Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


Stonehenge is a monument in the same way that Philip Larkin was a librarian: it has other defining qualities. First among these is its role as an archive of archaeological evidence for the most important period in the history of Britain: when humans settled down, started growing food and marking up their landscape. This was not a role it performed alone; an astonishing number of other key sites are Stonehenge's near neighbours, and many have begun to reveal their nature and date in recent years, not least in the pages of this journal: Avebury, the Avenue, the Cursus, the oversized barrow at Silbury Hill, the new henge at Stanton Drew and the spreading Neolithic conurbation next to Durrington Walls. (1) While there may be sequence and overlap from one to another, these special places relate and cross-refer to each other and their environment, composing a large ritual tapestry stretching almost from the Channel to the Wiltshire watershed. Just as 20 years ago that other English icon, Sutton Hoo, stopped being just some chief's ship burial and became a major player in the European politics of its day, so the last 10 years has seen Stonehenge transformed from an individual curiosity to a nodal point in one of the grandest landscapes of prehistory, in the period of Europe's most fundamental transition.

Stonehenge also commands affection for itself, and does so with ardour; at 990 000 visitors per year it is the most popular prehistoric monument in Britain, and head and shoulders above the comparable attractions of other countries: the Carnac alignments get about 600 000 (2), America's Moundville, owned by the University of Alamaba, about 40 000, and the twin stone circles at Oyu in northern Japan, 30 581 in 2009. Within Britain, Stonehenge competes lustily with all other tourist destinations; it's the seventh most popular outside London, and second in the countryside (pipped by the Eden Project). (3) It also famously attracts poetic devotees who find solace in sunrise and the immutability of stones. Many are there for the simple pleasures of crowd-fun; others claim deeper affiliations. Pseudo-druids, first granted entrance for the summer solstice by the landowner in 1915, are seen as weird by many, but modern Britain has plenty of pagans and nature-lovers whose beliefs and rituals are no stranger than those of, say, Christianity.

Reconciling the conflicting visions of Stonehenge's academic and popular following falls mainly to English Heritage, the state agency, and the National Trust, which owns much of the land. Their primary duty is to conserve rather than entertain, a thankless task, appreciated mainly when it fails. Archaeologists inflict damage by digging up parts great or small (although remote mapping from air and ground is set to overtake digging, now we know what we are looking at). (4) Even the most sensitised visitors inflict damage, wearing the site away with their shod feet. The maximum number of visitors the monument can sustain is thought to be about 25 per cent of what actually comes. Blocking, fencing, routing, gravelling have all been considered. It's a problem of popularity, of having fans. At New Grange in Ireland, where the moment of magic is the winter solstice, 50 participants are chosen by lot, so preserving the quality of the experience (32 995 applied in 2009).

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During the motor age, Stonehenge was joined by two roads, so that it now sits at a Y-junction like a monstrous bollard, with traffic rushing to either side. This is at odds with all the nurtured visions--the flower-strewn, lark-loud chalk downs, the laden strata of the prehistorian, the moon-washed grove of the worshipper, and the menacing misty destination of romantic literature's unluckiest heroine, Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Thus, ever since the car was invented, leaders, lobbyists and bureaucrats, amateurs and specialists have striven to disencumber the land round Stonehenge, to redeem the dignity perceived as taken from it by traffic, people, farming, shacks and tracks. …

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