Stonehenge – On the winter solstice, modern-day Druids flock here
When we got off the bus, at around 6 a.m., it was pitch dark, and the fields of Salisbury Plain were sodden after a night of desultory rain. Most of the passengers—who included a retired physicist and his wife, and a pair of young lovers peering at their smartphones while audibly pining for hot chocolate—were dismayed to learn that the bus would go no farther. To our right, the new Stonehenge Visitor Center, an elegantly wispy structure with more than two hundred slender, tilted pillars and an undulating steel roof, was a blur in the murk. The standing stones were a mile and a half to the southeast. It was too blustery for umbrellas, so those of us with hoods pulled them over our heads, and we all started walking. The sun would not rise for more than two hours: it was the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year.
Four and a half thousand years ago, people also approached Stonehenge on foot, but they walked from the northeast, along a wide processional path leading up from the River Avon. Traces of this earthwork road, which is known as Stonehenge Avenue, are etched in the field north of the stones: a pair of long, straight creases about twenty feet apart in the pillowy turf. Until recently, the A344 was paved over them. Such indignities were decried in Parliament as a “national disgrace,” and in June, 2013, the highway was decommissioned and the land was reseeded with grass where the road grazed the henge. The old, bunker-like visitor center—which had been built just across the road from the stones—was closed in December. These changes, along with the more distant placement of the new visitor center, are intended to return the landscape of Stonehenge to the “solemn and lonely” setting described in Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” when Tess and Angel Clare stumble into the stones in the dark after her flight from the law.
Some of the people walking alongside me were merely curious travellers; an intrepid Japanese teen-ager had come by herself. But the pilgrims on our bus were predominantly British, and many of them felt that Stonehenge connected them to their collective past, to a time before England itself existed. “You used to say . . . that I was a heathen,” Tess tells Angel as she lies down on one of the fallen stones. “So now I am at home.”
Except for a few days a year, you can walk among and touch the stones of Stonehenge only by special arrangement with English Heritage, the quasi-government agency that manages the site. In 2000, the agency began opening the site to the public on the solstices and the equinoxes. On these days, during the hours around dawn, pilgrims descend to worship or wander among the megaliths. Otherwise, visitors are limited to a narrow path that ribbons through the grass and stops a few yards from the stones. Stonehenge has been slowly falling down for millennia; a stone toppled as recently as 1900. English Heritage aims to retard this process by minimizing erosion, including the damage caused by human feet. The monument’s most iconic stones, called sarsens, are sandstone megaliths the color of elephant hide; the heaviest weigh forty tons. Of the outer ring of thirty or so upright sarsens, seventeen still stand, and five of the curved lintels that were placed on the uprights, forming an unbroken circle, remain in place. Five sarsen trilithons—separate three-stone structures—once stood at the center of the circle, in a horseshoe configuration. Three of them endure, along with the surviving upright from the tallest of the five, the Great Trilithon, which towers twenty-four feet above its fallen lintel.
English Heritage occasionally allows filmmakers inside the circle, and an episode of “Doctor Who” was shot there in 2010. But many of the groups that are granted special access are religious, or, as Tess would put it, heathen. Several idiosyncratic faiths claim a special bond with Stonehenge, one that English Heritage is willing to honor, up to a point. The most prominent groups call themselves Druids, after the priestly caste of Iron Age populations in Britain. The Sunday before the winter solstice, Christine Cleere, the lead priest of a Druid group called the Gorsedd of Cor Gawr, led about eighty participants in a twilight ritual inside the stone circle. After Cleere delivered a “call to peace,” in Welsh, the worshippers blessed mistletoe, shared bread and mead, and prayed for the “return of the light.”
William Stukeley, an eighteenth-century pioneer of British archeology, erroneously believed that Druids built Stonehenge, and scientists have since found it difficult to dispel the notion. (The word “Druid” was coined by the Romans some three thousand years after the stones were erected.) In any case, ancient Druids left no record of their beliefs or practices, so any continuity between them and contemporary groups is more imagined and desired than actual. Although modern Druidry can be roughly characterized as revering nature, it has no set rituals or beliefs, and can be customized to suit each practitioner’s preferences. It is a young faith, at best a couple of centuries old, which hankers after an irretrievable, primal past whose most celebrated and mysterious remnant is the prehistoric stone circle on Salisbury Plain.
