Sunday, June 08, 2008

There was a familiar ring to last week's media fanfare surrounding the announcement that scientists had uncovered the true purpose of Stonehenge. It was really a royal burial ground for an ancient dynasty of old Brits, said a group of researchers led by Mike Parker Pearson from Sheffield University. Radiocarbon dating of human remains found nearby suggested the place was used as a cemetery right from the start of construction work in 3,000BC, it was argued.

As a result, we were greeted with a cluster of headlines of the 'Revealed: the secret of Stonehenge' variety which, some readers might have noticed, had a close similarity to those that greeted the news in April that a different group of scientists had found the true purpose of the great Wiltshire stone circle. It was really 'the Lourdes of the Bronze Age', a place where the sick and wounded sought cures from the monument's great bluestones which had been dragged to Wiltshire from Wales specifically because of their magical healing properties.

As we move back in time, the theories slowly pile up and we come across news that researchers had shown the stone circles had been used as a giant computer; that others had found it was really an observatory for studying stars and predicting the seasons; that a couple of individuals had demonstrated clearly that its rings had acted as a docking pad for alien spaceships; while University of British Columbia researcher Anthony Perks produced the jaw-dropping idea that the great henge had been built as a giant fertility symbol, constructed in the shape of the female sexual organ.

And that, of course, is the wonderful thing about Stonehenge: there are more theories about its meaning and purpose than there are stones inside it, a trend that goes right back to the idea, popular in the Middle Ages, that its monoliths had been assembled on Salisbury Plain by Merlin, though exactly why he bothered to do so remains a mystery.

In fact, Stonehenge took at least 1,000 years to build, starting from rings of wooden poles to its current complex status and its use clearly changed over the millenniums. Recent studies suggest it may have been 'Christianised' in the first millennium AD and at one point was used as a place of execution by the Anglo-Saxons to judge from the 7th-century gallows found there. This multiplicity of use increases opportunities for archaeologists to pin their pet theories to the great stone monument.

The crucial point is that every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves, as archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes once remarked. Hence in medieval times, it was built by giants, while in the 1960s, at the dawn of the computing era, researchers said you could have used it as a giant calculating machine, while in more mystical New Age times, it was clearly a spaceport for aliens. 'In fact, you can come up with just about any idea to explain a structure like Stonehenge if you stare at it for long enough,' says archaeologist David Miles.

Just what that the latest patch of Stonehenge theories says about the 21st century is less clear. I would argue that the World Heritage site is probably best viewed today as a monument to government prevarication and deceit. Having promised a decade ago that it would bury and realign the roads that surround and disfigure Britain's most important ancient monument, ministers now seem to have abandoned any attempt to protect the monument and restore the site to its ancient glory, for the simple reason they are too mean-spirited and short-sighted to see its value.

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