Stonehenge: a prehistoric tourist trap

Wiltshire’s world-famous stones have been attracting sightseers for thousands of years. Here, Mike Pitts tells the tourists’ story.

This article was first published in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

A group of Victorian tourists pose in front of Stonehenge, c1900. © Corbis

2500 BC: Stonehenge is the talk of prehistoric Europe

Visitors have always been part of Stonehenge, even the stones are foreigners: the small ones from Wales, the large ones probably from the Marlborough Downs, 20 miles to the north.

Stonehenge was truly unique in Europe and so, at its height around 2500 BC, it must have been talked about across the continent.

Evidence of houses in the area suggests that far more people lived near to the stones than we would normally expect. Drawing labour and representatives from different tribes or groups, Stonehenge must have played a part in alliances that reached across Britain, and perhaps even beyond.

Tests on a man buried nearby around 2300 BC have revealed that he grew up in central Europe, was rich, but had a bad knee and a limp. Other men buried in the area originated at least as far away as Wales. Could these have been among Stonehenge’s first tourists?

 

2500 BC–AD 1500: Did the Romans break up the stones?

Stonehenge today is identical to the first accurate survey, drawn in 1740 by John Wood, architect of Georgian Bath. What Wood saw seems to have differed little from the sight that greeted the artists who first attempted a realistic view during the reign of Elizabeth I. Yet between 2500 BC and AD 1500, some 500 tonnes of rock were removed from the site.

So where did all the missing stones go? We know they were there, for archaeological excavation and geophysics – and patches of dead grass in dry summers – have shown us where they stood. But who took them away? And why?

Much of that stone is still there, in chips below the turf. It’s been suggested that people came to Stonehenge, perhaps as long ago as 2000 BC, to take stone to cure illnesses. Yet it seems unlikely that this can account for so much damage, and yet leave so many pieces.

A 14th-century illustration shows Merlin taking a stone circle from Ireland to rebuild as Stonehenge. © AKG Images

Another theory is that Roman engineers broke the place up, perhaps as a challenge to native religions. Clearly people came to Stonehenge in Roman times: there are many fragments of Roman pottery – more than from all other eras – and several coins. If the Romans did split the stones, they could have been used for building, though none have yet been found in nearby Roman structures.

What we do know for sure is that an Anglo-Saxon man was at the stones between AD 650 and 850: his beheaded remains were found in the 1920s.

 

1500s: Elizabethan excavators take up their tools

The first Stonehenge visitor we can name was Herman Folkerzheimer, a Swiss student who found himself the privileged guest of Bishop Jewel of Salisbury. One summer day in 1562 they “rode into the country with a large retinue,” arriving in the great open expanse of Salisbury Plain.

Folkerzheimer was almost dumbstruck, writing to Josias Simmler, a Zurich theologian and friend, to say that if he had not seen Stonehenge for himself, he would never have believed it.

By the 16th century, Stonehenge was inspiring artists across Europe, as Dutchman Lucas de Heere’s drawing in his Description of Great Britain and Ireland shows. © AKG Images 

It was the work of the Romans, the bishop told him. this was the only logical explanation at the time (if you were to reject the histories that singled out Merlin as creator of Stonehenge, after flying the stones over from Ireland).

The oldest surviving detailed representation of the stones is a pen and wash drawing by Lucas de Heere, who seems to have visited Stonehenge with another Flemish refugee in the late 1560s. In the foreground of a 1575 version of the image, two men are depicted excavating an ancient grave. The fascination with the site’s untold past was growing fast.

 

1600s: Samuel Pepys gives his seal of approval

John Aubrey, the great 17th-century scientist, biographer and gossip, visited Stonehenge as a child. In 1663, after Charles II had commanded him to report on Avebury (the bigger but rougher stone circles in the north of the county), Aubrey surveyed Stonehenge. Despite being a rough scribble, his plan did something new: it tried to show what was actually on the ground. It revealed things people had not seen before, including hollows that led to the significant discovery in the 20th century of a ring of ancient pits.

Visitors now wanted ever-more detailed information on Stonehenge. And writers were ready to provide the answers, even if they had to make them up, as many did.

In 1654, diarist John Evelyn visited relatives on the way to see the stones. Fellow diarist Samuel Pepys made it there in 1668. “Worth going this journey to see,” was his verdict. Pepys left Salisbury early in the morning with a local guide and horses, and a book about Stonehenge he had bought in Oxford on the way.

 

1800s: The spotlight falls on the burial mounds

With local help, visitors approached Stonehenge over unmapped open downland, travelling through some of Europe’s most impressive groups of barrows – prehistoric burial mounds then thought to cover the remains of Stonehenge’s builders.

An 1830 chalk lithograph of Stonehenge by Edouard de Montulé. Visitors could now see artefacts excavated at the site. © AKG Images 

By 1800 local landowners were subjecting the barrows to some of the world’s first scientific excavations. fortunate guests would not only enjoy a guided tour of the stones, but be shown curious artefacts unearthed in the excavations.

 

1800s: Victorian tour guides lurk among the stones

In the early 19th century, some of Britain’s greatest artists – including John Constable and William Turner – committed Stonehenge to canvas. Yet they didn’t do so from a turf track, as their predecessors would have done, but from a road. A turnpike, a maintained route paid for by users, had been built near to the monument in the 1760s. It came from the east and, ultimately, London. Now just about anyone could check out a map, hire a room, make the short trip and, from as early as 1822, find a guide lurking among the stones and sheep.

