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Stonehenge: A Brief Visit
Stonehenge: History Before History
Of the sites I visited during my recent (2012) trip to England, one of the most interesting was Stonehenge. This iconic, prehistoric monument is one of the most easily recognizable in the world, and is located in the county of Wiltshire. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the authority of the United Nations protects the 16 square miles surrounding the Stonehenge complex. The area is thick with Neolithic and Bronze aged artifacts and is surrounded immediately by hundreds of burial mounds(many of which are still clearly visible, once one knows what to look for), suggesting that whatever the purpose of the construction might have been, it was of great importance to the ancient people of the prehistoric British Isles in an enduring way.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
As far as the tourist experience goes, a trip to Stonehenge is pretty bare bones. I knew what I came to see, which to some eyes is was simple as an unusually large Lego set (to paraphrase my tour guide) and to others whispered of dark ages long gone by, nearly invisible now through the mist that shrouds the place, both literally and figuratively. There were placards distributed around the site, but I primarily absorbed this quintessential display of Neolithic earthwork via our guide, who was fairly knowledgeable. He offered a degree of historical insight into the site that a casual observer might not easily have access to (although the headphone guided tours are usually reviewed as being pretty decent, too). He also showed my group how to "properly" use a set of divining rods, capitalizing on the powerful ley lines (veins of magical energy) that run through the site of the monument. I now intend to search for ley lines at Disney World this summer; I am convinced they are the source of its evil power over children. I passed on the opportunity to purchase a set of my own, regrettably. Check out my personal British pop culture gift shop here.
Ancient Artifacts For Sale (Sort Of)
I have wanted to see Stonehenge since I was a child; its image was burned into my imagination from the first time I saw it on Nova. The mystery surrounding the Cyclopean construction sent my imagination spinning; from human sacrifice to aliens and crop circles, the possibility of a reality a little beyond the banal (like the one my parents insisted we lived in) was a sharp fish hook lodged firmly in my lip. As our group got closer, I have to say that I was, at least initially, slightly underwhelmed. I think I actually expected it to be bigger, as ridiculous as that sounds. I have heard that this is not an uncommon sensation among visitors to the site. It only took a few moments of lecture to remind me of what a truly impressive accomplishment Stonehenge is, especially in light of the fact that the people who built it five thousand years ago had such limited technology and resources for such a massive undertaking. My trusted guide reminded us that while modern man could work stones of this size, he would be hard pressed to do so with an antler, which may have been the most advanced tool available to the ancient engineers. Moving slabs of rock like those that comprise the ring is near the limits all but the largest of today's cranes. It is thought that Stonehenge functioned as a burial complex, a place of religious worship, and perhaps was believed to be a place of power in its own right. The true purpose of this ancient building project is not clearly known, but when one realizes how far this portal to the past reaches in its importance, it is easier to forgive its lack of bells and whistles(the bells and whistles are at the Roman Baths)…perhaps it is best that Stonehenge be enjoyed in a simple, primal way (I wouldn’t change a thing).
Stonehenge’s affect on British popular culture is undeniable, but perhaps ranges farther than most people would think. The site of the monument is clearly visible in the background of The Beatles’ film Help! (1965). Stonehenge has hosted concerts, festivals, and special events of many types since the 1970’s. It was also featured, by way of a tiny mock up, in This Is Spinal Tap. Depending on the viewers taste, though, Stonehenge may be most easily identified with through the countless documentary films for interested laymen and armchair historians alike, including one by National Geographic. This is all icing on the historical cake of course; Stonehenge predates all but the oldest known societies. One ancient myth purported that Merlin built it with the help of a giant, and that King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, was buried on the site. So great is the British self-identification with this ancient symbol that the Royal Navy named one of its submarines HMS Stonehenge.
The only thing I could find wrong with the experience at the Stonehenge site was a product of my own unrealistic expectations. This is, no doubt, a side-effect of my upbringing in a bigger-is-better society, over exposed as I am by charlatans of film like Michael Bay to earth shaking explosions and giant robots. Perhaps this experience can help guide us all to watch fewer bad movies, and try, however hard it may be, to turn back time, to mentally return to a place in our collective mind where giant stones, possibly placed with the help of alien technology, stand beckoning and cryptic on a desolate plain, buffeted by chill winds and biting must.