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August 02 2012

Stonehenge: where did it all go wrong?

The Romantics looked on Stonehenge with a sense of awe – but in contemporary culture, the standing stones have become a bit of a joke

Jeremy Deller's bouncy-castle Stonehenge, entitled Sacrilege, which is in London this week on its national Olympic tour, is the latest in a long line of artistic images of Britain's most famous ancient monument. That's not surprising in itself. What is interesting is how changing portrayals of Stonehenge have revealed contrasting moments in cultural history.

Another way of putting this might be: where did it all go wrong for Stonehenge?

In the Romantic age John Constable pictured Stonehenge as a mighty enigma on the wilderness of Salisbury Plain. The stones loom in craggy loneliness under a sky pierced by shafts of sublime light. It is intensely dramatic and serious – as far from a bouncy castle as you can get.

Constable's fascination with these ancient stones is shared by his contemporary William Blake. For Blake, the silent prehistoric monument is a work of the giant Albion who in an image from his illustrated poem Jerusalem stands over it with dividers and a giant hammer. It is part of Blake's vision of an enchanted and chosen British landscape, recently expressed in the modern hymn using his words that kicked off the Olympic opening ceremony.

The Romantic cult of Stonehenge was shared, or shaped, by the first proper archaeologist of Neolithic Britain, the 18th-century "antiquarian" William Stukeley. He depicted Stonehenge in the engravings that illustrate his books as a temple of the Druids. He created the myth still maintained by some that the Druids built this "temple".

For these Romantics, the dark stones on the plain were a mystery at the heart of the British landscape. Today's images show that we are much less in love with our "green and pleasant land". Stonehenge is, in contemporary culture, a bit of a joke.

I blame Spinal Tap. In Rob Reiner's satire on pompous rock bands, This Is Spinal Tap, the Tap make a mistake in briefing the designer of a Stonehenge replica for their show, and instead of the full-size stone circle that was supposed to awe their fans, they play beside a tiny model. The words to their heavy-metal anthem Stonehenge hilariously mock the dying embers of Romanticism:

"Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell
Where the banshees live and they do live well
Stonehenge! Where a man's a man
And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan"

Recent artistic images of Stonehenge have shared this less than reverent humour. In 1998 Aleksandra Mir proposed a public artwork to the commissioning body Artangel. She wanted to make a full-sized replica of Stonehenge near to the original, that people could visit and enjoy, climbing among the stones as they wished – unlike the real Stonehenge, where English Heritage forbids access to the stones themselves for conservation reasons. You just have to walk around them. Her idea was rejected, but she presented a scale model in an ICA exhibition.

Deller too offers the access to Stonehenge that English Heritage denies – with added bounce. It's not exactly reverent or awed. What would William Blake say?

And did those feet in ancient time bounce upon England's pastures green?


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June 21 2012

Stonehenge enjoys a moment in the sun at summer solstice

As worshippers and revellers descend, the Wiltshire landmark is thriving – inspiring bouncy art and more wild theories than ever

In the 1930s there was an advertisement for an oil company that went: "Stonehenge Wilts, but Shell goes on forever." In 2012, with oil supplies falling and the remnants of the iconic slabs indomitable on the windswept plains of Wiltshire, the truth is surely otherwise.

"The stones themselves still stand, enduring in a society which is not," argues Christopher Chippindale, of the University of Cambridge's museum of archaeology and anthropology, who is also author of the book Stonehenge Complete. Today the World Heritage's foremost lintelled sarsen structure is not just enduring but thriving, spawning more academic research, wild theorising, bouncy art, and pagan robe sales than ever.

Just consider some of the Stonehenge activities that will take place in the next few weeks. At sunrise on Thursday, the 14,500 transcendence questing druids and varied revellers may have been outnumbered only by world weary media drones as they tried to celebrate the summer solstice at the 4.52am sunrise (ideally in line with English Heritage's stringent Conditions of Entry document, which might be downloaded by socially responsible pagans). Heavy rain overnight reduced the number of people who camped out or arrived early to witness the dawn compared with previous years, which have seen numbers of around 20,000.

And in London there was also a chance to get excited about mid-summer – for Stonehenge's inflatable simulacrum comes to town. Although the rain may have dampened spirits.

Jeremy Deller's Sacrilege, first placed in public on Glasgow Green, will be inflated to pop up in the capital as part of what sceptics would call that oxymoron the Cultural Olympiad.

Is there anything more fun than a 35-metre bouncy castle that looks like Stonehenge, you ask? Not until they make a bouncy Warwick Castle with water slide into a moat laced with gin, I reply.