Marching toward the stones, we passed people emerging from parked cars, pulling tunics over their heads, wrapping cloaks around their shoulders, and taking up staffs or drums or masks before joining the procession. We soon caught up with what appeared to be a walking Christmas tree: black against the indigo sky, and studded with colored lights. A portable tower light placed farther down the path revealed the figure to be a man wearing a pointed headdress above a sort of full-body hoopskirt, the hoops tied with multicolored rags and twined with a strand of tiny battery-powered lights. He carried a concertina, and played Celtic-sounding music on it as he walked.
The rain was now lashing us; Salisbury Plain’s chalkland plateau is notorious for its gales. Halfway to the stones, and just to the north of us, lay one of the most enigmatic monuments in the Stonehenge area: the Greater Cursus, a giant rectangle, formed by ancient ditches, nearly two miles long and four hundred and ninety feet wide. It resembles an athletic field or an airstrip, but its original purpose is a mystery. Although Stonehenge’s wind-whipped setting and the unusual configuration of its sarsens have contributed to its reputation for strangeness and isolation, the stone circle is situated amid one of the densest concentrations of prehistoric structures in the world. The oldest known human alterations to this part of Salisbury Plain are three Mesolithic postholes, dating back more than ten thousand years. (The holes are currently covered by the old visitor center’s parking lot, which will soon be removed.) The Greater Cursus predates Stonehenge by several hundred years, and the countryside surrounding the stone circle is dotted with round and rectangular burial mounds from the Stone Age and the early Bronze Age. This was a sacred landscape for millennia.
The Greater Cursus, first noted by Stukeley, was partly excavated and authoritatively dated in 2007, as one stage of an extensive archeological inquiry called the Stonehenge Riverside Project. The project exemplifies a trend in the discipline, known as landscape archeology, which considers ancient peoples in the context of their environment, and views archeological sites as parts of a network rather than as solitary phenomena. The archeologists have made major discoveries, identifying what they believe is the temporary settlement where the builders of Stonehenge lived, and pinpointing the date of the settlement to within a few decades. These revelations support a new theory about why the stone circle was built: it apparently served not as a temple, or as a site of regular religious ceremonies, but as a cemetery. We can only surmise what Stonehenge meant to its builders, but there are indications that, as one scholar has put it, “the meaning was in the making.”
The fundamental element of the prehistoric monuments surrounding Stonehenge isn’t stone but earth. When the late-Neolithic peoples of Britain set to work commemorating their dead and invoking their gods, they began by digging. What makes Stonehenge a henge is not the stones but the circular ditch surrounding them and the bank built from the excavated chalk. Stonehenge’s ditch, not much deeper than a city curb, usually goes unnoticed, but there is a much larger henge and stone circle at Avebury, a short drive away, which gives a sense of how much this society invested in earthworks.
Avebury’s original bank once loomed nearly fifty-five feet over a thirty-foot-deep ditch. Even today, with the grassed-over bank standing at around eighteen feet and the ditch plunging more than sixteen feet below ground level, it’s an impressive sight. It encircles nearly twenty-nine acres; thousands of years later, an Anglo-Saxon settlement was founded inside the henge, and a village stands there to this day. Like all the Neolithic banks and ditches in the region, including the Greater Cursus, the Avebury henge was dug with simple tools, mainly picks made from deer antlers. (Archeologists have performed radiocarbon dating on the remnants of antlers found at the sites to determine the age of the monuments.) It took about a million hours of human labor to construct Avebury’s henge. When it was new, it would have been visible for miles: a towering ring of chalk blazing white against the green turf.
There are at least fifty known henges in Britain, all round, some containing standing stones or stone circles, others with the remains of timber circles. At Woodhenge, a site two miles from Stonehenge, concentric rings of stout wooden poles were arranged to form a sort of artificial forest. Some henges, like Stonehenge, are aligned with the movements of the sun. Like henges, cursuses are unique to Britain, and there are more than a hundred of these vast enclosures; they contain nothing of evident importance, except for the occasional burial mound. Although archeologists cannot say for sure why these labor-intensive earthworks were built, others are far less circumspect. Days before the solstice, I met a snaggletoothed Druid named Kim, who announced portentously that he had a theory about the Greater Cursus: “It’s long, like a runway, yeah? Well, that’s where they’d land when they flew in on their dragons, and Stonehenge was the bus terminal!” He cackled madly, confirming my suspicion that Druids know just how nutty you think they are.
