21 November, 2005


I took the train out to Salisbury on Saturday and saw Stonehenge. Sometimes the world surprises you by being more magical than you gave it credit for, but this was not such an instance.

Salisbury is a stark place, only ground and sky, completely shorn clean of any trees or rocks or even the barest susurrations in the surface of the earth. It's one of those places where you stand in the center of a yawning chasm, empty blue of impossible vastness above you and a flat, aspectless plain beneath you. You are a dot in the middle of nothing.

The Iron Age unknowns who created Stonehenge plainly understood the elemental quality of the magic of Salisbury, and their monuments speak the same simple language. Besides Stonehenge there are some four hundred-odd barrows in the area, grassy burial mounds for dead kings or shamans that have somehow endured over thousands of years. They speak quite clearly, "Here lie the dead," and let that weighty fact lend all the aura and majesty that is required to the monuments, probably better than any mausoleum covered with ghoulish iconography could.

Similarly Stonehenge itself. In its long history the site served an unknown purpose (I do not believe it was merely a calendar), but whatever the meaning of the mysterious syllable it sounds, it is plainly intended to be clear and resonant.

None of this is what you find when you reach it. Whatever eldritch energy the Salisbury plain has is clipped into fragments by the highway that trisects it, and whatever bottomless note Stonehenge may be singing is drowned out by the steady stream of cars zipping past it and the chatter of tourists and camera shutters that surrounds it.

Stonehenge is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but I'm uncertain what "heritage" it attempts to preserve. There are rope barriers laid out to keep you from walking amongst the stones, to prevent idiots from chipping off pieces of the stones, as if they could thereby carry a piece of Stonehenge home with them. But the site is cheapened by turning it into a spectacle, a mere thing to gawk at. It might as well be a bunch of stones, or some carnival curio. "Come see the World's Largest Spinning Dynamo! One of A Kind! Tonite Only!"

There's some effort in a positive direction; there are proposals for restoration projects to put the nearby roads underground so the site is unblemished by their proximity (although these were recently defunded by the British government). But I think far more damaging than the proximity of the roads is the attitudes of those who come to visit it, which is not one of pilgrimage at all.

Plainly this was an important site for whoever built it so many years ago. And thus it should be important to us, if, by attempting to understand its significance to those who lived so many years ago when our race was young, we can glean some greater understanding of ourselves. History has wisdom in it, and we should read it. But if we don't know how we should read it, what exactly are we remembering?


Oh, how sad. The ancient places I've gone to that teem with people are clearly meant to teem with people. It seems like the disconnection you describe is the sign of a truly vanquished culture.

Very nicely written, btw.  

Posted by Saheli

so what if i say, england has a very high population density. the likelihood that any site which is not currently considered sacred would be overrun with modern people hanging around or going somewhere is pretty high. we could all make a list of sites that have been vandalized or robbed into meaninglessness in the modern era of austere personal capitalism and population growth.

also, every tour book i had in hand in london a couple years ago suggested avebury over stonehenge, for your reasons. 

Posted by chromo

I've always been in love with Egypt, since I was 6 years old, and researched the Great Pyramid of Giza. I love ancient civilizations, and you're right, its downright sad how people treat our material history. History is the only way we can learn lessons, and if we destroy it, it makes it harder to learn from it. 

Posted by Nikhil Mulani

Interesting article! What was your impression of the state of conservation of this UNESCO World Heritage Site? 

Posted by Matthias Ripp

Matthias: hard to say since you can't actually go within any reasonable distance of the stones. But, as I mentioned, there have in the past been idiots who chipped bits off the stone. In fact, one of the localities used to SELL HAMMERS AND CHISELS to tourists to enable them in this idiocy. That, thankfully, has stopped. 

Posted by saurabh

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