Opinion: “Stonehenge is no longer a Neolithic monument – it is a pop culture phenomenon”
Viewing all of Neolithic Britain through the lens of one monument shuts down an understanding of the diversity of the period, writes Dr Kenny Brophy, head of the archaeology department at the University of Glasgow
As an archaeologist, an intense interest in Stonehenge is supposed to be a given. It must surely be my favourite site, a place I regularly visit to hug standing stones? And yet, I can’t bring myself to love Stonehenge. My relationship with this monument is, as I am sure is the case for many archaeologists, complicated. This is because it means so much to so many people, and it exists in so many contexts outside of archaeology, that is has ceased to simply be an archaeological site, a thing of the past alone. In fact, it is much easier to make sense of what Stonehenge was four or five thousand years ago than pin down exactly what it means today, and I think that makes (some) archaeologists uncomfortable.
Taken purely on its archaeological merits, there is no doubt that it is impossible for a prehistorian like me to ignore Stonehenge. I need add nothing to the countless books and articles that have been written about it and the complex prehistoric landscape it sits within, rightly designated a World Heritage Site. The ever-increasing volume of radiocarbon dates, excavation results, and geophysical surveys, inform how the monument is now displayed to the public, what we are able to write about it, and how the site developed from the Mesolithic period onwards. Each new theory is presented as finally sorting Stonehenge out, until another excavation or idea comes along. There is also no doubt that Stonehenge and the landscape that it sits within is internationally significant. The stone circle itself is spectacular and unique (another way of saying this is that it is weird and anomalous).
Stonehenge has transcended the genre of megalith and is now a celebrity stone circle
But Stonehenge is much more than just a fantastic archaeological site. Unlike hundreds of stone circles in the UK, it has escaped the specialist world of archaeologists to belong to millions across the world. Stonehenge has transcended the genre of megalith and is now a celebrity stone circle. It is only because it consists of mute standing stones that it has not been asked to appear on The Masked Singer or head to the jungle with Ant and Dec. This is no longer a Neolithic monument – it is a pop culture phenomenon, and not just in Britain.
Stonehenge is known the world over, to the extent that there are almost 100 replica Stonehenges globally, from Australia to China, and from Indonesia to America. Only Elvis has more tribute acts. Lovingly documented in the Clonehenge website, 20th and 21st century versions of Stonehenge almost always replicate the famous trilithons of the sarsen phase of Stonehenge. This is also a place that like many celebs has had some work done; in fact, by the 19th century many standing stones had fallen over. Concrete and cranes were used to put the site back together between 1901 and the late 1950s. These facelifts kept Stonehenge looking younger than ever, and most visitors don’t even know about it. This is a monument that is as much a product of modern ingenuity as ancient building skills, a replica, perhaps even a parody, of itself.
It is difficult to escape from Stonehenge sometimes. Stories about the monument crop up seemingly monthly in print and social media, reporting on new research, the latest controversy, or just rehashing old stories to fill up column inches and live newsfeeds. Stonehenge is the perfect archaeological site for the 24-hour media world that we now live in. Even the most modest academic piece of research is relayed across the world in hours, while weird and wild theories can easily fill a two-page spread in a tabloid. Stonehenge stories are not immune to fake news either, with over-interpretation, political spin, hyperbole, and sometimes downright nonsense feeding the Stonehenge news cycle.
Stonehenge also has so many film and TV credits that I am surprised it does not have its own page on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). It has appeared (for real, or in replica form) in films as diverse as Curse of the Demon (1957), Halloween 3 (1982), National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985) and Transformers: the Last Knight (2017). Stonehenge has been blown up on multiple occasions, notably in the film Stonehenge Apocalypse (2010) but also in bouncy castle form in Jeremy Deller’s inflatable Stonehenge artwork Sacrilege (2012). Bands have become obsessed with Stonehenge, from Hawkwind to Spinal Tap to The KLF, while the stones are now viewed as an essential photo opportunity for British prime ministers and US presidents, and a host of others: Spongebob Squarepants, Miley Cyrus, Buzz Aldrin, Janet Jackson, Christopher Walken, to name but a few.
