Wessex Archaeology has been appointed to deliver archaeological works ahead of the A303 Amesbury to Berwick Down upgrade past Stonehenge. We have an extensive track record of work in connection with the Stonehenge landscape, and this project enables us to continue our work towards the sensitive management and interpretation of one of the UK’s most important historic landscapes.

With archaeological work due to start on site in late summer, we’ve put together a list of frequently asked questions about the archaeology of the scheme.

Why is archaeology done ahead of construction work?

In the UK, archaeology is written into our planning regulations, so that developers are required to have land archaeologically assessed and excavated before construction begins. This applies to all construction projects which have the potential to affect the historic environment, from single storey home extensions to major road projects.

It was the introduction of Planning Policy Guidance Note 16 (PPG16 – Archaeology and Planning) and associated PPG15 (Planning and the Historic Environment) in November 1990 which confirmed archaeology as a factor in determining planning applications. Over time these guidance notes have evolved into the current government policy and guidance for the historic environment as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which places the emphasis on understanding and conserving the significance of heritage assets as part of sustainable development.

This means that developers must consider the historic environment constraints, impacts and benefits of a project from the start of the construction process. 

Why is it important to do archaeology ahead of construction work?

Archaeology is a hugely important part of the planning process. From the ancient landscape of Stonehenge to the cairns of Orkney, the UK’s cultural heritage is unique. It is one of our greatest collective assets; a unique selling point that draws millions of visitors each year, forges links with communities around the world and enhances our sense of wellbeing. The sustainability of our heritage depends on managing, conserving and protecting the historic environment, balanced against the needs of the present and future.

In order to do this, archaeologists must record and interpret the physical remains of our cultural heritage – historic buildings and structures, landscapes and seascapes, archaeological remains – in response to the changes brought about by development. The discoveries made help to replenish and renew the social, educational and economic value of cultural heritage for our communities.

What archaeological work has been done so far?

Work in advance of this scheme has involved more thorough archaeological investigations than for any other road scheme in the country. Investigations have followed all professional guidelines and what we’ve found is interesting but not unexpected.

We have undertaken geophysical surveys of the ground that would be disturbed by the scheme both within and outside the World Heritage Site, including the location for the new Longbarrow Junction and the whole of the Winterbourne Stoke northern bypass route.

Ground penetrating radar has also been used to look at what lies underneath the surface, in particular places within the WHS, and the topsoil has been systematically sampled with test pits and evaluation trenches to search for any buried remains.

The scale of these evaluation works included: 

  • 462 ha of new gradiometer survey of the scheme corridor in four phases
  • 23 ha of targeted ground penetrating radar survey
  • 20 ha of multichannel ground penetrating radar survey (western portal approach)
  • 1,777 topsoil test pits hand-excavated and sieved 
  • 440 trial trenches excavated and recorded

As part of the surveys we uncovered some interesting but not unexpected finds, including:

  • Flint knapping – evidence of the manufacture of stone tools at various places across the Scheme, but particularly at the Eastern Portal, Longbarrow Junction and the Western Portal Approaches. –
  • Beaker burials – crouched inhumation at Western Portal with Beaker-style artefacts (pottery, copper awl, cylindrical shale object) – pit containing infant bones and Beaker pottery
  • Neolithic & early Bronze Age activity – flint assemblages and EBA cremation burial at Longbarrow North – Early Bronze Age cremation burial at Parsonage Down
  • Late Bronze Age ‘C’-shaped enclosure at Longbarrow South

The archaeological evaluation results have confirmed expectations about the likely archaeological finds that will be made along the route of the scheme – these will be archaeologically recorded in advance of construction and will be published and made available to a wide audience.

All work was inspected on a weekly basis to ensure compliance with agreed specifications and standards, by the County Archaeologist. The members of the A303 Heritage Monitoring Advisory Group monitored the evaluation works within or affecting the World Heritage Site and the A303 Scientific Committee were also invited to visit these works.

What are you planning to do? What does the programme look like?

The construction programme has been designed from the outset to allow for the vast majority of the archaeological work to be completed before the construction work starts, leaving only work to existing roads or other inaccessible areas to be undertaken later.

Our current programme estimates that all works, including additional evaluation where required, and detailed excavation, survey and recording for all areas of archaeological potential affected by the scheme, will take approximately 18-20 months to complete.

Our works won’t end there either. In addition to an extensive programme of post-excavation processing, assessment, analysis and publication of our results, it is very likely that field archaeologists will still be required during the actual construction of the scheme itself (known as the Main Works).

Why will you only be sampling/sieving a small percentage of the soil excavated during archaeological works?

This is not true. We don’t have a “one size fits all” approach; the amount of sampling or sieving will vary depending on what’s found at each location.  We’ll be reviewing and making adjustments as the archaeological works progresses. We will be consulting on the sampling size strategy, and the independent A303 Scientific Committee, have been given the opportunity to input to this strategy.

 

What will you do with all the artefacts you find?

Our approach is outlined in a detailed archaeological mitigation strategy including a comprehensive programme of excavation and recording. It has been designed to the highest standards and in such a way that we can make adjustments depending on the scale and significance of discoveries.

Archaeological finds – and the historical layers or ‘strata’ that they are found in – play an important role in the interpretation of a site. When artefacts are uncovered, archaeologists must carefully place them in a bag marked with a specific reference number, which corresponds to the context they were found in.

The finds will then be cleaned up and analysed in a lab by specialists to identify what they are, what they might have been used for, who might have produced and used them, what cultural importance they might have had, and their wider historical significance. They will also be drawn and photographed to record them in exact detail.

Our archaeological evaluation work indicates that the vast majority of artefacts found are likely to be what is known as “debitage” – waste material from the manufacture of flint tools. However, there are also likely to be other artefacts associated with the long history of human activity in this landscape.

Once analysis and reporting have been completed, finds are deposited with the museum or archive local to where the excavation took place, and many will be exhibited there to the local community.

Where can I go to find more information?

To find more information about the scheme, visit Highways England’s website and follow them on social media:

Twitter: @A303Stonehenge

Facebook: A303 Stonehenge Community

If you are interested in the archaeology of the scheme, Highways England and Wessex Archaeology will be sharing information and updates through a dedicated website which will be launched in the coming year.

In the meantime, you can follow our social media channels and check back on our dedicated A303 webpage for further information:

https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/our-work/stonehenge-archaeology-a303-improvement

Twitter: @WessexArch

Facebook: Wessex Archaeology