Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath, TV review: Behold the Porsches of the Mesolithic age

 

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The Independent Culture

In Wales for the recent Nato summit, President Obama took a special detour to see Britain's most investigated prehistoric monument. It was, he said, a "highlight" and something he could tick off his "bucket list".

What's good enough for the Leader of the Free World is good enough for us, and thanks to the two-part series Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath (BBC2), we can all appreciate Stonehenge's enigmatic appeal. Not by visiting ourselves, obviously, but by getting as close to a visit as one can, while one's bum remains firmly glued to the sofa and one's £13.90 entrance fee remains safely in one's pocket.

This was not the story of a conventional "dig" (sorry, Time Team, your time has passed); this was the story of a new, hi-tech, 21st-century form of archaeology. Experts from the University of Birmingham and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Austria have been exploring the site for five years using "remote sensing equipment", cameras in helicopters, and – I'm guessing here – some kind of top-secret US war technology. That would explain the President's impromptu visit, the programme's overuse of military metaphors and the sheer volume of new evidence they've turned up about the site's historic significance.

Archaeologists now understand that Stonehenge was never a stand-alone site, but rather part of an interconnected landscape of sacred monuments which once stood in the vicinity. Why there? Theories about glowing pink rocks and hunts of giant cows were just on the right side of plausible, but after 4,000 years, all this was of course invisible to the schlubs without the special equipment. It's fair to say, even main attraction Stonehenge is past its best. So how do you make a spectacular documentary about spectacular sights that no one can actually see?

With factually based dramatic reconstructions, that's how. Also, real archaeologists giving us walking tours of Neolithic buildings as reconstructed by CGI in present-day Wiltshire. When described with the engaging enthusiasm of David Jacques from the University of Buckingham, even a dismally untelegenic pile of rock – always the blight of TV archaeology – can capture our interest: "These things are the Porsche of the Mesolithic, really top-quality flint," said Jacques while thumbing what looked like a beach pebble. We'll take his word for it.

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