Helping unlock the secret history of Stonehenge

Prospect rep and archaeologist Susan Greaney talks about how her work at English Heritage has helped to solve one of the last remaining mysteries of the world’s most famous prehistoric monument.

Susan Greaney at Stonehenge

The news made headlines all over the world when it was announced in late July that the origin of Stonehenge’s giant sarsen stones had finally been discovered.

For most people it was a welcome respite from a global news agenda that had been dominated for months by a deadly pandemic, but for one Prospect rep, it was actually all in a day’s work.

“Whenever we have a new story about Stonehenge it goes global and, as a spokesperson for English Heritage, I tend to get wheeled out to face the media,” says Susan Greaney, an archaeologist who specialises in the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

“You end up talking to Russian TV or CNN, or to an Australian radio station, which is amazing because Stonehenge is one of those sites that people know across the globe, especially because it is a World Heritage Site.”

How does she explain the enduring appeal of Stonehenge?

“Thinking about the distant past somehow takes you out of your modern concerns and your day-to-day life. You realise this was built 4,500 ago and yet it’s still standing, which is extraordinary.

“There’s something quite nice about thinking about long time spans, especially at the moment, and of how humans can be quite ingenious and we can do amazing things when we work together.”

Misnomer job title

Susan is senior properties historian for English Heritage, which she says is a bit of a misnomer because she is actually an archaeologist, rather than a historian.

Having studied archaeology at university, and then completing a Masters in Professional Archaeology, she started with English Heritage in 2005, and has worked her way ‘way up and slightly sideways’ ever since.

“I work in the research team, where we do all the research and writing for anything that we present to the public on the historic properties that we look after at English Heritage. That’s anything from exhibitions, guidebooks, audio tours to display panels.

“We do our own research but also a lot of our work is summarising and writing about other people’s research and making sure that visitors have the best possible information and up-to-date interpretation of what the sites are all about.”

More than just a spokesperson for Stonehenge, Susan, in fact, also contributed to the research that solved the mysterious origins of the sarsen stones.

“If you’re an archaeologist, and you work in academia in England, then you’re going to tackle Stonehenge at least once in your career,” she says with a laugh.

Sarsen stones

One of the leading archaeologists on Stonehenge is Professor Timothy Darvill, one of the co-authors of the new research paper on the sarsen stones. He led excavations at Stonehenge back in 2008, when they found a large number of sarsen chips, which had come off the large stones.

In turn, Professor Darvill enlisted the help of a geomorphologist at Brighton University, Professor David Nash, who was another co-author of the paper.

Through his work on sarsen stones in Africa and on stone tools that had been moved over long distances, Professor Nash had pioneered a methodology for identifying where a sarsen stone comes from. He hoped to apply this methodology to Stonehenge.

Susan takes up the story:

“The first I knew about the project was when they came to visit us at English Heritage and they said to us: ‘Please could we destructively sample every single one of the standing sarsen stones at Stonehenge?’

“I think they knew that the answer was always going to be ‘no’ when they asked but that was what they really needed to do in order to do the analysis.”

Instead, English Heritage gave Professor Nash their blessing to do non-destructive analysis at Stonehenge, with a piece of kit called a portable x-ray fluorescence machine, which can determine the chemical components of the rocks without damaging it.

Then, he took destructive samples from about 20 different sites across Southern England where natural sarsen stones occur, in order to match the chemical fingerprints of each stone to their source.

So far, so scientific, but the real breakthrough came a couple of years in a remarkable stroke of luck.

“We knew David Nash’s work was going on,” says Susan.  “But then a family in America contacted us out of the blue and basically said: ‘We’ve got a piece of Stonehenge.’

A call from the USA

In 1958 conservation work was being undertaken at Stonehenge.

One of the stones had a big crack through the middle and it was decided that metal rods were needed to pin it to make sure it didn’t fall apart.

“When those metal rods were inserted, a company was employed to drill out the holes and the guy who worked for the company at the time kept one of the cores, kept the piece of stone, and hung it in his office as a souvenir,” says Susan.

“When he retired he took it with him to America and he moved around America several times. He sadly passed away in January this year, but he was in his 90s, and had been thinking he needed to return it. So his sons got in touch with us and said: ‘Would you like it back?’ Yes, please!”

The core was the final part of the jigsaw that was required to unlock the origins of the sarsen stone.

Immediately, Susan and English Heritage thought of David Nash and his team, and how they would be able to use this returned core to do a small amount of destructive sampling in order to more accurately pin down the stones.

Thus, it transpired that the sarsen stones most probably came from West Woods in Marlborough, which Susan describes as a lovely woodland about 15 miles to the north of Stonehenge.

“My role was to do the research into the core and make sure that we knew exactly how it got to America, why it had been taken in the first place and matching up the dates and facts.”

The final academic paper was published in Science Advances on 29 July, and Susan was listed as a co-author for her contribution on the history of the core.

Are there any more Stonehenge mysteries to be uncovered?

“We already know a huge amount about it. It’s been excavated a number of times, we’ve got really good dates, so we know pretty much when it was built and who built it, and we have a fairly good idea of how it was built. It’s only the why, which remains unknown,” answers Susan.

She adds: “There are many other prehistoric sites across the British Isles about which there are far more questions.”

Picture of Susan Greaney


Susan has been a Prospect member for about 14 years, joining not long after she started at English Heritage, but only became active when English Heritage was split into two in 2015.

“All of our union reps ended up on the Historic England side, which is the government statutory and policy side,” recalls Susan.

“We didn’t have any reps in the new charity. So at that point I stepped up and became a rep, and I’m now chair of our branch.”

Being a union rep at English Heritage is never dull. She, perhaps just half-jokingly, says that “English Heritage is one of those organisations that goes through restructures and redundancies every few years.”

“We get involved a lot in pay negotiations. That was a big thing for us when we became an independent charity because we were released from the 1% civil service pay cap.”

“We were quite successful last year and got a big pay and reward restructure for the vast majority of our professional and office based staff, which was great and would have reintroduced pay progression. It was a huge achievement for our branch.”

Unfortunately, those successful negotiations have yet to fully bear fruit, as the coronavirus pandemic has put everything on hold for the moment. And a similar pay review for operational staff, those who work to open historic sites to the public, is long overdue.

These are difficult and uncertain times for all heritage bodies, and Susan knows it will be difficult for English Heritage to emerge unscathed too.

“Stonehenge massively props up all the rest of our operations and the fact that there are very few international tourists at the moment is a huge blow for us,” says Susan.

“We already run a very lean operation. We’re only just over 2,000 staff and the vast majority of those are our site-based staff. At the moment we’re not going through redundancies… but it’s something we’re potentially looking coming on the horizon.

“It will be an interesting time over the next year or so to see what happens. We’re hoping our members support us by staying with us, and that the rise of the staycation will mean lots of visitors to our amazing sites.”

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