Back to all posts

Stonehenge 1977–85: a dig in time and a confrontation

Posted:
28 November 2018
Posted By:
Heather Sebire
Categories:
History Uncovered
Excavation in progress at the Heel Stone in 1979. (© Mike Pitts; photo by Arthur ApSimon)

In this blog post, number six in our series charting the care and conservation of Stonehenge since 1918, we look at the years between 1977 and 1985. These years saw a chance archaeological discovery, the site under new management, and one of the saddest episodes in Stonehenge’s history – the infamous Battle of the Beanfield of June 1985.

More and more visitors

By the end of the 1970s, visitor numbers at Stonehenge had risen steeply. The Department of the Environment, which then managed Stonehenge, was concerned that the resulting erosion of ground surfaces would be detrimental to the site’s long-term preservation. As a result, in 1977 the stone circle was closed off behind a fence. Access to it was by prior arrangement only.

In 1978 the gravel area within the stone circle was removed and the centre was grassed over once again. However, a path following an old track through the bank and ditch that surrounded the stones was surfaced, so that visitors could get quite close to the monument without wearing it out.

Aerial view of Stonehenge in 1986

Stonehenge seen from the air in 1986, after the area within the stone circle had been grassed over

In other areas new paths were made, and turf was laid in the southern part of the site beyond the bank and ditch. Excavations connected with all this work looked for environmental evidence that would find out more about the vegetation and conditions in the landscape when Stonehenge was built.

A royal visitor and an urgent dig

A very productive excavation took place ‘in the nick of time’ in 1979. It came about quite by chance, because Prince Charles, who had studied archaeology at Cambridge University, decided to a visit Stonehenge late one Friday afternoon.

While officials from the Department of the Environment stood waiting for the royal guest’s helicopter to land, they noticed a digger cutting a trench along the verge of the A344, very close to the Heel Stone – the large stone that stands at the end of the Stonehenge Avenue. The Post Office were laying a telephone cable, and somehow the whole exercise had slipped through all protective hoops that should have prevented any such digging without proper archaeological investigation.

An urgent message was relayed via London to Mike Pitts, the newly appointed curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury, to see if he could help. Although he had no budget for a dig, he quickly put a team together with the help of Arthur ApSimon at the University of Southampton, who arranged for a number of students and staff to help out. By the time Mike arrived on site, the Post Office were just 7 metres from the Heel Stone and very close to archaeological deposits.

Heel Stone discoveries

The results in the narrow trench made it all worthwhile. The team found, as expected, the ditch around the Heel Stone, and also located the eastern bank of the Avenue.

The excavations from 1979 in progress beside the A344.

The excavations from 1979 in progress beside the A344 (© Mike Pitts)

They also found clues that the Heel Stone may have had a partner. They discovered a large hole nearby, which may have been where the Heel Stone or another large stone originally stood. If so, this pair of stones would have framed the sunrise on midsummer’s day when viewed from the middle of Stonehenge. They would also have lined up with the Slaughter Stone (now on the ground) and its partner. The Heel Stone may pre-date the main stone circle, as Mike Pitts has highlighted recently when revisiting this research.

In the early 1980s further small archaeological investigations were carried out relating to improvements to the car park and path. One of these uncovered two holes in an outer ring (known as the Y holes) around the stone monument and a preserved area of prehistoric stone debris.

The Heel Stone today with its circular ditch just visible as an earthwork and the roadbed of the A344 grassed over

The Heel Stone today, with its circular ditch just visible as an earthwork, and the roadbed of the A344 grassed over.

Under new management

In 1983 the government set up a new body, the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission. Popularly known as English Heritage, it began looking after Stonehenge in 1984 under the chairmanship of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. It both cared for a range of historic properties and ran the national system of heritage protection. One of its aims was to manage the historic sites better, with new facilities, interpretation, displays and signage.

This did not sit well with the by now regular summer festival encampment at Stonehenge.

Alternative Stonehenge

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Stonehenge remained a popular gathering place for people seeking an alternative lifestyle. Around the summer solstice the crowds grew in numbers for the Stonehenge Free Festival, and the site was the scene of an encampment that lasted for several weeks.

A summer encampment at Stonehenge in the late 1970s

A summer encampment at Stonehenge in the late 1970s

The authorities were concerned not only about anti-social behaviour and the effects on people who just wanted to visit Stonehenge, but about protecting the site itself. It was not just the stone circle itself that suffered: the encampments were on equally important archaeology in the landscape and this was being damaged. People were driving vehicles on the fields around the Cursus and its barrow groups, wearing out the ground over a large area, and digging latrines into prehistoric barrows.

With numbers increasing every year, drug dealing, cars being set alight and damage to the archaeological sites, the tensions that had been building for more than a decade between the authorities and revellers eventually came to a head.

The Battle of the Beanfield

The tensions culminated in the infamous Battle of the Beanfield on 1 June 1985. English Heritage and the National Trust had gained a High Court injunction to prevent the annual Stonehenge Free Festival from taking place. To enforce it, the police had set up an exclusion zone around Stonehenge, with road blocks on the approach roads and barbed wire around the stones.

On 1 June the police intercepted a large ‘Peace Convoy’ of vehicles and around 600 people heading for Stonehenge, halting them at a police road block 7 miles from the monument.

Police attack a van during the Battle of the Beanfield

Police attack a van during the Battle of the Beanfield (© PA)

A violent confrontation followed. The police used overzealous tactics to attack festival goers. Vehicle windows were smashed and people were hit with truncheons, although the police maintained that vehicles were trying to ram the road block and that they were under attack from flying stones and wood.

The standoff lasted for several hours but still resonates today. Many people were injured, including some police officers. In all 537 people were arrested but eventually some were awarded damages, and one police sergeant was convicted of actual bodily harm.

Smaller confrontations followed each summer over the next few years, with Stonehenge closed to the general public at the solstice. It was not until 2000 that Stonehenge was made accessible again for the summer solstice under managed open access, something that continues today. Now, over 30 years later, relations with the pagan and Druid groups and travellers have improved after many years of consultation and communication.

You can find out more about how we are celebrating the Stonehenge 100 anniversary on our website.

Top image: Excavation in progress at the Heel Stone in 1979. (© Mike Pitts; photo by Arthur ApSimon)

 

Share this Post Share on Facebook
Facebook
0Tweet about this on Twitter
Twitter
Share on Google+
Google+
0
Share this Post Share on Facebook
Facebook
0Tweet about this on Twitter
Twitter
Share on Google+
Google+
0
  • About the Author

    Heather Sebire
    Heather Sebire is an archaeologist and is currently Senior Property Curator for Stonehenge at English Heritage.

Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *