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Capturing the Past at Stonehenge

There they stood, a line of cold grey monoliths in a semicircular embrace, just as I had seen them in many photographs and postcards. Yet I had no emotional connection at all as I gazed at them grouped upon the green hillock. The structures stood inanimate and matter of fact several feet in front of me. I could not walk amongst them or touch them. I had thought that being at Stonehenge, in Wiltshire England, would instantly transport me into the romance of the past. I was hoping to see before me the imprint of that mysterious society who had hewn, transported, and assembled these monstrous tablets. Among the bleating of the grazing sheep and hurtling of passing cars, however, no phantom Neolithic race emerged from the shadows to perform their mysterious rites. No tribe of men and women from yesteryear waited to see the setting of the sun at their sacred temple. No forgotten culture walked the primeval pathways in search of wisdom. The very stones themselves stood mute and unwilling to divulge the stories they had experienced. Looking at these configurations I wondered if it was possible to see such a famous landmark with fresh eyes. Could I bring my own perspective to this place and make the sarsens speak, or would the weight of Stonehenge history be too overpowering? 

Stonehenge landscapeAccording to my audio guide, after fifty-seven hundred years archeologists still do not fully understand the role and purpose of this landmark. The site keeps its secrets hidden so well that instead of explanations, colorful and rampant myths of Druid sacrifices and Arthurian burials have overtaken its significance. Whilst entertaining, I was not interested in unfounded legends, but rather the truths that I could glean from the taciturn dolmens before me. Who built this structure and why remain unsolved though scientists are gleaning bits of information from the many buried objects found around the site. Still the enigma of Stonehenge is so powerful that it clouded my ability to experience and enjoy the area.

“I wanted to rip asunder the shroud and unveil something.

Since I could not do so, I waited underneath the menhirs, biding my time. Perhaps observing the unmoving scenery before me and waiting for the passage of time would provide me with inspiration.

Stonehenge sheepI waited while watching the hundreds of tourists who descended from tour buses and stared silently at the slabs. I waited as I counted the sheep on the next hill, luxuriously nibbling in oblivion. I waited as the evening rush hour befell the A303, no closer to an answer. I moved around the outside of the monument, examining their pitted surfaces, pondering their meaning. That is when I noticed her: three feet six inches tall with two braids each side of her head clutching a small bear under her left armpit. She was intently looking at one of the upright megaliths and murmuring under her breath. Surprised to see a child alone in the area, I approached her.

“Are you lost?” I asked cautiously.

“I can’t decide today whether I want it to be a ruined castle or a circle of giants turned to stone,” she specified, ignoring my question, as if we had skipped to the middle of a conversation.

Puzzled by her answer, I asked, “Do you come to see this place often?”

She nodded, “I live just over there,” and waved her tiny right hand vaguely in the air for my benefit.

Still uncomfortable at the idea of a lone youngster amongst the stones, I continued to prod her, “Do your parents know you are here? Are they somewhere in the visitor’s center?”

My queries were unimportant to the child because she ignored them. Instead, turning to face me she boldly countered a question of her own, “What do you imagine when you look at them?”

Presented with the facts of my problem, I put aside the oddity of finding this solitary girl. I knelt down next to her and replied, “I’m afraid I can’t imagine them as anything at the moment. I don’t really know why they were built here in the first place.”

She tilted her head in consideration for several moments, then replied, “In that case you can borrow one of mine today, if you like. Which would you wish: a ruined castle or stone giants?”

I smiled at her. “Thank you for the kind thought, but I shall have to come up with something on my own if I am to see it properly.”

“Yes, I suppose you would,” she replied sagely, as if such a conundrum happened to her normally. “I think I shall go with giants today.”

“An excellent choice,” I responded. “May I listen to your story about the stone giants?”

“They lived around here,” she began without preamble, “in a large village. They went about their day, doing ordinary things that giants do. At the end of every summer they had a meeting of the giant council, which was made up of the bravest of giants. At these meetings they would all sit around in a circle surrounded by the rest of the tribe and solve everyone’s problems. One day when they were sitting here a sorcerer came through the place. He asked to be invited to their gathering, but because he was a stranger, they refused. Angered, he turned them all into stone. The ones here are still around because they were the bravest, so their stone lasted longest.”

“What happened to the houses of the giants?”

“Giants don’t live in houses. They sleep underneath trees at night.”

“Oh, I hadn’t known that! Thank you for sharing your story about the stone giants.”

