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Stonehenge: Timewatch Team diary

Updated Monday 22nd September 2008

Bringing something new to a story that everyone thinks they know: That's the challenge for the Timewatch team.

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How do you make a programme about Stonehenge that offers something new? Covering the first dig in the Stone circle for more than fifty years is a pretty good start. But back in February 2007 we had no idea that such an extraordinary event was on the cards. We had just heard about a fascinating new theory about the purpose of Stonehenge.

20th February 2007

I’ve just started on the project – producer/director David Stewart has already been working on it for a week or two.  Normally producers and assistant producers start work at the same time, so I feel a bit behind. But I am instantly intrigued when Dave tells me that the theory he’s been looking into suggests that Stonehenge was a place of healing – a bit like an ancient Lourdes. 

The two men behind the new theory are Prof Tim Darvill and Prof Geoff Wainwright. As many people know, Stonehenge is made up of huge local sarsen stones, plus smaller ‘bluestones’ that come from Preseli in South Wales. The pattern in which the stones have been arranged appears to relate to positions in which the sun rises and sets on the longest and shortest days of the year. This has led many people to see Stonehenge as a kind of temple to the seasons. Geoff and Tim don’t disagree with this – but they just don’t think it explains why people would bother to drag the bluestones on a 250 mile journey from Wales to Wessex.   After all, you don’t need Welsh stones to build a temple to the sun.  They have concluded that Stonehenge must have been more than this – they believe it was a place people came to be healed.  We really want to find out more. 

2nd March 2007

We speak to Tim Darvill in the course of several research calls – Tim is very enthusiastic and a great communicator. Dave likes the healing bluestone theory because he feels it’s practical – I think that it does offer up an explanation of why the bluestones were moved, which the alternative theories – temple to the dead, or temple to the seasons, don’t. 

But having a good idea doesn’t make a programme. We’ve got a couple of problems already. How can you bring alive a period as remote as this? What are we doing to actually see? And what will the narrative be – a journey? An investigation?  Is there anyway at all of proving something that happened this long ago?

At this stage it’s too early to be sure what form the programme will take.   The best thing is to meet lots of experts and see what sparks off ideas. Tim has mentioned that he believes a proportion of the human remains buried around Stonehenge show signs of illness or injury – this seems a logical avenue to explore.   He suggests we start off with the ‘Amesbury Archer’ – this Bronze Age man was dug up a few years ago when a school was being built, his grave was uniquely rich. But most extraordinary of all, he came not from Britain, but somewhere in the Alps.

9th March 2007

Sadly the next step isn’t a visit to the Alps, but instead Paddington Station, where Dave and I catch up with Dr Andrew Fitzgerald of Wessex Archaeology. We want to know more about the Archer’s injuries, to see if these might tie in with the healing theory. Andy was in charge of the excavation of the Amesbury Archer, so he’s the man to ask. He’s brought with him photographs of the skeleton, and gives us some fascinating information - from the Archer’s skeleton we can tell that he had suffered an injury to his knee would have caused him severe pain. Andy suggests we come down to Wessex to meet his colleague Jackie McKinley, “who makes bones talk”. This sounds like an excellent idea – it’s clear the Archer will be important to the programme, and we need someone to bring this ancient character to life.

13th March 2007

We go and meet Prof Geoff Wainwright, who has developed this theory with Tim. Prof Wainwright has had a long and illustrious archaeological career – he first started working on sites related to Stonehenge in the 1960s. What’s more, he’s a Welshman who has a house in Preseli near Carn Menyn – the source of the Stonehenge bluestones. Geoff tells us that locally the stones of Carn Menyn are still associated with healing – and he explains that these sort of beliefs can be passed down the generations for extraordinarily long periods.   Geoff is a great communicator and paints a vivid picture of Carn Menyn as a very atmospheric place – it’s clear it’s very close to his heart. We want to visit as soon as possible.

21st - 22nd March 2007

We are combining a visits to Stonehenge with a visit to Jackie McKinley and Andy Fitzpatrick at Wessex archaeology.  After that we are off to Preseli. 

First stop is Stonehenge where we meet site manager Stuart Maughan, to talk through the sort of filming we would like to do. 

We’ve had to head down the night before, as it is only possible to visit the stone circle early in the morning before the public arrive. It’s misty and extremely cold, but we feel very lucky to be able to stand in the circle. Stuart is very helpful and enthusiastic about the project, but it is becoming clear that filming at the site will be a logistical challenge. You can only film first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening – and then only on certain days when there are no pre-booked special visits – free days are few, and our Professors have busy diaries. It is great that Stonehenge is so popular with visitors, but it is going to make filming complicated! 

