Last month, and three decades in the waiting, the new visitor centre for Stonehenge has opened. Congratulations English Heritage! Costing around £27 million, it replaces the heavily criticised carpark and visitor centre beside the monument, where access to the stones was via a tunnel from the other side of the then A344.
Farewell Old Stonehenge
The road, carpark, old visitor centre and the massive security fences have all gone (or going) and grassed over, removing the stones to a relatively car-free environment and allowing the heelstone and the avenue to be integrated once again with the bank, ditch and stones of the henge itself. Of course this is far from a ‘return to nature’: even in the unlikely event that the monument’s daylight hours wouldn’t be populated by the presence of hundreds of visitors, a working rural landscape, and the A303 to Salisbury still dominates viewsheds from the stones.
First of all: call me crazy but I am sad at this loss. The erasure of the road, the fences and the visitor centre might make people forget how controversial Stonehenge has been and its complex recent history. The ‘time tunnel’ had its own distinctive, disturbing appeal…
Second and more importantly, I do confess that while there was little to love about the old Stonehenge experience, you’ll miss it if you are ever so slightly an archaeosnob like me. For me, the phenomenology of landscape was to go to Stonehenge and walk away from it as quickly as possible. I liked the idea that the punters had a direction to go in – towards the stones and their audiotour – and me, I could go the other direction, off to the King Barrow Ridge, Normanton Down, the cursus, wherever as long as it was away from the ghastly tunnel. I knew the way to go, the mere day-trippers knew theirs. Stonehenge was there for the megalithic rock cakes and the postcards.
So I do mourn the old days. Now I have to face going with the crowd and without the missing traces of the recent past. Will I ever bring myself to visit?
The New Stonehenge
The new visitor centre is where you park, over a mile from the stones. The idea is that you explore the landscape and perhaps approach the stones from a pathway, or else walk to the stones direct. Those with mobility issues can take the land-train; from the pictures, the landrovers and their carriages afforded a pseudo-military air that is appropriate given the long-term presence on Salisbury Plain of the British Army.
The consensus view is that the new Stonehenge visitor centre is a world-class experience. The media positively received the architecture of the building, its location, the strategy of transporting visitors with disabilities to the site via landrover-drawn-carriages but most importantly of all, the building’s contents. From the pics, I must admit that the light footprint and strikingly flimsy-looking design of the building appeal to me.
Inevitably, there have been problems and complaints reported, with the Daily Mail refering to the new visitor centre as ‘Moanhenge‘ (which is good enough reason to like the new site without even going there). There have been struggles to accommodate the flood of visitors wishing to drive to the stones rather than walk, the hike in the entrance charge, even the design of the ticket offices affected by the prevailing winds.
Visitors aside, some locals are not happy but the new travel arrangements and the closing of the road. Of interest here is their funerary theme. Protestors from the locality complaining regarding the affect of the closure of the A344 which have made local villages ratruns to avoid the congested A303 dressed as undertakers and strapped a coffin to the top of a car. RIP A344!
Turning the Arthur Cheek?
What is relevant to this blog is that the Visitor Centre contains human remains – skeletons and cremated human remains. Now these have been the focus of some dispute. When Professor Mike Parker Pearson excavated (re-excavated in actual fact) the Aubury Holes in 2008, attempts were made to stop him by followers of King Arthur Pendragon of the Loyal Arthurian Warband. Uther seems like a nice bloke actually and his protests aim to be peaceful and polite. He is certainly a staunch and unswerving spokesperson for what he regards as a just Pagan cause.
On the opening of the new Visitor Centre, Arthur was there with his followers. He protested regarding the display of the human remains in the Centre, his followers bearing slogans such as ‘Rebury the Bones by Our Sacred Stones’.
The EH response was clear: following the careful consultation over another group of druids demanding the reburial of remains on display in the Avebury Keiller Museum, a clear precedent was set. Replica bones are not authentic; the public need the real thing on display. Science prevails, the visitors get their bones and the vocal minority is defeated. In this case, I couldn’t agree more and it is not out of disrespect for Uther and his warband.
Let’s Hear it for the Dead!
So hurrah for the ancestors! Let’s hear and see their stories through their artefacts and their bones. And why not? Our museums are packed full of British-derived, archaeologically excavated human remains. Following recent guidelines from the DCMS, most are incredibly well presented, used to narrate the complex and vivid story of the human experience of living and dying in these islands, particularly since the last Ice Age. Go to any local, regional and national museum and you will see the dead placed and arranged to communicate the fabulous stories about human endeavours and human societies. Under-funded, neglected and subject to manifold criticisms, this country’s museums, and the archaeologists that curate their collections, do a fabulous job and have increasingly strived to show respect and attention to the very special character of the human remains under their care and to justify carefully why, when and how it is appropriate to display human remains. Survey after survey show that this tradition of displaying the dead, continues to enjoy widerspread popular appeal. The display of human remains confers respect onto past people, it does not detract from them. Therefore, in my view, English Heritage have clearly done the right thing to display human remains at Stonehenge. Displaying the dead is part of the British way of life!
Still, I won’t be made to be content. I object! I’m not happy otherwise and here’s why:
MORE DEAD PLEASE, WE’RE BRITISH!
Is it true that the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre has only three sets of human remains?
Surely not! Sadly, my inside sources confirm it.
- One Neolithic skeleton – male
- One Neolithic cremation – no gender given but most were men
- One Beaker-era crouched inhumation – male
I appreciate that the visitor centre is as much a headline advert for the brilliant Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum where far more can be seen. Ok, I can imagine there was a desire not to turn the Visiting Centre into some deathly ossuary. Still, this is a complex funerary landscape covering millennia. Women and children lived and died here too, not just men! Can this be communicated in three sets of remains, no matter how exciting they might be? The Neolithic man from the long barrow looks great with his facial reconstruction, but is this enough to communicate the complex mortuary practices of Neolithic communities in the area? And can the rare Late Neolithic cremations from Stonehenge itself be invoked through the presence of only one set of cremated human remains? The complex mapping of genealogies created through multi-phased Bronze Age burial mounds with sequences of secondar insertions of inhumed and cremated indivuduals: can this be communicated through the remains on display? What about burials from later times, such as the executed Anglo-Saxons found at the ‘stone hanging-place’ (Stonehenge to you).
One might also say that, in focusing on only a few human remains, one creates a ‘too many eggs in one basket’ scenario: it is a secular museum equivalent of creating ‘saints’ whose relics are afforded special treatment.
I repeat again: I haven’t been yet to see the new Stonehenge experience and I am quite certain I will enjoy it. I want to see how the human remains work within the museum space. I am sure that they are sensitively, respectfully, intelligently and carefully arranged to convey the complex narrative of the Stonehenge landscape. The photos I have seen give this impression. But I cannot help but pose a controversial pair of questions:
- While quality of display over quantity is key, is it really the case that three sets of human remains are adequate to tell the complex story of he Stonehenge landscape: stretching back to the Mesolithic and early Neolithic before Stonehenge and forward through the millennia to present day?
- If not, then should we concede that Arther and his loyal warband have actually come very, very close to winning their case: a Stonehenge landscape where only a very few sets of human remains are displayed and relating to only a segment of the time that people occupied and utilised this landscape?