John Constable’s painting of Stonehenge in c1835, when tourists were “visiting in their droves”. © Alamy 

The historian Thomas Carlyle, for example, took his American friend and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson to Stonehenge in 1848. They reached Amesbury from London by train and horse carriage, and walked out to the “primeval temple”. Sheltering among the stones while Carlyle lit a cigar, they surveyed the larks, the flowers and the “marks of the mineralogist’s hammer and chisel on almost every stone”, debating the mystery of it all. They were not alone: tourists were now visiting Stonehenge in droves.

 

1900s: Parties and picnics come to an end

Many people today claim that they can remember seeing Stonehenge as a child. You just parked on the grass, they say, and walked into the stones. In reality, however, the monument was fenced-in with “nearly a mile of barbed wire” in 1901, and a shilling entrance charge was imposed – about £5 in today’s money. The idea of recent free access is one of the most enduring Stonehenge myths.

By the end of the 19th century Stonehenge was a mess. Not only were casual visitors leaving food waste, scratching names on the stones and sometimes becoming drunk and rowdy, but the site was popular for large gatherings.

In one case, a group of travelling London musicians performed among the stones, possibly with a piano, to a huge crowd, who arrived in carts, by bicycle and on foot. A critic writing for the newspaper, Sketch, was horrified. Stonehenge was no place for picnics or cyclists. “The popping of corks and the cracking of 19th-century jests,” he wrote, “ought to be put down by law.”

After Stonehenge was fenced off, druids were among the few allowed to organise large gatherings at the site. © Oxfordshire County Council

The impetus to enclose Stonehenge had been the fall of two large stones at the end of the 19th century. Someone had to take control. A bitter debate ensued, with opposing parties claiming the right to eternal free access, and the absolute rights of the private owner, Sir Edmund Antrobus.

Tourism grew relentlessly. Soldiers from the Salisbury Plain military training area passed by in their thousands. Midsummer dawn drew 700 white-robed druids in 1905. It was all too much for the owner. Stonehenge was auctioned in 1915, and the buyer presented it to the nation. The fences were there to stay.

 

1970s and 80s: The bitter battle of the Beanfield

It seemed whatever was done to accommodate stonehenge’s visitors – passing 800,000 a year in the 1970s – people complained. Thanks to ingenious colour photography, many anticipated a silent ruin under spectacular skies. The stones symbolised ancient mystery and simpler times. No one wanted to see an overflowing car park and a concrete underpass.

Visitor unease was exacerbated in 1985, when police enforced a midsummer exclusion zone. This prevented even small groups of people approaching stonehenge within four miles. How had it come to this, when students on a field trip could be arrested?

A small, annual midsummer gathering in the early 70s had, by the mid-80s, grown into a massive june-long event. crowds of 50,000 camped and parked their mobile homes on the downland turf for the biggest free festival in British history, complete with live music and the open use of illegal drugs. Stonehenge itself was surrounded by razor wire and policed by guard dogs. Eventually, the National Trust (who own the land) and English Heritage (who manage the stones) banned it.

The battle of the Beanfield erupted when police stopped a travellers’ convoy reaching Stonehenge. © Rex Features

An unfortunate result was the battle of the Beanfield, which erupted when police stopped a travellers’ convoy heading to Stonehenge. The national council for civil liberties investigated the incident (both sides accused the other of unprovoked violence) but there has been no full inquiry.

It took years of debate and new management schemes to overcome the legacy of ill-feeling bequeathed by the festival’s enforced closure. Its existence, however, was incompatible with what most visitors expected of Stonehenge. As time passed, a resolution of the conflict allowed an entirely new infrastructure to be created. next summer, we will be able to see if it works.

 

2013: New visitor centre opens at Stonehenge

From 18 December 2013, visitors to Stonehenge can engage with the history of the monument in a brand new visitor centre – part of a £27m Stonehenge Environmental Improvements Programme instituted by English Heritage.

A computer-generated image of the outdoor gallery at the new visitor centre. © English Heritage

One of the centre’s highlights will be a 360-degree virtual experience of Stonehenge, which will allow visitors to ‘stand in the stones’, while some 250 prehistoric artefacts will be on display in the building’s permanent gallery. The objects on show – on loan from the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, the Wiltshire Museum, and the Duckworth Collection at the University of Cambridge – were all found at the ancient site and many will be on public display for the first time. Among the exhibits will be an antler pick from a red deer, which was used to dig the ditch at stonehenge (see the picture earlier in this feature). It was placed on the floor of the ditch after digging was complete, possibly as a commemoration. the site’s first temporary exhibition, which will examine more than 800 years of ideas and debates about Stonehenge, will open on 18 December.

Meanwhile, an outdoor gallery will give visitors the opportunity to explore a group of reconstructed Neolithic huts, built by volunteers from January 2014, and get a feel for how the builders of Stonehenge may have lived.

The visitor centre is located at Airman’s Corner, some 1.5 miles from Stonehenge. Shuttle buses will operate between the centre and the ancient site for those who do not wish, or are unable, to walk.

Mike Pitts is editor of British Archaeology magazine and has led excavations at Stonehenge.

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