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Stonehenge (Wonders of the World) by…
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Stonehenge (Wonders of the World) (2008)

by Rosemary Hill

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Delightful. Author Rosemary Hill doesn’t do a conventional archaeological history, but rather a “history of ideas” about Stonehenge, with a full cast of eccentric English characters and fascinating historical insights. These include:


Geoffrey of Monmouth (12th century), who suggested the site was the burial place of Uther Pendragon and that Merlin had magically transported the stones from Ireland. Geoffrey’s contemporary, William of Newburgh, started a long tradition of Stonehenge theory skeptics by commenting “everything the man writes is made up”.


Architect Inigo Jones made a survey in 1655 and decided that Stonehenge was Roman, apparently basing this claim on the fact that no Roman author mentions it. Jones, while a talented architect, wasn’t a terribly good surveyor, and his plan bears little resemblance to Stonehenge (possibly influenced by the way he thought a Roman temple should look).


Walter Charleton (I wonder how that was pronounced?), who decided (1663) that Stonehenge was built during the Danish period. He based this on comments on similar monuments in Denmark made by his Danish friend Ole Worm. Lovecraft enthusiasts will recognized Ole Worm as (Latinized) Olaus Wormius, translator of the Necronomicon, although if Lovecraft’s dates are correct Mr. Worm was several hundred years old when he communicated with Charleton. Disturbing.


Antiquarian John Aubrey made a plane-table survey, also in 1663, and was the first to give a reasonably accurate plan of either the way the stones looked in the present or the original layout of the monument. Aubrey is famous for discovering the “Aubrey holes”, which figure in a lot of current astronomical theories – he said he found them by “algebra”, but doesn’t give any details on how. Aubrey also disproved the claim that the “sarsen” stones were poured concrete (Druidcrete?) by pointing out that similar stones were scattered all over Salisbury plain. The “poured concrete” claim is interesting in itself, since the technology of Roman pozzolan concrete had been lost and was not to be rediscovered for another 150 years or so after Aubrey (depended on whose claims to rediscovery you credit).


Inigo Jones’s pupil, John Wood, and his son (also John Wood) developed the Druidical/Hebraic temple theme and decided that Stonehenge was ultimate based on Solomon’s Temple and, therefore, the remainder of the most perfect building of all time (since the design came directly from God). That led Jones (father and son) to incorporate Stonehenge into the plan for the town of Bath (as the Circus; most descriptions of the Circus claim its influence was the Coliseum, not Stonehenge, but Hill holds for both). The Bath Circus happens to be the world’s first traffic circle; thus the next time you get stuck in one of those things you can blame some unknown Neolithic, the Woods, the Druids, Solomon, or God, as you prefer. The younger Wood latter added the Bath Crescent, thus invoking both solar and lunar symbolism.


William Stukeley made another careful survey, published in 1740, which covered not just Stonehenge but the surrounding archaeological sites on the Salisbury plain. While his surveying and descriptive work were meticulous, his theorizing was a little off level; he concluded that Stonehenge was built by Druids (which still bedevils archaeologists), and further concluding that the Druids were Christians, anticipating the Trinity – and that not only were they Christians, they were Protestants. Stukeley also decided that one of the medieval names for Stonehenge – Chorea gigantum, “Giant’s Dance” – had been corrupted by “monks” and the original was choir gaur, which was (according to Stukeley) a Welsh translation of a Hebrew phrase meaning “circular high place of the congregation”.


Once Druids were decided to be Protestants, it was perfectly acceptable to be one, and the Ancient Order of Druids was founded in 1781. Then (surprising like Protestants, in fact) the Druids began to splinter over fine points of Druidical doctrine, leading to the Gorsedd of Bards (1791), the United Ancient Order of Druids (1834), the Reformed Order of Druids (1834), the United Order of Druids (1839), the Order of Druids (1858), the Ancient and Archaeological Order of Druids (1874), the Universal Bond of the Sons of Men (1909), the Ancient Order of Druid Hermetists (1930s), the Circle of the Universal Bond (1956), the Order of Ovates, Bards and Druids (1964), the Glastonbury Order of Druids (1986), the Secular Order of Druids (1986), the Loyal Arthurian Warband (1986), the Cotswold Order of Druids (1990s), and the British Order of Druids (1990s) (initials become significant). The Loyal Arthurian Warband was founded by a biker who legally changed his name to Arthur Pendragon, somehow obtained the prop sword from the movie Excaliber, dressed the part, and demanded free access to Stonehenge and Glastonbury as sacred religious sites of his group. The police confiscated the sword, but Arthur took to chaining himself to the doors of government buildings.


