“Is that it..?”
Clearly disappointed, the woman fidgets in her bus seat as she squints down the road.
“Well, if that’s it, we can check it out and still have time to do some shopping in town!”
This was the reaction I couldn’t help overhearing when a fellow tourist got her first glimpse of Stonehenge – and I was so tempted to judge. But I knew better than to throw any stones her way.
Especially not Neolithic ones.
It was 1991 and my second time journeying from London to view this most mystical of monuments. The first visit was in 1985 – and it wasn’t the only time my preconceived notions of the world needed a little adjusting. But hey, that’s why if we’re lucky, we go and take a look at things for ourselves – and why we keep looking until we make a connection.
I’d been curious about Stonehenge for a long time – evidenced by the fact that it figured in the strategy I once worked out in case a genie appeared to grant me three wishes. (I haven’t rolled over the 401k from my last job yet – but this I have covered…) Of course, I knew to secure more wishes right off the bat. And cash. Lots of cash. I’d next have wished for whoever my favorite actor was at the time to fall head over heels for me. And with love and money suitably sorted, I’d then have addressed the nerdier concern of commanding answers to various historical q’s. Like I’d want to know exactly how the Pyramids were built. And just who the Sea People were.
And topping the list – I’d want to know what was up with Stonehenge.
The standing stones first came on my radar when I was a little girl. Dad had shared pictures and stories from his visit to Stonehenge back in the ’60’s when (lucky guy) you could still get in and stroll among the sarsens. We learned about it in school and, as a teenager, I devoured a series of novels on Arthurian legend that wove in Stonehenge as a touchstone. So later, while mapping out a college backpack trip across Europe, I made sure the itinerary included those stones along with all the other fine examples of history, art and nature that I’d read up on in the travel guides and was sure I could fit in over just eight weeks.
During a whirlwind continental tour, my naive perspective was constantly challenged. Turned loose for the first time on such a rich cultural playground, the focus of my keen but callow intellectual lens had the unfortunate habit of pulling back and forth between laser sharp and somewhat fuzzy – and would occasionally not even be aimed in the right direction (can’t believe some of the things I missed…). I was aware of the significance of what I was experiencing and my good fortune to be doing so – but I think ignorance and overload sometimes conspired to cheapen the impact.
As did silliness. Silliness always seems to play a role…
This perspective tweaking continued during the British leg of my travels. On arriving in London, I learned quickly to look right rather than left before venturing into the black-taxi-filled streets. I was also set straight on such matters as the location of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields – it’s nowhere near a single field, much less a plural one. And while I did possess a fair amount of historical knowledge, my expectations were still sometimes way off the mark. Like I don’t know where I got the idea the Rosetta Stone was some kind of handy little tablet ancient folks would have whipped out to brush up on their hieroglyphics. I was surprised to find on hunting it down in the British Museum that it’s a far cry from wallet size:
It’s. A hurkin’. Boulder. (Okay, so now I know that…)
By this time, I also knew to ask for a “return” train ticket from London to Salisbury rather than a “round trip” one. And although the jury (as well as the genie) was still out over exactly what went on at Stonehenge, I was thrilled to be getting to make a personal assessment. (And for the genie-ological record, the romantic head and heels at the time would have belonged to actor Michael O’Keefe. Just sayin’.)
But perspective can be tricky. As a current LA resident, I occasionally cross paths with movie actors – and I’m continually thrown on discovering that so many “big screen” stars aren’t as big in real life as I’d pictured. They’re normal size. Sometimes, they’re even short! After a couple decades in SoCal, I still don’t see that coming.
Before visiting it, my ideas about Stonehenge were definitely “big screen.” I was warmed up for something towering. Something epic. But what rose serenely into view through the car windshield didn’t at first appear all that imposing. Against the gently rolling Salisbury Plain and with nothing nearby for comparison’s sake (not even people as it was quite early in the morning), it just didn’t loom as large as the Stonehenge in my mind. Even so –
I amble over to the cordoned path that demands respectful distance and there, amid a solemn aura helped by the good fortune of a private viewing, the site begins to work its spell. Making my way around, I begin to recall how I read that work began at this place way back around 3,000 BC – since I come from a nation barely two centuries old, it’s a stretch of time I can hardly fathom. I remember too that (while there are newer theories about distances and modes of travel) the Bluestones of the circle had to be transported all the way from Wales – definitely no small task. And I think of the level of precision achieved in creating this earthly measure of the same shifting skies into which we haven’t stopped gazing.
While its complete message remains tantalizingly veiled, Stonehenge still quietly but boldly conveys the ingenuity, cooperation and commitment of inhabitants from a very distant age.
I see. It is towering. It is epic.
So with another chance in 1991, I happily took the train out from London once more and found myself on a local bus with the woman who hadn’t yet had her own shot at standing beside the stones. If I’d mocked, the joke would have been on me – turns out she was entirely correct in wondering. Studies have since supplied a startling answer to her question:
Stonehenge is not it. Not by a long shot.
Excavations and geophysical studies in the Wiltshire region like the Stonehenge Riverside Project and the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project have uncovered the substance or the shadow of numerous other local features like Woodhenge, Durrington Walls, a Neolithic settlement, another formation dubbed “Bluestonehenge” and, most recently, a monument many times larger than Stonehenge beneath Durrington Walls – a “super-henge.”
For all these thousands of years, Stonehenge has stood as a marker for the progression of the seasons – but now we know it’s also marked a countryside rich with many more ancient tales to tell.
That’s why if we’re lucky, we go and take a look at things for ourselves – and why we keep looking until we make a connection.