Archaeologists unearth bronze age graves at Stonehenge tunnel site

Exclusive: experts also find neolithic pottery and mysterious C-shaped enclosure at A303 excavation site

Bronze age graves, neolithic pottery and the vestiges of a mysterious C-shaped enclosure that might have been a prehistoric industrial area are among the finds unearthed by archaeologists who have carried out preliminary work on the site of the proposed new road tunnel at Stonehenge.

One of the most intriguing discoveries is a unique shale object that could have been part of a staff or club found in a 4,000-year-old grave. Nearby is the resting spot of a baby buried with a small, plain beaker.

Ditches that flank the C-shaped enclosure contain burnt flint, suggesting a process such as metal or leatherworking was carried out there thousands of years ago.

Just south of the site of the Stonehenge visitor centre, archaeologists came upon neolithic grooved ware pottery possibly left there by the people who built the stone circle or visited it.

“We’ve found a lot – evidence about the people who lived in this landscape over millennia, traces of people’s everyday lives and deaths, intimate things,” said Matt Leivers, A303 Stonehenge consultant archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology. “Every detail lets us work out what was happening in that landscape before during and after the building of Stonehenge. Every piece brings that picture into a little more focus.”

The plan to drop the A303, which passes close to the stones, into a two-mile tunnel is hugely controversial, with many experts having said that carrying out such intrusive construction work would cause disastrous harm to one of the world’s most precious ancient landscapes and lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of artefacts. A legal challenge was launched against the £1.7bn plan late last year.

Highways England and Wessex Archaeology, which is leading the exploration of the tunnel corridor, said they were working on the project systematically and sensitively.

Stonehenge road tunnel

During this preliminary phase, Wessex experts have hand dug and sieved almost 1,800 test pits and excavated and recorded more than 400 trial trenches.

The next phase of archaeological excavations will begin later this year, lasting approximately 18 months and involving up to 150 archaeologists. Construction work on the tunnel is due to start in 2023.

Near the planned eastern portal of the tunnel, the archaeologists discovered large amounts of debitage – waste material from the manufacture of flint tools – and ditches that may date to the iron age and could be associated with Vespasian’s Camp, a hillfort to the south.

Close to the western end, two burials of Beaker people, who arrived in Britain in about 2,500BC, were found. One was an adult, buried in a crouched position with a pot or beaker. Also in the grave was a copper awl or fragment of a pin or needle and a small shale cylindrical object, of a type that is not believed to have been found before.

“It is an oddity,” said Leivers. More detailed work will be carried out to find out what it is, but one theory is that it could be the tip of a ceremonial wooden staff or mace.

Also found in the same area was a pit dating to the age of the Beaker people containing the tiny ear bones of a child and a very simple pot – a sign that this too was a grave. Usually Beaker pots are ornate but this one is plain, probably to reflect the age of the person who died

A little farther south, the C-shaped enclosure was found. “It is a strange pattern of ditches,” said Leivers. “It’s difficult to say what it was, but we know how old it is because we found a near-complete bronze age pot in one of the ditches.”

An archaeologist excavates a bronze age vessel found during preliminary work on the A303 tunnel under Stonehenge.
An archaeologist excavates a bronze age vessel found during preliminary work on the A303 tunnel under Stonehenge. Photograph: Wessex Archaeology

Also in the ditches was a large quantity of burnt flint. “This suggests there may have had some industrial function,” said Leivers. “It could be metal or leatherworking, pottery manufacture, crop processing.”

Another find was a group of objects dating to the late neolithic period – when the stone circle was built – including grooved ware pottery, a flint and red deer antlers.

For the time being the finds are in storage in Salisbury and will ultimately go on display in the city’s museum.

The team accepts that all road schemes have an impact on an area’s archaeology. Andy Crockett, A303 project director for Wessex Archaeology, said: “There isn’t one option that would allow zero impact on archaeological remains; that’s true of every development you can think of.”

He said the trade-off was that the sight of cars and lorries trundling along the A303 close to the stones would vanish and two halves of the world heritage site now split by the road would be reunited.

Highways England said the amount of survey work that had been carried out was unprecedented because of the significance of the site. David Bullock, A303 project manager for Highways England, said: “There has been a huge amount of investigations so that this route can be threaded through so as to disturb as little as possible.”


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Scrap Stonehenge road tunnel plans, say archaeologists after neolithic discovery
Exclusive: Discovery of prehistoric structure is another reason to give up ‘disastrous white elephant’ scheme

Dalya Alberge

22, Jun, 2020 @5:38 PM

Article image
Stonehenge road tunnel go-ahead unlawful, high court told
Judicial review hears Grant Shapps did not properly consider damage to ancient sites and artefacts

Steven Morris

23, Jun, 2021 @9:34 AM

Article image
Archaeologists discover likely source of Stonehenge's giant sarsen stones
Stones in Wiltshire woodland found to be exact match for majority of site’s sarsens

Steven Morris

29, Jul, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Dry spell at Stonehenge reveals secret that has eluded archaeologists
Brown patches of grass left by short hosepipe lead to 'lightbulb moment' that may confirm monument was once a perfect circle

Steven Morris

01, Sep, 2014 @4:19 PM

Article image
Rock cakes? Stonehenge builders may have enjoyed mince pies
Archaeologists say neolithic version of energy bars may also have been eaten at midwinter feasts

Steven Morris

01, Dec, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Stonehenge may have been burial site for Stone Age elite, say archaeologists

Dating cremated bone fragments of men, women and children found at site puts origin of first circle back 500 years to 3,000BC

Maev Kennedy

09, Mar, 2013 @12:03 AM

Article image
Archaeologists may have found architects' camp for Stonehenge
Posts with alignment matching stone circle are discovered on army land at nearby Larkhill

Steven Morris

02, Feb, 2018 @2:20 PM

Article image
Archaeologists unearth remains believed to be of Anglo-Saxon warlord
Man buried with spears and a sword and scabbard at site overlooking River Thames

Nicola Davis Science correspondent

05, Oct, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Archaeologists find graves of high-status Romans in Somerset
Discovery of unusual cemetery in Somerton offers clues as to standing of those buried there

Steven Morris

07, Jan, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Vast neolithic circle of deep shafts found near Stonehenge
Exclusive: prehistoric structure spanning 1.2 miles in diameter is masterpiece of engineering, say archaeologists

Dalya Alberge

22, Jun, 2020 @5:00 AM