Under Stonehenge

After receiving the 25th email for comment on this subject, I realise it’s time I actually say something. Stonehenge. It’s so many things to so many people; must-see tourism destination for foreign and domestic visitors, spiritual hub for pagans of many persuasions, site of incredible archaeological significance that we’re only just beginning to understand, traffic hotspot nightmare for London-bound commuters, over-commodified neolithic theme park. But what about me? Where do I fall in that spectrum of experience?

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At the end of it all I’m a landscape archaeologist, concerned partly with the phenomenology, the being in a place. The fact that a road-less Stonehenge landscape could only improve the experience is inescapable to me. The sense of being in the landscape of Stonehenge is still a powerful one, especially off the beaten track; I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of monuments being behind ropes, and that it’s the interaction with people, animals, technology and other elements of the landscape that give them meaning and expresses their agency. What can I say, I’m a post structuralist. I’ll also admit to not being a fan of the model of charging people to see the landmark (though excellent context-setting walks in the wider landscape are free). I do acknowledge the income from Stonehenge allows EH to do a lot of good work there and elsewhere, however much it’s against my principles to do so – I recognise we don’t yet live in a world where everything can be accessed freely. So surely removing the road and making the site further isolated serves to hide it further from the public – seen only as branding, a symbol of commodity, a distant entity for those unable to pay (or unable to walk the free pathways due to mobility or other health or well being issues?)

I tried to stay on the fence, to not get involved. I have a great many friends in Druid and other spiritual groups who have a deep affinity with the site, and wanted to hear their concerns about digging into the sacred landscape. Naturally I also know many archaeologists, who fall on both sides of the argument. Let’s not be coy about it; I’ll be job hunting in 18 months and I didn’t want to ruffle too many feathers. I thought long and hard about the experience of Stonehenge – driving past in snaking traffic, getting a glimpse of the stones on the horizon line as you speed past. Was losing that a bad thing? I’m all about modern interaction with ancient places; unlike many archaeologists, I approve of modern ritual activities in ancient places, for one thing. Let the stones be revered still. Was this drive-past merely the modern equivalent of the cursus procession?

But the experience of Stonehenge is always changing, as time does to all things. The old subway entrance, where you would pass into some industrialist underworld and emerge into the Neolithic land in some bizarre modern rite of passage has been concreted in and future generations will never know its questionable joys. Now the entrance is set away, allowing a longer walk through the landscape, or a ride. Time has changed the experience, but kept it a unique one all the same. The old version becomes legend, just as the old ways at Stonehenge itself must have as the Neolithic passed into the Bronze Age and beyond. You can appreciate what’s gone without forgetting it, without demonising it. The road really does need to go – it’s a traffic and road accident black spot, for one. The ritual drive-past will be supplanted with a new experience, and tales of “do you remember when you could go by and get a look out of the car window?” will be told.

The fact is, I’m not very good at being quiet. And the more I read, the more I learnt, the more the little angry noise at the back of my mind became impossible to smother.

Edited. I thought long and hard about this – read excellent writings by Kenny Brophy and Dan Hicks. And I just can’t escape the fact that the “evils” of the road scheme, the loss of drive past, the idea that removing the road can re-Neolithicise the site, sit uncomfortably with me. Places change. You can’t pickle prehistory in a jar and peer into its murky, preserved depths to find it’s true meaning. The site and the people who observe it effect each other, in constant shift. The road is part of the ritual experience now; and I use the word ritual deliberately; rituals need not be high acts in robes or solemn prayer. Cleaning your teeth daily is a ritual. Making tea is a ritual. Passing through the gift shop and back into the car park after taking in the pseudo-prehistoric air of Stonehenge is a ritual. Driving past, tutting at the traffic and how small the stones seem is a ritual.

I still maintain that I’m anti-tunnel. I think it’s ridiculous on many levels (and I’m very much a lover of subterranean places and engineering of underground places – just another niche interest of mine). And something does need to be done about the current state of the road. I’m just not going to be the one who tells you what to think about what that is.

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