In the 1930s there was an advertisement for an oil company that went: “Stonehenge Wilts, but Shell goes on forever.” In 2012, with oil supplies falling and the remnants of the iconic slabs indomitable on the windswept plains of Wiltshire, the truth is surely otherwise.
“The stones themselves still stand, enduring in a society which is not,” argues Christopher Chippindale, of the University of Cambridge’s museum of archaeology and anthropology, who is also author of the book Stonehenge Complete. Today the World Heritage’s foremost lintelled sarsen structure is not just enduring but thriving, spawning more academic research, wild theorising, bouncy art, and pagan robe sales than ever.
Just consider some of the Stonehenge activities that will take place in the next few weeks. At sunrise on Thursday, the 14,500 transcendence questing druids and varied revellers may have been outnumbered only by world weary media drones as they tried to celebrate the summer solstice at the 4.52am sunrise (ideally in line with English Heritage’s stringent Conditions of Entry document, which might be downloaded by socially responsible pagans). Heavy rain overnight reduced the number of people who camped out or arrived early to witness the dawn compared with previous years, which have seen numbers of around 20,000.
And in Wales there was also a chance to get excited about mid-summer – for Stonehenge’s inflatable simulacrum has arrived at the National Botanic Garden in Carmarthenshire. Although the rain may have dampened spirits.
Is there anything more fun than a 35-metre bouncy castle that looks like Stonehenge, you ask? Not until they make a bouncy Warwick Castle with water slide into a moat laced with gin, I reply.
What is Deller, the Turner prize-winning artist, up to? “It’s a very entry-level way into thinking about ancient history for five-year-olds,” he says. True, but several bouncing Glaswegians were at least 45 years older than that target demographic. “It’s good to play with our history and culture. Stonehenge is part of British identity but no one knows what it was for.”
Good point. Ever since King Arthur’s dad, Utherpendragon, invaded Ireland, defeated an army and shipped Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury with the help of the wizard Merlin, the stones have sunk themselves ever deeper into British national consciousness.
In chapter 58 of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for instance, slimy Angel Clare and the dopey heroine are walking fugitively through darkling Wessex when “on a sudden, Clare became conscious of some vast erection close in his front [Oh grow up!], rising sheer from the grass … ‘It is Stonehenge!’ said Clare. ‘The heathen temple, you mean?'”
Tess lies down on a sun-warmed stone. “‘Did they sacrifice to God here?’ asked she. ‘No,’ said he. ‘Who to?’ ‘I believe to the sun. That lofty stone set away by itself is in the direction of the sun that will presently rise behind it.'”
Victorians wrote yards of this stuff: anybody who was anybody in 19th-century fiction got arrested, died, or got it on on those stones.
Incidentally, if you are Irish and thinking that the paragraph above suggests Stonehenge is like the Elgin Marbles and should be repatriated immediately, think again; according to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s marvellously unreliable 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain (the leading medieval account of Stonehenge’s origin), Irish giants transported the stones from Africa to Ireland earlier and used them as a curative bath until they were nicked by King Arthur’s dad.
Part of Stonehenge’s appeal is that it’s a riddle wrapped in mythology, swathed in druidical vestments and draped in a dodgy, if grand, relationship to the cosmos. Over the millennia, intellectuals have cast it as vast cosmic clock wound up by woad-daubed neolithic nudists (a theory embellished recently by archaeologists at Birmingham University’s Ludwig Boltzman Institute).
Other thinkers, like the 17th -century architect Inigo Jones, maintained ancient Britons were too thick to have created such a sophisticated edifice, and concluded it must have been Roman.
Today we aren’t sure who built it or why. Was it a burial ground, a magnet for crusty rave-ups, a sacred zone where our bearded forebears chillaxed old school, or a mystic portal to the celestial superhighway?
“Stonehenge sets a puzzle that has never been solved,” notes Chippindale.
