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Authors: Rosemary Hill


BOOK: Stonehenge
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‘Rosemary Hill has written a wonderfully pithy and intelligent book covering Stonehenge in all its aspects.’ Craig Brown,
Mail on Sunday

deserves to become the standard introduction to the monument for professionals and amateurs’ Andy Letcher,
Daily Telegraph

‘[Hill] brings genuine originality to the cultural history of Stonehenge’ Ronald Hutton,
Times Literary Supplement

‘Excellent … an important and deeply satisfying book’
Conde Nast Traveller

‘An extremely interesting and engaging perspective on a monument that is central to the national consciousness’ John Goodall,
Country Life

‘Bringing us right up to date … this is a wonderful book for anyone even vaguely interested in Britain’s most famous but least understood monument’
Good Book Guide

‘A wonderfully stimulating account of the issues … conveying the main stories, with a generous provision of curious information’

‘Rosemary Hill’s entertaining whirlwind scrutiny of that monument’s reputation and interpretation over several centuries’
New Statesman

is a writer and historian. She is a trustee of the Victorian Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquities. Her previous book,
God’s Architect: Pugin
The Building of Romantic Britain
was published in 2007.


God’s Architect:
Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain




First published in Great Britain in 2008 by
Profile Books Ltd
3A Exmouth House
Pine Street
Exmouth Market

This eBook edition published in 2010

Copyright © Rosemary Hill, 2008, 2010

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

Typeset in Caslon by MacGuru Ltd
[email protected]
Designed by Peter Campbell

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced,
transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way
except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the
terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by
applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be
a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible
may be liable in law accordingly.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978 1 84765 075 7

Christopher Logue
‘Cyclops Christianus’



A Very Short Prehistory

Contending with Oblivion: The Antiquaries

Art, Order and Proportion: The Architects

‘Cold Ston’y Horror’: The Romantics

The Age of Darwin

Archaeology, Astronomy and the Age of Aquarius

The New Millennium

Planning a Visit?

Further Reading

List of Illustrations




‘The rational reader, if he is interested in the history of ideas, must be willing to hear about all ideas which in their time have been potent to move men.’

Frances Yates,
The Art of Memory

The desire for knowledge and the love of mystery are two of the most powerful human impulses and Stonehenge satisfies both at once. That is why it has never lost its hold on our imagination or our curiosity. It is the most famous megalithic structure in the world, instantly recognisable from the sketchiest of outlines and visited by over half a million people a year. Yet after more than a millennium of speculation and investigation we still have no certain idea of what it is or why it was built. By 1695 the antiquary Edmund Gibson was already complaining that Stonehenge is ‘so singular and receives so little light from history that almost every one has advanced a new notion’. Three hundred years later there has been considerably more light and many more notions, but few secure answers.

This book, unusually in the vast literature on the subject, supports no particular theory about the purpose and meaning of prehistoric Stonehenge. It is concerned instead with what
the monument is, physically, and what it has meant throughout historic time to those who have considered it, from medieval monks to modern archaeologists. Stonehenge today is their creation. It is a work of art and science, of poetry, astronomy and literature that reflects back to us the centuries that have passed over it. Inigo Jones saw in it a Platonic ideal of architecture. Wordsworth heard echoes of the French Revolutionary wars, while to Charles Darwin it offered a case study in the activity of earthworms. It has been a focus of counter-cultural protest and a once and future symbol of Arthurian romance. These and many other images have sunk deep into our collective memory and travelled on through space and time until today Stonehenge is to be seen in many places far from Salisbury Plain. There are replica or tribute henges from western Nebraska to New Zealand and in other, less expected ways Stonehenge is a transforming presence. In the sculpture of Henry Moore and the planning of Georgian Bath, from William Blake’s
to the shopping centre at Milton Keynes, its influence is felt. It is, not least, an ancestor of the modern traffic roundabout.

The stones have had a rich but far from peaceful history. So many ideas to so few facts makes for an unstable compound and the struggle for intellectual ownership has not always been dignified. History, notoriously, is written by the winners and the overall winners in the academic struggle for the stones have been the archaeologists. Understandably their interest concentrates on those who have most obviously paved the way for modern archaeological understanding and they are inclined to rate their predecessors according to how ‘right’ they were. The seventeenth-century antiquary William Stukeley is usually praised for his surveying work but taken
severely to task for his Druidic theories. Inigo Jones, who thought Stonehenge was Roman, is written off entirely, while Turner’s great watercolour view of 1829 gets marked down for inaccuracy. But Stonehenge does not belong to archaeology, or not to archaeology alone. In the chapters that follow we make an appropriately circular tour of the stones, beginning and ending with archaeological interpretations, but looking at them, in between, from different angles to see how they have appeared to antiquaries, architects, astronomers and others. There is no attempt to include every reference ever made to Stonehenge. The purpose is to concentrate instead on those accounts that have had the power to move others, whether by art or by argument. Sometimes what is least ‘correct’ may be most influential. Aylett Sammes’s seventeenth-century account of Stonehenge was described, quite fairly, by his contemporaries as ‘ignorant’ and ‘silly’, yet it lives today in cult cinema. The Wicker Man haunts the imagination of many thousands who have never heard of Sammes himself.

