, because they allow archaeologists “to investigate all areas of land equally, and not just the monuments we know. This allows us to interpret the evidence in a more sophisticated manner.

“What this has revealed is a completely unknown monumental phase of Durrington Walls. In between the Neolithic village and the massive earthwork was a massive ring of posts somewhere between 4-6m (13-20ft) in height – a minimum of 200 and perhaps as many as 300. This is completely new and would have been missed entirely without the survey.”

Modern stones mark where the pillars of Woodhenge, another ancient monument in the area, would have been

The finding of another huge monument in the area has changed the way archaeologists look at the development and history of the region. “Increasingly, I would suggest that we are beginning to see the mosaic of blank areas and monuments as suggesting processional movement,” said Gaffney.

In other words, the landscape was used in religious or ceremonial processions related to the monuments.

Mike Parker Pearson of University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, who led the Stonehenge Riverside Project from 2003 to 2009, thinks that the posts at Durrington Walls were put up with the intention that they would be taken down soon after. “They may only have stood for a matter of months before they were replaced by the henge bank and ditch,” he said. “Their purpose seems to have been to mark the perimeter of the great village, by now abandoned. So perhaps the posts were a monument to the people who lived here while building Stonehenge.”

Whatever the monument was used for, it shows that Stonehenge isn’t alone in this landscape. Understanding the significance of Stonehenge depends on understanding everything else around it as well.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project found that Stonehenge was built in two phases. The first – a ditch, bank and circle of bluestones – was built 500 years earlier than previously thought, more than 4,500 years ago. The second phase, when the larger, iconic outer circle was erected, came about 500 years after the first.


The area, however, was occupied beginning around 9,000 years ago, suggesting it had significance long before Stonehenge was built.

Twenty miles (30km) away lies the less well-known but just as significant site of Avebury, home of the largest stone circle in Europe. But the Neolithic reach of this area extended even further – such as into Wales, where prehistoric Britons procured the bluestones for Stonehenge’s inner circle.

Meanwhile, Parker Pearson says, it seems that the big stones at Stonehenge came from the Avebury area.

This suggests that these significant Neolithic landscapes – Salisbury Plain, Avebury and the Preseli hills in Wales, another area rich with prehistoric monuments – were linked. And holding that link together was Stonehenge.

Parker Pearson suggests that the Welsh bluestones were the first to be put in place at Stonehenge, and that it was the monument that they came from that was important. The stones would have been considered to be ancestral symbols of western Britons, he said, and “bringing them to Salisbury Plain was an act of unification of the two main Neolithic peoples of southern Britain.”

Outcrops of rock in the Presili hills, Wales

Even today, the Preseli hills are dotted with dolmens (ancient tombs). “The density of dolmens reveals that this was an important region (both politically and spiritually) some 700 years before Stonehenge,” Parker Pearson said, making it “possibly a leading territory within western Britain in the centuries before 3000 BC.”

But even if we agree with the theory that bringing the stones from Wales was a symbolic and even political, act, it presents another mystery: how did prehistoric Britons move those huge stones?

Some suggest that people didn’t move the stones at all, and that instead, glaciers transported the stones across southern Britain. But the finding of two ancient stone quarries in Preseli ended that debate for the most part.

Excavations at the Craig Rhos-y-felin quarry, shown here, revealed that the bluestones were quarried and transported to Stonehenge

Scientists also have experimented with ideas of how to transport the large stones 160 miles (260km) from Wales. According to Parker Pearson, they discovered that moving small megaliths like the bluestones, which mostly weighed 2 tons or less, was not actually that difficult – even with just dragging the stone on a sledge.

In another recent finding, archaeologists discovered the cremated remains of people buried at Stonehenge. The Stonehenge Riverside Project’s 2008 excavation retrieved about 58 burials, including at least nine men – and 14 women. As it is thought that anyone buried at Stonehenge had elevated social status, this therefore poses questions about the role of women in the Neolithic period.


“It frequently seems that there is always something new from Stonehenge, but I continue to be surprised that we keep finding so much – even in areas that have been studied intensively for years,” said Gaffney. “The latest findings from Durrington demonstrate that new technology doesn’t just find new sites, it dramatically transforms how we understand known sites.

“It also emphasises not just how unique Stonehenge was, but how important the landscape around that monument was – and that we are still just beginning to understand how it developed and what it meant to the people who built Stonehenge.”

Even so, no matter how many new discoveries are made, it seems that Stonehenge will only continue to throw up new questions for scientists and the media to ponder. These Neolithic people had huge skill and ambition.

