(CN) — A plan to build a 1.8-mile-long tunnel next to Stonehenge has fired up archaeologists to protect one of the Earth’s most beloved World Heritage sites. “This would establish a sort of precedent for major construction inside a World Heritage site,” said Dan Hicks, a University of Oxford archaeologist who opposes the project. “If you can do it in Stonehenge, you can do it anywhere.”
The circle of gigantic stones aligned with the solstices on Salisbury Plain is one of humanity’s most mysterious prehistoric creations. It was named a World Heritage site in 1986 under the World Heritage Convention of UNESCO, a 1972 international agreement to protect humanity’s most significant monuments and achievements. The convention is a non-legally binding instrument in international law. Nations that ratify the convention are seen to have a moral and political responsibility to respect it.
Critics of the tunnel, among them many leading archaeologists, warn that if it goes forward it could open the way for similar development at other World Heritage monuments around the world.
Experts say that the convention protects designated sites from development such as the one proposed for Stonehenge. A World Heritage committee urged Britain in July not to construct the tunnel, and consider alternatives.
But that hasn’t deterred the British government. A public-comment period ends today, Tuesday, and the government is expected to push ahead with the project.
The project was announced by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in December 2014. His move was seen as an election ploy for votes in southern England, where residents complain about the bottlenecks and congestion found on the A303 highway running past Stonehenge. The new tunnel would be wide enough for four lanes.
“It’s deeply shocking that we should treat our heritage in such a way, especially for such a site of international renown,” said Kate Fielden, an archaeologist and honorary secretary of the Stonehenge Alliance, which wants to stop the project.
Opponents say archaeologically important surface areas would be destroyed by construction of large entrances to the tunnel.
There are other concerns. Building a tunnel could lower the water table, put buried artifacts at risk, and cause subsidence at the monument itself, causing the gigantic stones to sink, or even topple.
The large standing stones are about 4 meters or 13 feet high and 7 feet wide. Each weighs about 25 tons. Radiocarbon dating places earliest work at the site, which includes hundreds of burial mounds, in the Mesolithic period, around 5000 B.C. Work on the famous stone circle itself has been dated to around 2500 B.C.
“We’re right on the cliff edge here of losing a valuable site,” said David Jacques, a University of Buckingham archaeologist leading work at a Mesolithic site near Stonehenge called Blick Mead.
Blick Mead too would be affected by the tunnel, he said. His team has discovered numerous artifacts, including the remains of a prehistoric home, still intact because they have been sitting in water, he said.
Archaeologists warn that the project, which includes the tunnel, wide entrances and a flyover, flies in the face of what archaeologists have begun to understand about Stonehenge: The famous circle of stones was part of a larger landscape of burial mounds, processional avenues, prehistoric towns and other monuments built to honor the dead and the living.
“Stonehenge isn’t just about the stones; it’s about the whole landscape. We can’t mess around with that landscape; it won’t come back,” Jacques said.
But prehistory is facing the pressures of the present.
This tunnel proposal is a 21st century response to increasing traffic between London and holiday spots in the Southwest of England. Building this “expressway” will be a boost to the economy, the government says. Transportation officials say expanding the highway would create thousands of jobs and spur the construction of tens of thousands of new homes.
Boosters of the plan say the tunnel will actually improve Stonehenge.
At public meetings to gather comments, the agency in charge of the project, Highways England, has displayed posters saying the tunnel is a “once in a generation chance” to protect and enhance Stonehenge.
How would that be done? By putting the highway underground, the government and its backers argue, visitors would be able to walk more freely across sections of the World Heritage site now cut off by traffic.
David Bullock, the Highways England project manager for the tunnel plan, said in an email that the tunnel would cause no damage to Stonehenge or “any other surface features within the World Heritage Site.”
He said the route of the tunnel was “carefully chosen” to avoid archaeological sites.
“Restoring tranquility to and reuniting the World Heritage Site landscape is central to our plans,” he said.
The government’s plans are backed by national cultural heritage groups that oversee and manage Stonehenge and the surrounding World Heritage site.
“Visitors to the World Heritage Site deserve to see Stonehenge and the monuments around it in a tranquil setting, not spoiled by the constant sight and sound of passing traffic,” said Michael Murray-Fennell, a spokesman for English Heritage, a charity that manages Stonehenge and about 400 other sites in Great Britain.
But critics question English Heritage’s motives, and see its support as the latest ploy to make more money from Stonehenge. Stonehenge attracts more than 1 million visitors a year, who must pay to get close to the stones.
Critics claim that English Heritage hopes more people will pay to visit Stonehenge when the tunnel is built because free views from the highway will be eliminated.
The British government is stopping its financial support of English Heritage in 2023. It was formerly a public body.
“They are reliant on funding from Stonehenge,” Jacques said. “They hope it [profits from Stonehenge] will finance all of English Heritage. All of this shows the venality; it’s too much about money.”
Fielden, with the Stonehenge Alliance, said in an email: “I share that concern – as do many objectors. Why else would EH [English Heritage] support the tunnel? With the tunnel in place, Stonehenge would be difficult to get to for most people unless via the visitor centre.”
Murray-Fennell, the spokesman for English Heritage, disputed that.
“True, many motorists do enjoy seeing the stones from their cars, but the road with its noisy, busy traffic is a blight on the landscape, spoiling the experience for the million people who are trying to enjoy it on foot,” Murray-Fennell said.
He said burying the A303 “would allow people to explore, for free, the extraordinary wider landscape and to enjoy unparalleled views of Stonehenge.”
He said English Heritage has not made any projections on how much the tunnel would increase ticket sales and revenue at Stonehenge.
Construction is slated to begin in 2021. If the project goes forward, legal challenges are expected.
Mark Bush, a lawyer and amateur archaeologist studying the project on behalf of its opponents, said a legal challenge will be considered if the government submits a development plan. That could happen within a year.
Isabelle Anatole-Gabriel, European unit chief for the World Heritage Centre, said in an email that the plans for the tunnel have been deemed damaging to Stonehenge’s World Heritage status.
A World Heritage committee urged Britain to look at building a much longer tunnel with entrances that are not within the Stonehenge site’s footprint.
Anatole-Gabriel said that if the tunnel is built despite World Heritage’s objections, then Stonehenge could lose its status as a World Heritage site.
She added that Stonehenge is not the only World Heritage site where a tunnel is being proposed “to solve traffic and infrastructure issues.”
In Egypt, officials have looked at building a highway tunnel as part of a ring road project under the Giza pyramids.