P.4: The Temple of a Nation, Stonehenge

Stonehenge has been a site of political contest. On 25 March 1997, Kevin Carlyon 'illegally' entered the stones of Stonehenge to raise a Union Jack; he stated this was in reaction to the suggestion by archaeologists that Stonehenge was built by migrating people from what is now France 4,500 years ago. He stated 'it is my theory that those living in this country invaded Europe and not vice versa'. So there is also the nationalistic, sometimes racist, and often uncritical use of cultural boundedness by Paganisms (example Touta Dumnonioi at http://www.homestead.com/dafydd/declaration2.html). 

But maybe every age has the Stonehenge it deserves - or desires, and in this age, the heritage industry's re/presentations of Stonehenge are no less political than those of Carlyon. The English Heritage leaflet to Stonehenge reliably informs us that the monument is the 'Greatest Mystery of the Prehistoric World'. Indeed, in the opening statement of this authoritative leaflet we learn 'Stonehenge is one of the wonders of the world, as old as many of the temples and pyramids of Egypt'. Ironically for the 'most important prehistoric site in the British Isles' (the text on an information panel at the entrance to Stonehenge) the standard of quality afforded its presentation today are noted by some as appalling. Comparisons with Dynastic Egypt are fatuous and misleading, recalling the culture-historic interpretation that megaliths are degenerate forms of pyramids. Indeed, the only possible meanings of Stonehenge described in the leaflet are that it may have been built by, a sun-worshipping culture', or as 'a huge astronomical calendar', two explanations which are plausible but, arguably, functionalist and largely outdated. (See Editorial SESN 24 June 2003) 

This simple leaflet provided for visitors is a first point of entry into meaning, so its informative potential is extremely high; therefore, its content should be very carefully constructed. It is somewhat embarrassing then, when visiting Stonehenge with family and friends as 'the archaeologist', to be confronted by 'sun-worshippers' and 'calendars' in a re/presentation without room for the possibility of polysemic meanings (in the past) and diversity of interpretation (in the present).Among other interpretative devices, such as information panels, this leaflet does not and cannot be expected to tell us every possible interpretation, but, as stated, these are common first points of entry which visitors are likely to encounter, steering their earliest perceptions of the monument. 

The information panel at the entrance (specifically located by the car park toilets) states (brackets mine): Stonehenge is over 5000 years old [what does this date actually mean and to which part of the landscape or many monuments dating from the Mesolithic to present day does it refer?] and is the most important prehistoric site in the British Isles [on what authority? Others might instead cite Les Fouillages in Guernsey, or Skara Brae, Orkney, or might avoid makings such sensationalist remarks altogether). A World Heritage Site [this term is not explained; it is contested, but here reifies the global importance of the site], it is unique [as are all other sites: no single henge is the same as another] and there is nothing else like it in the world [that's a tautology, uniqueness twice!]. The result is that a very particular - if perceived as common-sense, wellknown and enduring - even peculiar version of the past is presented. It's the 'same old threnody: The much contested Stonehenge Masterplan 'focuses on conservation, presentation and packaging for tourists. Indeed, while physical access to Stonehenge is being negotiated and may be accommodated by the management plan, the issue of diversity of interpretation on-site remains. Despite its apparent harmlessness, and in comparison with other interpretations of world archaeology for political ends, it fits the discussion of nationalist uses of archaeology: an overt, political conjuring act [with] the complexities of the archaeological evidence being transformed into simple messages about national cultural identity. 

In modern Britain, since the 'Peoples Free Festival' (originally Windsor 1974) was disrupted by the authorities, and after the bloody 'battle of the beanfield' between travellers and police at the Summer Solstice of 1985, access to Stonehenge has been a hotly disputed subject. I need not recount the events of 1985 as they have been well documented elsewhere. For example the 1998; Stonehenge Campaign web site: http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/9000/stonecam.htm

