Growing resistance to Stonehenge tunnel - Museums Association

Growing resistance to Stonehenge tunnel

Archaeologists say plans could damage public appreciation of midwinter solstice
Nicola Sullivan
A group of senior archaeologists has claimed that government-approved plans to build a 1.8-mile road tunnel alongside Stonehenge would have “dreadful consequences” for the heritage site.

A response to a public consultation on the plans, signed by 21 academics at universities across the UK, said the tunnel would have an  “astronomical” impact on the midwinter sunset alignment from Stonehenge.

“We can see that informed and expert opinion has now decidedly shifted towards understanding that the main astronomical alignment at Stonehenge is not north-east towards the midsummer sunrise, but south-west towards the midwinter sunset,” said the consultation response.  

“Yet only now are the public beginning to visit to see the midwinter sunset rather than the midsummer sunrise. We can expect it will be 20 or 30 years before that newer understanding is commonplace.

“If a western tunnel portal is built on that midwinter solar alignment, in the early 2020s, we can forecast that it will be universally seen by the late 2030s to be another short-term disaster – one which is far bigger, has far more impact and is irreversible in a way that the disasters of the previous century were not.”

The archaeologists also argued that the creation of the tunnel would require “expensive and time-consuming” work to maintain high standards of archaeological recovery, and “lowers the bar for allowing development to overrule conservation” within a world heritage site.

Concerns were also raised about the potential impact of archaeological recovery in a number of areas around Stonehenge, including Countess junction and Avon valley. The archaeologists said that a surface road beyond the southern edge of the site was the only option that did not have a “severe impact”.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites UK (ICOMOS) told the BBC that the tunnel would have an “irreversible impact” on the landmark. The council also questioned why the option of using Ministry of Defense land at Boscombe Down was not being considered.

The development at Stonehenge is part of a £2bn government scheme to upgrade the remaining sections of the A303, which is known for its bad traffic. If the tunnel was built a section of the road would be widened between Amesbury and Berwick Down.

A public consultation on the project ran from 12 January to 5 March. Historic England, the National Trust and English Heritage submitted formal consultation responses, and their joint view is that the tunnel "has the potential to deliver huge benefits if designed and sited well".

A press statement from the three organisations said the development would remove the majority of the damaging road and its traffic from the heritage site, although concerns were raised about the proposed location of the western entrance of the tunnel. 

“Historic England, the National Trust and English Heritage have seen the responses from the UK branch of ICOMOS, other heritage organisations and consortiums that have made their responses public. Our own responses also highlight areas where improvement is required, in particular the proposed location of the western portal," said the statement.

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