The people who made Stonehenge and the other monuments in the area were part of what archeologists call the Grooved Ware culture, which is named for its pottery: thick-sided, flat-bottomed vessels decorated with a pattern of linear scratches. “It’s a whole-package idea,” Sara Lunt, one of the archeologists who curated the new Stonehenge Visitor Center, told me when I went to see the exhibits. “Stone monuments, grooved pottery, a particular type of arrowhead, a tendency at a drop of a hat to have a feast—and, when they’re done, to drop everything in a pit. It’s what they do for fun.”
Those pits are significant: excavations often uncover objects buried in an apparently ceremonial manner, including caches of special items placed at the bottom of the ditches of henges. In some of the pits, scientists have found animal bones and pottery arranged in seemingly deliberate fashion on top of the remnants of feasts. Some pits include “curated” objects—particularly old bones—that predate other material in the pit by many years, and that appear to have been hoarded for the occasion.
Joshua Pollard, an archeologist at the University of Southampton and one of the directors of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, told me that, compared with other sites from the period, Stonehenge looks “really odd.” He said that archeologists had long puzzled over the underground deposits at Stonehenge: “lots of burials; no ceramics, really; odd animal burials; a fair number of wild animals.” Fifty-six pits circle the rim of the henge and are among the oldest parts of the monument, predating the sarsens; thirty-four have been excavated, and most of them contained cremated human remains. There are few signs of domestic life in the immediate vicinity of the henge, and none of the feast pits that Lunt described.
Yet many people would have been required to haul the sarsens to the chalk plain, most likely by rolling them over logs on sledges, from the Marlborough Downs, some twenty miles to the north. Once transported, the sarsens were dressed to a remarkably fine degree, by pounding them with smaller stones, or mauls, in a nearby field, where archeologists have found sandstone debris. Mortise-and-tenon joints, like those made by carpenters, were fashioned to attach the upright stones to the lintels. Ramps and counterweights were probably used to tip the upright stones into place, and a platform and levers likely raised the lintels.
Figuring out who these builders were, and where they lived, has been complicated by the fact that Neolithic houses in Britain typically had shallow foundations, leaving behind few traces. “They are quite lightly constructed,” Pollard explained. “Whereas people are putting colossal amounts of effort into creating these huge ceremonial structures that they don’t actually live in. They could make very big, very elaborate houses, but they choose not to. They choose to invest everything into this domain that relates to the sacred.”
As a milky-gray dawn bloomed through the rain, we came up an incline in the road, and the stones finally emerged, like whales rising to the surface of the sea. We weren’t going to see the sun come up, but no matter: although Stonehenge is aligned so that its stones frame the sunrise at midsummer, at midwinter the stones frame the sunset. In the early twentieth century, Druid groups started a popular modern tradition of welcoming the summer solstice at the monument. But most archeologists believe that the midwinter sunset was the crucial astronomical event for Stonehenge’s creators. It marks the point in the calendar, heralded by many solar religions, when the nights shorten and Earth begins returning to its most fecund state. If you ask Druids about the importance of midwinter, they’ll tell you that the Christmas holiday was scheduled at the same time in order to co-opt pagan celebrations.
The idea that Stonehenge was designed to be an astronomical calendar, an observatory, or a calculator gained popularity in the mid-nineteen-sixties, prompted by the work of Gerald Hawkins, an astronomer at Boston University who published a book called “Stonehenge Decoded.” Perhaps inevitably, this line of argument inspired wild notions about space aliens and supernatural forces, and such tainted associations may explain why scholarly research on the astronomical aspects of Britain’s Stone Age monuments is not often published.
