“Immensities of Stone”
I have read about it and studied images of its enigmatic stone circles. I have speculated on its possible origins and quizzed other travellers on their impressions. It is one of few monumental sights that I have desired to see for most of my life, and my dream is about to be realized. I have worked past the necessities of travel: the flights, the hotel, the car rental, the entrance fee and the access, and now there it stands.
Initially, I have to convince myself that it is real. Accustomed to so many photographs, my brain wants to interpret the panorama before me as just another two-dimensional representation, and it is difficult to accept the reality of what I am experiencing. This is fitting: something so shrouded in history, mystery and mysticism should require effort to comprehend. The mind requires time to gain perspective, and Stonehenge requires perspective. But I assure myself: this is real. This is Stonehenge. I am actually there.
It is a cold day, and the wind blows with insistence across Salisbury Plain. Low-lying clouds cover most of the sky. I’m disappointed, thinking that my photographs will seem lifeless in the flat light, and it turns out that they do; however, the gloomy sky seems an appropriate backdrop for this outpost from my prehistoric past.
When you first gain access to the archeological site, the stone circles are a distance away. They rest lonely on the plain, and without perspective, the boulders seem smaller than they are. The closer you get to the monument, however, the more massive Stonehenge looms, and the impression asserts itself that this is a place of immensities. Of course, the stones themselves are immense—hulking Neolithic monoliths chiseled and configured like dominos set in sequence by gargantuan hands. Yet, at this once sacred site, there is still another immensity: the immensity of time.
Even in its battered state, Stonehenge impresses its viewers with a sense of permanence—it sits heavily in time. I have an idea that is difficult to put into words, but Stonehenge seems to me to be a kind of temporal nexus—a focal point in history. Its incredible weight not only fixes it in place on the Salisbury Plain but also anchors it in time. I envision it as occupying in the central point of an hourglass—a confluence of past and future that pulls the grains of sand toward it from both halves of the glass. As it moves through time, it draws the past along with it, even as it pulls the future toward it. Standing within the henge, I consider not only those who built it, but also all of those people who have visited it throughout the centuries. Did Shakespeare tread this same patch of earth where I now stand? Was Darwin here? Nietzsche? What Roman legionnaire stood on this plain, wrapping his cloak against the wind and cursing the foul luck that condemned him to serve at such a barbaric outpost so far from the dalliances of the Capitol? It staggers the imagination to consider the incredible history that Stonehenge has witnessed throughout the millennia.
It is also fascinating to speculate as to what these stones have yet to see. For a thousand years to come, visitors will continue to be drawn to this location. Whatever destiny befalls us, pilgrims will come to this place and think upon those of us who came before. They will gaze back at me, just as I look forward to them.
For anyone who has not been to Stonehenge, a brief description might be useful. The monument was constructed using two types of rock—sarsen stone and blue stone, and 162 of these stones were organized into two concentric circles with three horseshoe configurations in their interior.
Most of the massive, slowly tumbling boulders that we see in all the photographs originally rose in a circle of standing stones capped with horizontal blocks called lintels. These sarsen stones were brought from the Marlborough Downs nineteen miles away. An inner circle of the smaller blue stones mirrors this outer ring. The closest probable source for the blue stones is a place called the Preseli Hills in Wales—an incredible 150 miles away. Someone really, really liked these rocks. Within the second circle is a horseshoe of five massive sarsen stone trilithons—free-standing “doorways” each built with three blocks. Located within these trilithons stand two smaller crescents of blue stones. In the middle of it all lies the Alter Stone.
This impressive array is only the centre of a much larger archeological site. There is an outer earthen ditch and bank that encloses the entire structure, and it is this ditch which identifies the location as a “henge.” From the air, the outer henge would resemble a ping-pong paddle. From the middle sarsen trilithon, there is an avenue that leads to the far end of the “handle” where the Heel Stone still stands. Almost equidistant between this Heel Stone and the trilithons, there lies the “slaughter stone” with it red-tinged rock. The name is misnomer: the red colour is due to traces of iron in the rock rather than the blood pouring from sacrificial arteries.
Just before I visited Stonehenge, I heard an English politician on the BBC refer to it as a “public disgrace,” and there is some truth to that statement. Two highways have been constructed close to the site, and as you stand at Stonehenge, you are frequently assaulted by the sound of traffic. In addition, Stonehenge is theatre in the round. Every view of the ruins includes a background of diminutive human figures staring back at you. As I circle the stones, I wait patiently, I shift back and forth, tiptoe and crouch, using the stones themselves to hide the tourists from my camera lens. The end result is that my camera records images of a desolate, isolated Stone Age structure that is actually cast in the centre of a human throng.
This kind of image manipulation always causes me moments of guilt, since I believe my photographs should capture truth, not obfuscate it. The camera, however, lacks the selective focus of the human eye. That guy wearing a bright red jacket to a prehistoric site—a pet peeve of mine is that travellers’ clothing should always be thematically appropriate—cannot be overlooked in a photograph: the flash of colour arrests our attention. In person, however, I am able to focus on the ruins and effectively ignore what exists beyond. In this sense, my selective photography is not so much manipulation as it is a reflection of authentic experience.
Regardless of all the distractions, Stonehenge remains an outstanding destination. The stone circles were erected in 2500 B.C.E, and almost five thousand years of history carries considerable weight. Visitors are no longer allowed to wander—and wonder—amongst the stones, as my father once did. They are protected with a polite British barrier of white rope, and tourists follow a path around them. You can, however, still get quite close to them—perhaps sixty feet. Close enough to feel an intimacy and sense the aura of mystery.
In the not to distant South, along the King Barrow Ridge, I can see a row of burial mounds that seem to hunch beneath the trees. I know that they have been excavated, but from my vantage point, they appear undisturbed, and I can imagine the ages of gloomy weather and insistent dread that would have guarded them from intruders.
The boulders of Stonehenge stand silent, yet paradoxically, their mute testimony compels speculation as to their origin and purpose. What hands labored to stand them upright, and what desire drove those mysterious people to engage in such an incredible task? In my youth, I had read that Stonehenge was erected and used by Celtic Druids, and I envisioned strange moonlit rites being performed by darkly hooded figures. Perhaps over the span of millennia, there were such midnight rituals—most likely worse things transpired on that sacred ground, but whether or not the Druids used those circles of stones, they certainly did not create them. Carbon-dating of the site places the creation of the henge at a thousand years before the Celts arrived in Briton.
Why was it built? If you visit the site at midsummer and stand at the Alter
Stone looking East, you will see the sun rise almost directly above the Heel Stone. At midwinter, the sun sets between the gap of the two tallest trilithons. Obviously, Stonehenge was intended to marked the solstices, but beyond that, our collective speculations must fill the void left by millennia of silence.
In one of his novels, William Golding describes a rock on a beach as being “a token of preposterous time,” and I cannot think of Stonehenge without this quotation coming to mind. Excepting the pyramids at Giza, there are few other human structures on this planet for which the idea of preposterous time seems more appropriate. The enigmatic boulders of Stonehenge come to us from a lost past now written only by our imaginations, and no doubt they will carry through to a future that will hopefully transcend prediction. In the unlikely event that our civilization survives another two thousand years, Stonehenge will have borne witness to our entire tenure as a civilization.
Kenneth D. Reimer