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“Stonehenge, with the possible exception of Big Ben, is Britain’s most recognisable monument. As a symbol of the nation’s antiquity, it is our Parthenon, our pyramids – although, admittedly, less impressive. Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, recalls that when he took a group of Egyptian archaeologists to see it, they were baffled by our national devotion to the stones, which, compared to the refined surfaces of the pyramids, seemed to them like something hastily thrown up over a weekend.
Unlike those other monuments, though, Stonehenge is more or less a complete mystery. Nobody knows for sure why, or by whom, this vast arrangement of boulders was erected on Wiltshire’s downlands, in the south of England, about 5,000 years ago. Into this void have rushed myriad theories, from the academically sober to the blatantly fantastic. Over the centuries, its construction has been confidently credited to giants, wizards, Phoenicians, Mycenaeans, Romans, Saxons, Danes and aliens. (According to one medieval theory, Merlin had it transported from Ireland to serve as the funeral monument for Britons slaughtered by Hengist, the treacherous Saxon.)
Since Stonehenge slipped into the written record in the medieval era, it has been a place to project our ideas of ourselves. It was said, by the 20th-century archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes, that “every age has the Stonehenge it deserves”.
And so today’s Stonehenge is not William Blake’s terrifying “building of eternal death”; nor is it Thomas Hardy’s “monstrous place”, where Tess of the D’Urbervilles sleeps her last night before being taken to be hanged. Nor is it even the Stonehenge of the counterculture, where peace-freaks revelled until they were brutally routed in “the Battle of the Beanfield” in 1985, one of the most notorious episodes in the history of British policing.”
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