Such a huge monument erected so perfectly, over many centuries, is not something easy for us to understand in our fast-paced, modern world.



Intrusive development damaging Tuscan landscape

From Telegraph:

This month, thousands of British holidaymakers are making the pilgrimage, putting hemselves through the purgatory of air travel and the struggle with baggage and car hire. But it will all be worth it when they arrive in the heart of the postcard that every middle-class Brit carries around somewhere in their mind’s eye.

In Tuscany, the olive groves dutifully simmer in the heat haze. Villages nestle gorgeously on hill crests. The land swishes its seductive, feminine curves. Cinema’s premier fantasy location, whither pallid north Europeans return like migrating wildebeest to marvel at the shimmering duet of light and landscape, is a chimerical neverland which miraculously exists.

Or does it? These days, when you drive around the folds in the hills towards the medieval Manhattan that is San Gimignano, you can’t see the fields for the brutally ugly poster hoardings advertising the local Vernaccia. But a billboard can always be taken down.

Lately, however, there have been more ineradicable alterations to the landscape. Take the Val d’Orcia. You’ll have quaffed its Brunello di Montalcino and, from the other end of the valley, its Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. When one pictures Tuscany, it is the Val d’Orcia that supplies the classic image of yellowing crete senesi (the Siennese clays) punctuated by a lone farmhouse in a tall cluster of cypresses. That is why it was made a parco artistico, naturale e culturale, not to mention a Unesco World Heritage site.

These protections have not so far impeded plans, 10 miles from Montepulciano at Gallina, for a plant that will be visible for miles around, where straw and wood will be burned to make fuel pellets offsite. The location is perhaps a little odd, given that the nearest pellet factory is hundreds of miles away in Le Marche.

San Gimignano (Wikimedia Commons)

Nor, it seems, is there enough raw material in the Val d’Orcia to keep the plant working. It’s feared by local campaigners that other waste will be burned there, pumping carcinogenic dioxins and nanoparticles into the pure Tuscan air, as well as large quantities of CO2 and carbon monoxide.

Anxiety about environmental pollution is already high, thanks to the building of a geothermal plant on the vast tree-smothered slopes of Monte Amiata, at 1,800 metres the tallest mountain in Tuscany.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountain at Scansano, one of the leading vineyards, Biondi Santi, was surrounded by wind turbines in 2007. In other corners of Tuscany they have since sprouted like funghi porcini, with the difference that, at up to 150 metres tall, they are rather easier to locate. In an area of 12 miles by six miles near the dramatic, unspoilt uplands around Volterra, authorisation has been given for 78 turbines.

These projects continue despite the fact that even Paolo Scaroni, the head of Eni, which controls more than 80 per cent of Italy’s domestic natural gas production, recently admitted that the turbines do not produce enough energy because Tuscany simply doesn’t have enough wind. But in Italy the incentives for renewables are the highest in Europe. And, as they are paid in advance, there is no process by which investment can be measured against productivity.In other news, the council in Grosseto has just freed up 200 hectares of archaeologically rich agricultural land in Braccagni in the Maremma for building an industrial village, including 20 hectares of solar panels. The area’s Roman-Etruscan heritage is also threatened by a vast new yacht basin planned for Talamone, the ancient port on one of the Italian peninsula’s last remaining stretches of undeveloped coastline. And meanwhile, as everywhere else in Europe, the cities and towns encroach on the countryside, the tarmac spreads across hills and farms. In Italy they call it lo sprawl.

One of the most shocking instances of lo sprawl is planned for a valley known as the Golden Basin, on the green, fertile northern side of Amiata. Here, in one of the last Tuscan valleys to have remained entirely unspoilt since medieval times, the local comune has received an application to build a “well-being centre” 500 metres from a national monument, the Castello di Potentino, along with other residential structures, all requiring asphalted access. A hotel, in short – no matter that other hotels in the area are empty for much of the year.

The proposed hotel has become a lightning rod for local feeling. The regional branch of Italia Nostra (Our Italy), the national association for the defence of the historical, cultural and environmental heritage of Italy, was soon involved. It organised a one-day conference to try to persuade the local mayor to think again. Politicians, hoteliers, local businesses and tourism companies were invited to give professional advice to help the local council change its mind.

To no avail thus far, explains Charlotte Horton, whose vineyard at Castello di Potentino produces a wine this year voted one of the best three in Tuscany. “There is no public scrutiny,” she explains. “We have written many letters to the council. They replied with a very evasive answer that gives us no explanation. We have no idea what they are up to. The local councils have too much administrative power over things they are not professionally experienced enough to manage.”

