Notes: The Longest Day

THIS YEAR THE summer solstice falls on the twenty-first of June, and on that morning an observer standing at the center of Stonehenge and looking toward the northeast will see the sun rise over the summit of the so-called Heel Stone, which stands a short distance beyond the megalith’s perimeter. Actually, the sun will appear slightly to the left of the Heel Stone’s blunted apex, but the sight, I have been told, is impressive all the same. Not many people will be allowed to see it this year, however. Stonehenge has, it seems, become a gathering place on the summer solstice for many of those in Britain who have adopted a lifestyle at variance with mainstream insular tendencies. Some of these people are young, trailer-based itinerants, of questionable cleanliness and with no visible means of support, whose purpose in life appears to be (in the words of press accounts) to “alarm local authorities.” Others are white-clad adherents of the ancient Druid cult, which seems rapidly to be displacing the Church of England in Britain as an outlet for popular piety. Come late June, a mob of such enthusiasts will converge on the chalk downs of Wiltshire for the solstitial sunrise. But Stonehenge will be surrounded, as it was last year, with coils of barbed wire and an ample detachment of policemen.

I spent a morning at Stonehenge not long ago, on a day when very few people were there, and grew immediately fond of the place and its irrational appeal. For one thing, it fails to disappoint one physically. I have heard the Pyramids and Mount Rushmore belittled by people who have seen them, but I have never heard an ill word about Stonehenge, which is smaller and far less handsome. The reason, I think, has to do with its setting. Stonehenge can be seen across the flat open fields of Salisbury Plain from a mile or two away, and one’s eyes naturally gravitate to the only big object in the landscape for which chlorophyll is not responsible. The structure is also remarkably old—some 5,000 years old. Archaeologists did not know this until the mid-1960s, when radiocarbon dating and its astute employment by the British archaeologist Colin Renfrew forced them to abandon all the previous theories about how architectural advances had been exported to the barbaric northern lands from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. (Stonehenge, it turned out, pre-dates the elegant Greek citadel at Mycenae.) No one knows quite how the ring was constructed or what it was used for. It rises from a plain that is pocked with hundreds of burial mounds and scarred by the soft depressions of neolithic tracks and ditches—obviously quite a place in its day, though now given over to farmland and, a bit to the north, a military base. Walking over the landscape nearby provokes all kinds of reflections. Almost every rise and depression in the fields was deliberately constructed, for reasons that are often not fully understood, thousands of years ago. Someone who died when Ozymandias reigned could be responsible for your spraining an ankle.

Stonehenge was old, and perhaps already a curiosity, when the Romans, and after them the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, came to Britain. One can only speculate about what any of these people made of the place, since their opinions on the subject have not come down to us. But they certainly noticed it. The Romans left coins and pottery at the site, and the Anglo-Saxons gave Stonehenge its name. It is probably safe to assume that they all read meaning into Stonehenge from the comfort of their own world view. This seems to be what everyone whose thoughts we know about has done. The Normans—one of whom, around 1130 A.D., composed the earliest written reference to Stonehenge which has survived—wove Arthurian legends around the ring to glorify the British past. In the eighteenth century, some writers enthralled by the pastoral ideal saw Stonehenge as the Jerusalem of Druidic ritual and depicted the Druids, who are known to have practiced human sacrifice, in terms that today might apply to Unitarian members of the Green Party. (As it happens, no evidence links the Druids and Stonehenge at all.) In our time, thanks largely to the efforts of an IBM computer and the astronomer Gerald Hawkins, whose book Stonehenge Decoded was a best seller in the United States in 1965, Stonehenge has come to be regarded by many not merely as a remarkable example of primitive engineering but as a mini—Mount Palomar—an astronomical observatory of surprising sophistication, capable of predicting eclipses of the sun and the moon. That the phrase “ancient computer" now elicits instant comprehension when associated, in the press, with any enigmatic lithic structure is mostly Hawkins’s doing, and I pretty much assumed until very recently that Hawkins’s word on the matter, however refined by other scholars, was the last one.

APPARENTLY, HOWEVER, this is not the case. I had a chance recently to speak with Colin Renfrew, who teaches at Cambridge University, and he explained that few of his British colleagues today subscribe to the Stonehenge-asobservatory theory and that, furthermore, “I’m not sure that many of us ever did, really.” It seems that the weight of British archaeological opinion, which can be ponderous indeed, has fallen in behind a contrary view. Yes, the British scholars say, the alignment of some of Stonehenge’s stones, such as those that point approximately to the places on the horizon where the sun will rise on the longest day of the year and set on the shortest one, was undoubtedly deliberate. But most of the other proposed alignments have no significance whatsoever, and may be explained as the inevitable product of coincidence in a structure that once contained more than 150 stones in more or less circular patterns, and that stands beneath a sky whose own patterns are cyclic. (One archaeologist has noted that even the Oval Office, if it had a few more windows, could be shown to be a primitive observatory.) I frankly resisted this humbler view of Stonehenge, perhaps because I had derived a successful high school career in science in no small part from the work of Professor Hawkins, but the evidence in favor of it seems overwhelming. For one thing, the apparent coherence of the structure is an illusion; it was built in fits and starts, with new features canceling out old ones, over a period of about 1,500 years. And it is not obvious how Stonehenge is supposed to work; proponents of the Stonehenge-as-observatory school have put forward a half a dozen different theories. What this suggests, as the archaeologist Christopher Chippindale recently observed, is that “if you toy with Stonehenge for long enough, you are sure to come up with something astronomical it can be made to do.”

It may be that Stonehenge will forever stand as one of those few ancient monuments about which one can say little more beyond mere description than that a couple hundred generations of people have felt the urge, for one reason or another, to get close to it. And it may be, too, that ignorance about the place underlies its enduring appeal. Unlike the Maya temples, unlike the Circus Maximus, Stonehenge has nothing about it that prompts unpleasant associations, and perhaps for this reason it seems permanently fresh and available for use. Stonehenge has been replicated on the banks of the Columbia River, in Washington State, as a war memorial; in Missouri, at the state university in Rolla, as an observatory; and in Blackstock, Canada, as a tribute to the crushed cars from which the replica there has been fashioned. It appears in advertisements for cameras, computers, and cigarettes, and has lent its name to housing developments and hotels. Stonehenge figures therapeutically in the novel A Maggot, by John Fowles: “He pointed to a great stone that lay imbedded flat beside others that still stood and told her to lie upon it, for such was the superstition, or so he said, that a woman taken there might help a man regain his vigours.” And, of course, there are the Druids and the itinerants—not to mention a breed of crank antiquarians, hardy perennials on the British scene, with their exotic opinions, their ample supplies of stationery, and their propinquity to a free press. So many tourists visit Stonehenge every year, and unwittingly degrade the site, that some thought has been given by the directors of the English Heritage Commission, which looks after the monument, to erecting a full-sized replica nearby. The replica would perhaps be made of Styrofoam or Fiberglas; it has been referred to in the tabloids as Foamhenge. Perhaps on the summer solstice it could align with a plastic sun.

I expect that Foamhenge, being just the sort of project against which cooler heads can be counted on to prevail, will not actually be built, and that is a pity. A synthetic Stonehenge might last forever and would be plagued by few of the maintenance problems that have beset the original monument. More important, it would be certain to baffle future generations. Scholars 5,000 years from now would have to ask themselves not only What was it for? but also Why are there two? And the one who guessed right would probably never be taken seriously.

—Cullen Murphy