These photoshoots and associated media attention and clicks are welcomed by English Heritage, the agency responsible for the conveyor belt of visitors who turn up each year, many of them on day trips from cruise ships. The stone circle even has its own marketing manager – in effect, an agent. Stonehenge is on millions of bucket lists across the world. Pre-pandemic, well over 1 million people visited Stonehenge per annum, and in their 2019/20 annual report, English Heritage called the monument “our most financially important site”. They sell a lot of Stonehenge merchandise, from dish cloths to Christmas jumpers. English Heritage also offer visitors a VIP experience, a chance to cross the ropes and get inside the stone circle, at a cost of £53 including a guidebook. This is the equivalent of an ‘access all areas’ backstage pass for superfans with the means to make their dream come true, returning home with photos, memories, and a programme. But if Stonehenge really is roll as well as rocks, it is very much an Establishment monument, more Elton John than the Sex Pistols.
A Stonehenge obsession?
Like many celebrities these days, Stonehenge has become an influencer. It is a meme, beloved by instagrammers, advertisers and creative types. My attempt to quantify this by using the hashtag #StonehengeAnything proved astonishing; there are almost no nouns or verbs that have not been connected to Stonehenge by someone somewhere, whether that be in photos, photoshopped images, corporate branding, cartoons, merchandise or in food form. There is an obsession with Stonehenge across the world that cannot be replicated by any other prehistoric monument, except perhaps Egypt’s great pyramids.
Yet this is worrying as the only information most people get about the Neolithic period is via Stonehenge, whether through visiting the site, reading media stories, liking a cartoon of Stonehenge with a vampire standing beside it, or sharing a photo of Stonehenge made of sausages and beans on Twitter. This means that Stonehenge is now increasingly being viewed by some archaeologists as a sneaky way of imparting information about prehistoric people and lifeways to the public, the archaeological equivalent of blitzing soup to hide the vegetables from children. Last Christmas, English Heritage promoted a story suggesting that the builders of Stonehenge ate something approximating to mince pies and energy bars; misleading in terms of Neolithic diet, but it got a lot of impressions.
The fact that Stonehenge has become clickbait fodder even for archaeologists and the site’s managers suggests that celebrity Stonehenge might actually be a problem. Viewing all of Neolithic Britain through the lens of one monument and its surrounding landscape shuts down an understanding of the diversity of lives lived in that period, and uses up bandwidth that could be used to share stories about other amazing (and equally informative and significant) Stone and Bronze Age sites up and down the country. There has historically been, and continues to be a disproportionate quantity of money, time, resources, and archaeologists’ brain cells spent on Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape, which diminishes our understanding of, and ability to appreciate, contemporary sites and monuments across Britain. Sadly this imbalance is now also ingrained in the public consciousness.
That Stonehenge has become clickbait fodder suggests that celebrity Stonehenge might actually be a problem
In the 1980s, running battles were fought over access to Stonehenge, and since then arguments and tensions around the monument have only increased. Should there be a tunnel or not? How much access should the public get? How can we manage solstice and equinox events equitably? Which type of archaeologist is best placed to carry out excavation in the World Heritage Site? Who owns Stonehenge? Energy and money wasted on planning disputes and security is energy and money that could be better spent in other ways in heritage and beyond; angry letters, emails and social media campaigns are another needless waste of time.
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Celebrity culture can be toxic, and Stonehenge is no different. But this should not deflect from the breakout success of this stone circle to become much more than the sum of its megalithic parts; Stonehenge has been on a journey. This is a monument that brings happiness to many people, often in relation to their own mental health and wellbeing as has been so ably demonstrated by the collaborative Human Henge project. English Heritage’s Your Stonehenge initiative has gathered together 150 years of personal photographs of the monument. The resultant exhibition draws on the fact that “for millions of people around the world, Stonehenge holds special memories,” and I can’t think of any other stone circle that could come anywhere close to this.
The world of Stonehenge exhibition in the British Museum is another good news story. My hope is that it will rebalance our relationship with Stonehenge, expose misleading interpretations of the Neolithic world through this site, encourage a broader understanding of prehistoric places and peoples beyond the Wiltshire bubble, and provide a platform for a future for Stonehenge that benefits us all.
Dr Kenny Brophy is a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Glasgow, and writes about prehistoric sites and monuments at The Urban Prehistorian. You can find him on Twitter @urbanprehisto