MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Michael Wood is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic his­tory at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester. He has pre­sented nu­mer­ous BBC se­ries and his books in­clude The Story of In­dia (BBC, 2007)

Land­scapes are not only the set­ting for his­tory; they are also a ma­jor source of our sense of his­tory and iden­tity. Read them right, and his­tor­i­cal land­scapes can be more in­for­ma­tive than any other kind of source. They can also of­fer a pro­found ex­pe­ri­ence if we re­spond with cu­rios­ity and sen­si­tiv­ity to the con­tours and land­marks left by pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions who have lived and worked in them. This is even more the case with sa­cred land­scapes, which were a re­flec­tion of our an­ces­tors’ be­liefs about their re­la­tion to the cos­mos and can still to­day seem to hold a nu­mi­nous residue.

Over the years, I’ve had the good for­tune to have spent time in many res­o­nant his­tor­i­cal land­scapes, hoping to con­jure up some­thing of the spir­its of the peo­ple who shaped them over the cen­turies. I still re­mem­ber years ago walk­ing along the Inca sa­cred lines around Cusco, Peru. In this an­cient land­scape – vis­i­ble now only to the ini­ti­ated – old sites that once be­longed to In­can roy­als had be­come tum­ble­down Span­ish ha­cien­das, where lo­cals tend­ing fire al­tars kept the whole elab­o­rate net­work alive. Or many years ago, be­fore the Gulf Wars, I took a jour­ney through south Iraq, the heart­land of civil­i­sa­tion, where the desert is still crossed by dried up riverbeds of the Euphrates and silted canals that once sus­tained the world’s first cities. It was hard to imag­ine any­thing more evoca­tive, though now the city mounds of Larsa and Shu­rup­pak are scarred by the ve­hi­cle tracks of il­licit dig­gers.

But Britain also has its own mag­i­cal an­cient land­scapes. Think of the rolling downs of Wiltshire be­tween Old Sarum and Ave­bury. Here, signs left by hu­man so­ci­ety stretch back over 10,000 years – pat­terns by which our early an­ces­tors marked out their world and sig­ni­fied its re­la­tion to the un­seen pow­ers of the uni­verse. From the Mesolithic to the Bronze and Iron Ages, rich lay­ers of the past are still present in the land­scape sur­round­ing Stone­henge, even as traf­fic rushes down the A303. And it’s the A303 that’s the prob­lem. As the main artery to the south west from the home coun­ties, the road runs right past Stone­henge, just west of Ames­bury.

One of hu­man­ity’s most fa­mous mon­u­ments, Stone­henge is an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal land­scape with­out par­al­lel in Europe, and per­haps the world. The first cir­cle at Stone­henge was made 5,000 years ago, and the great stone cir­cle it­self in around 2500 BC – the age of the pyra­mids! And the mys­ter­ies of this amaz­ing mon­u­ment and the com­plex pre­his­toric so­ci­eties that pro­duced it are by no means ex­hausted, as new dis­cov­er­ies con­tinue to show.

All the more wor­ry­ing to me then, that this unique land­scape is cur­rently at the cen­tre of a pro­jected plan by High­ways Eng­land to re­lieve con­ges­tion on the A303 by cre­at­ing a four lane road with a 1.8-mile tun­nel, and an ex­press­way in­ter­change 1.5 miles to the west, on the pre­cise line of the mid­win­ter sunset align­ment that we now know was cru­cial to the an­cient Bri­tons.

While the Na­tional Trust and English Her­itage have of­fered qual­i­fied sup­port for the plan, Unesco has ex­pressed its op­po­si­tion. Mean­while, the Stone­henge Al­liance, a con­sor­tium of ar­chae­ol­o­gists and en­vi­ron­men­tal campaigners, says the plan is based on in­ad­e­quate and ob­so­lete in­for­ma­tion. Ac­cord­ing to ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­perts, a south­ern by­pass road be­yond the World Her­itage Site zone is the only pro­posal that won’t have a se­vere im­pact on the mon­u­ment and its land­scape.

In the end, the ar­gu­ment is about the to­tal­ity of an an­cient land­scape, and that in­cludes the an­cient as­tro­nom­i­cal align­ment that was pur­pose­fully cho­sen by our an­ces­tors, and that will, in my view, be wrecked by the ex­press­way in­ter­change. Time per­haps for a re­think in the name of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions?

DIS­COVER MORE

WEB­SITE You can of­fer your thoughts on the Stone­henge road plans (un­til 14 Au­gust) at high­way­sen­g­land.cit­i­zenspace.com/cip/a303-stone­henge-con­sul­ta­tion-july-2018

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