Photograph of the now stolen Woodhenge plaque, taken 27th March 2014

In my About Archaeodeath section and opening entry of 12th June 2013, I outline the scope and rationale for this blog. I didn’t design it to be read by millions or to be controversial. However, my blog has found popular appeal in an unexpected and rather disappointing way that many might not be aware of.

Last year, I visited the English Heritage site of Woodhenge, a circular timber monument associated with the Stonehenge complex and adjacent to Durrington Walls. I discussed its striking reconstruction in inter-war early 20th-century fashion, with concrete pillars marking where post-holes had been recovered, and striking concrete display plinths with copper plaques dating from the 1920s. I’d visited on 27th March and my post was published on 30th March 2014.

Sadly, in late November 2015, the two copper-alloy plaques, dating to the 1920s and installed following Maud Cunnington’s excavations of the site, were stolen by persons unknown.

As Mike Pitts discusses on his blog, these are a terrible loss. We cannot ascertain the motives for the theft. Most likely, the copper could have been valuable enough to be stolen for metal alone, given the many thefts of lead and copper from war memorials over recent years. Mike rightly foregrounds the possibility that those who took them might not realise their significance. However, there is an alternative possibility given the iconic status of this monument and given that the 90-year-old signs are enmeshed within the history of the site’s discovery and are well visited internationally: these were stolen ‘to order’ by someone aware of their historical value: a collector or perhaps even someone with a degree in archaeology!

Why should the public mourn their loss? These were an invaluable parts of the heritage display to this day, despite being updated by modern heritage boards. They are perhaps more important still as historic material culture in their own right and unique records of 1920s heritage interpretation together with the concrete pillars; a theme explored further in an article I cannot access behind its paywall by Helen Wickstead and Martyn Barber. Like all important pieces of heritage, they have meaning in their precise location: they are no use to man or beast in a museum store! Therefore it was right and proper that they remained on display, in functioning use. I love the fonts chosen and the colour-coded rings of posts.

Where my Archaeodeath blog comes in is that English Heritage looked online for images of the plaques and found my blog post to be one of the most useful source of an image of them. Also, the inspectors knew me and knew I would rapidly grant permission. Hence, my photograph of one of the plaques, as featured in my blog, and taken on 27th March 2014, is now the principal image used by all news outlets reporting the theft including:

Four points of reflection are necessary:

  1. I’m obviously proud that my picture could be of service to English Heritage and the Police; used in the hunt to retrieve these plaques, not matter how futile that task might seem;
  2. I am also struck by how few photographs of these plaques existed online for ready and rapid use by EH when they required images of them in short order. Perhaps this reveals how thousands of people visit the site yearly, but few have posted photos of the signs themselves. Do we perhaps not value heritage displays as elements of the contemporary landscape until they’ve gone?;
  3. It also reveals how unpredictable losses and absences transpire at heritage sites are, whether it is caused by heritage crime or other human or natural agents;
  4. One of my Past in its Place project themes is absence: how metal plaques (from medieval brasses to modern memorials) as well as memorials made of other materials have a power despite being removed or worn to illegibility. This applies to the near-invisible 9th-century text on the Pillar of Eliseg, but it also applies to Woodhenge. Following their theft, visitors now apprehend concrete plinths with insets to hold now-gone plaques, with verdigris reminding visitors of their copper-alloy composition.