Stonehenge: lumps and bumps in the landscape

In September 2021, on the way back from a visit to Dorset, I managed what birders call a ‘life-tick’. This wasn’t a case of dropping in on a rare bird to add it to a life sightings list. No, instead it was visiting the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge for the first time in my life.

Many people in southern England will have witnessed Stonehenge’s standing stones as they crawl along the A303 in Wiltshire. But how many notice the many burial mounds?

How many people knew (maybe before they watched The Dig on Netflix) that the stones were a minuscule part of the site’s wider significance? That the site itself is a vast burial ground, with lumps and bumps (as seen above) dotted throughout this part of Salisbury Plain?

I am no expert on burial mounds, more like someone who knows a couple of garden birds when they see them. Burial mounds have different names, often they are classed as a type of earthwork or tumulus. There are bowl barrows, some of which are huge mounds of earth, built up upon the bodies and significant objects or possessions of a person or family. The South Downs have been described as one long ancient graveyard, with mounds evident across much of the 100 mile long ridge. In places like the South Downs and Salisbury Plain, the freshly turned chalk would have stood out for miles in these vast, wide open landscapes. It’s a bit like those of you with white Range Rovers or Teslas sitting on your paved-over front garden in Kensington. It’s a status symbol.

When I drive along the A303, perhaps once a year when heading south-west, I ask my fellow passenger(s) to play spot-the-burial-mound in the surrounding fields while I focus on the road. Stonehenge itself is not only special for its stones, it’s about the wider expanse, either side of the A303.

This place is important to many people, even beyond the tourists like me passing through the turnstiles at the new visitor centre. Along a lane that cuts across the A303, people had camped in mini-buses with flags flying high.

I don’t know why they were there, but the scale of the transport shows it wasn’t a stop of for a quick cup of tea.

One thing I loved about the stones was the life that had developed on them. Here you can see the growths of lichen and smatterings of algae.

Far more entertaining and animated than the lichens were the flocks of starlings sheltering from the gusts of wind (although it was actually quite hot) in the crevices of the stones.

Their behaviour was autumnal, gathering into groups, whistling and clicking. They will have been in this place when the stones were constructed thousands of years ago. Their numbers must have been incredible.

In addition to the starlings were rooks, a crow of ploughed land with a bill that looks to have been dipped in chalk. They will no doubt have found things to scavenge from the millions of visitors who make it to Stonehenge every year. The rook seen here was perched where a stone once was, with the tenon-type part of the rock used to secure the top stones in place when originally constructed.

Thanks for reading.

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