In an earlier post, I expressed some views about the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre from the perspective of a family visit. Much of the site is great: new displays, new remains, new stories. Still, I talked about the sense of incompleteness and lack of fun in the visit at all stages. Some of this is temporary and because the site is new, but in other senses I feel there might be more enduring issues with the feeling that the heritage experience is incomplete. Read it and then visit and make your own mind up. Here, I want to talk about the academic incompleteness of the Stonehenge experience, focusing on how time is conveyed.
Space and time interweave and are inseparable, and the Stonehenge experience has tried to tackle both dimensions in sophisticated and innovative ways. I think that their dealing with space works best. From the Visitor Centre, you can go by the land train to the monument and, now that the nearby road and fences are gone, and as soon as the old visitor centre and tunnel have been erased from the landscape, a fuller sense of the monument’s setting is possible for the visitor. The new heritage signboards help in this regard. Moreover, the National Trust landscape incorporates many footpaths, allowing you to explore at leisure the barrows, cursus, avenue etc. The new Stonehenge is one where space prevails. Moreover, in the new Visitor Centre, space is inverted; you get to stand within Stonehenge and experience its seasons and changing form over time – something you cannot do because the volume of visitors means that access to the stones themselves is curtailed. There is also considerable detail about the landscape in the Visitor Centre, giving a sense of how the monument is situated in relation to an evolving monumental topography.
Time is also staged, and again, a series of models of the changing form of Stonehenge through three principal phases during the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age is effectively communicated. There is a timeline – above with stages in the history of the monument, below with other events in world prehistory. Moreover, the all-surround virtual reconstruction takes you through the seasons and between the three main stages of the prehistoric site as well, before jumping to the present-day form of the monument. The story of the landscape rightly begins in the Mesolithic, outlines evidence of Neolithic societies before Stonehenge, and the Beaker-using peoples that came late in the sequence.
In a separate gallery ‘Set in Stone?’ is a display-version of Chris Chippendale’s book Stonehenge Complete. The display charts, mainly through the display of medieval and modern manuscripts, the shifting perceptions of Stonehenge from the twelfth century, starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth and going through Stukeley to more recent surveys and accounts. The aim has been to create a sense of the emerging and conflicting receptions of the monument to the present. This is to be applauded as an attempt to give a sense of the shifting understandings of the monument over time: Stonehenge has never stood still.
A Temporal Forgetting
Now admittedly all temporal displays are conceitful and selective. Yet, I struggled to comprehend how, in the exhibition, the Iron Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon landscapes were completely absent from the principal dimensions of the narrative. Okay, so I was there with three small kids and my movement and observations were thus restricted. I could have missed a key display board. However, in many display sections, it is evident that there is a consistent temporal leap-frogging of later prehistory and the early historic periods. All the display methods jump through millennia from the Early Bronze Age to the present as if they weren’t there. The gallery on the reception of the stones should have filled in this gap, but it is completely textual; there is no latitude to let the landscape of hillforts and settlements of the Later Bronze Age and Iron Age, the Roman villas, settlements, roads and burials to have a voice, let alone the complex picture of an evolving Anglo-Saxon landscape including burial and settlement evidence combined with the evidence from place-names and written sources.
What has gone wrong here? At Avebury, you can buy the wonderful Pollard and Reynolds book Avebury: A Biography of a Landscape. This book boldly traced another henge’s history through prehistory and historic periods using archaeological data. A few years later, Mike Pitts was reporting on his rediscovery of bones of executed individuals excavated at Stonehenge in the early 20th century, and with the help of a series of scholars, was suggesting a new significance for Stonehenge as the ‘stone hanging place’ – a place of execution in the later Anglo-Saxon landscape. More recently, the Roman artefacts and chippings of bluestones are seen as possible evidence that the stones were a place of cult and healing in the preceding Romano-British period. Roman activity is recognised at the Visitor Centre through a display of these artefacts, but out of sequence within the display of texts. So the Visitor Centre acknowledges later perceptions of the monument, but divides it from the history of the monument’s construction.
Has this work been forgotten? Where is the Later Bronze Age Stonehenge, the Iron Age Stonehenge, the Roman Stonehenge, the early Anglo-Saxon Stonehenge, the later Anglo-Saxon Stonehenge? And what of the later medieval and early modern Stonehenge outside of the textual sources? What of the late-modern Stonehenge landscape including the military training area of Salisbury Plain?
It seems that the later biography of the monument and its landscapes have been down-played to focus on a three-phase prehistoric sequence of construction. While the reception of the monument is acknowledged, it is primarily a textual engagement, not a material and practical one. Perhaps this was unavoidable, but I felt disappointed that the biography of the monument was disjointed. While the Visitor Centre is a spatial triumph and tackles temporality on different dimensions, in this sense, the new Stonehenge experience felt temporally incomplete.