Francis Pryor’s talk at ArchFest, ‘Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape’ was a surprise, and all the more interesting for that of course.
He began by saying that we would never fully understand the ancient monuments that surround us (particularly in Wiltshire it seems!) but he suggested that we don’t anyway fully understand our own sacred monuments. In saying this, he gestured towards our own magnificent Salisbury Cathedral. That got me thinking. And he hadn’t even mentioned Stonehenge as yet!
I have included here a piece from his own blog which tells us a little about his background and begins to explain his own theory about Stonehenge and places like it.
I’ve been an archaeologist for over forty years and have excavated several major sites, mostly in the Fens of eastern England. I’ve also tried to bring archaeology to a wider audience, with a number of books, radio and television programmes, of which Time Team is the best known. When not writing or digging, I’m also a sheep farmer and keen gardener. But like most people, I get bees in my bonnet – obsessions, call them what you like. Most of my worries are about the general disregard for the achievements of people in the past and the failure of politicians, both local and national, to learn the lessons of history.
Francis shared most of this with us in his talk. He explained that because the people who built and used Stonehenge were farmers, like himself, he tried to see the monument through their eyes. A view surely not unlike his own. It is a mistake, he said, to see the great henges as places that were each the creation of some megalomaniac figure. Rather they are the product of people, not unlike himself, as a farmer, and not unlike any of us, really. Just as we have our churches, graves, and memorials, so they wanted to record, celebrate and remember, loved ones.
The great megaliths are almost certainly he suggested, as we would suspect, representing Gods or great figures from within their society, and the smaller bluestones almost certainly representing local people. He also suggested that the numerous carvings of axes on some of the uprights are each representing a person.
It is important to remember that Stonehenge was built, added to, abandoned and re-used over centuries, anyway and so there would be subtle changes all the time in how it was used.
I kept remembering his opening remarks about Salisbury Cathedral. He is quite right, that in thousands of years’ time, no one will be able to precisely imagine, measure or record the feeling that the building gives us as we, Christians or not, walk into the Close. No one will be able to measure the awe we feel, its importance in our lives, the feeling it gives us for our own history. The magic.
Stonehenge was, and had, all of that for the peoples of the times in which it was the centre of their lives. And to a degree that magic lives on, even though we are no longer sure why it was built in the first place.