By Sarah Pridgeon
Just as we all live in the shadow of Devils Tower – and the umbra of giant presidential faces across the border – I, too, have a monument to call my own. Just down the road from my parent’s house is the only ancient structure in Britain that’s both still standing and recognized outside its own five-mile radius – and it may be about to finally give up its secrets.
I am, of course, referring to Stonehenge: a circle of rocks in a higgledy piggledy pattern to which modern druids wrapped in bed sheets like to pilgrimage on the summer solstice. It stands there in photographs, majestic and mysterious, and nobody knows for sure what it’s doing there.
Until recently, the number of confirmed facts about Stonehenge could be counted on one hand. It’s big (although not nearly as big as you expect it to be – my husband was disappointed), isolated (although not these days – there’s a constant stream of traffic next door on one of the busiest dual carriageways in the south) and unusual (although maybe not so much: henges are not considered trendy in modern architectural circles, but the countryside is littered with leftovers from a bygone era).
For centuries, we’ve wondered who decided to drag enormous lumps of rock weighing nine tons apiece from a quarry hundreds of miles away and then stack them in a sort-of-circle in the middle of a field, with nothing else around it as far as the eye can see. We’ve also wondered why, but Stonehenge was reluctant to let us in on the riddle – until now.
One of the many benefits of living in the modern age is that our technology improves by the day. This has allowed archaeologists to study the monument and the area around it with underground imaging as well as excavation.
It turns out that Stonehenge isn’t sitting on its own in the back of beyond after all. It once had burial mounds, routes for processions and settlements, not to mention burials in which the bodies were adorned in gold.
We’ve also just discovered, thanks to a super-handy drone, that a barrow exists in the middle of a farmer’s field, halfway between Stonehenge and the nearby stone circle at Avesbury, in a place called Cat’s Brain (which, contrary to its name, has nothing to do with feline consciousness and comes from “cattes brazen”, a Middle English term for the rough clay soil).
It’s thought that this could be a 5000-year-old House of the Dead containing the ancestors of the people who built the monument. Archaeologists have, in fact, found literally hundreds of structures hidden under the ground, which means the area was in use far before Stonehenge itself became a thing. The megalith may even be a linking point between structures spreading from the south coast all the way to Wales.
You’ll find bits of stone strewn randomly across the whole area. Barrows, standing stones and megaliths just sitting there, getting in everyone’s way – you can almost feel the irritation when you see a perfectly straight lawnmower stripe veer around a rock in an inconvenient place.
A couple of years ago, there was brief excitement among dusty people clutching trowels when they found what was thought to be an even bigger henge, five times the size of Britain’s most inexplicable tourist attraction. Obviously, because “big rock” isn’t sensational enough to attract people’s attention any more, they called it the Superhenge, even though it didn’t have a cape.
Sadly, it turned out that what seemed to be stones were actually holes filled with loose chalk. They once held wooden timbers, though it’s not clear whether they marked out a wooden henge or something else entirely.
It wouldn’t be the first time – there is actually a Woodhenge in the area, but it doesn’t get the same audience numbers because it’s all rotted away. There’s nothing left any more except the concrete markers showing where the wood once was.
So where did they all go? This puzzles me, because that henge was built to last, it’s no garden shed they threw up to see them through the summer.
Maybe it’s because the plain is pretty windy and the druids got fed up of their skirts blowing over their faces. It doesn’t make for an imposing procession when your clothes are flapping around like a Halloween ghost costume.
Historians assume it’s because the Bronze Age came along and everyone was busying themselves drawing lines around hay fields instead of dragging rocks from hundreds of miles away. As it apparently took 200 years to get Stonehenge into its current configuration, maybe they just grew bored and wandered away. Or maybe we’re all still there, it’s just that we’ve forgotten why we came.
I find it endlessly fascinating that we can tell so much from a few holes in the ground and a rock in the middle of nowhere – those dusty-faced trowel people have my utmost respect. I’ve been watching their progress for at least the last decade and I can’t help but feel tingles to hear they might be close to finally cracking this ancient case. Watch this space – at this rate, Stonehenge might have its story by the end of the decade.