Benedetta Origo, the daughter of the formidable Iris Origo, who wrote the best-selling War in Val d’Orcia about the resistance to the Nazis in southern Tuscany, says that the enemy is within, and far more slippery.

“Recent laws have given each comune almost complete autonomy to decide what is good or not regarding building, expansion, roads, etc,” she says. “If the mayor decides that a certain plan is ‘good for the community’, he has the ultimate power to concede permits, which are then irrevocable. Therefore greed sets in easily.

“Most of the comuni are so drastically short of money that they will do anything to fill their coffers. The whole situation is pitiful, and slipping fast.”

In other words, it’s the old story – greed and short-termism, but all given new momentum by the financial crisis engulfing Italy, and fuelled by a lack of pastoral leadership from Rome. The final defence against despoliation is Article Nine of the Italian constitution. It declares that the state must protect the historic heritage and cultural landscape of the country. That constitutional responsibility has been comprehensively devolved to local governments.

The result? Tuscans are gradually losing the landscape that lures visitors from around the world. They may also, in due course, lose the visitors. So a word to the wise. If you want to visit that postcard in your head for real, book early to avoid disappointment. Pretty soon a fantasy is all that will be left.

The original version of this article stated that a geothermal power plant operated by Enel SpA has caused drinking water pollution, lowered the water table, led to deforestation and incorrectly linked the plant with the region’s cancer rates. Enel SpA have assured us that these allegations are unfounded.

From Telegraph

Museum of Art and Archaeology of the Côa Valley

The Côa Valley (Portugal) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, inscribed in the WH List in 1998 under the official name of “Prehistoric Rock-Art Sites in the Côa Valley“. According to WHC: this exceptional concentration of rock carvings from the Upper Palaeolithic (22,000–10,000 B.C.) is the most outstanding example of early human artistic activity in this form anywhere in the world.

From ArchDaily:

The Museum of Art and Archaeology in the Côa Valley is conceived as an installation in the landscape. The monolithic triangular form is a direct result of the valley’s confluences. Its materiality evokes the local stone yards and reflects two different natures: the concrete’s matter, and the local stone’s texture and colour.

Architects: Camilo Rebelo + Tiago Pimentel/Sandra Barbosa

For more amazing images and plans of the museum, including detailed information, visit ArchDaily here.

CLIMATE CHANGE – Sites in peril


Rising sea levels are eating away at coastal sites, increased rainfall is eroding mud-brick ruins, creeping desert sands are blasting the traces of ancient civilizations, and the melting of ice is causing millennia-old organic remains to rot. “With climate change, we’re feeling a sense of urgency,” says University of Northern Colorado anthropologist Michael Kimball, who organized a panel discussion on climate change and archaeology at the World Archaeology Congress in Dublin last year. “It definitely focuses the mind.”

For countless communities, archaeology can be a source of local identity, pride, and even income. “It may be intangible, but when a community loses its connection to history it loses something pretty important,” says Kimball.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of more than 1,000 experts on climate science convened by the United Nations, estimates that the world’s temperature has risen about two degrees in the past century, thanks in part to an increase in carbon dioxide that traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere. The consequences have already been dramatic. The world’s oceans have risen four inches in that time. Weather patterns have also gotten less predictable and more extreme.

Over the next hundred years, the IPCC predicts that sea levels will rise at least another four inches. The worst-case scenario is truly frightening: a 10-degree rise in global temperatures, causing ice caps to melt and sea levels around the world to rise more than three feet.

Archaeologists can’t stop global warming, but they can make dealing with it a priority. That may mean documenting sites before they disappear; in some places, simple steps like putting roofs over melting or rain-threatened areas are ways to preserve them. Action, however, must be taken soon. “Our job is not so much to talk about how to get climate change to stop,” says Giovanni Boccardi, the chief of UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Unit. “While climate change is global, lots of solutions are local–and within our reach.” What follows is a look at some of the threats facing archaeological sites around the world.

Thawing Scythian Tombs
Three thousand years ago, Scythian nomads ruled the Eurasian steppes from the edges of the Black Sea in the west to China in the east. The Greek historian Herodotus reported their exploits as warriors and their drug-fueled religious rituals. The Scythians buried their dead in huge grave mounds that have been rich resources for archaeologists studying how this nomadic culture spread, thrived, and ultimately faded away around 200 B.C.