Ideas, however wrong or loosely based in history or science, if they are believed for long enough will usually break through into reality and they have done so often at Stonehenge. In 1985, when there was a confrontation between police and supporters of the Stonehenge Free Festival, it was reported in the press that police were stationed to watch for trouble at the points where local ley lines intersected. Ley lines are said to mark ancient alignments along which psychic energy flows, but whatever they had or had not been in the past, the leys now came to exert a measurable effect on events. Nowhere has this principle been more fully demonstrated than in the case of the Druids, who have haunted Stonehenge, to the fury of archaeologists, for over two and a half centuries. Stuart
Piggott, one of the most distinguished archaeologists to work at Stonehenge and one of the most important historians of the Druids, could barely contain his fury with their modern counterparts. Among their ranks, he wrote witheringly, ‘many a psychological misfit and lonely crank’ has found a home. This is no way to describe Winston Churchill or Queen Elizabeth II, both of whom were initiated as Druids and such contempt seems quite unnecessary. It is true that the original, Iron Age, Druids could not possibly have built Stonehenge. It is also true that modern Druids cannot trace their origins back with any clarity further than the eighteenth century. But two hundred and fifty years is a substantial pedigree, longer indeed than that of archaeology, which is a largely Victorian discipline. Druids therefore find a place in every chapter of this book except the first.

In so far as Stonehenge has been a mirror of changing times it has thrown back a challenging and often far from flattering image. Deeply held beliefs in human progress, civil rights and the steady march of knowledge have run up against the stones and not always survived. While time has yielded greater understanding it has not always brought deeper appreciation or respect. It is still less than a century since Stonehenge was put up for sale at a local auction and knocked down for £6,600. It has been chipped at by sightseers, dug up by archaeologists (some more careful than others), overflown by the army, spray-painted, invaded and now stands hemmed in by traffic on two main roads. At the time of writing its future is, yet again, in dispute and under review. But if all this is depressing it is the dark side of what makes Stonehenge thrilling, the fact that after five thousand years it is still alive, still an object of passion. Most monuments, after a century
or two, are respectfully moth-balled, visited, guidebook in hand, to satisfy an academic interest or pass an idle afternoon. At Stonehenge scholarship and worship are still part of its daily existence. Within the last fifteen years archaeologists have redated the stone circle twice, radically changing our understanding of it, and currently the Stonehenge Riverside Project, which involves the largest research team ever assembled, is turning up new information year by year. In 1999, after more than a decade of sometimes violent dispute, Stonehenge was the occasion of a House of Lords ruling that set a legal precedent and allowed those who wish to celebrate or simply visit at the summer solstice to enter freely. They come in their tens of thousands. It is there, close in among the stones, that all the other questions fall away. Stonehenge is an overwhelming presence, a masterpiece of art and engineering in which gigantic force and minute delicacy combine; its beauty and strangeness abide.


‘Incontrovertible facts are luxuries in prehistoric research.’

Aubrey Burl

What we now call Stonehenge stands on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire at Latitude 51° 11′ North, Grid Reference SU 122 421 on the Ordnance Survey. Its site today is a triangle of 46.9 acres bounded on two sides by roads, the A303 and A344, and on the third by the Larkhill Track. It is owned by the state and administered by English Heritage, a government-funded agency. At this point we come, almost, to the end of the uncontested facts. This greatest of all British stone circles has been, for many centuries, a ruin, but a ruin of what exactly nobody knows. To work your way through the vast literature on Stonehenge is rather like looking at it on a satellite photograph. At first the subject is too distant to be made out. Then, as the magnification increases, everything comes briefly into focus, before dissolving again in a blur of detail and dispute. This chapter gives a brief account of what is most generally believed, at the time of writing, to be the history of the physical monument itself in the prehistoric period. Although I will point out the areas that are particularly contentious, there is almost nothing in what follows that would not be disputed by
somebody. As for the question of why Stonehenge was built, exactly who by and what for, the short answer is that nobody knows. The many other longer answers and their implications are the subject of the rest of the book.

BOOK: Stonehenge
4.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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