Stonehenge as landscape and garden

img_0123-stonehenge2Colin Renfrew wrote that ‘Most of us have been brought up to believe,  for instance, that the Pyramids of Egypt are the oldest stone-built monuments in the world, and that the first temples built by man were situated in the Near East… It comes, then, as a shock to learn that all of this is wrong. The megalithic chamber tombs of western Europe are now dated earlier than the Pyramids – indeed, they rank as the earliest stone monuments in the world – so an origin for them in the east Mediterranean seems altogether implausible’ (Before Civilization, 1976 edn p.16).

This reads like a ‘mine-is-bigger/older-than-yours’ sort of argument. A greater truth is that Stonehenge AND the Pyramids were products of a Neolithic civilization which had its origins in West Asia. And both have a significant relationship to the landscape – which has received insufficent attention.

The only certain facts about the placing of Stonehenge are that it was in the midst of an agricultural community and it was aligned with the solstice. It was a sacred place,  not on a hilltop and not a fort. To understand such a place, one has to engage with the planning and design of Neolithic sanctuaries, in, for example, the countries which are now Iraq, Malta, Egypt, Greece and France. The best examples are in Egypt and the most useful way forward may be to review what is known about ‘sacred gardens’ (sanctuaries) in Sumer, Babylon, Luxor and Wessex. To me, this suggests that the above images  Stonehenge with a woodland backdrop are more likely to represent the original situation the views against open downland. I do not think it was not built as an eyecatcher ‘monument’. It was a sanctuary for rituals and ceremonies – and such activities were shielded from public gaze in West Asia.  The encircling mound must also have blocked inward views, as the larger mound at Avebury still does.

English Heritage is planning a much-needed ‘restoration’ of the Stonehenge landscape and it would be good if a way could be found to allow both ‘woodland’ and ‘downland’ views of the site. Assuming this is not possible, another alternative would be to make a full ‘re-creation’ of Stonehenge in a woodland setting. It would not be such an expensive project and it would (1) reduce visitor pressure on the anicent ‘monument’ (2) allow visitors to walk amongst the re-created stones – which might just as well me made in re-constituted stone.

See also: post on the landscape setting of Avebury Stone Circle.

7 thoughts on “Stonehenge as landscape and garden

  1. Marian

    Stonehenge has such amazing power and spiritual history that it seems a shame to swizz people with a model version of it. Unless one were to selfishly redirect those people who only wanted to ‘Photograph Yurrup in 3 days’ to a model version, and restrict tickets to touch and absorb the atmosphere to card carrying druids and open minded sceptics. (In the same way as one can be rude about television on one side and yet rather pleased that everyone else is glued to it leaving the rest of the world free for the 4%).

    To be at Stonehenge for the summer solstice and, despite the ban following the pop concert years, see the druids rise up from the long grass surrounding the barbed wire to witness the sunrise, makes one realise that Stonehenge was not a sacred place, it is a sacred place. English Heritage should be protecting our monuments for us to understand and use, not reducing them to sterile museums where one can learn at one remove about a quaint religion or way of life now allegedly defunct. Simon Jenkin’s book ‘The Thousand Best Churches in Britain’ makes the same mistake of reducing our churches to museums.

    Perhaps like a Roman Catholic Cathedral there could be two entrances, one for the Viewers and a more removed one for the Engagers? One cannot move the lay lines to a new setting after all.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    Good points. But:
    (1) what about the tombs in the Valley of the Kings – they are being wrecked by visitors. Isn’t the Altamira policy better? “Altamira was completely closed to the public in 1977, and reopened to limited access in 1982. Very few visitors are allowed in per day, resulting in a three-year waiting list. A replica cave and museum were built nearby and completed in 2001”
    (2) there would be no need to close the ‘real Stonehenge’ because it is not being damaged.
    (3) the suggestion for a re-creation is more like the ‘artist’s impressions’ which are often used on archaeological sites to show what the site was once like
    (4) since no Bronze Age dwellings survive in England, I find the re-creations useful in visualizing their original character

    I do not like the classification of Stonehenge as a ‘monument’, from the Latin monēre, “to remind”. As you say, it remains a sacred place. But it does look like a monument, perhaps to the heroes of some lost battle. And if it used to be an enclosure in a forest then its sacredness is diminished by exposure, like poor Ramses on display in a Cairo museum.

  3. Christine

    Beautiful photographs!

    Perhaps this cave in Botswanna in which this stone resembling a snake is located[] could be considered one of the earliest ‘indoor’ religious settings? It is contemporaneous both in content (ie. the focus of the snake.) and context (ie. cave paintings and engravings.) with Indigenous Australian religious beliefs (See: the rainbow serpent.)

    Would stonehenge be considered an instance of monumentalism?[]

  4. Christine

    Thankyou. Astonishingly amazing. It would be fantastic if Australian Indigenous sites were so well regarded as National [and world heritage]. So many questions. The most obvious one and the one which is perhaps the easiest to answer – is the site on the UNESCO list?

    The hard questions:
    Also makes you wonder why at one end of the site drawings are in red orche while at the other they are all in black? Does this represent two different groups of people? Or a difference in time? Or a difference in the availability of materials? Or something else perhaps?

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    I don’t know about designations but Chauvet, who found the site, deserves the greatest praise for the care with which treated the discovery. The French Government is also lavishing care on the cave. It is a very welcome contrast with the dreadful way in which the Luxor tombs are being used as catch-tourist sites.

  6. Christine

    Around the time that humans were hunting mammoths in Europe [] it is believed that they also worshipped a snake goddess. Johnson (1994) in ‘Lady of the Beasts’ says;

    “In the cavern of La Baume-Latrone in Southern France (ca 40,000-26,000cBCE) the tracing of a gigantic snake with huge head, fangs and forked tongue appears as one of the earliest examples of a painted outline of a serpent in that era….She is often called Our Lady of the Mammoths.” p122.

    The serpent in Australian indigenous culture has the characteristics of a sacred being. Caillois (2001) describes these characteristics as;

    “The sacred being, the consecrated object, can in no way be modified in its appearance. Nevertheless, it is transformed….From this moment on,….it is no longer possible to partake of it freely. It stimulates feelings of terror and veneration; it becomes ‘taboo’. Contact with it becomes dangerous. Automatic and immediate punishment would strike the imprudent one, as surely as flame burns the hand that touches it. The sacred is always more or less ‘what one cannot approach without dying.'”p21

    Breaking of the taboos surrounding the serpent is said by indigenous people to be the cause of the destructive fury of cyclone Tracy in Darwin in 1974.


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