Though the burial mounds–called kurgans–are found everywhere from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, few are as spectacularly preserved as those in the Altai Mountains on the edge of the vast Siberian permafrost region. Many of these graves have been on ice for millennia, sandwiched between a frozen layer of earth and the insulating grave mound above.

Beginning with Soviet excavations in the 1940s and ’50s, archaeologists have found amazingly well-preserved mummies in the tombs, often with their clothing, burial goods, horses, and even stomach contents intact. “Instead of archaeology, the material culture is so well preserved it’s almost a kind of ethnography,” says Hermann Parzinger, who discovered the tomb of a mummified Scythian warrior in Mongolia in 2006 and now directs the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin.

But scientists say the Altai Mountains aren’t as cold as they used to be. The glaciers that covered the slopes of the Altai are receding and even disappearing. And for the first time since their occupants were buried 3,000 years ago, the Scythian tombs are in danger of thawing out and rotting away. “These tombs are all in an area where the permafrost is just at an equilibrium,” says Jean Bourgeois, an archaeologist at Ghent University who works on sites in Russia and Kazakhstan. “Just a degree or two can be enough to [destroy] frozen contents.”

Mapping and listing all the region’s kurgans using old spy satellite photos and old-fashioned ground surveys is the first phase of an international effort to save the frozen tombs. Bourgeois says the first priority is identifying kurgans that may still have permafrost underneath.

Archaeologists are scrambling to figure out the next step: how to keep the grave mounds cool. Instead of emergency excavations, Bourgeois hopes to work with engineers to find low-cost solutions to preserve the kurgans intact for future researchers. Proposals range from reflecting sunlight away from the kurgans by painting them white to stabilizing the underground temperature by installing “thermo-pumps.” But after seeing the region’s climate change with his own eyes over the past decade, Bourgeois has come to realize that even in a best-case scenario, archaeologists cannot preserve all of them. “They will have to choose.”


Retreating Swiss Glaciers
The summer of 2003 was a scorcher in Europe, setting record temperatures across the continent and contributing to the deaths of more than 30,000 people. High in the Swiss Alps, the heat wave melted glaciers and snow, causing severe floods in the valleys below.

On September 17, a hiker named Ursula Leuenberger was crossing an iced-over pass near the Schnidejoch glacier when something odd caught her eye–a leather quiver that had been left high in the Alps by a Neolithic hunter around 2800 B.C.

The following summer, University of Bern archaeologist Albert Hafner organized a team of glaciologists and archaeologists to follow Leuenberger back up the mountain. There they found a five-foot-thick ice patch 260 feet long and 100 feet wide. In just one sunny week, the edges of the ice patch shrank 20 feet. Over the course of two summers, archaeologists found in it everything from prehistoric leather pants and shoes to nails from Roman sandals.

The finds revealed that people have climbed high in the Alps for millennia, despite its harsh conditions. (At Schnidejoch’s altitude, the ground is covered in snow nine months out of the year.) “This was just the quickest way from one valley to another,” says Hafner. His work also showed that 1,000-year gaps in the ages of the artifacts corresponded with cold periods when glacial ice would have blocked the pass. The fact that fragile organic materials were preserved near Schnidejoch for more than 5,000 years means the ice cover hasn’t been this small since the Stone Age. “I think in the next years if there is a hot summer, the ice will disappear completely,” says Hafner. “It’s obviously related to climate change.”

For archaeologists, the melting ice is both a crisis and an opportunity: the artifacts at Schnidejoch never would have been found without climate change, but as more and more alpine ice fields thaw and vanish, countless more artifacts may rot away and disappear forever, along with the icy glaciers and snowfields that define the Alps. Hafner says he has his eye on other sites that are on the verge of thawing. “I’m very happy to find the objects because they will give us new inputs, but I am not happy about the climate change,” he says. “I’m an archaeologist, but I’m also an alpinist.”

Peru’s Rainstorms
The civilizations that rose and fell in the bone-dry deserts of coastal Peru knew the signs well. When Spanish conquistadors arrived, they noticed its effects around Christmas, and named the phenomenon El Nino, or little boy, after the Christ child. Every seven to ten years, currents in the Pacific Ocean shift, changing weather patterns from Australia to California. In Peru, El Nino means warmer water, and heavy rainfall along the coast.

The difference between a normal and a bad El Nino year can be tremendous. Peru’s deserts typically get just over an inch of rain per year. In 1998, the last severe El Nino season, the region was doused with 120 inches, which caused serious flooding. Water takes a heavy toll on exposed archaeological sites, many of which are located along rivers or on easily eroded slopes.

