Stonehenge: a brief history


After a slight temporal dip, we are back riding up on to a crest of the sine curve called ‘popular Stonehenge book publication’ (sadly, for a sun-orientated temple, this appears out of phase with the solar activity cycle). Last year’s excellent How to Build Stonehenge by Mike Pitts has now been joined by this, the latest in a number of popular Stonehenge books written by Mike Parker Pearson. Both authors have the authority and legitimate reasons for writing their accounts, and Stonehenge (and the Stonehenge market) is big enough to take it – and more. Both books give a personalised view, recording the remarkable revision of Stonehenge understanding/interpretation that has resulted from the excavations and research done between 2006 and 2022. These have necessarily incorporated the almost exponential rise in increasingly reliable petrographical, geochemical, stable isotope, and aDNA data. Now that almost all of Parker Pearson’s interpretations have become the ‘standard model’, there is a place for literate, critical commentary, hence both books are required reading. Fortunately, that is not onerous, as the two have an amused, informative voice and light touch.

In Stonehenge: a brief history, 11 chapters across 190 pages chronologically chart the story of the circle from ‘Before Stonehenge’ to ‘Stonehenge: the never ending story’, always seating the stones within their spatial and ‘social’ contexts. Starting with Mesolithic aurochsen-hunters and their love of transient puce flints, the book then covers the Stonehenge heydays of Neolithic and Bronze Age building and rebuilding; here Parker Pearson emphasises his suggestions for physical contributions from an earlier circle at West Amesbury Henge (aka Bluestonehenge) and a more ethereal contribution from Waun Mawn.

The next chapters plot the decline of Stonehenge and fall of its stones, down-sloping with minor Roman tinkering, Iron Age neglect (strangely, a chalk pig is figured), and medieval/late medieval antiquarianism. Then, following a Georgian (V) gift/exchange (receiving only a baronetcy for the stones, these jaded days, looks rather a poor deal), we see the post-1900s physical restitution of the uprights continuing, so that Stukeley’s 1740 book, Stonehenge: a temple restor’d to the British Druids, had become, by 1964, Stonehenge; a restor’d temple for the British Druids. A final flourish explores the late 20th-/early 21st-century, including pink-flowered hippies, modern bards, and law-and-order issues over access to bones and stones and Cornish cream teas (much written from an insider’s point of view).

Perhaps counterintuitively, the descriptions of Stonehenge and its surroundings in their many incarnations, although clearly written, seem to fade as the engaging Chapters 8 to 11 approach recent times and our modern sensibilities.

There is one disappointment, however, and one true of many, many recent archaeological books: the figures appear to be secondary to the text. Too often they are poorly reproduced, poorly executed, and printed in monochrome. Here, the maps and sketches of the circle, its stones, or the broader Stonehenge landscape have lettering so minute it is difficult to read without magnification, and differentiating between the 50 shades of grey is distracting.

But, essentially, it is all about the text. Everything is placed in its correct context and explained, and Parker Pearson is generous about, and to, his sources, only becoming (uncharacteristically) slightly less forgiving when discussing modern alternative theories about the purposes of Stonehenge.

Were the Reader’s Digest wanting to commission a condensation of Stonehenge for the Ancestors Volumes 1 and 2 (two volumes that give much of the 15 years’ data collected by Parker Pearson and his team, tomes that must rival in importance Cleal’s Stonehenge in its Landscape), it is too late. For this paperback – tonally correct, slim, easily digestible, but in places close to partisan – would have been precisely what they envisaged. It is exactly in tune with its intended market (serious but non-specialist) and fits comfortably alongside well-received volumes on Avebury, Ur, and Troy in the Bloomsbury publishing catalogue.

Mike Parker Pearson 
Bloomsbury Publishing, £19.99
ISBN 978 1350192225