Stonehenge and its landscape; changing perceptions, informing the next generation and benefitting the local economy
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Sheffield
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Earth Sciences: Geology
History and Archaeology: Archaeology, Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
The Stonehenge Riverside Project was carried out between 2003 and 2010,
to determine the purpose of Stonehenge by investigating both the monument
and the surrounding landscape. The project's reach and importance have
been considerable, from training and inspiring the next generation of
professional archaeologists to stimulating people worldwide with new
knowledge about Stonehenge, providing artistic inspiration and changing
perceptions and beliefs about the use of the site, leading to significant
economic, cultural and technological benefits.
The Stonehenge Riverside Project was directed by Prof. Mike
Parker Pearson (University of Sheffield 1990 to 2012) an expert in British
Prehistory, alongside Dr Umberto Albarella (Sheffield since 2004) a
leading expert in zooarchaeology, and brought together a host of academic
and other institutions in one of the world's largest field archaeological
research projects of the 21st century. Work was initially AHRC
funded from 2006 to 2010, with follow on AHRC funding for the Feeding
Stonehenge project (2010-13) which looked at the supply, production
and consumption of material as well as foodstuffs in the wider Stonehenge
area [R1]. The team of co-directors were Professor Colin Richards and
Professor Julian Thomas of Manchester University (prehistoric societies),
Dr Josh Pollard of Bristol/Southampton University (monuments), Dr Kate
Welham of Bournemouth University (geophysical survey) and Professor Chris
Tilley of UCL (prehistoric landscapes). The project was funded by grants
to Parker Pearson and Albarella from the AHRC, NERC, National Geographic,
Google, The Society of Antiquaries and Royal Archaeological Institute; the
combined project funding totalling £1.33m (>96% AHRC (peer review)
funded). The project attracted staff and students from other universities
in the UK and across the EU, and its discoveries were followed by millions
The project's working hypothesis — that Stonehenge and Durrington Walls
were juxtaposed as places of the living and the dead — was supported by
research instigated and led by Sheffield researchers and by our many
discoveries made during the course of four field seasons. Extensive
post-excavation analyses and C14 dating was mostly conducted by a team at
Sheffield: Ben Chan (lithics analysis), Sarah Viner (zooarchaeological
analysis), Mandy Jay (isotopic analysis), Christie Willis (analysis of
cremated human remains) [R4], all under the direction of Parker Pearson as
PI, project visionary and media spokesman.
Durrington Walls was a large enclosure, with the remains of many houses,
previously unknown on the site. The discovery of just three human bones
among the 80,000 animal bones found at Durrington shows that the
activities that took place there were the complete opposite of what was
happening at Stonehenge, which was used as a cemetery. In 2008 the team
excavated 60 cremation burials from within Stonehenge; these date to the
two main periods of its use (3000-2400 BC) [R5].
The project also established why Stonehenge is where it is. Prehistoric
people adapted pre-existing natural features into the `avenue' leading
from Stonehenge's entrance; these were three parallel chalk ridges aligned
by geological accident on the midsummer sunrise-midwinter sunset axis.
This seems to have formed the blueprint for solstitial alignments not only
at Stonehenge but at four of the timber circles at Durrington Walls and
As predicted by the working hypothesis the project discovered a second
`avenue' at Durrington Walls. The Durrington avenue linked the timber
monument known as the Southern Circle to the River Avon. The Durrington
Walls avenue's midsummer sunset orientation provides a counterpoint to the
Stonehenge avenue's midsummer sunrise axis whilst the Southern Circle's
view towards midwinter sunrise contrasts with Stonehenge's midwinter
Analysis of the faunal assemblage from Durrington Walls points to
seasonal culling indicative of midwinter (predominantly) and summertime
gatherings, suggesting that Stonehenge and its associated timber monuments
were not primitive astronomical observatories but monumentalised key
moments of the year when people gathered here and celebrated [R6].
