Stonehenge vs. the automobile Bronze Age vs. Now: A trip to one of Europe's most revered archaeological sites is a lot like spending a few moments at the Vince Lombardi Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Sun Journal

October 26, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

STONEHENGE, England -- Clews Everard has the toughest job in British tourism.

She is the general manager of Stonehenge, the prehistoric circle of stones that lures archaeologists, protesters, Druids, New Age travelers, film crews and 750,000 tourists annually to the green, wind-swept Salisbury Plain.

At Stonehenge, people want to celebrate marriages, have their loved one's ashes spread, pray, and play music at sunrise. There was even a group of protesters who showed up in May and rappelled off the stones. Now, this got Ms. Everard steamed.

"Stonehenge evokes this passion," Ms. Everard says. "There isn't anyone who doesn't have a reaction when they see the stones. I suspect because it is all so much a mystery. No one knows why it was built, or why it was actually built here. That is part of its attraction."

And its curse. For the truth is, the British have an uncertain relationship with their most important archaeological site.

It was built and rebuilt between 3100 B.C. and 1600 B.C., according to the latest research. It is the most significant Bronze Age structure in Europe, archaeologists say.

But it sits on a sliver of land where modern society and ancient history clash. The conflict could become more pronounced with a plan to build a four-lane highway near the site.

Thomas Hardy, in "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," wrote of it as a place inducing contemplation: "The wind, playing upon the edifice, produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one-stringed harp."

The wind still plays, but the auto has long-since replaced the harp as the predominate sound. A trip to the site is a lot like spending a few moments at the Vince Lombardi Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike.

"People stop at Stonehenge for the loos [toilets]," says Peter Fowler, professor of archaeology at Newcastle University. "They're the only loos on the road between London and Penzance."

Stonehenge lies between two roads that meet in an intersection shaped like a "V." It's nothing to see tourists charge off a bus, go to the bathroom, buy a sandwich and a postcard and then stand behind a barbed wire fence to take a picture of Stonehenge before being hustled onward to Salisbury Cathedral. Those who want to linger at the site have to cope with the noise of rumbling trucks, speeding cars, and helicopters from a nearby air base.

"This is not just a pile of old stones in Wiltshire County," Ms. Everard says. "In world terms, Stonehenge is as important as the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids in Egypt."

But Stonehenge, unlike the other monuments, has never gotten a lot of respect in its own country. Victorian-era tourists chipped off bits of stone with hammers rented from local blacksmiths. A military leader during World War I considered razing the site in favor of expanding an airfield. The government did not take control of the place until 1918.

In the 1960s, hippies came in search of the meaning of life -- and a cheap place to camp. Now, the site is a magnet for protesters ranging from environmentalists to civil libertarians.

At first glance, Stonehenge can be a disappointment. The tallest stone -- 21 1/2 feet high -- is dwarfed by the expanse of sky and rolling land. But walk through the tunnel that links parking lot to sacred ground, and come to the edge of the chain fence that encircles Stonehenge, and the view is bet

ter, the stones more imposing, the main structure looming as a thing of beauty.

Stonehenge takes time to comprehend. The Sarsen Circle, 100 feet in diameter, is what gives Stonehenge its majestic sweep, the boulders reaching to the sky and capped by lintels, the great blocks of stone laid end to end. Bluestones from the Preseli Mountains 240 miles to the west in Wales are arrayed in a ruined inner circle. Two horseshoes of uprights form the site's core and lead to a now partially buried altar stone.

From inside-out, Stonehenge reveals its grandeur, the stones framing the view of the sky and the land beyond. It hangs over you. It dominates you.

tTC Stonehenge's mysterious origins continue to excite and confound archaeologists. Stonehenge was constructed and reconstructed over a span of 15 centuries; there is even a legend that Merlin brought the stones from Ireland.

But just why it was built, or what significance it had, are all open for debate.

"Despite all the efforts to understand it, science has failed to come up with a firm answer as to what it is," Mr. Fowler says. "Most believe that it is in some form or another a multi-period temple, which at the very least, involved observation of the sun and probably the moon."

Others have drawn their own interpretations of Stonehenge. In the 1960s, it became quite fashionable to view it as a celestial observatory and calculator. Others have claimed the Druids, an Iron Age priesthood, used the site to carry out sacrifices.

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