The Truth about Stonehenge*

on Wednesday, 19 June 2019. Posted in Archaeology, Traditions and Folklore, Wiltshire Places

(*or what was held to be The Truth in the Middle Ages)

At the summer solstice, Stonehenge falls under the spotlight: in the solar sense and in the cultural sense. People all over the world find it fascinating and are reminded to ponder it when the sun is at its highest. Much of the appeal of Stonehenge may be attributed to its encompassing aura of mystery, its air of mind-bending antiquity. There is much about it we don’t understand, despite the advances made by ingenious researchers, but we are not the first generations to try to account for Stonehenge. So what did our forebears believe?

According to a twelfth-century author called Geoffrey of Monmouth, the ancient stone circle now known as Stonehenge was originally brought to mount Killarus in Ireland from Africa by a group of giants. It was known then as the Giants’ Dance and had healing properties. The stones came to Wiltshire with the help of a very young Merlin, at the behest of King Arthur’s uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius, to be reconstructed as a memorial to a group of Britons massacred during the reign of the malicious usurper, Vortigern. Some decades later the structure renamed Stonehenge becomes the final resting place of Uther Pendragon.

I studied this story while writing my PhD about an illustrated medieval manuscript containing an abridged version of Wace’s Anglo-Norman French translation of Geoffrey’s history: La Roman de Brut. Even in its shortened form, the episode in which the child Merlin guides the reconstruction of Stonehenge celebrates brains over brawn, great power despite littleness of stature: 

“They grasped the stones behind, in front and sideways: they pushed and thrust them hard and shook them hard, but however much force they used, they could not find a solution.
‘Rise’ said Merlin, ‘you will so no more by force. Now you shall see how knowledge and skill are better than bodily strength.’ Then he stepped forward and stopped. He looked around, his lips moving like a man saying his prayers. I do not know if he said a prayer or not. Then he called the Britons back.
‘Come here,’ he said, ‘come! Now you can handle the stones and carry them into your ships.’ As Merlin instructed, as he devised and told them, the Britons took the stones, carried them to the ships and placed them inside. They brought them to England and carried them to Amesbury, into the fields nearby.”
 – Based on Judith Weiss’ 2002 translation of Wace’s Roman de Brut

To the medieval mind, the stone circle was a monument to human mastery of nature, as well as to the fallen Britons. Still today we measure ourselves by the power of our prehistoric ancestors to have created it. I recently created a linocut of the child Merlin guiding the reconstruction of Stonehenge. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace focus on the dismantling of the stones in Ireland, which is also the moment illustrated in the manuscript I worked on for my PhD. Instead, I depicted the moment when that iconic plain was undergoing its momentous transformation.

P58539 Merlin Guides the Building of Stonehenge

On 2nd of November 1918, The Salisbury and Winchester Journal and General Advertiser (held in the collection of the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre) stated that the acquisition of Stonehenge for the nation at the end of the First World War ‘invested it with an additional solemnity with regard to the fallen in the war’ and that it was ‘one of the most splendid memorials of the kind that anyone could imagine’.

Thanks to the work of archaeologists, we are still discovering new truths about the original function of Stonehenge. At the same time, the history of narratives applied to Stonehenge is just as intriguing. In the earliest written commentaries, it was called a memorial. At the start of the last century, it became a memorial again. Often, memorials are monumental constructions made in response to monumental destruction. Perhaps, as the sun climbs to its zenith, Stonehenge captivates us because of its symbolic potential: a memorial both to what we can make and what we can lose.

A guest blog by Amy Jeffs

Amy Jeffs is an art historian living in Frome, who is awaiting her PhD viva at the University of Cambridge. The prints inspired by her research can be found here and Merlin guides the building of Stonehenge was recently acquired by the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre inspired by its Creative Wiltshire project. It is catalogued in the Historic Photograph and Print Collection under P58539.


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