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Stonehenge: Grand mystery, or just a bunch of rocks?

By BEN MURRAY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 23, 2005

Walking around the impassive rock towers of Stonehenge, England’s longest-surviving monument to tenacity in stonemasonry, visitors can truly sense the air of mystery that permeates the ancient site.

Constructed without explanation in southern England thousands of years before the backhoe or labor union in an area colloquially known as “a bunch of empty fields,” the enigmatic stone rings just seem to teem with unanswered questions.

“How,” the people there wonder, shaking their heads in the driving rain, “How in the name of Neolithic history did I get convinced to come out here to look at this? And did it really just cost me 5.50 pounds?”

To say that a visit to Stonehenge, just an hour’s drive from the U.S. communications base at RAF Fairford, is a ho-hum experience is to say that — after all the legend and rumor people hear about the place — it just doesn’t quite live up to the hype.

Sitting atop a low roll in the farmlands west of London just off a road jammed with tourists, it first appears like you think it will: standing tall and incongruous on a hill in the middle of nowhere, just begging for a closer look.

But after the initial jolt of seeing Stonehenge jutting out of the grass, just as it appears in the post cards and Discovery Channel shows, expectations of what visitors will find at the site tend to veer.

Many, for instance, may have pictured a lonely location where people can walk among to the stones and marvel at their height and symmetry, watching as the kids play King of the Nameless Civilization that Built This Thing on the fallen pillars.

Informational plaques and displays might be expected, showing how and why the puzzling rings were built, with pictures of the people who did it.

But the most maddening thing about Stonehenge is that it is so mysterious, its origins so obscure, that it defies detailed description and discourages the kind of awe-inspiring explanations that would make it interesting.

The experience of Stonehenge starts in its parking lot, easily found just across the road from the stones. For the cost of admission, visitors can also get a hand-held audio guide to the park which quickly reveals one thing: experts do actually know a vast amount about how and when Stonehenge was built — but little about why, or who did the building.

Audio guide in hand, visitors first learn about the deep earthen trough that encircles the stones, originally dug more than 5,000 years ago by humans using antlers and animal bones as trowels.

The site, it turns out, was built in several phases — first out of wood, some 4,600 years ago, then out of the massive stones, which were dragged to the hill from about 20 miles away.

The end product is a series of concentric rings recognized by the famous large outer ring, made of carved pillars called Sarsen stones, which encircle a row of man-sized “bluestones,” with a couple of tall pillars in the center (theoretically). Built to align with the exact position of the sun as it rises on the summer solstice — an intriguing detail that historians have no solid explanation for — it is a formidable remnant of a civilization that believed in ... well, no one knows.

Many facts and unknowns of this kind are learned in the exhaustive — at times painfully plodding — audio tour, which, if listened to in full, makes for close to an hour’s worth of walking very, very slowly around the henge.

Most disappointingly, however, is that the path does not lead visitors very close to the stones. They seem big, but from the distance you are allowed to look at them, they become, unfortunately, mostly just a big circle of rocks.


A woman poses for a photo at Stonehenge.
BEN MURRAY / S&S

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