When you’re married to an archaeology professor, you spend dozens of family vacations poking around some of the world’s greatest archaeology destinations. Cuzco and Machu Picchu (in Peru), Newgrange (near Dublin), Antigua (in Guatemala)—we’ve seen them all.
Of course this explains why, during our four-month stint living in London in 2013, our clan made it a priority to visit Stonehenge, not only one of the most famous landmarks in Great Britain, but one of the most famous landmarks in the world.
Sure, the Neolithic site is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. And, yes, it is a critical component to the heritage of England and Great Britain as a whole. For my wife, however, who specializes in the Andes, it was even more than that: The ultimate “Bucket List” item, a place about which she had dreamed of visiting since she was a small child.
We went in November, just before the site’s new state-of-the-art Visitor Centre opened to the public. For all of us, the experience was well worth the wait.
Photos by Nikki Slovak Villano
Technically speaking, a henge is a circular monument surrounded by a ditch. Archaeologists have discovered a number of other henges around Britain. Some of these were made of wood. Stonehenge, as the name suggests, is made from giant Sarsen sandstone blocks (though evidence suggests it actually started as wood).
Theories about Stonehenge’s purpose(s) remain unknown, but the most contemporary theory is that it is one of the largest and most important Neolitihc cemeteries in all of Britain.
What experts do know for sure is that Stonehenge was constructed over a period of roughly 2,000 years. And that construction took some serious engineering ingenuity, considering many of the stones hail from a mountain range 20 miles away, and that most weigh more than Mack trucks.
Today these experts have pieced together other aspects of the site: a) that people visited as part of some pilgrimage, b) that the processional of visitors advanced up an “Avenue” from the banks of the River Avon, and c) that people were buried there—dotted around Stonehenge are ancient mound graves that date back to the Bronze Age.
Much of this history is available for visitors to experience first-hand. When we visited, the information was presented as part of a pamphlet that we were given for a self-guided tour. Now, with the new Visitor Centre, a good bit of it is on display before you even set foot on the site itself.
(Worth noting: The Visitor Centre sits about a mile from the site itself, and you need to take buses to get between the two.)
Out near the monument, the experience is all about the stones. You can’t get too close—a paved pathway circles the monument from about 30 feet away. Still, the stroll provides great perspective on how massive the giant totems (technically, they’re called trilithons) really are, and on the relationship between Stonehenge and other features of the area.
Our pamphlet provided information about some of the most important stones in the bunch. With a map, we were able to learn more about the Avenue on which people approached the monument, and the site’s potential as a rudimentary observatory (the sun sets at the midwinter solstice between the trilithons).
Apparently, since our visit, English Heritage has put together downloadable and free handheld audio guides with the information contained in those pamphlets. What’s more, officials have lined the Avenue with interpretive signs to help explain the flow of ancient visitors to the site.
Viewfinder Tip: Advance booking (with timed tickets) is required to visit Stonehenge, so be sure to plan ahead.
All told, Stonehenge is about an hour-long train ride (or a two-hour car ride) from most London hotels.
More important, Stonehenge isn’t the only archaeological must-see in the southwest of England; if you’re a prehistory buff (or an aspiring Indiana Jones), check out Avebury and Amesbury. What’s more, excavations at Durrington Walls, located two miles from Stonehenge (it’s actually within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site), suggest that the two sites may have been connected in some sort of ritual pilgrimage along the River Avon.
At the very least, visiting both regions helps put into perspective the archaeological significance of the region. You don’t need to be married to an archaeologist to appreciate that.
Which of the world’s great archaeological sites have resonated with you, and why?