What is Deller, the Turner prize-winning artist, up to? "It's a very entry-level way into thinking about ancient history for five-year-olds," he says. True, but several bouncing Glaswegians were at least 45 years older than that target demographic. "It's good to play with our history and culture. Stonehenge is part of British identity but no one knows what it was for."

Good point. Ever since King Arthur's dad, Utherpendragon, invaded Ireland, defeated an army and shipped Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury with the help of the wizard Merlin, the stones have sunk themselves ever deeper into British national consciousness.

In chapter 58 of Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, for instance, slimy Angel Clare and the dopey heroine are walking fugitively through darkling Wessex when "on a sudden, Clare became conscious of some vast erection close in his front [Oh grow up!], rising sheer from the grass … 'It is Stonehenge!' said Clare. 'The heathen temple, you mean?'"

Tess lies down on a sun-warmed stone. "'Did they sacrifice to God here?' asked she. 'No,' said he. 'Who to?' 'I believe to the sun. That lofty stone set away by itself is in the direction of the sun that will presently rise behind it.'"

Victorians wrote yards of this stuff: anybody who was anybody in 19th-century fiction got arrested, died, or got it on those stones.

Incidentally, if you are Irish and thinking that the paragraph above suggests Stonehenge is like the Elgin Marbles and should be repatriated immediately, think again; according to Geoffrey of Monmouth's marvellously unreliable 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain (the leading medieval account of Stonehenge's origin), Irish giants transported the stones from Africa to Ireland earlier and used them as a curative bath until they were nicked by King Arthur's dad.

Part of Stonehenge's appeal is that it's a riddle wrapped in mythology, swathed in druidical vestments and draped in a dodgy, if grand, relationship to the cosmos. Over the millennia, intellectuals have cast it as vast cosmic clock wound up by woad-daubed neolithic nudists (a theory embellished recently by archaeologists at Birmingham University's Ludwig Boltzman Institute).

Other thinkers, like the 17th -century architect Inigo Jones, maintained ancient Britons were too thick to have created such a sophisticated edifice, and concluded it must have been Roman.

Today we aren't sure who built it or why. Was it a burial ground, a magnet for crusty rave-ups, a sacred zone where our bearded forebears chillaxed old school, or a mystic portal to the celestial superhighway?

"Stonehenge sets a puzzle that has never been solved," notes Chippindale.

Could Stonehenge have functioned as a helipad for Lord Sugar's neolithic ancestors? It's not impossible. More likely it resembled a lecture theatre with uncomfortable seating and no power sockets. Archaeo-acoustic researchers at Salford and Huddersfield universities suggested as much recently after examining the 5,000-year-old-structure's acoustic properties.

Their work, at the site and at a concrete replica in Washington, indicates that Stonehenge had the sort of acoustics desirable in a lecture hall.

It wasn't only the sight of Stonehenge that would have blown ancient visitors away.

Bruno Fazenda, professor at the University of Salford, says: "As they walked inside they would have perceived the sound environment around them had changed in some way." Lucky them: all you can hear nowadays is the traffic howl from the A303.

Ever since those ancient days of magic stones shipped from Ireland, Stonehenge has satisfied a yearning among the citizens of these lands for mystic grandeur. That yearning will be kindled in July when the flaming French move in to Stonehenge.

Compagnie Carabosse will turn the site into a "fire garden" with flaming pots animating the stones, and cascades of candles lining the pathways. Think: rows of tea lights running down your garden path as you sink a sundowner, but much, much, more poncy.

Shortly afterwards, in the culmination of Stonehenge's 2012, diggers will move in to right one of the most grievous historic wrongs in modern Britain. The stones will be moved slightly to the right away from the A303 and into proper alignment with the sun.

I'm kidding. In fact, the bulldozers will rip up the inadequate car park and visitor centre that have been a national disgrace since 1968.

Simon Thurley, English Heritage's chief executive, said of the £27m makeover: "These are crucial steps which bring closer the transformation of the currently blighted Stonehenge landscape." The centre will be moved 1.5 miles away and visitors will get to the stones on a low-key transit system or, as others call it, a Noddy train. Noddy Goes To Stonehenge – what a film!

There have been films, indeed. In National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985), Mr Griswold gives an affecting speech on the monument's indomitability before climbing into his rental car and (can you see the gag yet?) reversing and toppling the thing like dominoes. Hilarious: in reality an Austin Maxi couldn't knock the skin off a rice pudding.

In the no less amusing Shanghai Knights (2003), this gag is reprised when the two main characters crash their car into Stonehenge. One says: "Who the hell would put a pile of stones in the middle of a field?" Somewhere someone's writing a PhD on Hollywood's symbolic castration of British heritage by means of such movie demolition jobs.

