Stonehenge-icon of prehistoric Britain

Stonehenge seems to be a really popular topic at the moment, with the Operation Stonehenge tv documentary playing a large part in the resurgence in popularity. In today’s post I want to talk about the role of the landscape as a shaper of cultures and the changing narrative of the neolithic period.

Stonehenge, icon of prehistoric Britain
Stonehenge, icon of prehistoric Britain

The wider landscape

The significance of the landscape and environment in cultural identity has been a topic of interest for archaeologists in the last couple of decades, particularly for post-processual archaeologists (See: Bender 1993). The way that a culture engages with and is shaped by the surrounding landscape brings together practicalities with abstract concepts. It challenges the way we approach the relationship between groups and land, and has forced us to acknowledge that the landscape may have meant something different to the people of the past.

Barbara Bender has written about the idea that the landscape may have added layers of meaning in other cultures:

…we ‘perceive’ landscapes, we are the point from which the ‘seeing’ occurs. It is thus an ego-centred landscape, a perspectival landscape, a landscape of views and vistas. In other times and other places the visual may not be the most significant aspect… (Bender 1993: 1)

A really interesting concept is that of the ‘landscape as memory’. The landscape, in this approach, acts as an inscribed surface, triggering memory and feeling:

Defined in terms of landmarks of ecological, historical or personal validity, landscape becomes the most generally accessible and widely shared aide-memoire of a culture’s knowledge and understanding of its past. (Küchler 1993: 85)

The wider landscape has been a significant part of new research into Stonehenge. The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project is being led by the University of Birmingham, and is drawing on the assistance of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology. They are using remote sensing techniques and geophysical surveys to create a digital map of the area, revealing structures and spaces previously hidden. The focus on reconstructing the changing landscape around the time of Stonehenge helps to show the evolving landscape over time and space. It is important for people to know that the monument didn’t spring up overnight or be placed there randomly.

The wider landscape. Stonehenge is in the far distance, but the land surrounding it gives so much information.
The wider landscape. Stonehenge is in the far distance, but the land surrounding it gives so much information.

The Hidden Landscapes Project is a fantastic step forward towards putting a monument back into its landscape and back into the land’s story. The Operation Stonehenge documentary really focussed on this and is well worth watching, even if you do have to ignore the repetition of the word ‘ritual’ (See the fantastic Bones Don’t Lie blog for a thorough dismantling of the over-use of the word ritual).

The approach from the new carpark and visitor centre allows you to get a better sense of the landscape. You can take a bus, but the better option is to walk and go through the field of barrows with the cursus.

Stonehenge Visitor Centre

Technology is a big part of the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Rather than it being an add-on to an already bursting display (as at some museums), technology is used to enhance the interpretation at a really basic level. Upon entry to the centre (not a museum, a centre), the welcome gallery is round, with projections of the stone circle around you. It allows you to feel as though you’re walking through the circle at different times of the year, and see the midsummer and midwinter solstices. The quality of the projection is so high it is as though you are standing in the middle of Stonehenge. It’s a clever way of getting around the fact that you are prevented from being at the centre of the actual stones.

The welcome gallery in the visitor centre draws heavily on new technology
The welcome gallery in the visitor centre draws heavily on new technology

The museum is laid out nicely, and a large projection wall is used to tell the story of the changing landscape. It’s all very nice, and very tasteful. There’s even a warning that there will be human remains on display. I wonder if this is the future of these types of centres.

The narrative of the visitor centre is that the neolithic peoples were complex, intelligent, and far from the club-wielding cavemen image that has plagued them for years. A large information panel, unmissable, states:

Stonehenge is a masterpiece of engineering built by a sophisticated people.

Stonehenge has become the icon of its age, the way that the mummy has become the icon for Ancient Egypt, the club for the caveman, and the ship for the Vikings. It’s refreshing to see the complexity of the time being explored.

Reconstructed neolithic houses

The reconstructed round houses

On the site are some neolithic round houses, reconstructed and filled with material culture. These houses are just outside the centre, leading the visitor to wander through them before going to Stonehenge. The information panel wondering whether they were the houses of the people who built Stonehenge was a bit much really, given that people can use their imaginations. I also tend to baulk at words like ‘possibly’ and ‘may have’ on captions.

I’m not actually sure whether this is experimental archaeology or just a reconstruction. On-site experimental archaeology will be the focus of a future post as its effects on learning for visitors have been noted, and it adds so much to our understanding of production.

The experience of going to Stonehenge was more than I expected. Seeing the stones with your own eyes was great, but experiencing the landscape armed with the knowledge that it didn’t stand isolated made it really worthwhile. In my dissertation I divided museums into two types: the aesthetic artefact museum, and the ‘experience’ museum. Stonehenge and its new visitor centre are definitely in the latter category, as the experience of life at the time of Stonehenge is communicated clearly.

Next week: The Mary Rose ship museum, and the role of advanced conservation techniques

Works cited

BENDER, B. 1993. Landscape: Politics and Perspectives, Oxford, Berg.

KÜCHLER, S. 1993. Landscape as Memory: The mapping of process and its representation in a Melanesian Society. In: BENDER, B. (ed.) Landscape: Politics and Perspectives. Oxford: Berg.