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Stonehenge - June's flashpoint.

IN recent years, the traditional Summer Solstice celebrations at Stonehenge, on June 21, the longest day of the year, have caused clashes between hippies, Druids and the police. This has led to eight hundred police officers being drafted into the area, with up to twenty thousand vagrants gathered around the stones, making the site look more like a transit camp than an ancient monument.

Why the hippies chose Stonehenge for their demonstrations is as big a mystery as its origin. John Aubrey, the seventeenth century antiquary, advanced the theory that the ancient Druids erected the stone circles as a temple. Modern radiocarbon dating methods prove him wrong, establishing that most stones were in their present positions at least two thousand years before any Druids arrived in Britain!

Repeated vandalism has led to a barrier being erected around the stones, and during the past four years a four-mile exclusion zone has been enforced from June 11 to June 24. Alex Rosenberger, a spokesman for the New Age Travellers movement stated, 'This exclusion zone is the only one left in the whole of Europe. It is an unjust breach of human rights'. This complaint has still to be resolved by the European Court of Human Rights.

In 1985, a study group of the English Heritage Commission proposed building a new six million pound enclosed visitors' centre three quarters of a mile from the stones. It considers the present facilities for visitors 'woefully inadequate' and wants Stonehenge to be seen in a manner befitting its importance.

The improvement plans have not been implemented due to lack of funds, but English Heritage has a new chairman, appointed last year. Jocelyn Stevens has a reputation for getting things done, and he regards improvements at Stonehenge as his top priority. There are now eight possible sites for a visitors' centre being considered, and its cost has escalated to about fifteen million pounds.

Meanwhile, modern Druids deeply resent their exclusion from the Stonehenge site on June 21. They are members of the Church of the Druid Universal Bond, who claim to be the counterparts of the ancient Druids. Traditionally they keep vigil through the night, then witness the uncannily accurate Summer Solstice sunrise. It is this spectacle which has attracted genuine sightseers from all over the world.

Prior to the police involvement, the Summer Solstice ritual started with a single file of some seventy white-robed Druids processing round the outer mounds and stones. They solemnly stop at four different places, leaving at each a symbol of the four main elements -- earth, air, fire and water. Moving in serpentine manner, the procession enters into the inner ring of massive stones. If the sky is clear, the first rays of the rising sun fall upon the Heel Stone, cast centrally down the avenue leading to the inner stone circle, then cut precisely through the middle lintel and light up the Altar Stone, on which human sacrifices were once offered.

There are no written records of the people who built Stonehenge, but it is believed to have been the site of a man-made earthwork as far back as 2800 BC. It was then only a circular enclosure with two stones at the entrance and the Heel Stone standing outside.

At about 2100 PC, the Beaker people are reckoned to have started erecting two circles of bluestones, transporting about eighty stones weighing more than one hundred tons by sea and overland from the Preseli Mountains in Wales, a manoeuvre regarded as the most remarkable feat of engineering by prehistoric man in Europe. Yet for reasons unknown, the circles were never completed, and the stones taken down when little more than half had been erected.

The next stage of development was setting up the sarsen stones in the early Bronze Age. These were transported about twenty miles from around Avebury, where hundreds lay on the surface and a circle of stones still stands today. They are hard sandstone and the largest used in the Stonehenge construction weigh about fifty tons each.

Unlike the Heel Stone which is still in its natural state and now leaning over, the erected stones are all smoothed and shaped artificially. Considering that the stone is so hard that it is difficult to cut with modern steel tools, this is another example of skillful primitive workmanship. It is this shaping which makes Stonehenge unique compared with other prehistoric stone circles.

There is plenty of evidence at Stonehenge today to prove that the bluestones have been used more than once, in different positions, and that what we now see could not have been positioned all at the same time. There were bluestones at Stonehenge before the arrival of the sarsens, but the present bluestone circle is not a true circle, suggesting that it was laid out after the inner sarsen uprights were erected, thus preventing an accurate circle being drawn by a measuring cord fixed at the centre.

In recent years the stones have been subjected to more elements than those of the weather. With a large police presence, guard dog patrols, barbed wire and other barricades, June 21 has seen Stonehenge looking more like a fortress than an ancient monument. But the hippies want the site to become a permanent gathering place for vagrants, maintaining that they have as much right to be on the site as the modern Druids.

Last year the four-mile exclusion zone was again enforced, but fewer arrests were made, making it the least troublesome Summer Solstice for several years. Many hope that this year will be even more peaceful, so that Stonehenge can be visited and seen as an important part of our heritage dating back to prehistoric times. It has outlasted all other constructions and will no doubt outlive any building standing in Britain today.
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Author:Humphrys, Geoffrey
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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