Friday, June 06, 2008

Stonehenge: Decoded! ; or, What's so Secret about the Past?

by Mary Kate Hurley

[fig. 1: Aliens over Stonehenge, pilfered from the National Geographic site here]

If one searches ITM for "Stonehenge", a number of results come up, many associated with JJC's Weight of the Past project. I have not seen the special on the National Geographic Channel to which the title of this post refers to, though I'm hoping to catch it on a rebroadcast at some point. However, when I ran across Robin McKie's article on the Guardian entitled "Leave these stones their eternal secrets".

The article didn't really provoke much comment (or at least anything that was really productive), but I thought it might be of interest to ITM, particularly because of this part of McKie's process, which is in the ending of her article:
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.
What interests me here is the assertion, made clearer by the end of that final paragraph, that "every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves," commonly attributed to Jacquetta Hawkes. McKie makes an interesting point, though she doesn't really flesh it out. She seems to be arguing, if I read between her lines correctly, that every age dreams the Stonehenge it deserves -- or more likely, the Stonehenge that can speak to it, in that time, in that place.

Of course, "Stonehenge" is not really the monument it was at its building (whether by Merlin or under the influence of Aliens or as a burial ground), much less in its "original" usage -- rather, "Stonehenge" is a kind of shorthand, by which we mean all the things which intervened, the multiplicities of usages and all the "theories" about its origins that exist in the intervening time. The question McKie doesn't really ask, and the one which I think may be necessary to ask, is whether Stonehenge, World Heritage site, is important in and of itself, or only important in so far as "modernity" recognizes something in it.

It raises a question that I'm addressing in my current dissertation chapter, on time in the Old English Orosius. I'm planning another post on this, when I've figured out what it is I'm trying to do with Bakhtin, but there's this part of The Dialogic Imagination, in "Discourse in the Novel" that keeps obsessing me:
every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word it anticipates…The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation in any living dialogue. (280)
However, in his "Epic and Novel" (which I should really reread at some point, Bakhtin makes the point that "The dead are loved in a different way. They are removed from the sphere of contact, one can and indeed must speak of them in a different style. Language about the dead is stylistically quite distinct from language about the living."

It all returns to a question that for me is not really answerable: can there really be a conversation between the living and the dead -- the past and the present? Or is the past destined to be a kind of straw man, whose script is always written by the living?

Or is there a way in which past words -- or past monuments -- are, in an odd Bakhtinian* way still actively responding to a kind of "answering word its future" -- our present -- will provide? Can we expand a notion of a "living dialogue" so far?

Work Cited
M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination : Four Essays, University of Texas Press Slavic Series ; (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004).

Cross posted at OENY.


Anonymous said...

I am hoping it will work if I post a link here to a neat-o video of the many phases of Stonehenge from the 'Time Watch' crew, at BBC:

There are other interesting Stonehenge links on that page, too. This must be part of the current fantasy of Stonehenge: wanting to understand not just what it 'originally' was, but everything it ever was. Built in a day by Merlin, indeed! We much prefer the narrative of a millenium-long building project, whose aims no doubt changed considerably during that time. We positively revel in its many mutations and transformations, not to mention its many avatars in different cultural moments throughout its history.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Certainly the "dead past" can be treated as a straw man, but haven't you been surprised by evidence of the past?

If you have, doesn't that answer your question?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Mary Kate, thanks for this post on a topic near to my heart. I like how you brought Bakhtin into it, as well as your sensitivity towards the temporal orientation of the monument. It is interesting how every age makes it own Stonehenge, and I am going to agree with Sylvia that "our" Stonehenge is multitemporal/multicultural -- that is, stresses the cohabitations of peoples and times that cluster around the stone. Those kinds of cohabitations are precisely the ones, in our most utopian moments, we imagine for our nations.

Sylvia, great link. I have just finished reading an article in National Geographic that is rather skeptical of the "prehistoric Lourdes" hypothesis, mainly for the absence of disabled bodies ... but who knows. The essay (which is quite good) also looks at the source of the bluestones on the Preseli Mountains in Wales, where Stonehenge-like standing rocks occur naturally and where springs have from time out of memory been associated with healing. I like the idea that nature made the first standing stones, and that Stonehenge is just the human version of this art.

Anonymous said...

...can there really be a conversation between the living and the dead -- the past and the present? Or is the past destined to be a kind of straw man, whose script is always written by the living?

What a wonderful way to phrase this question. It is certainly a mystery that confounds and inspires both intellect and spirit.

I enjoyed your post very much - thanks!