The Japan Times
February 12, 2001

Restoration of Stonehenge comes under attack

STONEHENGE, England (AP) The dramatic images show men struggling to haul the 25-ton stone pillars of Stonehenge into place, creating the distinctive outline of the 4,000-year-old stone circle.

But these pictures are less than 100 years old. They are photographs taken during one in a series of 20th century restoration projects that hoisted, straightened and set in concrete many of the monument's mammoth stones.

The extent of the restoration — largely forgotten until it was raised in the British news media recently — has sparked a debate about where to draw the line between preserving the past and altering it.

Brian Edwards, a doctoral candidate at the University of the West of England who has studied the restoration of ancient sites, says Stonehenge would be "a completely broken mess" without the work. He criticizes the monument's guardian, English Heritage, for playing down the modern-day intervention in its information for tourists.

"You can't have people coming to Stonehenge from all over the world without being told what they're looking at," he said.

English Heritage says restoration of the site, which draws 700,000 visitors a year, was done in the interests of preservation and public safety.

"The Stonehenge that exists today is not some sort of reconstructed fake," said spokeswoman Elspeth Henderson. "It is the authentic prehistoric monument."

Present-day Stonehenge consists of the remnants of the last in a sequence of circular monuments built between 3000 and 1600 B.C. But the change to the site over the last century has been dramatic. An 1835 painting by John Constable shows many stone pillars leaning or lying askew in the grass. Photographs taken in 1900 reveal a similarly untidy scene.

Gaps remain where stones have fallen or been removed over the centuries, but the site conveys a strong sense of how it must have looked when complete: an outer ring of lintel-topped, 6-meter-tall stones encircling several inner circles and horseshoes of stones.

Exactly how and why Stonehenge was built remains a mystery. The stones are aligned along the rising of the sun at the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

Some experts believe Stonehenge is aligned with the sun simply because its builders came from a sun-worshipping culture, while others think the site was part of a huge astronomical calendar.

Hemmed in by busy roads and rattled by jets from a nearby air base, Stonehenge nonetheless remains a majestic sight. The lichen-encrusted stones rise from Salisbury Plain, 130 km southwest of London, amid a landscape dotted with sheep and ancient burial mounds.

For centuries, locals and visitors plundered the stones, carting them away to use in construction or chipping off chunks for souvenirs. The first restoration was carried out in 1901, after a New Year's Eve storm toppled one of the giant pillar stones. More work was done between the 1920s and 1964.

The official guide published by English Heritage contains only one sentence alluding to the restoration work, and the recorded tape most visitors hear does not mention it at all.

"It is referred to in the visitor guidebook, but you have to make a judgment about what you can realistically get into a 34-page booklet," said Henderson.

She stressed that all the stones were replaced in their original positions and that no new ones were added.

The Stonehenge gift shop stocks several longer books, including a 600-page book detailing 20th century excavations at the site.

But most of the tourists padding around the circle on a chilly winter afternoon were unaware of the restoration despite a block of concrete clearly visible at the base of one stone — and were largely untroubled when asked about it.

"It was rebuilt three times anyway," noted Kathy Bates, a visitor from Carthage, Mo.

Some people, however, are disappointed.

"It makes you wonder whether the thing is worthwhile," Kevin Carlyon, a self-described "white witch" who has worshipped at Stonehenge for 20 years, told the Western Daily Press newspaper. "I think a lot of people will be asking whether the vibe going through it has been destroyed."

Stonehenge isn't the only site to come under scrutiny. Edwards said the world's largest stone circle at Avebury — 32 km north of Stonehenge — was substantially rebuilt by archaeologist Alexander Keiller in the 1930s.

"How many visitors come to visit sites and gain a view of a past which doesn't necessarily exist in reality?" he asked.

"It's possible that neither Avebury nor Stonehenge appear as they did at any stage of the past. Some would say the sites have simply been protected. It's up to the public to decide — but they must be informed."

David Batchelor, English Heritage's chief archaeologist, says ideas about the degree of restoration appropriate to ancient sites are changing.

"Some monuments have been over-restored. We don't think Stonehenge has been," he said.

English Heritage is preparing to make quiet changes to reflect the new mood.

"There is a growing interest in how historical sites are restored," Henderson said. "When we update the guidebook later this year, we will try to include more of that material, about how humans have interacted with the monument."

VISITORS STROLL AROUND STONEHENGE, about 130 km southwest of London, in 1999. The restoration of Britain's ancient monuments has been questioned recently by the British media, which ask where to draw the line between altering the past and preserving it. AP PHOTO