We are sure we can find a way to make it all work – so we head to Wessex Archaeology, where we have a meeting with Jackie McKinley and Andy Fitzpatrick. Andy is quite right when he says Jackie “makes bones talk” – she is a leading specialist in her field, but she is also a wonderful talker, which is great news for us.

We talk about the Archer and some of the other remains that have been found around the site. Apart from his injuries, the Archer is fascinating because he came from the Alps – it does seem to suggest that Stonehenge was a well known place – could this be to do with its healing powers? Jackie and Andy tell us that Wessex holds other human remains from around Stonehenge and we ask whether it’s possible to tell where they come from – apparently it is, if their teeth are examined. Immediately we think this sounds like a great idea – but we are expecting to start editing in early summer, and the testing process can be a long one. Andy passes us details for Dr Jane Evans at the British Geological survey laboratory in Nottingham, with the advice to move quickly if we want the results back in time for our edit!   

23nd March 2007

Having arrived in Preseli last night we go out to Carn Menyn very early this morning. We manage to go the wrong route up and have to clamber over barbed wire – but it’s really worth it once we get to the top. Geoff had told us this is an amazingly atmospheric place and it really is, it feels utterly remote and utterly magical – a rocky outcrop surrounded by green as far as we can see, it’s quiet but has a rather intense atmosphere. Neither Dave nor I find it difficult to believe that people once believed this place had great power.  

During these long drives and meetings, we’ve had a chance to think more about what sort of form the programme should take. The programme now feels like it needs to be an investigation – we will lay out Tim and Geoff’s healing theory, and also look into the human remains to see if they offer any support.   

28th March 2007

Back at the office, we start to sort the logistics of filming dates. But Tim and Geoff have come up with a really exciting possibility – they both feel there is a strong case for an excavation at Stonehenge to date the arrival of the original bluestone circle. These stones are key to our understanding of Stonehenge – dating them would add so much to our knowledge of the period. Tim and Geoff also believe they may find evidence on site for how the bluestones were used – which may provide further insight to their healing theory. 

But an excavation is a huge undertaking – there hasn’t been a dig at Stonehenge in half a century. We can probably stretch our schedule to include it if it can be done by the end of the summer. We are hopeful that this might happen, though Tim and Geoff don’t think the timing is very likely! If this does happen it will be beyond anything we expected, but while we wait to hear, we need to get on with filming what we’ve planned so far. 

A programme like this needs lots of layers – our primary experts Tim and Geoff will explain their theory. We’ll try and delve deeper by looking at the remains with Jackie McKinley and testing more teeth with Jane Evans. But we are still left with a problem, how do we bring some of these people to life? Dave has decided to do a small drama reconstruction – to explore the way in which the archer may have been injured and to illustrate the death of another young man whose remains were found near the circle. I’m really looking forward to this, because I’ve never done drama reconstruction before.  

18th April 2008

We’re planning to film the drama at Black Park, just north of London – it’s a terrific Woodland location, used by both the Harry Potter and James Bond franchises. Sadly, our budget is rather smaller!

We know the Archer suffered a terrific blow to his knee, one theory is he fell from a horse, and we decide to feature this. The other character appears to have been murdered – by several shots from bows and arrows.  

25th April 2007

Because our actors will need to have particular skills relevant to the period, we are able to use reconstruction groups rather than professional actors. We have masses of reconstruction groups in Britain, so I imagine it might be not be too difficult to find people – but actually there are few groups who cover the early Bronze Age. After a couple of days of feeling rather worried, I come across James Clift and his Bronze Age Reenactment group. When I speak to James he’s absolutely full of enthusiasm and knowledge – he has his own bows and arrows and knows lots about the period. 

2nd May 2007

Even a small drama involves a huge amount of preparation, and it feels like researching costume, finding extra bows and arrows, talking through filming with James, stuntmen Nick, costume designer Sabine, is a full time job – but it can’t be! We have to also get on with the documentary filming. 

Alison the programme co-ordinator has found a mortuary in which to film Jackie looking at the human remains, various bronze age teeth have been extracted and sent up to Jane Evans in Nottingham – and we have managed to squeeze out filming dates that suit Stonehenge and Tim and Geoff.

