Is a Proposed Tunnel Under Stonehenge a Threat to Humanity’s History?

The government says the underground road will help the region but experts believe its construction will destroy important ancient landmarks

Cars drive past Stonehenge on the busy A303 trunk road which passes within yards of the ancient monument at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

If you’ve ever visited Stonehenge, or even if you haven’t, than you know that the site of its ancient ring of monolithic pillars standing tall like a beacon to the Sun against the dramatic English countryside is one of the most iconic surviving relics of the ancient world. The mysterious stones—which some experts have argued may have been used by druids while others say their circular arrangement form an early and accurate seasonal calendar—are among the world’s most visited historic sites. But therein lies the problem. Each year thousands of tourists flock to see Stonehenge, creating a never-ending traffic jam on England’s A303 road, where passing cars can catch a view of the stones on their way to the nearby Solstice Park office and retail strip mall.

But with traffic only getting worse as the tourist experience surrounding the region grows thanks to the development of new hotels and businesses, Stonehenge’s landscape may be about to change forever, according to the Guardian. That is, if a government proposed underground tunnel to reroute traffic from the A303 to two other nearby highways goes forward. Construction on the plan, which was initially proposed in 2014 by then-chancellor George Osborne and is backed by both English Heritage (the organization which operates the Stonehenge visitor center) and the National Trust, is set to begin in 2020. The 1.8 mile tunnel would feature a “dual carriageway” with two openings sitting inside the area designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and could mean that Stonehenge Avenue (the monument’s processional route now bisected by the A303) could be restored.

However, any modern construction adjacent to the 5,000-year-old ruins comes with its downsides. In this case, the tunnel would disrupt current archaeological excavations at another archaeological site nearby called Blick Mead, where ancient dwellings and artifacts belonging to people who once lived and passed through the Salisbury Plain as far back as 400 B.C., during the Mesolithic era, have been found.

“Up to now, the assumption has been that Stonehenge was a kind of Neolithic new-build, in an empty landscape. And of course, the big question is: why is it where it is?,” said David Jacques, a Mesolithic expert from the University of Buckingham, to the Guardian. “Nobody’s had a very good answer for that. But now, all of a sudden, we’ve got the longest spread of radio-carbon dates from the Mesolithic of anywhere in Europe. Something really odd was going on: these are normally nomadic people, but they are coming back here again and again and again.”

Jacques expanded on the importance of recent findings at Blick Mead by saying, “There’s hunter-gatherer material in there, at the same time as there’s the first Neolithic date at Stonehenge. So simply put, you’ve got the first multicultural society here. This is probably a contact point between early Neolithic pioneers coming in from continental Europe, and the indigenous people who had been doing stuff for 4,000 years. Before our site, there was virtually no evidence of Mesolithic occupation in this area at all.”

The addition of a concrete highway at Blick Mead has Jacques considerably worried for its ancient contents. “It’ll take down the water table, and if that water table drops, it’ll remove all of the organics, like the animal bones,” he says. “They’ll all be gone within five years. They’ll be reoxygenated, and they’ll degrade fast. So we’ll lose dating evidence, all the ways of understanding how people were living, and what their resources were.”

A view of the 5,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site Stonehenge. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

In addition to the destruction of yet-t0-be discovered artifacts beneath the soil, damage to existing sites is also of concern. Stonehenge’s neighbor, Boreland farm, contains bronze age burial mounds and grave sites known as disc barrows. Among them is Bush Barrow, a burial mound excavated in 1808 which contains the remains of a man who was buried with significant bronze age artifacts such as an age, daggers and jewelry. The farm’s owner, Rachel Hosier, worries that the proposed tunnel and flyaway road would disrupt the site’s pristine views. “I’m extremely worried. Bush Barrow man is going to be looking at a tunnel and a big road, right from his grave,” said Hosier.

And of course, local officials are concerned that new traffic congestion patterns will send more vehicles through local towns and could lead to underground back-ups. “You’ll end up with a traffic jam underground,” said Andy Rhind-Tutt, former mayor of Amesbury and president of the local chamber of commerce. “The tunnel will become, effectively, an underground car park.”

All those campaigning against the tunnel with the Stonehenge Alliance certainly have plenty of serious concerns to lean on. But while the tunnel’s start-date isn’t too far off, supporting groups such as English Heritage still say there’s still room to improve the proposal. “There is still much work to be done on the detail,” said a spokesperson from the group. One idea includes extending the length of the tunnel. A recent statement from the International Council on Monuments and Sites backs up Stonehenge Alliance’s concerns, and proposes an alternate route for the tunnel after concluding that the current plan could cause “substantial negative and irreversible impact” on the World Heritage site.

Highways England has responded to concerns over the impact to Blick Mead and surrounding sites by saying it was, “considering all information and feedback we have received.”

So the question remains: What’s worse? Hoards of tourists viewing the majestic stones with a view of bumper-to-bumper traffic just over the hill? Or sacrificing potentially groundbreaking discoveries about human history for the sake of hiding a few cars? It’s worth noting that until 1977 visitors were allowed to walk up and touch the stones, and so many people did so that the grass around the site died from the foot traffic. In the early 1900s, people were known to chisel bits of the stones away in order to take home souvenir rocks. And yet, Stonehenge has miraculously survived, no thanks to human intervention, for almost 5,000 years. Whether a tunnel is built under the site or not, plenty of important archaeological evidence has been lost already. But if there’s a way to avoid further damage to the beloved henge and sites unexplored shouldn’t it be considered? No industrial park seems worth the sacrifice of finally cracking the mystery of Stonehenge.