Possibly channeling the John Woods, in the 1970s California sociologist Melvyn Webber incorporated Stonehenge into his design for the planned community of Milton Keynes, which has an Avebury Street, a Silsbury Street, and a Midsummer Boulevard; at the solstice the rising sun shines down Midsummer Boulevard and illuminates a shopping center – which suggests yet another possible use for Stonehenge. Stonehenge influenced other modern sites around the world, including Carhenge in Nebraska and Fridgehenge in Santa Fe; the latter, instead of being aligned on astronomical positions, was instead aligned on Los Alamos and intended to disrupt nuclear work there by creating ley lines, or something. That might explain some things.


Starting in the 1980s, Stonehenge became the site of repeated and sometimes violent confrontations between police and Druids, “hippies”, and members of the general public, usually on Midsummer Day (Hill notes in passing that it was usually not the Druids that caused the problem but people that turned out to mock them). Various laws attempting to fix things, often seemingly without any significant thought from the lawmakers, tended to either make things worse or be egregious civil liberties violations (for example, it was illegal to have a “procession” without a permit, and two or more people walking within 50 yards of each other could be considered a “procession”). Hill notes that during the disturbances police were often stationed on ley lines intersection – she doesn’t comment if the police thought that the ley line “energy fields” would provoke disturbance or that potential disturbers might show up there.


Hills conclusion is somewhat sad, illustrating the reverse tragedy of the commons – when everybody has a say, nothing can get done. It is recognized that tourism is destroying Stonehenge, even though you can no longer get inside the stone circles (Druids get special access on the solstice holidays, and members of the general public can get rationed tickets). Highways pass north, south and west of the site, but every attempt to relocate them or replace them with tunnels is opposed by somebody (for example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the largest charity in England (according to Hill), protested highway relocation efforts because they would disturb corn buntings, skylarks, lapwings and barn owls.) Other stakeholders in the highway relocation project include the Royal Automobile Club, the Alliance of Pagan and Druid Communities, the Loyal Arthurian Warband (which, not surprisingly, insisted on meeting around a Round Table), the National Trust, English Heritage, the Royal Archaeological Institute, the Stonehenge Alliance, the Friends of the Earth, the Council for British Archaeology, the Salisbury District Council, the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport, the Department of Transport, the General Post Office, the British Archaeological Trust, the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England, Save our Sacred Sites, and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (which is a unit of UNESCO). One imagines that a meeting incorporating all those groups might be interesting to attend. Similarly it is recognized that the visitor center is obsolete and dilapidated, but attempts to build, or even locate, a new visitor center have been thwarted. Hill notes that more than £20,000,000 have been spent on planning and design efforts without anything getting done on the ground.


The final chapter is a very nice “getting there” guide; although not a “visitor guide” per se it tells you how to get to Stonehenge on public transportation and has suggestions for visiting nearby relevant sites such as Durrington Walls, Woodhenge, and museums in Salisbury and Devizes.


The book is organized mostly by theme – antiquaries, druids, architects, Victorians, etc., rather than strictly chronologically, so the narrative bounces around somewhat. Although there’s an archaeological chapter at the beginning, Hill assumes that the reader has a general knowledge of the site – for example, what sarsens, bluestones, and trilithons are. For the American reader, it helps to know some Anglicisms – car park and quango are the examples that come to mind – and have a rough knowledge of English history. Excellent illustrations are slightly hampered by the book’s small format. The bibliography is excellent, covering both up to date (2008) archaeological works and the “cultural” references.