Stonehenge standing stoneShe nodded, “You’re very welcome. I’ve got to go now, but good luck with your own story. You just have to imagine it, then it will come true.” My storyteller sprinted away towards the shuttle drop off, yelling out a last “Good luck!” as she left. I remained behind, the indifferent sheep once more my only companions. I wondered if what the strange girl had spoken were true: would these monoliths come alive for me if I simply imagined it? The trouble was that there were too many things I could envision, too many myths: sun-worshippers, sorcerers, Vikings, medieval knights, and giants now floated inside my head as a jumbled mess. I tramped some distance towards the large outer ditch enclosing them and looked back at the circle of menhirs.

“From this perspective, the stones shifted and morphed into the window of a telescope.”

Through the sarsen framework I could conceptualize ancient Britons examining the night sky. In a flash, the area came alive to me, peopled with a race of cosmologists gazing towards the heavens disseminating celestial stories across the land. Underneath the late afternoon clouded sky I conjured up the majesty of those forgotten days when darkness brought out a twinkling map of stars. Were the builders of Stonehenge astronomers seeking to learn empyrean movements? Fact or fiction, the idea drew breath in my imagination animating the landscape before me.

Stonehenge uprightsThe sheep disappeared replaced by a crowd of late tourists. I scurried to look for the girl who had shared her story of giants with me, but could not find her. I hankered to relate my story to her about the tribe of star-gazers I had observed in gratitude for inspiring me. I had come to Stonehenge fearful that its muddled past and intense mythical history would overpower me. I had longed to personalize this space, to create my narrative here, yet was unsure how to do it. By offering her anecdote freely to me, my mysterious friend had bailed me out of the quandary. Her youth allowed her the courage to let loose her imagination, foregoing restrictions of history and convention. I could do the same if I chose, conceiving a world of powerful impossibilities.

“’Imagine it, then it will come true,’ she had announced and the power of her simple words reverberated.”

Often I limit my daydreams to what I think I can achieve, tempering their potential to quotidian constraints. Now I wondered why? Studies have shown that many of the stones used to build the Wiltshire henge were carried from hundreds of miles to this particular site. It seems an unfeasible task, yet if the neolithic people had thought that way they would never have accomplished their mission. Planetarium, temple, or memorial to the dead, Stonehenge was born out of a desire that heeded no impediment in its fruition. In my own life I should be so daring, imagining a thousand ensuing adventures, stories as yet untold, and a future whose limit extends to the sidereal yonder.Stonehenge view


TRAVEL NOTE:

Scientific discoveries have revealed that Stonehenge is not an isolated landmark, but rather one of several connected sites in the Wiltshire region. When the neolithic tribes of the mid-second century BC erected the sarsens and bluestones of Stonehenge, they also built surrounding pathways, nearby settlements, and complementary hedges. While the relationship of these other sites to Stonehenge remains a mystery, it is certain that the area was of great significance to natives of Britain for many centuries.


Have you been to Stonehenge? Did you find it interesting or boring? What stories did it inspire in your imagination?

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21 replies »

  1. I adore Stonehenge, but I think I appreciate the lesser known stone circles in Great Britain more, as they’re less studied, and certainly, less frequented by others. I like the solace that comes with each visit. Along with the quality of unknowing and uncertainty, there is a tranquility I’ve not been able to duplicate. Eerie and beautiful.
    Gorgeous photos and a lovely tale!

    • I too think the lesser known stone circles are amazing places, more mysterious because they don’t have as many visitors. I do look forward, though, to when they will discover a little more about the amazing people who made these structures! Thanks for stopping by.

  2. What an extraordinary child! No, I have to confess I haven’t been. I read somewhere that they were cordoned off and that you could not wander freely around them? Glad you were able to find a story that worked for you. 🙂

    • Very true Jo, the henge is now cordoned off due to the ill effects of many grubby hands and the human desire to graffiti everything. Although I have heard from readers that there was a time when you were allowed to wander freely among the stones and even touch them! The rope, sadly, takes away from some of the magic of the experience, but I do understand why it’s necessary since it is such a popular sight. It made me think of the similarly cordoned off and barely perceptible Mona Lisa painting at the Louvre.

  3. What a wonderful piece about Stonehenge. You’ve allowed me to see it with fresh eyes, having visited often both as a child and again as an adult with my own children. As a child, I was able to walk amongst the great blue stones and touch them but with the fencing around the perimeter it is no longer possible. I think that’s a a shame as it’s harder to get the feel of the place. Yet, as with you, I have tried to imagine what it must have been like in its prime and have wondered at its connections with other sites and its true significance. So much mystery, so many questions still unanswered. Your conversation with the little girl was magical. Perhaps, after all, Stonehenge is made up of a circle of stone giants? After all, we can but imagine and dream… 😉

  4. I wish adults would learn like this every day from children. They have a wonderful perspective about life. Such a shame we lose it and glad to see you recaptured it for a day.

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