Review – Stonehenge: the story so far

2 mins read
Julian Richards
Historic England, £25
ISBN 978-1848021006
Review Rob Ixer

Julian Richards makes no apology ‘for adding one more item to the extensive literature of Stonehenge’ as he offers the revision of his 2007 book to be this year’s Stonehenge autumn annual. Much, very much, has happened in those ten years (up to summer 2017) in terms of Stonehenge data-gathering and the many interpretations arising from it, and indeed in a wider understanding of the (British) Neolithic/Bronze Age. Richards records, comments, and gently explores the changes in attitudes, methodology, and beliefs (‘hypotheses’) of Stonehenge workers of these, and indeed earlier, years.

As with last year’s Stonehenge book by Pryor (Stonehenge; see CA 319), it is essentially written by someone unattached to the current projects and their teams, and so he brings an objectivity (in the main part) to the claims of those workers. He gives full named credit to all the significant ‘toilers on the Druidical Plains’, with the odd exception of the couple of geologists who securely recognised Craig Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog as sources of Stonehenge bluestones, incidentally not as part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project as stated on p.214.

Richards carefully picks his way over both long-trodden and new ground in his first 11 chapters. He introduces the stones within their landscape (returning in depth to that relationship in Chapter 7), then in four excellent chapters discusses the initial historical recognition and subsequent examination, excavations, and restorations of the site up to 2000 – unintentionally, perhaps, highlighting the cavalier treatment the site has received throughout most of the 20th century. In four subsequent chapters, he succinctly discusses all the current thinking on the site, its stones, its people, and its ‘life history’. The clear dismissal of any moonshine in the brief archaeo-astronomy section is typical of his good-sense style.

There are occasional critical lapses in concentration, notably with regard to the treatment of the ‘warm springs’ at Blick Mead, where aspects like a photograph of a shocking pink porcine-shaped flint (those unworked pseudozoomorphic flint nodules are surely one of Britain’s best archaeological red herrings) are accepted without considered comment.

But the final chapter is perplexing, closely repeating many of the important data given in the earlier ones, but in a soft-focus, Hollywood-storyboard fashion: ‘the air was full of the mouth-watering smell of roasting pig’ as they ‘told stories of how the great stones had been moved, of heroic feats of strength, triumphs and tragedies.’ Bernard Cornwell’s highly readable novel Stonehenge perhaps was being channelled here.

The captions on many photographs and diagrams (they are one of the main joys of the book) are pared to a minimum, in particular the reclusive bluestone ‘stars’ of the last decade. Stonehenge 32d and 32e, spotlighted in the photograph on p.121, deserve a better billing than ‘below-ground stumps’. They need ‘b(d)igging-up’, as does the Altar Stone, shown in a fine photograph on p.21.

The production values of the book – from the feel of the tastefully attractive cover, to the reproduction quality of all the illustrations – must be among the highest in any of the recent annuals, and that standard is consistently high.

This is not intended for the dedicated professional Stonehenge watcher (and that is, anyway, a commercially highly limited market), as Richards’ gloss on all things Stonehenge, while fair, generous, and pretty accurate reportage, adds little new to any of the debates. But that is not the intent or purpose of the book. Its market – like earlier and similar well-rounded Stonehenge volumes – is the seriously interested ‘amateur’ who wants more than the official guidebook but is not prepared for the journals. Despite the minor drawbacks, it hits that golden target fairly and squarely. Richards’ unapologetic, literary addition deserves its place crammed alongside recent rivals.

Buying this is money well spent, an honest gift well given. But the cost of the film rights to Chapter 12 might be considerably more!

This review appeared in CA 335.

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