The portentous words of Spinal Tap hang over Stonehenge like a miasma. The stones are fascinating, of course, as is the mystery of their original purpose, but the uses that people have made of them since are no less so. Every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves, as a wise archaeologist once said. At different times the monument has been seen as a calculator, a place of sacrifice (or perhaps of healing), a symbol of political power, and even as an instrument for playing the music of the gods. The last theory derives, in part, from the discovery that some of the famous bluestones brought from the Preseli Mountains have the curious property of chiming with a distinct musical note when struck by a hammer. Not only that, but the size of the Stonehenge stones seems – at least to some eyes - to show a deliberate gradation, somewhat like the bars of a glockenspiel.
What’s that, dear reader? You want to go to Stonehenge and try the hammer trick out for yourself? Do let me know how you get on.
All this is on my mind because last Friday I attended a day conference at Bristol University music department, devoted to the "Sounds of Stonehenge". It was a lot of fun to hear about the latest theories from some of the people involved in constructing them. And Professor Ronald Hutton – something of a hero of mine – even complimented me on my hair. Who could ask for more?
Children’s writers, especially writers of fantasy, have used Stonehenge and other prehistoric sites as much as anyone else, of course. More, in fact. Let me count the ways...
- The Magnifying Glass. In this view, Stonehenge (or whatever monument is involved) becomes a focus for cosmic, magical, or other forces, making it a place of tremendous power.
- The Time Squisher. Because of this concentration of power, the very concept of time itself takes on a curious wibbliness, allowing easy access from one period to another, or even to a mysterious place where "all times coexist." (Very handy when you’re late with a deadline.)
- The Space Squasher. Alternatively it is space rather than time that undergoes the wibbling, allowing your protagonist to step lightly between countries or even universes. Ever noticed how much those trilithons look like airport security scanners?
- The Alien Engine. Just possibly all that concentrated power is being used neither to squish not yet to wibble, but rather to run a machine, designed by intelligences far beyond our puny ken, for purposes we wot not of. (No insult to puny Ken intended.)
- The Petrified Folk. Here we take a leaf out of the folklorists’ book, and see in these mysterious megaliths hapless people who have been turned to stone. The fields of Britain are scattered with Sunday revellers, witch insulters, devil wagerers and name-in-vain takers. Will they never learn? No one, as far as I know, has attached a legend of this kind to Stonehenge itself, mind* – and it would be difficult to do so, given the trilithons. What on earth were they up to when they got stonified? Was the 2000 B.C. British gymnastic squad punished for training on the Sabbath? As ever, Stonehenge keeps its secrets.
“No one knows who they were... or what they were doing.” But it’s a lot of fun to wonder. And for a fantasy writer, Stonehenge is nothing short of a deliberate provocation.
* Unlike Bristol's own, strangely-neglected circle at Stanton Drew, one of whose stones is pictured above.