Reading this article by Will Self in the Guardian the other week made me want to read more about Stonehenge. I’ve always been interested in it but I also have a pretty hazy idea about the chronology of prehistory & Stonehenge is one of the most fascinating yet frustrating elements of Britain’s prehistory. Rosemary Hill’s book isn’t really about who built Stonehenge & why (does anyone really know?), it’s about how Stonehenge has been interpreted through history & it’s a very interesting journey.
Stonehenge has been appropriated by antiquarians, historians, archaeologists, Druids & New Age enthusiasts at different times during its history. It’s been a symbol of barbarity & of ancient civilization to writers, poets & painters. Architects such as Inigo Jones in the 17th century believed that the Romans had built it. Rome was the greatest civilization known to Man, therefore, only the Romans could have constructed such a monument. There were no written records about Stonehenge & no conception that the people who lived in Britain before the Roman invasion could have had the skill or knowledge to construct it.
William Stukeley published his book on Stonehenge in 1740 & he was the first person to really investigate the monument, taking measurements & trying to analyse the data. His book, with his meticulous drawings & measurements, has been indispensable for the historians & archaeologists who came after him. Archaeology as a discipline was an invention of the 19th century & Stukeley & his fellow antiquarians often did more harm than good as they dug up historical sites. Stukeley’s scientific work was much appreciated but, where later archaeologists tend to take a step back is in his theories about who built Stonehenge. Stukeley believed it was the Druids, those strangely half-real, half-mythical teachers & wizards. This is when the Druids became inextricably connected to Stonehenge & nothing that science has done since has been able to disentangle the two.
Stukeley’s book also made Stonehenge into a tourist attraction & the pressure of tourism is at the heart of Will Self’s article. It is still a major factor in the standoff between archaeologists, English Heritage & modern-day Druids that has just reached a new crossroads with the recent opening of the new visitor centre at the site. The influence of Stonehenge on architecture can be seen in the layout of Bath & the development of the modern traffic roundabout.
The Romantic movement of the early 19th century was also influenced by Stukeley. Stonehenge appears in many paintings & poems of the period. William Blake used the image in his poem, Jerusalem & it was central to the final chapters of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. This is also the period when the study of prehistory became possible as archaeologists began to push the timeline of history further & further back & excavations revealed aspects of the site that had been hidden for centuries, including burials & artefacts. Theories of why the monument was built began to centre on astronomy & the importance to ancient people of the midwinter & midsummer solstice. This also led to clashed in the twentieth century between archaeologists & New Age groups who each have their own ideas about how the site should be used & preserved.
Rosemary Hill’s book is a useful overview of Stonehenge & how it has been perceived over the last 500 years. It’s a measure of its fascination that there is still no definitive theory about who built it & why. Every investigation seems to push the origins back even further & I think that’s why Stonehenge can be so many things to so many different groups.