Highly recommended, but you should read a more traditional archaeological book first.


Added later: I haven’t been back in a while but I believe the highways around Stonehenge have finally been rerouted. ( )
1 vote setnahkt | Dec 19, 2017 |
An interesting look at the interpretation of Stonehenge over the years, sometimes critical of the wrong thinking but often just presenting the viewpoint of many of the people over time and their interpretation as informed by their age and the available information.

It's an interesting look at the monument and what it meant to different ages, made me want to visit. ( )
  wyvernfriend | Nov 4, 2013 |
This is a little book that I just randomly picked up from my library’s new book shelf and then kind of randomly opened up, found interesting and found myself reading through. By little I mean it’s about 200 pages and, closed, almost, but not quite, fits in one hand, fingers outstretched. It’s cozy to hold.

It’s not a book about understanding the ancient structure and meaning of Stonehenge. Instead it’s a history of what Stonehenge has meant to the people who studied it. This really starts in the mid-17th century, and it’s really a British thing. So, studying that history is essentially studying the formalization of the English intellect from the wildly speculative antiquarians through to the over-rigid mid-20th century archeologists — who actually resented the intrusion of astronomical insight into the meaning of Stonehenge.

Of course, it’s an oblique view of this history, centering on only those individuals who thought a lot about Stonehenge. But, what a great and quirky group of characters? Antiquarians like John Aubrey, Aylett Sammes and William Stukeley, who I found the most interesting of them all. Stukeley was friend of Isaac Newton, visited Stonehenge, made a careful study, including doing the first excavations. He was the first to see Stonehenge as part of larger set of structures. But, like Newton, he had a spiritual streak that grew with age. When he published he contradicted his own measurements, and concluded the Stonehenge was a Druid structure – an idea that stuck until the first radio-carbon dating (although the lack of metal tools on site opened some eyes beforehand).

The book goes on to Romantics, especially Wordsworth, Blake, and, later on, Thomas Hardy. And it explores the whole era of Charles Lyell and Darwin, when the age of the earth was getting pushed beyond the biblical scope, and the sciences were being founded and formalized, including that of archeology. Finally it reaches the 20th-century where archeology becomes both enlightening and criminal, but somehow lacks the color of the eras that proceeded. On a cultural level the main recent influences seem to be a Spinal Tap documentary.

There is also a somewhat detailed history of mixed efforts at preservation — it’s necessary, important, depressing, but really not all that compelling.

This was a fun book, recommended to anyone with just a little extra time on your hands and some light curiosity about any of the topics mentioned above. ( )
5 vote dchaikin | Oct 18, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674031326, Hardcover)

Welcoming 800,000 visitors each year, Stonehenge is the most famous pre-historic monument in all of Europe. It has inspired modern replicas throughout the world, including one constructed entirely of discarded refrigerators. This curious structure is the subject of cult worship, is a source of pride for Britons, and offers an intellectual challenge for academics. It has captured the imagination and the attention of thousands of people for thousands of years.

Over the centuries, “experts” have tried to discover the meaning behind Stonehenge. While each new theory contradicts earlier speculation, every new proposal attributes a purpose to the site. From bards of the twelfth century to Black Sabbath, from William Blake to archaeologists of the twenty-first century, Stonehenge has embodied a wealth of intention. Was it designed for winter solstice, for goddess worship, or as a funerary temple? While all have been suggested, even “proven,” the mystery continues.

Through the eyes of its most eloquent apologists, Rosemary Hill guides the reader on a tour of Stonehenge in all its cultural contexts, as a monument to many things—to Renaissance Humanism, Romantic despair, Victorian enterprise, and English Radicalism. In the end, the stones remain compelling because they remain mysterious—apparently simple yet incomprehensible—that is the wonder, the enchantment, of Stonehenge.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:09 -0400)

Rosemary Hill guides the reader on a tour of Stonehenge in all its cultural contexts, as a monument to many things-to Renaissance Humanism, Romantic despair, Victorian enterprise, and English Radicalism.

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