Birmingham archaeologists turn back clock at Stonehenge

Posted on Monday 5th July 2010
HengeTeam

Stonehenge team

Archaeologists at the University of Birmingham are heading to Stonehenge to lead the world’s biggest-ever virtual excavation. The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, which starts today (Monday July 5), will use the latest geophysical imaging techniques to visually recreate the iconic prehistoric monument and its surroundings. 

‘We aim to unlock the mysteries of Stonehenge and show people exactly what the local area looked like during the time the monument was created,’ explains project leader Professor Vince Gaffney, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity.

The multi-million-Euro study is funded by the new Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Vienna and the University of Birmingham and is assisted by the National Trust and English Heritage.  It will bring together the most sophisticated geophysics team ever to be engaged in a single archaeological project in Britain. They will work alongside specialists in British prehistory and landscape archaeology in the three-year collaboration.

Led by Birmingham, the project involves the University’s IBM Visual and Spatial Technology Centre (VISTA); the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute and its European partners from Austria, Germany, Norway and Sweden; and the Division of Archaeological, Geographical and Environmental Sciences at the University of Bradford.

Using state-of-the-art equipment the scientists will map the Wiltshire terrain and its buried archaeological remains with pinpoint accuracy. When processed the millions of measurements will be analysed and even incorporated into gaming technology to produce 2D and 3D images.

Professor Gaffney believes the survey will shed light on the origins of an area which, despite being studied by antiquarians and archaeologists over many centuries, remains largely terra incognita.

‘Visual and spatial technologies are revolutionising how archaeology and many other disciplines understand the past and the contemporary world,’ he says. ‘From digital objects to landscapes, through geophysics, geographical imaging systems and the creation of virtual worlds, new technology provides alternative routes to seeing and understanding both past and present.’

He continues: ‘How we see and understand Stonehenge is, in some senses, a metaphor for our relationship with our wider national heritage. The results of this work will be a digital chart of the ‘invisible’ Stonehenge landscape, a seamless map linking one of the world’s most famous monuments with the buried archaeology that surrounds it.’

Professor Wolfgang Neubauer, Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute, adds: ‘Developing non-destructive methods to document our cultural heritage is one of the greatest challenges of our time. This task can only be accomplished by using the latest technology, including the combination of large-scale laser scanning together with leading-edge magnetometer and geo-radar systems. No landscape deserves to benefit from study at this level of detail more than Stonehenge.’

Dr Christopher Gaffney, of the University of Bradford, comments: ‘Neither the technological challenges nor the size of the area to be covered are trivial, but increased public understanding of the landscape hidden around Britain’s best-known archaeological monument will result from this project. That prospect is very exciting.’

The project begins midway through one of Stonehenge’s busiest tourist seasons for years. With more than 750,000 visitors annually, half from overseas, the site is one of the UK’s most popular tourist hotspots.

Yet while visitors flock for a glimpse of the world-famous monoliths, the 12-strong Hidden Landscapes Project research team and their equipment will be spread over an area spanning four kilometres this year and a total of 14 over the next three years. ‘We will probably be the only people there not looking at the standing stones!’ says Professor Gaffney.

Professor Gaffney adds: ‘In a period of economic challenge we should not forget that the tourist, heritage and culture sector provides £60 billion a year to the UK economy, larger than the aerospace and automotive industries combined.

‘Stonehenge remains the country’s iconic archaeological monument and it is crucial to our heritage sector that we provide a world-class interpretation of the site and its landscaping. That is exactly what we are doing.’

Ends

Notes to Editors

1. The IBM Visual and Spatial Technology Centre is a division of the Institute for Archaeology and Antiquity at the University of Birmingham. VISTA supports academic research and application development for spatial analysis, visualisation and imaging using state-of-the-art technology in one of the best-equipped archaeological visualisation laboratories in Europe. VISTA is involved in projects across the world and staff use the unparalleled opportunities provided for VISTA for research, postgraduate and professional training in archaeology, the humanities and associated sciences. Its director is Professor Vince Gaffney.

2. The Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology was founded in April 2010 and aims to create a pan-European network of archaeological scientists supporting interdisciplinary research programmes for the development of large-scale, non-destructive technologies for the discovery, documentation, visualisation and interpretation of Europe’s archaeological heritage. Its director is Professor Wolfgang Neubauer.

3. The Division of Archaeological, Geographical and Environmental Sciences  at the University of Bradford uniquely integrates archaeological sciences, geography, environmental sciences, biological anthropology and forensic sciences in a single profoundly multidisciplinary department bridging the sciences and humanities.

For more information

Kate Chapple, Press Officer, University of Birmingham, tel 0121 414 2772  or  07789 921164.