Throughout recorded history Stonehenge and its surrounding monuments have attracted attention from antiquarians and archaeologists. John Aubrey was one of the first to examine the site with a scientific eye in 1666, and recorded in his plan of the monument the pits that now bear his name. William Stukeley continued Aubrey’s work in the early 18th century, but took an interest in the surrounding monuments as well, identifying (somewhat incorrectly) the Cursus and the Avenue. He also began the excavation of many of the barrows in the area, and it was his interpretation of the landscape that associated it with the Druids Stukeley was in fact so fascinated with Druids that he originally named Disc Barrows as Druids Barrows. The most accurate early plan of Stonehenge was that made by Bath architect John Wood in 1740. His original annotated survey has recently been computer redrawn and published. Importantly Wood’s plan was made before the collapse of the southwest Trilithon (which fell in 1797; restored 1958).
William Cunnington was the next to tackle the area in the early 19th century, excavating some 24 barrows before digging in and around the stones, discovering charred wood, animal bones, pottery and urns. He also identified the hole in which the Slaughter Stone once stood. At the same time Richard Colt Hoare began his activities, excavating some 379 barrows on Salisbury Plain before working with Cunnington and William Coxe on some 200 in the area around the Stones. To alert future diggers to their work they were careful to leave initialled metal tokens in each barrow they opened.
In 1877 Charles Darwin dabbled in archaeology at the stones, experimenting with the rate at which remains sink into the earth for his book The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.
William Gowland oversaw the first major restoration of the monument in 1901 – the straightening and concrete setting of sarsen stone number 56 which was in danger of falling. Unfortunately in straightening it he also moved it about half a metre from its original position. He also took the opportunity to further excavate the monument at the same time in what was the most scientific dig to date, revealing more about the erection of the stones than the previous 100 years of work. During the 1920 restoration William Hawley, who had excavated nearby Old Sarum, excavated the base of six stones being restored as well as the outer ditch. He also located a bottle of port in the slaughter stone socket left by Cunnington, helped to rediscover Aubrey’s pits inside the bank and located the Y and Z Holes (concentric circular holes outside the Sarsen Circle). Richard Atkinson, Stuart Piggott and John F. S. Stone re-excavated much of Hawley’s work in the 40s and 50s, and discovered the carved axes and daggers on the Sarsen Stones. Atkinson’s work was instrumental in the understanding of the three major phases of the monument’s construction.
In 1958 the stones were restored again, using concrete settings to re-erect three of the standing sarsens. The very last restoration was carried out in 1963 when stone 23 of the Sarsen Circle fell over and was once more re-erected, and the opportunity taken to concrete three more stones. Later archaeologists, including Christopher Chippindale of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge and Brian Edwards of the University of the West of England campaigned to give the public more knowledge of the various restorations and in 2004 English Heritage included pictures of the works in progress in its new book Stonehenge: A History in Photographs.
In 1966 and 1967, in advance of a new car park being built at the site, the area of land immediately northwest of the stones was excavated by Faith and Lance Vatcher. They discovered the Mesolithic postholes dating from between 7 and 8,000 BC, as well as a 10m length of a palisade ditch – a V cut ditch into which timber posts had been inserted that remained there until they rotted away. Subsequent aerial archaeology suggests that this ditch runs from the west to the north of Stonehenge, near the avenue.
Excavations were once again carried out in 1978 by Atkinson and John Evans during which they discovered the remains of the Stonehenge Archer from the outer ditch, and in 1979 rescue archaeology was needed alongside the Heel Stone after a cable-laying ditch was mistakenly dug on the roadside, revealing a new stone hole next to the Heel Stone.
In the early 1980’s Julian Richards led the Stonehenge Environs Project, a detailed study of the surrounding landscape. The project was able to successfully date such features as the Lesser Cursus, Coneybury henge and several other smaller features.
More recent excavations include Mike Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge Riverside Project - a series of digs held between 2003 and 2008. This project mainly investigated other monuments in the landscape and their relationship with the stones - notably Durrington Walls where another ‘Avenue’ leading to the river Avon was discovered. In April 2008 Professor Tim Darvill of the University of Bournemouth and Professor Geoff Wainwright of the Society of Antiquaries began another dig inside the Stone circle to retrieve dateable fragments of the original bluestone pillars. They were able to date the erection of some bluestones to 2300BC , although this may not reflect the earliest erection of stones at Stonehenge. They also discovered organic material from 7000 B.C., which, along with the Mesolithic postholes, adds support for the site having been in use at least 4000 years before Stonehenge was started. In August and September 2008, as part of the Riverside Project Julian Richards and Mike Pitts excavated Aubrey Hole 7, removing the cremated remains from several Aubrey Holes that had been excavated by Hawley in the 1920s, and re-interred in 1935.