However, in 2008, the Stonehenge Riverside Project made a discovery that underlined the site’s association with the two solstices. Scientists found long ridges in the chalk beneath the turf covering the final leg of the Stonehenge Avenue, close to the stone circle. The ridges point directly toward the stones. At first, the project’s leader—Mike Parker Pearson, of University College London—thought that the ridges might be the work of human hands, but they turned out to have been produced by a cycle of freeze and thaw at the end of the Ice Age. Disappointment gave way to excitement when two geologists on the team pointed out that the ridges would have been visible during the early Mesolithic period, and that their correspondence to the solstice axis would have made the spot look like a place marked out as special by a divine hand. The ridges are like arrows shot directly at the midwinter sunset, and the henge is aligned along the same axis. In a recent book, “Stonehenge: A New Understanding,” Parker Pearson writes, “We had stumbled upon the reason why Stonehenge is where it is.”
If you follow those ridges away from the stone circle, and continue down the Stonehenge Avenue, you eventually reach the River Avon. At this juncture, the Stonehenge Riverside Project found the remains of another, smaller henge with standing stones. This spot, archeologists believe, was a ceremonial disembarkation point. Stone Age visitors, perhaps bearing the ashes of their most honored dead, would have stepped off their boats and walked up the avenue to the stones. But where did these people come from? The archeologists had their eye on a known prehistoric settlement upriver, Durrington Walls. At that location, about two miles from Stonehenge, the Stonehenge Riverside Project performed some of its most significant excavations.
The digging revealed that Durrington Walls, which was occupied for a brief time four and a half thousand years ago, was a much larger community than anyone had anticipated. It was surrounded by a henge, and inside were the remnants of two timber circles. At its peak, Parker Pearson said, Durrington Walls contained perhaps a thousand houses and sheltered four to five thousand people—a significant percentage of Britain’s population at the time.
Among the items found at Durrington Walls were many pig bones. One such bone is on display at the Stonehenge Visitor Center; the tip of a flint arrowhead is lodged in it. Yet DNA analysis indicated that this pig, like all the others found at the site, was a domesticated animal. The pigs may have served as targets in exhibitions or contests. In his Stonehenge book, Parker Pearson memorably imagines such events as “archers demonstrating their skill by bringing down squealing ranks of porkers in front of a crowd.” Chemical analyses of pig and cattle bones at Durrington Walls suggest that some animals had been driven to this riverside gathering place from as far west as Wales and as far north as Scotland. All the pigs had been slaughtered in autumn or winter.
This indicates that Durrington Walls operated seasonally, almost like a winter resort—it was not a place where many people put down lasting roots. Parker Pearson estimates that people lived in the village for no more than forty years and possibly for as briefly as a decade or two. “Their year is split in two, I suspect,” he told me. Like many archeologists, he has a habit of speaking about ancient peoples in the present tense and in the second person. “You’d live in relatively isolated small groups and then come together once a year,” sometime between the fall harvest and the spring planting.
Durrington Walls is full of the domestic touches that are missing at the austere and stately Stonehenge. Its Neolithic houses resemble dwellings from the same period that have been discovered all over England and Scotland: small square constructions, probably with thatched roofs, featuring compacted chalk-plaster floors with a hearth in the center. Parker Pearson writes of finding “two knee prints close by, on the south side of the fireplace,” where a resident had spent hours cooking food.
Although most of the houses at Durrington Walls have the same modest configuration, a few dwellings were apparently set apart for élites. “Stone Age society has been characterized as fairly egalitarian,” Parker Pearson told me, but, for a project as grand as Stonehenge, “you need a management structure, sad to say.” Yet there’s no evidence of forced labor. “What we’ve found at Durrington Walls is a community who have far too much to eat. They haven’t extracted the full nutritional value from these carcasses. They left whole ribs lying there! You’d ordinarily just find bone fragments, because the bones would have been broken up to get every bit of marrow. So these are people who are living high on the hog, literally.” The erection of Stonehenge appears to have taken place in an atmosphere of festivity, during the longest and coldest nights of the year, with the promise of spring heralded by the stones themselves.
The increasing precision of radiocarbon dating, Parker Pearson said, makes clear that Durrington Walls was largely abandoned after a period of intense use. Stonehenge itself saw alternating periods of construction and relative neglect: “We’ve discovered to our horror that, instead of monuments being built and then used for generations, they were built, saw a short period of activity, and then they were left alone. That’s been a consistent pattern we’ve seen over two thousand years of the Neolithic in Britain: the short-used site.”
