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The great circle of Stonehenge has been around for 4,500 years, and it is tempting to imagine that it is destined to remain as it is – still, unchanging – for thousands more. But even this ancient monument, it turns out, needs loving care from time to time.

A conservation project, billed as the most significant at Stonehenge in over 60 years, was launched on Monday by English Heritage to ensure the structure continues to delight and amaze generations to come.

Erosion, the impact of extreme weather conditions caused by the climate emergency, and some unsympathetic repairs in the 1950s have taken their toll on the lintels, the heavy horizontal stones that give the circle its iconic shape.

Scaffolding was erected to allow engineers and craftsmen to repair cracks and deep holes and dig the hard concrete used for repairs in 1958, which will be replaced by a more tolerant and breathable lime mortar.

Heather Sebire, Senior Curator of English Heritage for Stonehenge, said: “The stones seem to last forever, but like just about anything they are vulnerable. This vital work will protect the characteristics that make Stonehenge so distinctive. “

Of particular concern is stone number 122, which fell and cracked in 1900. In 1958, it was re-glued with concrete and replaced.

Stonehenge project launched to repair deep cracks in lintels |  Stonehenge
Engineers and craftsmen will dig out the concrete used for repairs in 1958 and replace it with a more tolerant and breathable lime mortar. Photograph: The Historic England Archive, Historic England

In a 2018 project that identified the origin of the sarsen stones – they came from West Woods in Wiltshire – experts raised concerns about the condition of Stone 122. “The concrete mortar was cracking. with falling pieces. It was a bit of a mess up there, to be honest, ”Sebire said.

Laser scans of all the stones revealed other problems. “The sarsen stones are full of natural holes, some of them very deep,” Sebire said. The climate emergency threatens to worsen their situation. “The weather is changing. We get more and more extremes – stones dry out in hot weather and puddles form in torrential rain.

Sebire said English Heritage is not meddling with Stonehenge. After all, it is a man-made structure perfected by its makers and successive generations have worked on it and fixed it when needed.

English Heritage spoke to some of the people who were involved in the last conservation project in 1958. It was another time. Beautiful old photographs of the artwork show people smoking pipes and wearing trilbies as they stand on stones to inspect them. There is no sign of any safety ropes or harnesses.

Among those English Heritage spoke to is Richard Woodman-Bailey, 71, the son of chief ancient monuments architect TA Bailey, who oversaw the work.

While an eight-year-old boy with a pudding-bowl haircut, who sported a tie even for his visits to Salisbury Plain, Woodman-Bailey struck a 1958 coin under one of the sarsens, and was asked to place a specially minted £ 2 coin from 2021 depicting an image of Britannia under a restored lintel.

Stonehenge project launched to repair deep cracks in lintels |  Stonehenge
Photographs from the 1958 restoration project show people smoking pipes and wearing trilbies as they stand on stones – with little sign of health and safety measures. Photograph: The Historic England Archive, Historic England

Sebire said: “It has been a privilege to speak to some of those people involved in the last great restoration work at Stonehenge 60 years ago – their memories and special connection to the place really breathe life into the history of its place. conservation. “

Conservation work will be carried out by Strachey Conservation, specialist curators under contract to English Heritage, and will last up to two weeks. Visitors will be able to see the conservation work in action but conservators will work from a tower that can be moved rather than covering the site with scaffolding.

Sebire accepted that the project was nerve-racking. “God forbid that one of the stones should fall,” she said. “But we hope we’re doing the best job possible with the latest technology.”

Hopefully this will be the last restoration job of this generation. Sebire said: “The stones should be able to stand the test of time – and the time of Salisbury Plain – and stand for several hundred more years.”

theguardian Gt