Stonehenge's image reached its mock-heroic apogee in the rocku/mocku-mentary This is Spinal Tap (1984). Picture the scene: the band's plotting a comeback tour involving a lavish stage show featuring a replica of the monument as a backdrop to their pomp rock classic, Stonehenge. Only one problem, the order for the prop goes wrong and instead of being 18ft high it's 18in tall, making the band a laughing stock.

Did Deller consider this pitfall in making his scaled-down bouncy version? You'd think.

He never thought, though, of emulating Steven Moffat's insanely elaborate cosmological topography in the 2010 two-part special of Doctor Who, The Pandorica Opens. All the doctor's many enemies hover above Stonehenge, while below in Underhenge lies the fabled prison of Pandorica holding the universe's most detested and feared prisoner, Jeremy Clarkson at the co-ordinates of a worrying fissure in the universe's frankly baffling structure.

Actually, it wasn't Clarkson but some being even more unimaginably evil.

Most of the filming took place at Foamhenge, a lightweight replica set up near Port Talbot. It was there that the doctor battled an army of cybermen and others in what proved to be a critic-slaying, award-winning and discombobulatingly mytho-metaphysical fuss. Very Moffat, very Stonehenge.

It was also indicative of what Stonehenge really is: an open text, endlessly interpretable and readily bendable to our times and imagination. "It is a mirror which reflects back, more or less distorted, that view of the past which the onlooker takes there," Chippindale says. Long may that continue.


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April 20 2012

Jeremy Deller's inflatable Stonehenge

The Turner prize winner's bouncy new interactive artwork, Sacrilege, kicks off the Glasgow international festival of visual art

"It's a bit weird and random," says Michael Mclaughlan, 50, bopping gently up and down in the middle of the giant inflatable Stonehenge that has sprung up on Glasgow Green. "They should get Alex Salmond down here to bounce about."

Around him, children and adults are discarding their shoes and climbing tentatively on to the grandest of bouncy castles, a large-scale interactive work by the Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller. Titled Sacrilege, it's Deller's first major public project in Scotland and a centrepiece of the Glasgow international festival of visual art which launched on Friday.

"It's something for people to interact with, it's a big public sculpture," says Deller, who was on hand for the project's launch. "It is also a way of interacting with history and archaeology and culture in a wider sense.

"We had 112 kids bouncing on it this morning. It's a very entry-level way into thinking about ancient history for five-year-olds. It's good to play with our history and culture. Stonehenge is part of British identity but no one knows what it was for."

Deller doesn't think Scots will care that Stonehenge is a classic British – if not English – icon.

"It's about tribes. It's not about politics. It's pre-political, literally. It's great doing it in Glasgow. This is a city where you can get things done as an artist."

The GI festival, which runs until 7 May, will showcase the work of more than 130 artists across a variety of venues. Highlights include the Turner prize nominee Karla Black, who will be exhibiting a series of major new sculptures at the city's Gallery of Modern Art, and the artist and choreographer Alexandra Bachzetsis, who will give the Scottish premiere of a new performance work for stage at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA).

"For the past two decades, Glasgow has been the home of some of the very best new talent in contemporary visual art," said Sarah Munro, the festival chair. "The city is ambitious in its determination to support artists working at the cutting edge today."

Sacrilege will be at Glasgow Green for the 18 days of the festival before being shipped to other destinations across the UK and finally to London for the Olympic Games.

The installation is deflated at 6pm every night and re-inflated in minutes the following morning. Project manager James Hutchinson said it had caught the imagination of Glaswegians.

"I think it would take a mean heart not to smile as you are passing by," he said. "People have been wanting to get on and we have had all ages from seven to 70. Nobody knows what Stonehenge is for. It doesn't belong to anybody. Not the Druids or those interested in British or English history or Glaswegians."

"We come to the green a lot and I was surprised to see it and wondered what it was, but I think it's great," says Robert Barnes, 72, who lives locally. "My grandson's been playing on it and I can't get him off."


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December 21 2010

Seeing the light

Ancient monuments become giant cameras, catching sunlight in a moment of mystery and wonder

It is time to pray for the return of the sun. In this deep midwinter, we can start to imagine what the winter solstice meant to the ancient inhabitants of Britain who built Stonehenge and Maeshowe, and who aligned these mysterious buildings to receive the remote rays of the sun on the darkest day of the year.

This is the holiest time of the year – if you happen to share the beliefs of these ancient pagans, which, in fact, are obscure because they left no writings or even much in the way of figurative art. But the winter solstice must have been deeply important to them because on this day, and this day only, sunlight creates startling effects at Britain's late neolithic and early bronze age monuments. Most astonishingly of all, it enters the long narrow entrance passage of the burial mound of Maeshowe on Orkney's Mainland island and glows on the back wall of the inner chamber. The building becomes a giant camera, catching sunlight in a moment of mystery and wonder.