Whilst theories of exotic origins for Stonehenge's design — invoking
Bronze Age Mycenaean and ancient Egyptian inspiration — are still popular,
the project has shown that Stonehenge's architecture derives from
indigenous forms in use in Britain in preceding centuries.
Finally, down by the River Avon, at the end of the Stonehenge avenue at
West Amesbury, a previously unknown henge was discovered. Its small circle
contained about 25 bluestones that were removed around 2400 BC, perhaps to
be taken to Stonehenge. Just when this stone circle was constructed is not
certain but it was well before 2500 BC. The discovery of Bluestonehenge,
together with new timber monuments upstream south of Woodhenge, has
established the central importance of this stretch of the Avon.
We can now revise the working hypothesis to conclude that Stonehenge was
built as a symbol of island-wide cosmological and geographical unity, with
its stones representing ancestral connections to Britain's earliest
Neolithic farming groups in Wales and southern England [R6].
References to the research
R1. Parker Pearson, M., Richards, C., Allen, M., Payne, A. and Welham, K.
2004. The Stonehenge Riverside project: research design and initial
results. Journal of Nordic Archaeological Science 14: 45-60.
R2. Parker Pearson, M., Pollard, J., Richards, C., Thomas, J., Tilley,
C., Welham, K. and Albarella, U. 2006. Materializing Stonehenge: the
Stonehenge Riverside Project and new discoveries. Journal of Material
Culture 11: 227-261. doi: 10.1177/1359183506063024
R3. Parker Pearson, M., Cleal, R., Marshall, P., Needham, S., Pollard,
J., Richards, C, Ruggles, C., Sheridan, A., Thomas, J. Tilley, C., Welham,
K., Chamberlain, A., Chenery, C., Evans, J., Knüsel, C., Linford N.,
Martin, L., Montgomery, J., Payne, A. and Richards. M. 2007. The age of
Stonehenge. Antiquity 81: 617-39.
R4. Thomas, J., Marshall, P., Parker Pearson, M., Pollard, J., Richards,
C., Tilley, C. and Welham, K. 2009. The date of the Stonehenge cursus. Antiquity
R5. Parker Pearson, M., Chamberlain, A., Jay, M., Marshall, P., Pollard,
J., Richards, C., Thomas, J., Tilley, C. and Welham, K. 2009. Who was
buried at Stonehenge? Antiquity 83: 23-39.
R6. Viner, S., Evans, J., Albarella, U. and Parker Pearson, M. 2010.
Cattle mobility in prehistoric Britain: strontium isotope analysis of
cattle teeth from Durrington Walls (Wiltshire, Britain). Journal of
Archaeological Science 37: 2812-20. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2010.06.017
Independent evidence of research quality
The project was highlighted for its research excellence in an editorial
in Antiquity (Sept 2008), was voted `Archaeological Research
Project of the Year 2010' for Bluestonehenge, and Mike Parker Pearson was
`Archaeologist of the Year' for 2010 (voted by the readership of Current
Archaeology). Parker Pearson was awarded the Samuel Kress Fellowship
for 2012 by the Archaeological Institute of America for his work at
Stonehenge. The project was awarded the Northern Antiquaries Society
(Copenhagen) Prize (2008), and Andante Travel Prize (2008) which is
designed to heighten public awareness of worthwhile and exciting projects.
Mike Parker Pearson was invited to speak on SRP in 2006-2010 at academic
institutions in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Stanford,
Santa Fe, Granada, Seville, Tenerife, Kiel, Halle, Munich, Amsterdam,
Seoul, Sydney, Leuven, Leiden, Stockholm, Dublin, Copenhagen, Gothenborg,
Kalmar and Lund.
Details of the impact
The Stonehenge research project has had international impact, with 4
principal aspects: enhanced public understanding; economic benefit to the
area and to the heritage industry through increased visitor numbers;
contribution to cultural life and understanding; and education.
