For the past few weeks I have been traveling through France and England, and so have had very little time to sit long enough to write a post with any depth worth publishing. On the upside, I have had the pleasure of visiting several art museums, which I will review in the Field Trips category of this blog shortly.
I had no thought of including Stonehenge in the Art+History=Meaning category, yet when clicking through digital photographs of my trip so far, I realized how perfectly the prehistoric circular formation of lichen-covered upright boulders in a field in Wiltshire, England fit into the flow of what I intend as a chronological account of man’s search for meaning through art, which to me, as I have stated in previous posts, includes architecture.
And so it was that I decided a few paragraphs of reflection on the meaning of Stonehenge very much appropriate to the theme.
I first visited Stonehenge 21-years ago. I remember laughing at the shock of seeing the massive sarsen and bluestone boulders appear seemingly out of nowhere as we drove along A303. My English friend had warned me: “They’re just a pile of rocks by the roadside.”
Yet, as I paid my entrance fee inside the small, unimpressive visitor centre buried halfway in the dirt (as she waited in the car) and made my way through the pedestrian tunnel that ran underneath the highway to encounter what is considered one of the wonders of the world waiting on the other side, I suddenly had a much different opinion on the matter. My friend’s comment regarding one of the best known English Heritage and UNESCO World Heritage sites now seemed entirely unfair.
The stones loomed large before me as I walked toward them, and then gradually retreated into the distance for a postcard-perfect picture as I made my way slowly around the periphery walking path with all of the other tourists. It was a blustery day and the wind whipped through our hair and played with our clothes. The stones before us, on the other hand, stood silent and still as if the wind could not touch them at all, or perhaps was relegated behind the ropes with the rest of us, leaving the inner circle of Stonehenge with its own, unpenetrable ethereal atmosphere.
With the snapping of cameras and the din of many languages filling the chilly Autumn air, I was struck by the austere scene before me and felt that the rocks, in some spiritually-inanimate way, might carry a similarly dismissive impression of us mere mortals gawking at them in our transient outer circle, filled with wonder as to the meaning of Stonehenge one moment and then back to our cars and the highway the next, wondering perhaps where to find lunch or the nearest pub up the road.
I found myself back at Stonehenge last week at the ardent request of my college age, history major daughter. The old visitor centre has been demolished as well as the pedestrian tunnel. In their place is a very nice complex with an exhibit, gift shop and lunch spot. A lot had changed over the course of two-plus decades, yet the stones, when I finally got to them via shuttle bus, appeared exactly as I had remembered them 21 years ago.
Stonehenge is so named because of the stone used and how the stones are positioned to form a henge, which is an old English term for a circular piece of earthwork left over from the neolithic period. There are many to be found around England with Stonehenge being the most visited.
Archaeologists believe that Stonehenge was built over the course of around 1000 years, from 3000 BC to 2000 BC.
There is evidence that Stonehenge could have been a burial ground and there are many burial mounds nearby in which human remains have been found. The Stonehenge Riverside Project contends that the circular structure held religious significance and was a mecca for the Druids of that period.
The time period is significant in that the circular stone structures were being built at the same time as many of the pyramids in Egypt, the subject of my previous post. So, while the Druids or other peoples of the land we now call England were excavating, carving and hauling 4 ton boulders across some 240 miles from the southwest of Wales (bluestones), the slaves of Egyptian pharaohs were hauling massive blocks of limestone up the sides of what would become their leader’s tomb (pyramid building started around 5000 BC).
There seemed to be a need at this point in mankind’s history to construct monuments that reached up to the sky. The amount of time (Years – lifetimes – generations) it took to build these structures suggests how important they were to earth’s earliest communities. For the first time, groups of people worked together to create grandeur larger than life where they could gather, hold ceremonies, worship, and bury their dead.
Whether the meaning of Stonehenge ultimately was a prehistoric calendar or astrological chart, a burial ground or healing center (many of the bones found in the burial mounds show trauma or evidence of deformity), it must have been a spectacular site for weary Druid pilgrims.
The point of great architecture is to awe and inspire. In that very real sense, architecture is truly art on the largest scale.
Thousands of years later, the pile of rocks by the roadside still awes and inspires and causes us to stop and consider the meaning of Stonehenge and our relation to the people who came before us, and thought it worth the effort to build a monument to last long after they’ve left this world.