I thought of my friend’s tale of her own visit to Stonehenge on a cold British morning as I shivered in the ticket line myself. She was huddled at the end of a long line in frigid pre-dawn fog when a van load of local plumbers drove by and hollered, “B-O-R-I-N-G-!”. The memory warmed me even as I watched my frosted breath condense before me. I suppose for current residents of the Salisbury Plains this pile of rocks and its crowds of tourists might dull over time, but “boring” certainly doesn’t draw over 1.3 million people from around the world every year. Was it simply the lure of cleverly stacked rocks? Perhaps. Yet as I gazed at the surrounding fields of green, pleasant but not exactly breath-taking, I had to wonder what it was about this area that began attracting people from as far back as 3000 BCE, probably even earlier.
Even by modern standards Stonehenge is an archeological marvel, and it’s made more impressive considering the technology available thousands of years ago when the rocks, some weighing up to 50 tons, were dragged from as far away as 150 miles. Why? What was it about this place that merited such effort? Stonehenge was clearly used as a burial ground and likely served as a sacred portal to the heavens with its celestial alignments, but historically the draw was greater than this one spot; Stonehenge is just one of a complex of ancient burial and worship sites across the Plains.
Once I developed an eye for them, I realized that mounds were visible in every direction from Stonehenge and well-beyond. A wood henge, dating back to 2300 BCE, stands in a nearby field where stone markers indicate where postholes originally aligned with midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. Several miles away I visited the ca. 3400 BCE West Kennet Long Barrow, one of the largest Neolithic chambered tombs in Britain. And while the famous Stonehenge is the most visually impressive of remaining archaeologic features, there’s an even larger stone circle several miles north at Avebury where the town itself sits within the ring of stones.
Unable to resist the appeal of an ale in the only pub known to be within a stone henge, I lunched in Avebury while watching sheep graze in the stone-studded pasture across the street. Rams tussled, lambs nudged, and a ewe rubbed winter wool from her rump against one of the giant stones. Former icons of worship, the stones now served as scratching posts and sources of shade for grazers. It seemed ironic, and yet indicative of where the plumber’s attitude came from.
It seems in ancient times that the Salisbury Plains were a place to visit – a place for festivities, for worship, and for who knows what else. Even the scholars are still searching for answers, but the area likely wasn’t a permanent settlement initially. Yet for the sheep, plumbers and others who call this home, it is a permanent settlement; and don’t we all take home for granted after a while? For us modern visitors though, it’s a place of mystery and intrigue, as it likely was 3,000 years ago. Mystery and intrigue indeed – the point was made clearly as I drove by a giant carving of a great white horse incised into the Cherhill Down hillside, glittering brilliantly above a field blanketed by yellow rapeseed flowers.