Article published on August 26, 2016.
Perched on the chalk uplands of Salisbury Plain, the megaliths of Stonehenge offer one of the most recognizable outlines of any ancient structure. Its purpose – place of worship, sacrificial arena, giant calendar – is unknown, but its story is one of the most extraordinary of any of the world’s prehistoric monuments.
Constructed in several phases over a period of some 1500 years, beginning c. 3000 BC, Stonehenge’s key elements are its ‘bluestones’ , transported from West Wales by unexplained means, and sarsen stones quarried from the nearby Marlborough Downs.
Francis Pryor delivers a rigorous account of the nature and history of Stonehenge, but also places the enigmatic stones in a wider cultural context, exploring how antiquarians, scholars, writers, artists, ‘the heritage industry’ – and even neopagans – have interpreted the site over the centuries.
nb and nudge reviewer and contributor Paul Cheney reviewed Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape by Francis Pryor for nudge, praising it as ‘comprehensive without being complicated’ – read Paul’s review in full here.
Paul also had some probing questions for author Francis Pryor…
PC: Stonehenge is not your usual haunt; how much affinity did you feel with the site compared with Flag Fen?
FP: I’ve been visiting Stonehenge regularly ever since I was a student in the mid-sixties. Nobody interested in prehistory can possibly ignore the place: it’s so mysterious and, dare I say it, magical? And I’ll never forget the very first time I stood at the centre, surrounded by those massive sarsens. It was awe-inspiring – even slightly scary. It was then that I realized that the much smaller bluestones were far less threatening; they were more human and somehow sympathetic. I also realized that the then currently fashionable ‘explanations’ – that Stonehenge was a computer, or an astronomical ‘instrument’ – were completely wide of the mark, as they ignored the site’s vast complexity and rich history. In the early 1970s I began to appreciate that we impose our own, highly restricted (some would say disciplined) world view on the men and women of the remote past, at our peril. So I feel immense affinity with a site that has taught me to be humble about our own achievements in the 21st century. For me, Stonehenge begs one enormous question: has human society progressed over the past four and a half thousand years? Forty years ago, I might have said yes – largely, I suspect, because like most young men I was blinded by the growth of new, digital technologies that were then springing-up around me. But now I find I am less certain. Bronze Age societies may not have been perfect, but I doubt whether they would have witnessed some of the extremes of greed, corruption and cruelty that are sadly so commonplace today.
What was your most exciting discovery from research on the book?
Conventional interpretations of Stonehenge are based on a chronological framework provided by radiocarbon dates. These dates are in turn phased and given greater precision by a highly sophisticated statistical technique, invented by an 18th Century cleric, Thomas Bayes. Bayesian analysis of the dates pre-supposes that sites like Stonehenge were developed in a series of events, that can be clearly defined. This approach works very well for conventional sites and buildings, such as settlements or churches, but Neolithic and Bronze Age religious sites don’t work in such a neat, well-defined way. Sometimes they were built, altered and re-modelled purely for the sake of doing the work – and this applies particularly to the early phases of Stonehenge. So I think we still have much to discover about the site’s beginnings. I hope my book offers some interesting avenues for future research.
Do you think that Stonehenge has many more revelations for us?
Personally, I think we’re still just scratching the surface. Most of the new discoveries will be made down in the floodplain of the River Avon and further away, out on Salisbury Plain. I also think we might learn a great deal by carefully re-excavating some of the features excavated (and very poorly written-up) by archaeologists working in the mid-20th century.
Did you choose the artworks that make the book such a delight to look at?
I chose some of them myself, and quite a few of the photos are mine. Having said that, the publisher, Head of Zeus, are noted for their superb team of art directors and designers. And I agree, they have certainly done me proud. I particularly like the cover painting (by William, not JMW, Turner, painted in 1840) and the photo of two naughty 1950s schoolboys pretending to push-up the stones.
Have you been able to use anything that you have learnt from the landscape at Stonehenge in interpreting your current excavations?
I have always believed that you can never hope to understand a site if you look at it in a vacuum. And this applies particularly at Stonehenge, where the explanation for what happened there lies in the surrounding landscape and farther afield, in the Preseli Hills of south Wales. I am a passionate advocate of landscape archaeology and of close teamwork by the researchers. That’s why my examination of the current excavation and survey projects at Stonehenge has convinced me that this approach is the only way forward. I am so proud of what these researchers are achieving. It is little short of miraculous.
I have always been a big fan of Time Team and liked your enthusiasm on the digs; do you feel that there needs to be more archeology on television again?
Yes, I do, but I don’t think it should be so presenter-focused. Viewers liked Time Team because we were real. I think real archaeologists, complete with beer-bellies and dirty hands, should tell the world about their discoveries. I loathe slick, Hollywood-style television. I’m turned off by the glossy and glamorous. Give me dirt and authenticity, any day. I don’t think I’ll ever be offered a job as a media luvvie!
Can you tell us anything about the next book you are writing?
In addition to prehistory, I have always had a huge interest in the later history of landscape development. That was why I wrote The Making of the British Landscape for Penguin, in 2010. It was a book that took five years to write. Penguin have asked me to do a more personal book on the British landscape and I plan to write a series of shorter pieces about particular views and places that have affected me more than others. And I’m afraid they’re not particularly predictable. In fact, some are plain odd. Yes, I love abbeys and cascading white cliffs, but I can also see beauty in an abandoned gasworks.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
I’ve always wanted to write a book about the Fens. It won’t be a textbook, as I don’t ‘do’ them. And inevitably it’ll be personal. But I’d really like to write it, because I’m fascinated by what is Britain’s most altered landscape. It also helps that I live there – and have been researching the topic for almost half a century!
Which author(s) do you turn to for inspiration?
The only archaeological writer who currently inspires me is Brian Fagan – an old and dear friend. Otherwise, my inspirations are all literary. George Orwell, I love for his humanity. Dorothy Sears I read for her superb conversations. Jane Austen could do no wrong. Ian Rankin is a constant inspiration. But my all-time favourite is Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy (1759) – a blissfully bonkers, plot-free masterpiece of a book, that I could read over-and-over again.
Which book(s) do you turn to for comfort?
Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and The Diary of a Nobody (by George and Weedon Grossmith, 1892). And why? Because they are comic, relaxed and beautifully written. Their heroes are wonderfully eccentric, but grounded in a strange way. There’s nothing about the super-hero in either of them. Both books are about ordinary people, albeit rather strange and very comical ones. Both, too, are the complete antithesis of today’s over-marketised, mega-branded, celebrity culture – which I detest.
Do you have a particular place to write, or can you write anywhere?
I can write anywhere, provided it isn’t too noisy. People having loud phone conversations in the train are a pet hate. Sometimes I wish I carried a gun.
What book are you currently reading?
I’m very much enjoying William Atkins’s, The Moor: A journey into the English wilderness (Faber and Faber, 2014). It’s a relaxed and very well written account of English moorland landscapes. Like the next two books I plan to write, it’s all about what it means to experience the landscape. So it’s a book that’s as much about the author, as the countryside he’s describing The thing is, landscapes as such don’t exist: they’re human constructs entirely. And I think that’s why I find them so appealing.
Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape by Francis Pryor, published on 14 July, 2016 in hardback at £16.99
Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape by Francis Pryor