Enhanced public knowledge through popular media outputs and public
The project was a flagship for the AHRC and the findings have been the
basis of worldwide media coverage. It has reached an audience of millions
worldwide, through TV documentaries, radio programmes, headline news,
international lecture tours and non-specialist publications, to which
Parker Pearson, Albarella, Viner, Chan, and Willis have contributed. The
research findings have been the subject of a number of documentaries. On
Channel 4, the Time Team special Secrets of Stonehenge
(first broadcast 1 June 2009) reached 2.27m viewers (and is also available
in video format), while Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons, first
broadcast 1 June 2009, reached 2.05 million viewers [S1]. This represented
a 6.9% share of the viewing audience at that time, compared to Channel 4's
average of 5%. The programme is now available on 4oD, Channel 4's
interactive on-demand service. Internationally, the National Geographic
documentary Stonehenge Decoded, first broadcast in May 2008,
reached 6.3m viewers in the USA alone, while also being broadcast on the
network's UK channel. It is now available for purchase on DVD or free to
view on National Geographic's website. The documentary was nominated for a
2009 Emmy award. The PBS documentary series NOVA is the highest rated
science series on US television and the most watched documentary series on
public television. Their special Secrets of Stonehenge, was first
broadcast on 16 November 2010 and is now available for download on iTunes
and YouTube, for which it currently has 49,000 views [S2]. In addition to
the initial viewing figures, each programme has been repeated a number of
times on their host channels, while also being available through on-demand
services. They have also been shown to many millions more in Britain,
North America, Europe and other English- and Spanish-speaking countries.
In addition, German, Russian, Japanese and other American film crews have
made documentaries about the project. The widespread dissemination through
the media has increased public awareness of the project results, changing
the general public's perception of the nature and use of Stonehenge and of
society in the British Bronze Age, indicated by the responses of reviewers
to these documentaries such as `by the end you genuinely felt like you
had increased your own knowledge', and `A truly fantastic
programme showing how far our ancestors travelled at a time when we
thought they only moved a few miles from where they were born' [S3].
It was the front-cover story for National Geographic Magazine in
June 2008 (circulation 9 million and published in 36 languages) [S4], and
has appeared in the National Trust's magazine (National Trust membership
is 4 million). These magazines aim to disseminate science and research
findings in a readable and well-illustrated format to educate and inform a
The discoveries of the Durrington Walls settlement in 2006/7, the
Stonehenge findings of 2008 (in 430 international publications), and of
Bluestonehenge in 2009 received heavy news coverage. These included the LA
Times (circulation 572K, ranked 5 in US), Washington Post (circulation
512, ranked 8 in US) and Boston Globe (circulation 360K) amongst the many
other newspapers across the world who carried it as front-page news and/or
ran large feature articles [S5].
The director and staff have given hundreds of lectures to packed
audiences of local societies, museum groups, tour guide groups and the
general public in Britain, the US, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands,
Spain, Tenerife (Institute of Astronomy), Croatia, South Korea and
Australia. For instance lectures on Stonehenge by Parker-Pearson in 2008,
2009 and 2010 and the `Stonehenge debate' at Salisbury Guildhall were
attended by 200, 197,196 and 79 attendees respectively.
Economic Benefits for local tourism
Increased public interest in the site has led to economic benefits for
tourism in the Salisbury area, and particularly for Salisbury &
Stonehenge Guided Tours [S6]. Visitor numbers on the tour have increased
year on year from ~300 in 2008 to ~800 for year ending April 2013,
resulting in a 265% rise in turnover (from £20k to ~£53k) over the same
period. Visitors taking the 5-hour tour frequently travel by train from
London and stay overnight in Salisbury to enjoy the town's facilities,
providing national and local economic benefits. Comments include — `[The
guide] made Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape come alive with his
passion, his in-depth knowledge of the monument, related sites and the
area and his "hot off the press" insights gleaned from his involvement
with the on-going "Riverside Project"' and `Simply put, there is no better
way to visit Stonehenge than with PS'. (Trip Advisor 328/330 reviews
Cultural impact and contribution to national cultural life
The project has provided new information on Stonehenge (chronology,
landscape context, narrative, house reconstructions, population, meaning
and cultural significance etc.), both for updating guide books and for the
complete re-design of the visitor centre (Parker Pearson was consultant
for the exhibition centre) opening in 2013. At present the site attracts
over 1 million people p.a. and so the new-look centre is designed to
accommodate and inform such a large international audience. A new booklet,
arranged by Jennifer Moore at Sheffield, was sponsored by the increase in
visitor numbers from Salisbury & Stonehenge Guided Tours [S6].
