I think that visiting Stonehenge for the first time must be like meeting a famous person. You see them from a distance, are shocked at the realisation of who they are, and go in for a closer look. When you’re within spitting distance you realise that the person, while very familiar, is rather smaller and more pockmarked than you imagined.
This is not to stay that Stonehenge is tiny – it is still impressive, most particularly when you realise that each of the stones is taller than a person. It’s just that a lifetime of photos hadn’t prepared me for the fact that it’s sitting on the top of an unremarkable hill in southern England and that a busy local road is about 100 metres away. There is even a visitor centre with helpful explanations of what one is seeing. The sheer ordinariness of it is what is most striking. I imagined that a person with a Cockney accent might come up to me and say “Oh, Stonehenge. Yeah, its one of those henges, innit? Got em all over the place, Guv”.
As you probably know, Stonehenge is a series of stones which were erected in this location around 3000 BC, in several stages. What we see today is somewhat restored, with a number of stones returned to standing or excavated after millennia in the ground. They are what remains of a larger complex which probably included smaller stone erections and earthworks.
The stones probably had an astronomical role, given their alignment according to sunlight at the solstices, but there was likely another ritual role which we don’t fully understand. The builders obviously cared about them a lot because some of the stones were transported from as far away as Wales, which is quite an accomplishment without roads or possibly decent food. I’ve often thought that these kind of ancient structures would be much less frustrating if people left a bit of decent documentation behind.
I think that one of the most interesting things about Stonehenge is the kind of people that it attracts. Leaving aside the hordes of bus tourists (which I must admit that I was part of), there is an anthropologist’s dream collection of neopagans, Arthurian enthusiasts, hippies and earth mother goddess worshippers. Although there was no-one particularly interesting when I visited, I’m sure that some people had robes hidden under their colourful GoreTex. I wonder if the original builders ever imagined that their work would provide meaning and a focus of worship for all manner of well-fed people in the future. I rather doubt it.