Concessions are made at Stonehenge: the curators allow Druids and their Pagans 'special access' to the stones for a price substantially higher than the ordinary entrance fee. Druids and their Pagan colleagues are divided in opinion over this matter: some do not pay on principle, hoping their defiance may promote future opening up of access (e.g. Secular Order of Druids); others pay (e.g. British Druid Order), perhaps understandably apathetic after decades of waiting, but while also on good terms with the sire custodians. During the years of the exclusion zone, barbed wire and a police presence were added to the permanent perimeter fence, electric fence and rope cordoning off 'the stones'. An eye-witness version of events the following year (Summer Solstice 1999) the Wiltshire Council's application for the exclusion zone was turned down by the House of Lords earlier in the year, and the police stated (in a phone call to Wiltshire Constabulary) that despite a high profile they would not, therefore, be stopping people from getting to Stonehenge, from getting to the fence separating the henge from the road; the exclusion zone was down for the first time in fifteen years. 

English Heritage doubled the number of tickets for entry to the stones to two hundred, and the press profile was tempered. People began arriving during daylight the evening before solstice morning and at about 2 a.m. a group of people pushed down the perimeter fence, reached the stones, and some of them climbed on top of the trilithons. Half a dozen people or so ended up on the trilithons, with around four or five hundred people standing within the stones, 'illegally'. Intimidation on their part in the form of horse-mounted officers, riot gear and dog-handlers worked best on most people who remained outside the fence. This included those Druids and others with tickets who at this point were not allowed into the stones; in view of the 'illegal' actions of those in the circle, English Heritage cancelled the ticket-holder event. The negative views of the press were inevitably coloured by, respectively, close timing of the miner's strike in 1985, and the presence of so-called 'New Age' travellers at the anticapitalist protest in London a few days before the 1999 solstice. Mostly, people of all interest groups were annoyed about the actions of those rushing into the site since it did nothing to promote good relations and the opening up of access. 

In an ideal world of fewer visitors, English Heritage would, I think, allow everyone into the stones, but in current times with such a huge volume of visitors, they are under considerable pressure simultaneously to 'protect' and to allow people to touch, make offerings and ritual at, drum, dance and sing around the stones. Suggestions have long been made by the Solstice Trust to have a Stonehenge festival some distance from Stonehenge at a new 'sacred site'. 159 Pagans and others construct their own sacred sites, particularly stone circles, in some instances based on astronomical/astrological events. 

Examples include the two 1995 'Big Green Gathering' festival circles in Wiltshire, and the circle on a farm in Masham, North Yorkshire Spring 1999. Fortunately for all concerned, the events in 1999 were only a slight setback and English Heritage surpassed itself in 2000 when free and open access to the stones was granted to all (see also BBC : http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/uk/newsid - 797000/797689.stm, and the divided opinions of archaeologists http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba54/ ba54news.html). With this success, the 2001 Summer Solstice attracted approximately 14,500 people from diverse backgrounds, and the event passed peacefully (see: http://www.thisiswiltshire.co.uk). 

The plurality of voices suggest the issue, who owns Stonehenge. English Heritage evidently feel 'partying' and associated raucous behaviour compromise the preservation ethic: sacredness at Stonehenge, for them, is on a par with the sacredness conventionally associated with the passive, humble and serene Protestant sobriety many observe (congregation and tourists) at nearby Salisbury Cathedral, for instance. But to follow up the analogy Salisbury Cathedral, in the pre-Reformation medieval period. In contrast to current, passive engagements with that 'sacred site', not only was this cathedral a regular location for the hustle and bustle of the marketplace in the Middle Ages - 'a horse-fair was held not only in the precincts but also in the cathedral itself' - and the raucous 'feast of fools', but church buildings were also appropriate places for the drinking of 'church ales', for dancing, games and other, ,secular' events.. The Lanercost Chronicle [describes how] villagers were compelled to dance around a statue of Priapus during Easter Week by their parish priest. It would be misleading to suggest all the clergy condoned such wanton ribaldry: the chapter of Wells Cathedral, for instance, berated the damage caused to the cloisters during May games in 1338. The view of the church as a holy place only, was a postReformation - specifically a Victorian - innovation. The villager drew no clear distinction, between the spiritual and the otherworldly on the one hand, and the material life of the present on the other.


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 June 28, 2003






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