Human-manipulated stones have always held a huge fascination for me.
The Moai placed on Easter Island by the Rapa Nui. The immense pyramids constructed by ancient engineers. The mysteriously out-of-place bluestones of Stonehenge.
I finally got a look at Stonehenge yesterday. It’s a site I’ve been hungrily learning about for most of my life, seizing on every new theory and watching new digs for truth.
I don’t know what I expected. To be moved? Hard to feel moved when people are waving selfie sticks and catching Pokemon. We didn’t pay the £18.50 to get on a shuttle bus and be driven up to the stones, where you walk in a circle around a little fence and take photos or play on your phone.
We walked a couple of miles across the fields, through the wide, flat land where the National Trust is trying to return agricultural earth to its grassland origins. Stonehenge comes into focus slowly that way. You can barely see the humans crawling over it.
If you don’t pay, you stay back behind the fence – a better view. On the inside, you can’t touch the stones – though I wouldn’t – anyway and your view is obscured by the other people, your thoughts shattered by the other people.
There was a general lack of respect and gravity. For me, Stonehenge is a kind of church. It’s a centre of one of my biggest interests and it also represents the only type of religion I have: thankfulness for the land, I guess.
Away from the crowd, I could appreciate the stones as an interesting piece of history. But I didn’t get my cathedral feeling. Perhaps if I’d been alone, or if I could have got closer. It’s a sad thing. But hey, other people want to experience it too. I just don’t know how many needed to. Do I mean deserved to?
On a brighter note, the stone circle at Avebury was amazing. It’s huge, entwined with an entire village, and it rises gently up and down terraced banks. Although it has had a lot of reconstruction (like Stonehenge), it escaped total destruction due to some bad human luck and good historical luck.
As is usual, Christianity led people in the vicinity to see the stones as evil because they didn’t conform to anything they understood from the bible. The villagers attempted to remove the stones but in the early 1300s, when they began toppling them and burying them where they fell, a man was crushed (his body staying under the immense stone until its excavation in the 1930s) and then the Black Death arrived, keeping everyone nicely occupied for some time.
Folklore and superstition can be a wonderful thing deep in the country, so the stones were largely allowed to sit quietly until the blessed age of the antiquarian (destructive in his own well-meaning way) came along some 300 years later, and outsiders began to take some interest in the circle.
But Christianity struck again. Puritan nonsense and agricultural land-clearing in the 17th century brought even more defilement to the stones (you can still see the incongruously straight cuts from the method used – heating and rapidly cooling the stone to weaken it before doing some good old smashy smashy). The work of antiquarian William Stukeley and money of politician/archaeologist Sir John Lubbock prevented the final sarsens from disappearing but the site was incredibly damaged. Archaeologists have done their bests though, and as many stones were buried whole where they fell, rather than carted off for building materials, they now stand in the best approximation we have for the site.
Walking among the stones under low, grey clouds was a much more moving experience than seeing Stonehenge. I felt closer to the people who constructed it and I felt closer to the land. I’m sad it was that way around but not surprised. The rain kept most humans away.