Unlike each other as we are, in so many ways, my brother and I nevertheless have some interests in common: books; genealogy; maps; sightseeing; good food; all things French. One such focus of our mutual attention is Stonehenge, the world heritage site which, helpfully for us, lies midway along the route of the three-hour drive between our respective homes. We’re always alert for new information and theories about the obvious questions. Who built it? When? Why?
I’ve recently been reviewing all the latest theories to answer the principal question: what was Stonehenge for? Ideas about its function range from seeing it as an observatory, categorising it as a place of healing or culture-reinforcing processions, through to imagining it as a necropolis, a city of the dead. Simply to list these alternative roles, however, is to raise an objection immediately.
Only we, in our fact-driven, post-Enlightenment, reification-prone perspective, seem to demand that Stonehenge have one or other of these functions. The people who built it five thousand years ago probably had no such desire to stipulate that the building be exclusively this or that. More likely, it was all of these things, mixed up together and mutually reinforcing each other in ways in which they saw this fully evidenced and life-enhancing but which we cannot any longer imagine.
If the builders designed the monument to be aligned with the winter solstice, for example, for therapeutic reasons, who are we to condemn the mindset that saw life as inextricably intertwined with the changing positions of the stars and sun? What do we believe that will seem risible to generations yet to come?
Thinking about this, I recall Philip Larkin’s poem Church going on this very theme (listen to the poet himself reading it). In its final verses, he imagines how it will be when churches have lost their meaning and fallen into ruin. Enough will remain, he writes, to show that the purpose of such places is always to remind us, with all our impulses and fears, that we are human and what that means; and that such a presence in our scheme of things is still more than a good enough response to our permanent human need to be connected with our own and others’ mysteries: connected for reassurance, explanation, forgiveness, love.
All these things in us are interwoven. So let it be for Stonehenge, too:
A serious house on serious earth it is, In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, Are recognized, and robed as destinies. And that much never can be obsolete, Since someone will forever be surprising A hunger in himself to be more serious, And gravitating with it to this ground, Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, If only that so many dead lie round.