Sundance Times - Continuing the Crook County News Since 1884

This Side of the Pond

Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman


July 9, 2020

When I took my husband on a sight-seeing trip of the place where I was born, it was understandable that he’d want to see Stonehenge. It tops every list of world class heritage sites and wonders of the world, a mysterious tribute to a past we don’t understand.

In photographs, it appears in eerie relief with a backdrop of sunset light or ominous clouds. It is depicted as a stone monument that speaks of long-forgotten magic, alone on the plains in a setting almost as ancient and wild as the stones themselves. Gaze quietly for a moment or two, and you can almost hear the chanting of druids on the wind.

Unfortunately, there is fibbing afoot. As enchanting as the images appear, have you ever noticed that they’re all taken from the same angle?

That’s because there’s a bloody great highway running alongside the monument, and a walking path cutting through the outer ring. All that asphalt has a detrimental effect on the majesty of the view, so photographers have taken to snuggling up in one particular spot so they can pretend it doesn’t exist.

This is another excellent reason to be pleased about the wide open spaces of Wyoming, I feel. Devils Tower has a much nicer view-shed than poor old Stonehenge, which has suffered from the same problem as the pyramids of Giza: too many human beings spreading closer and closer to it over the centuries. Find a photograph from the other side of those pyramids and you’ll realize there are Egyptians who can touch them from their bedroom window.

I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the look of consternation on my soon-to-be-husband’s face as he gazed upon the monolith across four lanes of heavy traffic on one of the busiest dual carriageways in the south of England. In my defense, I did warn him.

He didn’t want to pay to enter the site. He felt he’d seen enough. I understood, because the damage was done, and crossing the road would have just meant making the stones slightly bigger.

We may have a reason to go back, though, because Stonehenge just got cooler. Just across the way (with a different road running right through the middle of it), archaeologists have found the largest prehistoric monument ever discovered in Britain.

If you are wondering how we managed to miss it until now, considering it’s hardly in the middle of nowhere, I do have a reasonable explanation. The monument is underground in the form of pits that are believed to have been excavated by Neolithic people over 4500 years ago.

What we know so far: there are around 20 shafts covering an area 1.2 miles in width, each one more than 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep. What we do not know: why.

Academics have scurried to the site from all around the UK to tap their spectacles and rock back and forth on the balls of their feet. They have thus far agreed that it is not a natural feature, which I think we can accept, and that it might have been a boundary to the sacred site around the henge.

I’m going to take that second idea with a few grains of salt. We’ve spent centuries speculating on the point of Stonehenge, and we’re still not in agreement.

The stones don’t come from the place they now sit, which means they were dragged hundreds of miles from the most likely quarry. Each weighs about nine tons, so someone really felt strongly about building a wonky circle in the middle of Somerset.

We don’t know why they were placed in their famous pattern, we’re not sure of the significance of the site and we’ve only just stopped arguing about whether the stones were carried all those miles or plonked on a raft (it’s the former, apparently). We’ve been boasting to the whole world about the pile of stones our ancestors left in the middle of a field, but we haven’t got a clue what they’re doing there.

We’ve fared better since somebody tripped over a burial mound and it became apparent that the stones were only one part of an enormous ritual site. It appears the place has been in use for ten thousand years, which means it took the druids five millennia to come up with the idea for their central art installation.

Was it a linking point for druidic sites across England and Wales? A place of healing? The center of a ritual landscape stretching across the south? Did it have something to do with ancient cosmology, with the stones placed in a certain way such that the sun shines through them during a solstice? Do the remains of pig bones suggest it was the site of the earliest mass celebrations in Britain?

I don’t know if Stonehenge was the first party town or a giant hospital, and I suspect I never will. It’s one of the most heavily studied archaeological sites on the planet, but there’s only so much you can do with a 15-foot shaft in a field.

We’ll also never know what happened to the people who built it, who seem to have disappeared after thousands of years of roasting pigs and two centuries of dragging rocks from a quarry. Or did they?

I think it’s safe to say that humans are easily distracted by the latest gadget. There were no smartphones or drones, but the last known use of Stonehenge happens to coincide with the arrival of the Romans.

Those pesky centurions never managed to quell the rowdy population, but they did bring a few good ideas. One of them was the concept of a straight road, which apparently we’d never thought of before (and arguably have never bothered with since).

My theory – and you can quote me on this – is that the druids took one look at the lovely roads the Romans were building and decided to make one of their own. They constructed the highway alongside the monument, followed it all the way to the coast, discovered the benefits of a sea breeze and were never seen again.

I think this is as likely as any theory, though I’m no closer to proving mine than anyone else. It’s just a shame the druids ruined the view-shed on their way out.


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