16th May 2007

First filming stop is (appropriately) Preseli, where Tim and Geoff have joined us for filming. It’s typical - when Dave and I visited, we had a beautifully clear day. When we come back for filming, the Welsh hills are shrouded in mist. Tim and Geoff find some fascinating things to show us, including Neolithic springs. As we film the two of them emerging from the white mist as they walk up the hill towards the source of the Stonehenge bluestones, we all agree the mist does rather add to the magic.

23rd May 2007

We’re at Stonehenge today. In order to get a new perspective of the sheer size and scale of the monument, we’re using a jib. This is a metal frame with a moving arm, onto which a camera is attached. This means the camera can move up, down and around the stones. 

But time to film at Stonehenge is extremely limited, and in order to get everything done in time before the site opens to the public, we arrive in the dark. As the sun comes up Lammo and Billy, the jib operators, put it together. There’s some beautiful light and we get some great shots of Tim and Geoff walking and talking through the stones – watching them I get a great sense of how much Stonehenge means to them both personally and the depth of their knowledge and affection for it. 

Dave is under a lot of pressure to get everything covered before the public arrive – fortunately the weather holds and both Tim and Geoff are great communicators.   They really bring the monument alive – and make a very persuasive case for it being a centre of healing. It’s been a very early start so I spend a lot of time plying people with coffee. 

25th May 2007

Drama day today. Everyone meets in Black Park car park - well everyone except for the horse that our stuntman Nick will be falling from…. the horse box can’t fit through the car park gates, so Alison the co-ordinator has to run off to try and find another way for him to get in. This is not a brilliant start, and for a while it seems that things are not going to go to plan – we have been lent a room to get the actors ready in but we can’t find it. Grass has grown since we visited and the locations we were planning to use are no longer quite right. We have lost time sorting ourselves out, which really isn’t good – time is absolutely of the essence with drama – plus, all our filming is outside and I really hope the weather holds.

The first scene we are shooting is the fall from the horse – it takes longer than expected to transform Nick from a 21st century stuntman to a Bronze Age horseman. But when he’s done he looks quite amazing. 

While Dave and the crew start the first scene I help organise getting our reconstruction group – complete with bows and arrows – ready. Once that’s underway, I go off to collect ‘flip-ups’ – these are the ends of arrows fitted into little wooden bases – once fitted under a costume they can be made to flip-up so the actors appear to have just been shot with an arrow. They really are vital to the shoot, so I do hope they work OK – the company hiring them to us have told me they haven’t been used since Braveheart but they’ve cleaned the rust off and they should be fine!

Luckily for us the weather holds, the flip-ups work and both Nick and the Bronze Age Re-enactors do a fantastic job. I can’t wait to see the results.

29th May – 2nd June

In Nottingham, we film with Dr Jane Evans who can tell us where the ancient bodies we’ve asked her to look at were born and brought up – will a significant number come from outside the area – and if so, what might that mean? In a London mortuary, Jackie McKinley does indeed make ancient bones talk – but does this tell us anything relevant to the healing theory?

5th June 2007

We return to London – and Dave prepares to edit the material. But we have really got our hearts set on including an excavation in the programme. Dave edits what we’ve shot, but leaves holes to be filled by the dig.

July 2007  

We both try to stay optimistic about the excavation plans over the summer, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Tim and Geoff are right – there just isn’t enough time to organise an excavation this year. Stonehenge is our most iconic monument – it’s managed by English Heritage, who are open to the idea of an excavation, but who quite rightly have very strict criteria – it is going to take a while to get any proposal through. 

August 2007

John Farren, editor of Timewatch, has to make a difficult decision – do we finish the programme on time, but without the excavation – or do we put it on ice and hope things happen next year? Putting a programme on hold will involve a lot of re-organisation – and there is a risk that the excavation wont even happen next year - but John feels that the opportunity for Timewatch to cover the first dig at Stonehenge in half a century is just too big to miss. The project is put on hold, and Dave and I go off to work on other programmes over the winter. 


18th February 2008

The application process has continued over the winter – it has been a nail biting time! 

But things are now looking good – we head down to Stonehenge to meet Tim Darvill and the site director and manager Paul Carson and Stuart Maughan. There is just a two-week window for excavation – not a lot of time to go back more than four thousand years…. 

But before any spade hits soil, we have practical things to sort out – porta cabins in which the finds from the dig can be washed and sorted and in which we can work, cables which will take live-images of the dig to the visitor centre, camera positions, site plans and so on. This isn’t just a programme - this is a major live event. 