Ironically, archaeologists have made the problem worse. “If we don’t mess with the sites, water runs off without doing too much damage,” says University of Maine archaeologist Dan Sandweiss. “But if you excavate, that’s the end of them, basically.” Holes made by looters also channel and trap moisture, doing more damage.

Take Chan Chan, an elaborately planned city eight miles square that dates back 1,000 years. Made of unfired mud brick, Chan Chan’s pyramids and palaces were put on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 1986 because they were threatened by erosion. Over the past two decades, the site has deteriorated steadily. Researchers are investigating whether global warming could make El Nino occur more frequently. “There’s the potential for greater destruction if the pace of El Nino events increases,” says Sandweiss.

So far, climatologists can’t say for sure what climate change will do to the powerful weather phenomenon. “The models are all over the place,” says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climatologist David Enfield. “We’re up against a huge uncertainty at present.” As climate experts work to refine their predictions, archaeologists anxiously await the arrival of the next El Nino.


Sudan Desertification
Local nomads call the ruins Musawwarat es-Sufra, or “Yellow Pictures.” More than 2,000 years ago, the kings of the Meroites–a desert kingdom closely linked to ancient Egypt–built a temple complex 20 miles east of the Nile Valley, in what is today Sudan. Built of soft yellow sandstone, the walls and columns of the complex were decorated with hieroglyphs and elaborate reliefs, covered in mortar and colorfully painted. “It was probably the most important pilgrimage site of the Meroitic kingdom,” says Claudia Naeser, an archaeologist at Humboldt University in Berlin who is excavating the site’s reservoirs and temples.

Musawwarat’s centerpiece was the 50-foot-long Temple of the Lion God, carved inside and out with reliefs dedicated to the Meroitic god of fertility, Apedemak. The lion god’s temple was once in the middle of a grassland. But warming temperatures and overuse have killed off the area’s vegetation, and the Sahara’s sands are creeping ever closer. In the 1960s, an earlier Humboldt University mission uncovered and reconstructed the temple’s collapsed walls–in retrospect, a mistake. “The reliefs suffer heavily from wind erosion,” Naeser says. “The sandstone is relatively soft, and it just abrades.”

Musawwarat is far from alone. Desertification is an often-overlooked problem because shifting dunes and blowing sand cover archaeological remains–leading to a misperception that the ruins are being shielded from further damage. “There’s this belief that sand is protective. It’s not,” says Henri-Paul Francfort, a director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research. “Sand can quickly destroy remains, both because of the weight of dunes and because of terrible winds that erase everything.”

The scale of the problem is overwhelming, and solutions–from hardening stone with special chemicals to erecting protective walls or planting trees as windbreaks–are either prohibitively expensive or impossible because of a lack of water. UNESCO is now considering an application to have Musawwarat listed as a World Heritage Site. Soon, however, there may be no more “yellow pictures” to be seen.


Greenland’s Melting Sea Ice
In a normal summer, Greenland’s northern and eastern coasts should be ringed by an ice belt 30 to 40 miles wide. The drifting ice acts like a shock absorber, dampening the strength of the North Atlantic. “It takes a lot of wave energy to move the ice, and normally water along the coast is very calm,” says Danish archaeologist Bjarne Gronnow, of the National Museum in Copenhagen.

But in the past five years, the sea ice has all but disappeared. Without its floating frozen shield, Greenland’s coast is being pummeled by storm surges originating hundreds of miles away. When Gronnow visited the region last summer, his team was barely able to land their Zodiac rafts on the beaches because of waves almost 10 feet high.

The effect on the island’s heritage has been catastrophic. Hardest hit have been sites associated with the Thule culture, people closely related to the Inuit of northern Canada who first migrated to Greenland around 2,000 years ago. The Thule were formidable hunters and whalers, and their villages were built close to the shore. Today, Thule houses–made of stone and turf with whale-bone rafters–are disappearing quickly, along with buried tools and artifacts. “A meter per season will be tumbled down to the beach and washed away,” Gronnow says. “It’s not a slow process.”

Older sites along the coast are also in danger. As the Arctic warms up, archaeologists fear the frozen turf that covers Qeqertasussuk, a 4,500-year-old settlement where evidence for the earliest settlement of Greenland was found, may be melting. Gronnow–who excavated the remote site for the first time in the 1980s–is headed back this summer, and he is not optimistic. “I’ve been working in Greenland for 30 years now,” he says. “I can see with my own eyes how it has changed.”