British cultural historian Rosemary Hill begins her 2008 book Stonehenge about the famed prehistoric place with these words:
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.
It’s a forthright statement, honest and clear. Hill isn’t setting out to tell the story of Stonehenge from the perspective of one of the myriad theories about the place. She acknowledges:
This greatest of all British stone circles has been, for many centuries, a ruin, but a ruin of what exactly nobody knows….As for the question of why Stonehenge was built, exactly who by and what for, the short answer is that nobody knows.
Which is not to say that nobody has an opinion.
For hundreds of years, amateurs and experts, fanatics and scientists have trotted out one idea after the other to explain the secret meaning of Stonehenge and have been met by contentious opposition, often verbally and sometimes physically violent.
As Hill’s opening sentences indicate, there is very little consensus about this ring of standing 25-ton stones, 13 feet tall and seven feet wide, topped by similarly massive horizontal lintel stones, or about all of the other prehistoric items that are scattered in various non-random ways in the vicinity. She writes that her opening chapter sets forth what is generally accepted about the history of the site in the prehistoric period (which is to say, the period before written history), but she adds:
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.
Hill’s Stonehenge is one of the books in the Wonders of the World series, first published by the London-based Profile Books and re-issued later by Harvard University Press. These books on famous monuments or sites include such works as Westminster Abbey by Richard Jenkyns, The Temple of Jerusalem by Simon Goldhill, St. Peter’s by Keith Miller, Taj Mahal by Giles Tillotson and The Parthenon by Mary Beard. As those titles indicate, nearly all the books in the series are about places that were built in historic times.
Which means that their original purpose was written down and is fairly clear even today although, of course, scholars will dispute details, as scholars do.
That’s not the case with Stonehenge, as Hill writes, noting another rare area of agreement:
For Stonehenge itself, however, everyone agrees that there was no exact precedent, not indeed, it seems, was there anything like it ever again. The monument as a whole was constructed over fourteen or fifteen hundred years, the work of seventy generations.
To put that into perspective, it is as if St. Peter’s were started in 500 AD and has only recently been completed.
“Its intended meaning”
But, with Stonehenge, it’s only learned guesswork — abetted, sure, by science and cultural studies, but still guesswork — as to when that construction period took place.
Recent studies seem to show that the three-part construction process started a lot earlier than had long been thought — one thousand years earlier! — between 2920 BC and 3000 BC. That first phase with its simple earthwork was followed, it is believed, by a second phase of timber construction. Finally, around 2400 BC, the huge stones that characterize the site were erected. Hill writes:
It was only in Phase Three that the stones arrived, and with the coming of the big ‘sarsen’ stones and the similar ‘bluestones’ the monument we recognize today took shape.
Further changes in the site occurred between 1930 BC and 2280 BC and again in about 1600 BC, or maybe 1520 BC.
How long the site retained its resonance or any of its intended meaning we cannot know. After the Middle Bronze Age the physical history of Stonehenge is one of disuse and dilapidation as stones fell or were removed, and roads, rabbits and farming all took their toll until the twentieth century when restoration work began.
Which is to say that, at a certain point, everyone who ever knew what Stonehenge and all the area around it meant, what the site was used for, what went on there, why it was there and who used it was long gone.
“Deserves — or desires”
There were no written records. No carved records, either, for that matter. As a result, Stonehenge has been essentially, now and forever, enigmatic, mysterious, inscrutable and unknowable.
Which hasn’t stopped amateur and professional experts since the 1600s from theorizing.
Stonehenge, according to these theories, was a cemetery or an observatory or a Druid altar for human sacrifice or a Druid university. It was a Roman ruin or a Buddhist temple. It was, it seems, anything any era or any enthusiast wanted it to be. Indeed, Hill notes that famed archeologist Jacquetta Hawkes remarked that every age “has the Stonehenge it deserves — or desires.”
Hill doesn’t have the answers to such questions and, as noted above, isn’t trying to supply them. Instead, her book is a history of the efforts of each age and many experts to provide such answers, often spending as much or more time debunking the opposition.
So, the reader of Hill’s Stonehenge finds that, for the most part, this isn’t a book about the place as about the way people through the last five centuries have thought about it and argued about it.
Hill works hard to make her book clear and lively, and she succeeds. But it’s a chaotic history she tells because that history is rooted in uncertainty and unfathomability and ignorance.
Which is to say in the unknowable time before records were written for future people to read.
Patrick T. Reardon