Years ago, Parker Pearson invited a colleague from Madagascar to see Stonehenge. The colleague shrugged and said that, when people in his homeland built in stone, they did so to honor the dead; wood was for the living. Struck by the analogy, Parker Pearson has become convinced that Durrington Walls and Stonehenge, with their parallel circles in wood and stone, were dwelling places for, respectively, the living and the dead. When I asked other British archeologists about this theory, some expressed enthusiastic assent, but many were more guarded. Sara Lunt, the curator at the visitor center, said, “We were taught to approach ethnographic parallels with great caution.”
Parker Pearson supports his claim that Stonehenge is “our largest cemetery from the entire third millennium B.C.” by pointing to the many cremations deposited in the pits along the rim of the stone circle. So far, sixty-three different cremation burials have been unearthed at Stonehenge, and he estimates that there may be as many as a hundred and twenty more. Joshua Pollard, of the Riverside Project, tends to agree with this view, although he notes that cremated remains “are mostly found on the periphery of the monument. So it kind of makes you wonder whether or not what’s represented in the center of the monument might actually have connections with even higher orders of deities.” When it comes to Stonehenge, it’s hard to imagine a consensus emerging. “No one explanation will completely satisfy anyone,” Lunt told me.
At about 7 a.m., I stepped onto the henge and into a damp, milling mass of people dressed in everything from Druidic garb to sporty anoraks. Musicians toted gongs, drums, and even a didgeridoo, and media crews wrangled cameras and boom mikes. At the center of the stones, where the ground had been trampled into a porridge of mud and grass, the crowd gathered around a small Druid group standing in a ritual circle, led by a Stonehenge veteran named Rollo Maughfling. At his request, onlookers delivered “the universal mantra of om” on behalf of such causes as Aboriginal rights, the crisis in Syria, and “nuclear-fuel cores in the sea.” A mustached man wearing a resplendent buffalo-fur collar intoned, “By the great lords of the air, by the great lords of fire, by the great lords of the sea, we’re gathered here to celebrate the return of the sun!” Spectators held up their smartphones to record the ceremony. Their posture made the glowing screens look like ritual offerings.
On an ordinary solstice morning, Maughfling would have been joined by Arthur Pendragon, a biker turned Druid activist who has been protesting English Heritage policies at Stonehenge for two decades. That day, Pendragon and his followers, who call themselves the Loyal Arthurian Warband, held their own ritual just outside the henge; by removing themselves from the circle, they were expressing indignation over English Heritage’s decision to display at the new visitor center cremated human remains that were excavated inside the henge, as well as human bones found in a nearby burial mound and in a flat grave. The Druids consider the exhibit degrading, and want only replicas to be displayed. By the time I arrived at the stone circle, Warband members were marching around the henge, chanting “Put them back!” and “Let those we lay to rest stay at rest!”
Modern Druid groups have a fraught history with Stonehenge. Some of the oldest of these organizations were Mason-like fraternal orders; Winston Churchill belonged to one. In the early twentieth century, however, a more militantly spiritual faction—devoted to sun-worshipping and socialism and calling itself the Church of the Universal Bond—began using the site regularly. This irritated archeologists, who saw these people as keeping alive William Stukeley’s mistaken belief that ancient Druids had either built Stonehenge or had some notable connection with it.
When pressed, most contemporary Druids admit that their way of life is an invention no older than the eighteenth century; many prefer not to call Druidry a religion. Druidry makes up for its lack of history with a surplus of opportunities for self-exaltation. Almost every Druid I met had a grand title or a “circle” of his or her own to lead. Terry Dobney, a sixty-five-year-old Gandalf look-alike who was protesting outside the visitor center, told me that he is “the Keeper of the Stones and the democratically elected ArchDruid of Avebury,” a claim that elicited fond chuckles whenever I mentioned it to other Druids. A penchant for flowing garments and a love of nature seem to be the only universals among Druids; there is no set pantheon, creed, or liturgy, although most groups stand in a circle and chant. A group oath recited by both Rollo Maughfling and Arthur Pendragon goes, “We swear by peace and love to stand / Heart to heart and hand in hand / Mark, oh spirit and hear us now, / Confirming this, our sacred vow.”
