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Saturday, 21 June 2014

Stonehenge: Will Self is not amused....



An interesting -- and very long -- article by Will Self about the new "visitor experience" at Stonehenge.  English Heritage and Simon Thurley do not come out of it well.  OK, Will Self is well known for being highly opinionated and even pompous, and you might not agree with everything he says, but I suspect that much of this article will resonate with many people.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/21/from-heritage-to-heretics-stonehenge-making-history

Here is an extract (because he's just a journalist you have to forgive such pieces of nonsense as "the 11 bluestones" and "retreating glaciations"):

Archaeologists are paradoxical figures, I think – and increasingly so. Reading Pitts's writing, and that of other diggers and delvers, I'm always struck by the disparity between the sketchy nature of the evidence they present and the way the narratives they construct on its basis seem to bear down on their imaginations – and ours as well. Stonehenge, because of its unprecedented size – and more importantly, weight – has attracted hyperbole the way magnets do iron filings: the place positively bristles with explanations and always has. Rosemary Hill's fine book Stonehenge gathers together all of the tales that have been spun around the stones since its first appearance in the annals. Reading it, I was struck by how there are two main historical timelines at Stonehenge, the history of the monument itself and the history of these explanations of it; and that it's in the interaction between the two that our culture has given birth to its own peculiar theology of deep time, for each era cannot help but seek out a past that it finds inspiring – or at least congenial.

Stonehenge seems so much more enigmatic than other Neolithic structures because these two timelines have been so oddly discontinuous; the problem isn't simply that our science cannot furnish a definitive explanation as to why or how the stones were raised – after all, how could it? – but that the narrative is itself so fragmentary and incomplete. Work at the site ceased, we believe, around 1600BCE, but the monument doesn't appear at all in the historical record – apart from being noted as a boundary marker in a property deed dated CE937 – until it's mentioned in Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum of around 1130. Henry says of "Staneges" that it is one of the wonders of the country, but that "no one can conceive … how such great stones have been so raised aloft, or why they were built there." We aren't surprised that the Romans had nothing to say about, say, the nearby Avebury stone circle, because it's far less manifest than Stonehenge – and by extension, the oblivion of time that blankets scores of British Neolithic and bronze age sites is in keeping with our current ignorance: to this day, so few people visit them that their enigmatic character is itself underimagined.

But Stonehenge was hiding for all those centuries in plain view, standing proud of a landscape of closely cropped turf, in an area where we now believe settled agriculture was being practised at the same time as its construction. It is, I think, the sense we have of Stonehenge being ever-present to the minds of scores of successive generations that has propagated this strange faith: if only we could accurately interrogate this millennia-long memory, we would somehow discover what the monument truly is and, in the process, find out who we, the English, are. Certainly, the way Stonehenge becomes rapidly incorporated into myths of origin supports this notion. For Henry of Huntingdon's contemporary, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Stonehenge was the burial place of King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, although it was originally built by Pendragon's brother, King Aurelius, as a monument to Britons who were murdered at the site by the treacherous Saxon invader Hengist. This foundational tale is given not one but two supernatural dimensions by Geoffrey: first, he conjures the wizard Merlin as Aurelius's contractor; Merlin, we are told, magically transported the great stones from Ireland; and second, he, together with other early medieval chroniclers, mixes the Arthurian legends with Christian mythology so as to put Joseph of Arimathea, the 12 apostles and the holy grail in the frame.

We can track the development of our own polity through these ideas about Stonehenge: from the Hanoverian period when the identification of the monarch with the embattled King Solomon led to the stones being viewed – at least figuratively – as an outpost of the Holy Land, to the contemporary era when the business of government is no longer to enforce God's rule on Earth, but to raise the finance necessary to dig that earth up and establish scientific truths about our origins. Thurley was keen to emphasise that the £27m that's been spent on the new visitor centre and grassing over a section of the A344 was financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage's own commercial income and philanthropic donations. This means the new landscape of Stonehenge embodies modern Mammon's triumvirate of commoditisation, gambling and charity, just as it once did Trinitarian ideas of transcendence and immanence.

