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Friday, May 16th, 2008

Time Event
10:30p
I miss traveling ...
There was a time when I got out of town on some exotic excursion at least once a year, so naturally enough, I've been to Stonehenge. The last time I was in the U.K. we took a bit of a road trip and visited a lot of ruined castles, and stuff along those lines, including some "quality time" at Avebury. I seem to recall that we only had an hour or so at Stonehenge, though, which is a pity. On that trip I picked up quite a number of books about the neolithic monuments, and thought I had a pretty good fix on the who/what/when/how of all this stuff. Still, I had a lot of "I did not know that" moments with Julian Richards' Stonehenge: A History in Photographs, particularly dealing with how badly off the site had been at one point, and how much reconstruction (benign, and as I recall barely noticeable) there has been ... particularly in the area of straightening up stones that seemed ready to fall, and re-setting stones that had fallen, yet were still structurally sound.

The author of this volume is an archaeologist turned TV writer ... which is neither bad nor good, I suppose. The concept of this could have emerged from either side of that equation, as it's a look at Stonehenge through the window of the photographic archives of English Heritage's National Monuments Record. Actually, the book starts out in the pre-photo era, with detailed survey drawings done in the early 1800's, then moves into the first years of photography (as early as 1867). It is interesting to see how generally "unchanging" the stones themselves are with the ever-changing look of the humans in the pictures. As closely as possible, each image is sourced and dated, even though some "detective work" was needed to specify when certain shots were taken (one in the 1960's was dated via the registration of the license plate on a cement truck!). The author notes that there is a pretty clear dividing line for pictures, as "Stone 56", a large upright, was straightened from a rather precipitous lean into other stones in 1901, so it is at least clear which century the shots come from..

While the book does have the inevitable chapter of speculations on how the stones got there, how they were raised, what it all was for (with some interesting pictures of various "experiments" of bringing stones in on barges, etc.), the bulk of the text is more about the interface of the monument and the population since there has been photography to record same. Again, I had not really been cognizant of just how much "tidying up" had been done to Stonehenge over the years, and a good deal of the book is spent looking at various of these projects from records and the photos which survive. The author does not have much good to say about any of the teams that have worked there, from an archaeological standpoint ... far too much focus has been on the stones, and far too little on the pits and ditches ... but he does at least credit them with having been "gentle" with the major elements of the site.

Another thing that I had not been aware of was that the British Air Force had set up a training base just across the road from the ruins back in WW2 ... which is amazingly insensitive when you think that this was essentially inviting enemy attacks which could well have destroyed these monuments which had stood there since 3,000 BCE!

Anyway, Stonehenge: A History in Photographs is quite an interesting read for being, essentially, a photo essay. This seems to have just gone out of print (I got this from a clearance table at our local B&N), so you might check the stores first (it's a B&N book). It is available used from the Amazon guys, with "like new" copies going for as little as $3.41 and "new" for as little as $3.66 (although, I paid less in the store).


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