20th February 2008

Dave and I go back to the office to update John Farren on how it’s going – he is delighted that the excavation is in sight. He feels that this is such an incredible event that it would be fantastic if people could follow it as it happened, rather than have to wait for the television programme. Timewatch already has a very active website – the plan is for each day of the dig to feature on the Timewatch site, with articles and short films about what’s been found and what it all means. It’s a fabulous idea, although I am a bit worried when I find myself volunteering to shoot and edit the daily update films – I have never edited before, and everything will be very fast turnover. This is a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime project - I don’t want to be the person who messes it up. It’s very exciting though!

29th March 2008

It’s two days before the dig. Kathryn the co-ordinator and I feel that everything is ready to go….then we get a call saying the porta cabin has got into a road accident and now has a huge dent in it, so it will have to go back to the company to be fixed. The archaeologists will shortly be on site with all sorts of equipment which needs to go in the porta cabin today – so this isn’t ideal, and frantic phone calls follow…...finally things get sorted out. 

30th March 2008

The day before the dig: Dave, Kathryn and I head down to the site. Peter tells us that a group of druids will be arriving to bless the site prior to the excavation. People are always really interested by the druids and Stonehenge, so we are pleased when Peter says they would be happy to be included in filming.  The druids themselves are delighted that Tim and Geoff are happy to take part in their ceremony – Geoff even has his own blessing prepared. 

Afterwards, Tim and Geoff continue to measure out the small area which will become the trench. They give us an interview for the website – their excitement is palpable and infectious – neither of them can stop grinning. This is, literally, a dream come through for both of them. I think Dave and I are very nearly as pleased – the sky is a brilliant blue, and none of us standing in the circle can believe that this excavation is really about to happen. 

31st March 2008

Start of week one of the dig. We all knew today would be utterly frantic and it really is – while Dave and the crew are in the circle filming the first trowels going in for the television programme – online producer Simon Mackie and I try and snatch quiet moments in the porta cabin to start getting our material up onto the Timewatch website. Simon retreats to the hotel to sort out some technical problems, I find myself on site helping a world-wide assortment of press crews find out where they are meant to be. I am not sure much archaeological progress is made today, but everyone is very pleased by the interest the excavation is generating – it shows just how important Stonehenge is to people all over the world. 

4th April 2008

The first week has been going really well – the weather is holding (miracle!) and Tim, Geoff and all the archaeologists are being really generous with their time – we get great material for both website and the programme. The archaeologists have an awful lot to get through – and every bit of soil has to be collected, sieved and examined. As the week progresses they work their way through the remains of 19th century picnics, moving amazingly quickly onto bluestone chips and a piece of beaker pottery. The pottery is really exciting as it dates from the same period as the first bluestone circle – ie it was used by the people who actually put in these stones. It’s just an extraordinary thing to have found in the first week. 

While some of archaeologists work at sorting and logging the soil and finds on one side of the porta cabin, Simon and I occupy the other – it’s pretty cramped and since we have a spare desk in our room we quickly find ourselves joined by flint expert Phil Harding. It’s a really funny combination – while Simon and I work with the very modern new technology that allows us to update the Timewatch website every few hours, Phil is painstakingly examining flint – which I suppose is the first technology invented by Man. Phil is a great office mate – full of enthusiasm for his subject.

6th April 2008

The inevitable happens – the heavens open and it rains – archaeologists are used to this but Stonehenge can be really cold – the wind whistles through it. Never mind, progress is being made – Tim and Geoff explain that it is already becoming clear from the bluestone sockets that the sequence in which Stonehenge was built is much more complex than thought. The finds are still coming through – more remarkable Beaker pottery and a Roman coin too. Intriguingly the archaeologists are also uncovering evidence of use of bluestone chippings, which they believe adds weight to the healing theory.   

11th April 2008

Along with Phil Harding, Environmental Archaeologist Dr Mike Allen is a regular on site. While Tim and Geoff concentrate on the bluestone circle, Mike looks at the wider picture – what is going on around the site? He is also supervising the sieving and examining of the soil that comes out – and it’s this sieving process which everyone hopes will reveal the pieces of organic material which will enable the circle to be dated. Everyone knew that this key material wouldn’t emerge until close to the end of the excavation, but my goodness it’s tense waiting for it! Finally a tiny seed appears – this should help unlock the origins of this extraordinary monument. I can’t wait to see what it reveals. 

Emma Parkins, Assistant Producer, Stonehenge.

Find out more

Listen to the audio discussion chaired by Timewatch editor John Farren





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