In 2008 and 2009, Art+Archaeology — a group of seven international
artists — responded to the archaeological excavations of the Stonehenge
Riverside Project [S7]. The Director (an archaeologist) and co-director
(artist in residence at the project 2007 and 2008) presented exhibitions
at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (May-December 2008 with 34,900
visitors) and subsequently at the Oliver Holt Gallery, Sherborne (Sept-Oct
2009). Another exhibition `Touchstone: an encounter between art and
archaeology' at Salisbury Museum (2010) had 3,800 visitors. The Stonehenge
Spectacular event for National Archaeology Week in 2008, also at Salisbury
Museum, was attended by 670 visitors [S8]. A photographer also recorded
the excavation and, partly on the strength of this, was subsequently
appointed Leverhulme artist in residence at the University of Sheffield.
Education — enhancing children's knowledge of Stonehenge
The research has generated interest within different educational media
across different sectors of the community from children's books and
magazines to general interest archaeology. It has regularly featured in
issues of the popular magazines British Archaeology and Current
Archaeology (each with circulation over 17,000) [S9] as well as the
American children's magazine Dig (current circulation 12,000). The
research also led to a children's National Geographic book If
Stones Could Speak, aimed at 10-14 year-olds across the
English-speaking world which won the Orbis Pictus Honor for Outstanding
Nonfiction for Children Award 2011, and sold nearly 15,000 copies (to May
2013) [S10]. The readership and range of these different publications
aimed at a younger audience suggests the message relating to the role of
Stonehenge, its peoples and its place in the landscape will become
embedded in their understanding of prehistory.
Educational impact — Skills training for the next generation
The project has enhanced skills training. Approximately 1,000 students
from different disciplines (including archaeology) and nationalities, as
well as local volunteers were trained in archaeological techniques at
Stonehenge during the project's lifetime. The students have come from
universities throughout Britain, Ireland and across Europe, from Sweden to
Portugal. Many are now professional contract archaeologists, returning in
subsequent seasons to work as supervisory staff. Local volunteers have
become skilled, passionate and well-trained archaeologists. Approximately
6,600 interested visitors (about 38% of them from overseas) were shown
around the project's excavations by our outreach team populated by local
volunteers in 2008.
The project also led to the development of new technologies. Additional
funding from Google to Parker Pearson has enabled development of a new
concept `Google Under the Earth' using SRP's results as a pilot study.
This was launched in 2011, and allows Google Earth users to travel through
the Stonehenge landscape, looking under the surface at the results of our
excavations and geophysical surveys.
Sources to corroborate the impact
S1. www.barb.co.uk for
corroboration of Time Team, Channel 4 viewing figures.
S2. The PBS website (http://tinyurl.com/28e68ym)
corroborates Sheffield's contribution to the documentary (via transcript).
S3. Express and Star website (http://tinyurl.com/p3pojem).
S4. National Geographic website (http://tinyurl.com/p6v2k88).
S5. e.g. Washington post (http://tinyurl.com/oues83p
26/05/2008), NY Times
30/05/2008), Boston.com (http://tinyurl.com/pj3v32h
09/03/2013), LA Times (http://tinyurl.com/y9r7uv7
S6. The Salisbury & Stonehenge Tours manager can corroborate the
increased interest in tours of the site following public engagement
activity about the project.
S7. Art+ Archaeology website http://tinyurl.com/oogbd39
confirms the organisation's artistic response to the project findings.
S8. Salisbury Museum can corroborate exhibitions/lectures/debate numbers.
S9. Corroboration contact for Current Archaeology readership
S10. National Geographic book sales corroboration contact available.