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100 Years of Care: Early Excavations and Restoration at Stonehenge

20 February 2018
Posted By:
Martyn Barber
History Uncovered
An aerial photograph of Stonehenge taken on 10 July 1924 showing early restoration works complete. ©Historic England Archive

It’s 100 years since local barrister Cecil Chubb and his wife, Mary, gave Stonehenge to the nation. To mark the anniversary we’re publishing a series of blog posts tracing the care and conservation of Stonehenge since 1918. In this post, Martyn Barber looks at the impact of the initial excavations and restoration work begun in 1919.

The handover

Cecil Chubb formally handed Stonehenge over to the Office of Works on 26 October 1918. In his acceptance speech, Sir Alfred Mond, First Commissioner of Works, expressed the hope that

‘it would be possible to extend the important excavations which had already been made on the site … It was hoped that, under supervision, discoveries would be made on the site which would throw further light on the history of the monument.’

Grand plans

The state of Stonehenge was assessed soon after the handover. A number of the stones had long been propped up with larch poles, which were considered unsightly and less than ideal as a long-term solution. The Office of Works initially envisaged straightening a number of the leaning sarsens and securing them in a concrete foundation, as well as re-erecting the stones that had fallen in 1797 and 1900.

The plans were founded on two basic assumptions – that excavation of the stone holes would show evidence for the original positions of both leaning and fallen stones; and that all the stones had originally been perpendicular.

Work began in 1919, focusing on the stones that the Office of Works deemed most in need of restoration. The Society of Antiquaries carried out the excavations, these being directed on their behalf by Lieutenant-Colonel William Hawley. The Society originally proposed that ‘eventually the whole area within the ditch surrounding the stones shall be completely examined down to the level of the undisturbed chalk’. By the time Hawley’s work was discontinued in 1926, around half of the interior had been explored.

Lieutenant-Colonel Hawley (seated, third from right) and his excavation team at Stonehenge in 1919 or 1920. A boarded and supported sarsen upright is visible in the background. © Historic England Archive (bb81_00863)

Lieutenant-Colonel Hawley (seated, third from right) and his excavation team at Stonehenge in 1919 or 1920. A boarded and supported sarsen upright is visible in the background. © Historic England Archive (bb81_00863)

‘Restoring’ Stonehenge

There were problems with the restoration plans from the start. When two of the stones (6 and 7) on the eastern side of the outer sarsen circle were lifted and their stone holes excavated, there was no clear indication of where they had originally stood within those holes. After much discussion, their positioning was left to Hawley’s expert judgement.

Because movement of the stones over the years had twisted and slightly raised the lintel out of position, there was concern that exposure to the elements might have eroded the tenons protruding from the uprights. So it was decided to give each tenon a lead cap to make them fit more securely into the lintel’s mortice holes. The lead was recycled from the roof of Hampton Court Palace. However, Charles Peers, Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments and the man ultimately responsible for overseeing the operations, dismissed the capping as unnecessary, so no further lead was used on other stones.

Attention turned next to the series of uprights and lintels forming the impressive north-east façade of Stonehenge’s outer circle. The central pair of uprights (stones 30 and 1) were straightened and set in concrete, but as a result their lintels no longer fitted with the stones on either side, so these needed to be adjusted as well. This obviously went against the assumption that the stones had originally been perfectly perpendicular.

While it has been suggested that further restoration work was abandoned because of the cost, it’s more likely that Peers was concerned that there wasn’t enough archaeological evidence to justify straightening and repositioning the stones. In later years, the Office of Works responded to suggestions that they should restart the restoration programme by commenting that if they did so, they would leave themselves open to accusations of ‘faking’ the monument. There would be no further restoration and excavation at Stonehenge until the 1950s.

The lintel resting on Stones 6 and 7 of the outer sarsen circle is lifted into position by crane on 27 November 1919. © Historic England Archive (al0913_039_01)

The lintel resting on Stones 6 and 7 of the outer sarsen circle is lifted into position by crane on 27 November 1919. © Historic England Archive (al0913_039_01)

Hawley’s work

Although Hawley’s excavations were halted sooner than originally planned, he achieved a considerable amount. The quality of his work has come in for some criticism over the years, but much of it is unfair. Hawley was meticulous, patient and observant, working on his own for long periods, and by the standards of the time his methods, site records and published reports are highly creditable. He maintained a daily site diary, and kept the Office of Works informed with regular and sometimes detailed correspondence.

Key discoveries of these years were the so-called Aubrey Holes – a circle of 56 pits just inside the enclosing earthwork. They were named after John Aubrey, the 17th-century antiquarian who had noted some shallow depressions believed to represent the same features. Hawley initially felt they had held a circle of bluestones, but changed his mind after the discovery of the site now known as Woodhenge, envisaging a circle of timber uprights instead. Recently, however, the idea that they may have held stones has re-emerged. Two further circles of pits, named the Y and Z holes, were also uncovered surrounding the stone monument.

Hawley also offered his thoughts on the dating, phasing and purpose of Stonehenge. A major difficulty for him was that – burial monuments aside – the Neolithic and early Bronze Age were still very poorly understood. Even the idea of ‘henges’ as a distinct class of monument did not yet exist.

Major transformations in knowledge about the era when Stonehenge was being constructed and used only began around the time Hawley was finishing his work there, with the discovery and excavation of sites like Woodhenge, and Windmill Hill near Avebury.

Vertical photograph of Stonehenge taken on 10 February 1922 showing Colonel Hawley's excavations in progress. © Historic England Archive

This vertical photograph of Stonehenge taken on 10 February 1922 shows, on the left, two huts that provided office space, living accommodation, finds storage and a workshop for Hawley and his team. Excavations are continuing and the excavated Aubrey Holes have been recently marked with white concrete discs. © Historic England Archive (SU 1242_14 CCC8561_73)

Stonehenge and the wider landscape

Meanwhile, other discoveries of these years were emphasising Stonehenge’s connections with its wider landscape and beyond.

Inspection of the Stonehenge bluestones during Hawley’s excavations allowed Herbert H Thomas of the Geological Survey of Great Britain to identify the Preseli Mountains in Wales as their probable source.

In 1923 OCS Crawford, the Archaeology Officer of the Ordnance Survey, used RAF aerial photographs of the Stonehenge landscape to identify the course of the Stonehenge Avenue beyond King Barrow ridge, linking the monument directly with the River Avon.

The work of Hawley and of the Office of Works marked the beginning of processes that were to transform understanding of Stonehenge and have a considerable impact on its appearance. Similar transformations were under way in the surrounding landscape, and these will be the subject of the next post in our ‘100 Years of Care’ series.

Read more about the history of Stonehenge

Download Martyn Barber’s report, ‘Restoring’ Stonehenge 1881–1939

Top image: Aerial photograph of Stonehenge taken on 10 July 1924. The restoration work has ended, but Colonel Hawley’s excavations are continuing on the south-east side of the monument. ©Historic England Archive

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  • About the Author

    Martyn Barber
    Martyn is Senior Investigator in Historic England’s Aerial Investigation & Mapping team, based in Swindon.


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