The architecture of Maeshowe is one of the marvels of these islands. Inside the earthen mound is a profoundly impressive chamber made of massive blocks of stone arranged in powerful lintels neatly layered, perforated by accurately rectangular openings. There is a precision to the stone construction and its plan, with symmetrical side chambers. When later Viking warriors broke into the chamber they wrote runic inscriptions on its stones, adding to the strange atmosphere. But it is at the winter solstice that Maeshowe consummates its mystery with the astronomical spectacle of the sun piercing its dark sanctum of death.

Light in darkness, life in death, the moment when the sun begins its return journey towards midsummer. Truly the pagan midwinter is a moving celebration. But, as we rush around buying presents, do we remember the true meaning of the winter sun festival?


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June 21 2010

Solstice setback at Stonehenge

Summer solstice revellers disappointed that coalition government will cut funding to new Stonehenge visitor centre

Sometimes the police come in for criticism, while at other times English Heritage attracts the ire of the druids, ravers, hippies and sun lovers who turn out for the summer solstice at Stonehenge.

At today's celebrations there was a political target – David Cameron and the coalition government – following the announcement that government funding for a visitor centre at the ancient monument was being cut.

The outcry from solstice revellers was led by the unmistakeable figure of Arthur Pendragon, a druid who believes he is an incarnation of the once and future king.

Pendragon, who rejoices in the title of battle chieftain of the council of British druid orders, said he was not surprised that the £10m funding was dropped.

"I knew the writing was on the wall. I knew the new government wouldn't stump up the money. It's no surprise but, still, it's a disgrace. This wouldn't happen anywhere else in the world."

Pendragon has campaigned for 20 years for a new visitor centre at the World Heritage site and to close at least one of the busy roads that surround the stones.

Tourists are often shocked at the state of the centre and amazed that traffic is allowed to roar past so close.

Last year Gordon Brown promised £10m towards a £25m scheme to build a glass and timber centre and to shut the nearby A344. The scheme was expected to win planning permission soon and the project was due to be completed in 2012 to coincide with the staging of the Olympics in the UK.

Last week the government announced the funding would be pulled. English Heritage, which manages the site, said it was "extremely disappointed", arguing that transforming Stonehenge was "vital to Britain's reputation and to our tourism industry". It said it would try to find the funding from elsewhere.

Pendragon said he was worried about how the shortfall would be met: "I don't want to see them making up any shortfall with a public-private partnership. I don't want to see Americans going home with T-shirts reading: 'I've been to McDonald's Stonehenge'.

"All they've got to do is go to an investment banker with a decent proposal. Nearly a million visitors come through here every year. Any investment bank will see that it's a money spinner.

"It's not as if they aren't good for the money. Being English Heritage, they've got a castle or three they can put up as collateral.

"We've been 20 years waiting for this visitor centre, faffing about. They can borrow the money and build the bloody visitor centre. That's what I intend to make sure they do."

Rollo Maughfling, archdruid of Stonehenge and Britain, greeted the rising of the sun with a blast on his trumpet – which sounded not unlike a vuvuzela. "It's been a wonderful, warm night," he said.

Around 20,000 people turned up to mark the solstice and by dawn there had been 30 arrests for minor offences. It was also the first time the solstice sun had peeped from behind the clouds since 2003.

While campaigning tends to be left to Pendragon, Maughfling said it was a druid's duty to get involved in politics when the need arose – and it had now arisen.

"You have to tangle with politics to make sure that, for example, our national shrines and temples are looked after," he said.

"Look at any of the stories of druids in ancient British literature and ancient Irish literature, there have been times when the security of the land has been in the hands of druids as well as kings. Druids have taken sides in all kinds of matters. We can't stand apart from it all."

Peter Carson, head of Stonehenge for English Heritage, said he was pleased at how the solstice went but disappointed at the withdrawal of funding.

"But it's not over yet," he said. "Let's see what we can do. Maybe there is a way forward. The project has a great deal of support. It will ensure a suitable setting for Stonehenge and it will upgrade considerably the very poor facilities we currently have."

Sky, a pagan from Devon, broke off from a drumming session to explain how crucial it was that Stonehenge was improved. "It's the most wonderful place and it's a disgrace that we're still waiting for a new visitor centre and for improvements to the roads. I bring people here from abroad sometimes. They're amazed by the stones – but also amazed at how crummy the facilities are. I'd like that David Cameron to come down here and tell us why Stonehenge, our national treasure, is being treated so shabbily."


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