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Ancient Stonehenge faces modern problems with plans for a nearby tunnel to ease traffic

The Stonehenge landscape, one of the most visited ancient sites in England, is in the spotlight as a possible solution to a modern problem. Could tunneling through it help ease heavy traffic flow in the surrounding streets? Archeologists and activists warn the construction would place the cherished site under threat. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a site shrouded in mystery, meaning and mysticism, and among the most visited in England, but now a very modern problem has Stonehenge back in the spotlight, whether to build a tunnel under the Stone Age temple to improve traffic flow nearby.

    As special correspondent Malcolm Brabant tells us archaeologists and activist warn a cherished site is now under threat.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Britain's most flamboyant Druid, King Arthur Pendragon, is on the warpath.

  • King Arthur Pendragon:

    I'm a Pendragon by name and nature. And Pendragon means battle chieftain or head dragon. And I am head of what's thought of as the warrior political arm of the Druid movement. It's me who takes the protest. And it will be me that opposes this tunnel by any means necessary, if it comes to it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Just take a moment to listen to the silence here at Stonehenge. What you can probably hear in the background is the noise of traffic from the Highway 250 yards away.

    It's not very busy today, but you can still hear it. Not very prehistoric. What those in favor of the tunnel say is that it will bring tranquility back to this ancient site.

    This video from Britain's Highways Authority projects what a difference the tunnel would make to the landscape, while improving the traffic flow in what is regularly a major bottleneck.

    Nichola Tasker is the director of Stonehenge.

  • Nichola Tasker:

    As we stand here at the stones, you can really see how this noisy and polluting road is a blight on the landscape.

    I mean, Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape is one of the most important Neolithic sites within Europe. And at the moment, it has that road cutting the landscape in half. So we believe the tunnel will really enhance the experience that people have of enjoying and exploring the wider landscape and help them make sense of the stones themselves.

  • David Jacques:

    These tunnels don't even start outside of the heritage site. It's absolutely, head-bangingly stupid.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    We have come to Cambridge to meet David Jacques, an archaeologist specializing in the Mesolithic period dating back more than 10,000 years.

  • David Jacques:

    The idea that you can meddle with such a place as the Stonehenge landscape is beyond belief. It is heartbreaking.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Jacques is one of 23 archaeologists who claim the tunnel will damage artifacts yet to be discovered and is in breach of the World Heritage Convention.

    Jacques has been digging close to the River Avon within the Stonehenge heritage site and, among other things, has discovered what's believed to be a sacred stone used for tenderizing meat.

    Carbon dating shows this to be a 6,000-year-old hoof print of a wild cow. It's the oldest sign of life discovered at Stonehenge. And these are knives that Stone Age man would have used to put supper on the table.

  • David Jacques:

    What we have got at Stonehenge potentially is an archive of people managing crisis, whether it's death, whether it's good things in life, but it's going to be climate change ,which we know happened in the Stonehenge landscape very early on. There almost certainly were pandemics as well.

    We have got a natural archive ready and waiting for new science to bring those stories out. And it's all going to go.

  • Tim Darvill:

    It's a problem that goes way beyond archaeology. It's a problem about roads. It's a problem about transportation. It's a problem about getting a good solution to a difficult problem.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Archaeologist Tim Darvill has spent 30 years working on the Stonehenge site. He's standing at one of the proposed entrances or portals to the tunnel, which he supports.

  • Tim Darvill:

    Well, the reality is that, for the last 20 years, we have been working in this landscape in order to try to understand the density of archaeology and exactly what's here.

    And the engineers and the archaeologists have worked together very closely to find places in the landscape where the impact will be absolute minimal.

    And that's the plan, to make those portal areas in areas of the landscape where, as far as we're aware, there's little or no archaeology at all.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Stonehenge is a veritable cathedral with spiritual significance for eco-warriors, pagans and Druids, who have a reverence for the natural world. They worship here each solstice, which mark the longest and shortest days.

    Arthur claims to be a 21st century incarnation of the legendary British King who led the British defense against Saxon invaders in the fifth and sixth centuries. He's awestruck by the engineering skills and grasp of astronomy displayed by the creators of this circle 4,500 years ago.

    The layout of Stonehenge is perfectly positioned to frame the extreme limits of the sun's movement each solstice.

  • King Arthur Pendragon:

    It's the very observances of the solstices and equinoxes that Stonehenge was built for that are in danger because of this tunnel proposal.

    To the western portal, it actually comes up within a hundred meters of where the sun sets at the winter solstice. And the light pollution from it will mean that you will never see the sunset and the winter solstice ever again.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But Darvill rejects that assertion.

  • Tim Darvill:

    That was a concern for some time. However, the engineers working on this have moved the portal to the west, so it's not going to be a problem at all.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The battle for Stonehenge will come to a climax soon, when judges meet to decide whether to overturn the government's approval of the tunnel project

  • David Jacques:

    Please do something about it and save this landscape, because if a country like Great Britain lets UNESCO and World Heritage status treaties down, we can't expect countries that are poorer than us to uphold those standards.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Stonehenge director Nichola Tasker admits she's concerned about the judicial review.

  • Nichola Tasker:

    If the scheme doesn't go ahead as a result of it, it would throw this precious landscape back into probably decades more of uncertainty. And the problems that the road presents in terms of pollution and noise will only get worse.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The COVID pandemic means that Stonehenge is currently sealed off to King Arthur and all other visitors. The only way to see it up close is from a public footpath outside the perimeter fence.

    In 2019, before the virus killed off global tourism, it attracted 1.6 million visitors. If and when it reopens, it could be embroiled in mass protests.

  • King Arthur Pendragon:

    The ancestors that are buried in this sacred landscape should not be disturbed. You wouldn't dig your granny up from that churchyard. So, what makes you think you could do it here?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    It would be a mistake to dismiss Arthur Pendragon's battle threats. He has a well-documented record of effective direct action in eco-protests.

    The next stage of Stonehenge's turbulent history is just a solstice away.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant at Stonehenge.

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