“What monstrous place is this?” said Angel.
“It hums,” said she. “Hearken!”
He listened. The wind, playing upon the edifice, produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one-stringed harp. No other sound came from it, and lifting his hand and advancing a step or two, Clare felt the vertical surface of the structure. It seemed to be of solid stone, without joint or moulding. Carrying his fingers onward he found that what he had come in contact with was a colossal rectangular pillar; by stretching out his left hand he could feel a similar one adjoining. At an indefinite height overhead something made the black sky blacker, which had the semblance of a vast architrave uniting the pillars horizontally. They carefully entered beneath and between; the surfaces echoed their soft rustle; but they seemed to be still out of doors. The place was roofless… The couple advanced further into this pavilion of the night till they stood in its midst.
“It is Stonehenge!” said Clare.
– Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles
The mystical atmosphere of Stonehenge, the ancient stone circle on Salisbury Plain in England, has fascinated people for centuries. The area is believed to have been used for ritual purposes since about 8000 B.C.E. The first known monument, a chalk circle possibly ringed with standing timbers, was created around 3100 B.C.E. and was used as a burial ground. Evidence of standing stones at the site goes back to around 2600 B.C.E., and construction on the site continued periodically for another thousand years.
No one knows exactly why and how Stonehenge was built. Arthurian legends credit the wizard Merlin with magically transporting the massive stone blocks from Ireland. In fact, these bluestones, averaging 25 tons apiece, came from a site in Wales, about 150 miles (240 km) away. The stones are aligned to the sunset of the winter solstice and the sunrise of the summer solstice, suggesting that Stonehenge served some religious function – worship, healing, sacrifice, burial – perhaps all of the above. And these bluestones have long been known as “ringing rocks” – they make a mysterious clanging noise when struck – which perhaps explains the “hum” and “booming tune” that Tess and Angel Clare hear in the scene quoted above, and why the Neolithic builders went out of their way to haul the gigantic stones so far.
By the 17th Century, Stonehenge had slowly begun to go to ruin due to the depredations of nearby landowners, curiosity seekers, and treasure hunters – like the Duke of Buckingham, who dug a large hole at the site in 1620 looking for valuables. At the same time, serious archaeological studies had begun to be undertaken by men like the famed architect Inigo Jones, whose survey of Stonehenge, The Most Notable Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly Called Stone-Heng, was posthumously published in 1655. Jones concluded that Stonehenge was actually a Roman temple, and his rather fanciful artist’s renderings of the site as imagined in Roman times were included in his book. But not everyone agreed with his conclusion.
Among those who held an entirely different view was the physician and antiquarian William Stukeley (1687-1765). Stukeley repeatedly visited Stonehenge beginning in the 1720s, painstakingly recording his observations. In 1740, he published Stonehenge, a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids, in which he argued that the Druids, not the Romans, had built Stonehenge.
Though his method was scientific, Stukeley’s purpose was actually religious:
My intent is (besides preserving the memory of these extraordinary monuments, so much to the honour of our country, now in great danger of ruin) to promote, as much as I am able, the knowledge and practice of ancient and true Religion; to revive in the minds of the learned the spirit of Christianity, nearly as old as the Creation, which is now languishing among us; to restore the first and great Idea of the Deity, who has carry’d on the same regular and golden chain of Religion from the beginning to this day; to warm our hearts into that true sense of Religion, which keeps the medium between ignorant superstition and learned free-thinking, between slovenly fanaticism and popish pageantry, between enthusiasm and the rational worship of God, which is no where upon earth done, in my judgment, better than in the Church of England.
Stukeley’s religious argument was based on his theory that the ancient British Druids were descended from the Phoenicians, who, he argued, had acquired their knowledge of “true” religion from the ancient Jews. He therefore posited that Stonehenge was built by these British descendants of the Phoenicians in order to worship the same “supreme Being” that the Jews, and later the Christians, worshiped.
While Stukeley was incorrect in this and other speculations, his work on Stonehenge was nonetheless of great archaeological value. He was the first to publish accurate drawings of the site, with measurements, from various vantage points. He also described and made actual-size drawings of various “Celtic ornaments” and burnt bones, human and animal, that he had found in one of the nearby barrows. He dismissed the Merlin legend and made cogent arguments refuting the Roman theory, based in part on Stonehenge’s complete lack of resemblance to any known Roman architecture. And he deplored that “great encroachments have been made upon it by the plough,” hoping that his drawings would at least preserve its memory.
Though still battered by neglect and vandalism over the next century and a half, Stonehenge was, eventually, preserved. Cecil Chubb bought it at an auction in 1915 for £6,600 and in 1918 gave it to the British government. Since then, under the aegis of English Heritage, the site has been carefully restored, excavated, and protected. It now casts its mystical spell on over a million visitors a year.
Note: Stonehenge usually attracts a huge crowd for the summer solstice. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the site is closed, but English Heritage plans to livestream the summer solstice on its Facebook page from about 8:30 p.m. BST on June 20 until about 5:30 a.m. BST on June 21.
This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.