A little archaeological tourism: Stonehenge

I took the opportunity, as I was down in Dorset for PhD induction week, to take the family to some of the crown jewels of Neolithic Britain. Stonehenge and Avebury, the archaeologists’ equivalent of Disneyland – complete with, at Stonehenge at least, a magnificent range of age-appropriate merchandise, its very own shuttle bus, and a pleasingly diverse range of tourists flocking to see it.

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My audience wasn’t the easiest to convince. My partner is a scientist and wasn’t too impressed by midsummer sunrises or landscape contexts or Bronze Age ancestor cultists building tombs with a view – “Yes, but what actual facts can you tell me about Stonehenge?” Sigh. At the other end of the critical spectrum my son, age 19 months, was mostly interested in collecting gravel (verdict: tasty) and robbing sticks from replica Neolithic house hearths (verdict: make a great noise when smacked slightly menacingly on the ground).

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I was childishly excited by the Stonehenge branded, well, everything – from water to sandwiches to snowglobes to replica pottery. I restricted myself to some suitably archaeological Christmas cards and our usual novelty fridge magnet (my hobby of collecting these is possibly even more tragic than my attempts to get the family to play “spot the ancient monument!” in the car, a game I always win because neither of them know what a hill fort even looks like, amateurs).

It seemed my plan to visit on a weekday in September to avoid the crowds didn’t entirely go to plan. Coaches spilled forth excited waves of visitors, who paraded like lines of leaf-cutter ants, with their information leaflets waving skyward, around the set route that circumnavigates the stones. Though the A344 has been scrubbed from the landscape, the A303 still thunders past in the near distance, robbing the visitor of any true opportunity to  lose themselves in the experience of the landscape. I have a fierce attack of nostalgia here, remembering  the quaint curiosity of a pair of American tourists asking why it had been built so close to the road, during an undergraduate field trip a long time ago. The more I think on it, the more I view the slow trudge among the crowds who murmur lines from the guidebook, generating a susurration in a dozen languages like a hall of monks at prayer, as the perfect modern day recreation of the possible march up the Stonehenge Cursus to view the stones. The loud and vibrant youth, failing miserably to synchronize their jump for that perfect Facebook profile picture, are clearly “those people” who turn up on solstice day after too much mead, waving their antler headdresses a little too enthusiastically and generally not taking themselves too seriously.

You can probably tell now why I and my scientist partner don’t see eye to eye on site interpretation.

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