Could Stonehenge have functioned as a helipad for Lord Sugar’s neolithic ancestors? It’s not impossible. More likely it resembled a lecture theatre with uncomfortable seating and no power sockets. Archaeo-acoustic researchers at Salford and Huddersfield universities suggested as much recently after examining the 5,000-year-old-structure’s acoustic properties.
Their work, at the site and at a concrete replica in Washington, indicates that Stonehenge had the sort of acoustics desirable in a lecture hall.
It wasn’t only the sight of Stonehenge that would have blown ancient visitors away.
Bruno Fazenda, professor at the University of Salford, says: “As they walked inside they would have perceived the sound environment around them had changed in some way.” Lucky them: all you can hear nowadays is the traffic howl from the A303.
Ever since those ancient days of magic stones shipped from Ireland, Stonehenge has satisfied a yearning among the citizens of these lands for mystic grandeur. That yearning will be kindled in July when the flaming French move in to Stonehenge.
Compagnie Carabosse will turn the site into a “fire garden” with flaming pots animating the stones, and cascades of candles lining the pathways. Think: rows of tea lights running down your garden path as you sink a sundowner, but much, much, more poncy.
Shortly afterwards, in the culmination of Stonehenge’s 2012, diggers will move in to right one of the most grievous historic wrongs in modern Britain. The stones will be moved slightly to the right away from the A303 and into proper alignment with the sun.
I’m kidding. In fact, the bulldozers will rip up the inadequate car park and visitor centre that have been a national disgrace since 1968.
Simon Thurley, English Heritage’s chief executive, said of the £27m makeover: “These are crucial steps which bring closer the transformation of the currently blighted Stonehenge landscape.” The centre will be moved 1.5 miles away and visitors will get to the stones on a low-key transit system or, as others call it, a Noddy train. Noddy Goes To Stonehenge – what a film!
There have been films, indeed. In National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985), Mr Griswold gives an affecting speech on the monument’s indomitability before climbing into his rental car and (can you see the gag yet?) reversing and toppling the thing like dominoes. Hilarious: in reality an Austin Maxi couldn’t knock the skin off a rice pudding.
In the no less amusing Shanghai Knights (2003), this gag is reprised when the two main characters crash their car into Stonehenge. One says: “Who the hell would put a pile of stones in the middle of a field?” Somewhere someone’s writing a PhD on Hollywood’s symbolic castration of British heritage by means of such movie demolition jobs.
Stonehenge’s image reached its mock-heroic apogee in the rocku/mocku-mentary This is Spinal Tap (1984). Picture the scene: the band’s plotting a comeback tour involving a lavish stage show featuring a replica of the monument as a backdrop to their pomp rock classic, Stonehenge. Only one problem, the order for the prop goes wrong and instead of being 18ft high it’s 18in tall, making the band a laughing stock.
Did Deller consider this pitfall in making his scaled-down bouncy version? You’d think.
He never thought, though, of emulating Steven Moffat’s insanely elaborate cosmological topography in the 2010 two-part special of Doctor Who, The Pandorica Opens. All the doctor’s many enemies hover above Stonehenge, while below in Underhenge lies the fabled prison of Pandorica holding the universe’s most detested and feared prisoner, Jeremy Clarkson at the co-ordinates of a worrying fissure in the universe’s frankly baffling structure.
Actually, it wasn’t Clarkson but some being even more unimaginably evil.
Most of the filming took place at Foamhenge, a lightweight replica set up near Port Talbot. It was there that the doctor battled an army of cybermen and others in what proved to be a critic-slaying, award-winning and discombobulatingly mytho-metaphysical fuss. Very Moffat, very Stonehenge.
It was also indicative of what Stonehenge really is: an open text, endlessly interpretable and readily bendable to our times and imagination. “It is a mirror which reflects back, more or less distorted, that view of the past which the onlooker takes there,” Chippindale says. Long may that continue.