Stonehenge Is Undergoing Repairs for the First Time in Decades

Threatened by erosion, outdated restorations and climate change, the monument’s megaliths are in need of extensive conservation

Conservator examines megalith at Stonehenge
The restoration project is expected to last two weeks. Photo by Ben Birchall / PA Images via Getty Images

Stonehenge’s famed megaliths haven’t simply stood in a circular arrangement since prehistoric people first placed them there around 2500 B.C.E. The sarsen and bluestones have actually cracked or fallen over numerous times in modern history: At the turn of the 20th century, for instance, a strong winter storm brought one of the iconic monument’s horizontal lintels crashing to the ground.

The British landmark last underwent renovations in the 1950s and ’60s, when high winds on the surrounding plains felled another historic boulder, noted English Heritage, the charitable trust that manages Stonehenge, in a 2018 blog post. But these 20th-century patch-ups no longer hold up to today’s standards. Wind and water have buffeted the stones over thousands of years, causing cracks and other structural problems, reports Michael Holden for Reuters.

On Tuesday, workers once again set up scaffolding at the Unesco World Heritage Site, embarking one of the biggest conservation projects at Stonehenge in decades. Renovations are expected to last two weeks, writes Steven Morris for the Guardian.

Restorers plan to mend cracks and holes deep in the rocks, in addition to fixing previous repairs. In 1958, workers pieced together the stones with concrete; now, notes the Guardian, this material will be swapped out for “more forgiving, breathable lime mortar.”

Heather Sebire, English Heritage’s senior curator for Stonehenge, tells the Guardian that conservators are focusing their attention on Stone 122, a lintel piece that fell and cracked in 1900. Workers patched it back together in 1958, says Sebire, but when experts inspected the stone recently, they found that “the concrete mortar was cracking with bits falling out.”

The curator adds, “It was a bit of a mess up there, to be honest.”

Sally Kistruck, a member of the Edinburgh University team, wheels away a barrowload of earth during the 1958 excavation and restoration.
Sally Kistruck, a member of the Edinburgh University team, wheels away a barrowload of earth during the 1958 excavation and restoration. Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Modern laser scans have also revealed deep natural holes in some of Stonehenge’s boulders. Extreme temperatures caused by climate change have exacerbated these hidden cavities and could contribute to further instability down the line, Sebire tells the Guardian.

As BBC News reports, an individual who witnessed the 1958 renovations will also play a part in the 2021 project. Now 71, Richard Woodman-Bailey was just 8 years old when his father, then the chief architect for ancient monuments, allowed him to place a commemorative coin beneath one of the lintels before it was set in place.

This year, the Royal Mint invited Woodman-Bailey to strike a new commemorative coin that will be placed in the newly applied mortar.

“[W]e struck a 2021-dated £2 silver coin featuring Britannia,” the Mint’s director of collector services, Rebecca Morgan, tells BBC News. Britannia, a helmeted female warrior bearing a spear and trident, first appeared on currency in the country 2,000 years ago and “was carried by visitors to Stonehenge for centuries,” she adds.

Per the Guardian, vintage photos depict 20th-century workers smoking pipes and wearing suits as they restored the ancient monument. This time around, engineers will use protective gear and scaffolding, taking extensive caution as they work on the fragile archaeological site.

“It’s been a privilege to talk to some of those people involved in the last major restoration works at Stonehenge 60 years ago,” Sebile says“[T]heir memories and their special bond with the place really breathe life into the story of its conservation.”

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