(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.