For decades, archeologists tolerated Druid rituals at Stonehenge. In the nineteen-seventies, however, the summer solstice became the climax of a monthlong gathering with live music, called the Stonehenge Free Festival, and English Heritage grew concerned about the preservation of the site. By 1984, the concerts were attracting tens of thousands of revellers associated with a nomadic subculture called the New Age Travellers. They camped out in the field across the A344, participating in a Burning Man-style experiment in alternative communal living, complete with drugs, loud music, and nudity. Their disrespectful behavior upset some Druids. Helen Tarrant, a member of the Gorsedd of Cor Gawr, remembers vandalism: “People were climbing all over the stones and spray-painting them purple.”
Before the summer solstice of 1985, constabularies established a four-mile exclusion zone around Stonehenge. Hundreds of revellers vowed to take the fields anyway, and the two sides clashed in what is now known as the Battle of the Beanfield. Hundreds of people were arrested, and several were injured. Afterward, the government announced that the exclusion zone would remain in place on future solstices.
Druids were dismayed, and in 1990 Arthur Pendragon launched a protest by setting up camp in what he describes as “a hole in the ground,” on a ridge overlooking the stones. (He now lives in a flat in Salisbury.) Pendragon has been arrested more times than he can count, and in 1996 he argued against the exclusion zone before the European Commission of Human Rights, in Strasbourg; the commission ruled against him, stating, “The ban on observing the summer solstice in the vicinity of Stonehenge cannot be said to have had a disproportionate effect on Druids as opposed to other groups who wanted to observe the summer solstice due to different beliefs or purely secular reasons.” In the spring of 2000, however, English Heritage softened its stance, and the public regained access on the solstices and the equinoxes. According to Pendragon’s autobiography, “The Tales of Arthur,” on the morning of the next summer solstice he stepped into the center of the stone circle and shouted to the crowd, “This is your henge. This is your temple. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Three days before the most recent winter solstice, Druids and pagans gathered outside the new visitor center and staged a protest about the remains. They were hardly the kind of genteel hobbyists who had once welcomed Winston Churchill into their assemblies. I met home-care workers, a funeral-home employee, and a street vender. Some of Pendragon’s followers had covered their street clothes with white tunics emblazoned with the red symbol of the Loyal Arthurian Warband: a dragon rampant with a crown, a sword, and an erect penis.
Kazz, a small, fierce, wiry woman with white-blond hair and an abundance of mystical-looking jewelry, is Pendragon’s partner and shares his penchant for fiery rhetoric. She’d been pounding a ceremonial drum so passionately that both hand and drum were stained with blood. “During the 2008 dig, we were told that the remains would be put back,” she said. “We were lied to. Not only have they not been put back but what English Heritage has done to display them is just tasteless.” (In a statement, English Heritage said, “Authenticity is important to tell England’s story. We use real objects and artifacts because we believe they are the best way for people to come close to history.”)
As visitors approached the center’s admission-ticket windows, Kazz stood with forty other protesters, stamping her foot and shaking her fist. “Don’t pay, walk away!” she shouted. There was an occasional rallying whoop of “Warriors!”
Not all Druids favor such confrontational methods. The next day, in Avebury, I met Christine Cleere, the priest who had led the Sunday-morning ritual inside the Stonehenge circle. She is a soft-spoken, articulate woman in her sixties with chin-length gray hair; wearing a yellow cable-knit sweater and a blue scarf, she resembled a branch librarian. In addition to her priestly role in the Gorsedd of Cor Gawr—gorsedd is a Welsh-derived term for a gathering of bards—she is the Stonehenge representative for a group called Honouring the Ancient Dead, or had. According to Cleere, had’s members include “people from all sorts of walks of life” who believe that remains excavated by archeologists should be “treated with honor and respect.”
Cleere isn’t necessarily against the display of remains in museums, but insists that it be done in an appropriate way. “had has provided all sorts of booklets and guidance on this that some museums are following,” she said. What bothers had most about this issue, according to Cleere, is being shut out of discussions. “The main issue over these displays is about consultation, because they were put in without any form of consultation whatsoever.”