As late as the early 20th century, perfectly reputable archaeologists were still proposing mysterious foreign artificers for the stones. The monument has been variously attributed to Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians and the Jews. The discovery that the 11 bluestones of Stonehenge originated in the Presili Hills, 160 miles away in Pembrokeshire, gave strong impetus to the idea that its construction was deeply mysterious, and required the intervention either of magical beings or an alien and advanced civilisation. Even today, scientific opinion remains divided over whether they were hewn, dragged and possibly floated to the site, or were merely left lying there in the wake of retreating glaciations; while, as for the still larger sarsen stones, as far as I'm aware there's no specific separate explanation for how they got to Stonehenge from the Marlborough Downs, which are by no means as far as Wales but still a significant drag away. In recent decades the pushing back of the dates for the various phases of Stonehenge's construction, together with extensive new evidence from digs at the nearby massive earthen henge at Durrington Walls, have contributed to a different sort of a narrative; and there's general archaeological consensus that this entire part of Wiltshire, from the huge earthworks at Avebury and Silbury Hill, stretching down the Avon to Woodhenge and Durrington Walls, and taking in the strange features known as the cursus and the Stonehenge Avenue (parallel earthwork ridges running for several kilometres) as well as scores of barrows (or burial mounds) constituted an integrated "sacred landscape".

Here is another extract:

"For Thurley, as the guardian of Stonehenge, his priorities were self-evident: to protect the nation's archaeology and to provide what he termed "a holiday experience". Later, he was still more specific about the nature of this experience: it was English Heritage's job, he told me, to provide "entertainment" for the million-plus visitors who descend on the site every year, visitors who – as he put it – mostly "want a selfie with the trilithon". For while Thurley is keen to enhance our understanding of the Neolithic, he doesn't want to be a po‑faced purveyor of education; rather, he wishes to preserve the enigma of Stonehenge, an enigma he considers to be "the goose" that lays the gold-paying – and frequently ovoid – visitors."

Very interesting , and completely in tune with my thought that Stonehenge is no longer a place of serious scientific investigation but a "holiday experience", a national icon and a very important money-spinner.  It would never do for it to be investigated too thoroughly, since it has to be preserved as an enigma -- but that in itself is very strange, since enigmatic things have to have a number of alternative explanations, and the only explanation for stone transport that EH seems to consider orthodox enough to be given any thought or exhibition space is one that omits any mention of natural processes.  But then, as we have often observed on this blog, Stonehenge makes all men mad, and rational thought processes and the works of nature are not very welcome to the powers that be.......
 

9 comments:

Contantinos Ragazas said...

Interesting post, Brian. But how do you then explain why MPP and a few others are given permission by EH to continue their excavations at SH and elsewhere? Are these not bona fide attempts at finding the truth of SH?

My fear is reputable science is being usurped into the service of myth-making archeology.

Kostas

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not sure that there are any existing permissions, Kostas. There have been some digs in the last ten years -- but maybe carefully selected not to disturb the orthodoxy too much.....

Myris of Alexandria. said...

A very nice piece, note the linking of the Ring of Brodgar and Stonehenge, you heard it here first.
M.
I have always love Mr Self good journo, better light novelist.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not one of my favourite writers. Too many long words and convoluted phrases, as if he is intent on proving to himself and the rest of the world what an intellectual giant he is......but there you go -- takes all sorts...

BRIAN JOHN said...

Circular stone settings like Ring of Brodgar, Callanish and Stonehenge -- haven't they always been linked in the minds of archaeologists and mystics?

TonyH said...

Whilst I've only just switched on my computer today, once having read Brian's opening remarks I immediately brought to mind Mr Self's very recent [July/ August] piece in British Archaeology "Co- opted by the Heritage Industry", No 137, page 14.

In it, Will Self Esq. gravely informs us "Even Richard Atkinson is still talking about Phoenicians".

That would be from beyond the grave, then! Self is clearly summoning up powers the rest of us do not possess.

TonyH said...

"...and the only explanation for transport that EH seems to consider orthodox enough to be given any thought or exhibition space is one that omits any mention of natural processes".

I have quoted on this Blog in the past 6 months how the Visitor Centre of EH intends to display OTHER aspects of Stonehenge [source: "Current Archaeology"], including, as far as I am aware, alternative theories as to how certain stones reached the broad regional vicinity of Stonehenge.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Ah -- intentions are all very fine. Delivery is what we want.

TonyH said...

What we need, and to use the accepted collective Term, is a 'Gathering of Glacial Geomorphologists', knocking furiously upon the door of Simon T., the "esteemed" head of English Heritage, and proclaiming loudly "give us exhibition space at your new Money - Machine! For you do not possess the monopoly on Truth!"