But why should archeologists consult Druids about handling prehistoric remains? Cleere, Kazz, and Pendragon compared their claims on the bones of their “ancestors” to the efforts of indigenous peoples from other countries to persuade museums and other government institutions to return their ancestors’ human remains and cultural objects. (In the United States, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act has provided for the repatriation of such remains since 1990.) When I pointed out to Druids that they could not actually document their descent from the Grooved Ware people, the conversation often took an emotional turn. Several people asked me how I’d feel if my grandmother’s bones were on display.
Mark Horton, an archeologist at the University of Bristol, dismissed the Druids’ attempts to invoke the moral authority of Native Americans. He said of repatriation requests, “Archeologists don’t like them, but at least there’s a link between the members of the tribes and the remains in question, and additionally there’s the history of white European settlers imposing themselves on Native Americans. Here, there isn’t that history. There’s no genetic or direct cultural connection between contemporary pagan groups and the people whose remains are displayed here. I have as much right to determine their fate as they do.”
Sara Lunt, the curator, said that English Heritage is “proud of what we do” at the new visitor center, adding, “Visitor surveys show that people expect and like to see human remains. They need these people to take them by the hand.” Seeing the bones may offend Druids, but it makes other Britons feel more connected to the ancient dead.
For all their disputes, the Druids and the archeologists that I met ordinarily get along pretty well. When an archeologist fits her knees into the depressions left by a Neolithic cook, or a modern-day Druid invokes ancient gods he can never understand in the way that their original worshippers did, both are struggling to connect with an elusive past. Some of the Druids hanging around Stonehenge have helped out on digs, and they closely follow the archeologists’ reports, incorporating new findings and theories into their views of the monument. Joshua Pollard said of the Druids, “They are a force for good, in terms of having a real affinity with these sites, of wanting to protect them.” Indeed, the return of Stonehenge’s setting to a more pastoral state pleases scientists and spiritualists alike.
After a few hours of standing in the wind and the rain, I had begun to envy the Druids’ cloaks. As I drifted through the crowd, I spotted a plump woman in a tiger-striped catsuit dancing to the beat of a drum circle, a tall man in white robes with a mask made of leaves, and a hobbity fellow in a brown woolly sweater telling an interviewer, “I’m a pagan and I’ve come here to exercise my religious rights.” Someone had made a sign that began with the line “Hello, I am an Earthian,” and surely nobody read past that point. A man in a green Inverness coat and a wide-brimmed felt hat was blowing mightily on a three-foot trumpet made from an ox horn. He told me he was the Summoner of the Hearth of the Turning Wheel and urged me to have a go at the instrument. I couldn’t even get it to squeak. Behind a trilithon, people rubbed the padded heads of mallets over gongs, producing a groaning and swelling tone that seemed just right.
The eccentric aspects of a Stonehenge solstice draw the eye first, but people in ordinary street clothes turned out to be more affecting. Some placed small offerings—a tangerine, a painted rock—on the fallen upright of the Great Trilithon. Many people, like me, stepped up to one of the three remaining trilithons and rested their palms against its oddly dry-feeling surface, heads tilted all the way back. Tourists who visit Stonehenge without entering the circle often come away saying that the monument is smaller than they expected it to be, but anyone who’s stood next to a forty-ton behemoth dotted with puffs of green lichen, and gazed up its mottled gray length, knows what big is.
The sky had turned white, and I resisted the urge to remain inside the circle, where the crush of bodies cut the wind. Moving on, I passed an older man with a battered face posing for a photograph by leaning jauntily on a fallen lintel, holding a cigar. He intended to take the piss, as the British say, but it was a hopeless cause. The dignity of those stones is impermeable; only the wind, the rain, and another thousand years will ever diminish it. I turned a corner and spotted a young man with cropped fair hair, in a brightly striped rain jacket. He was facing an upright trilithon, leaning into it with his whole body, his eyes closed, his arms curled in front of him, and his head resting on his hands. He molded himself to the stone, like a child clinging to his mother. Ten minutes later, when I circled back the same way, he was still there, unchanged.
Laura Miller, the author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia,” is a books and culture columnist for Slate.