The Stones Remain
Some of the reasons why prehistoric circles and standing stones and tombs appeal to us so strongly are simple and obvious. Let me begin with one of them: the nature of stone. Whether one is talking of granite or dolerite or limestone or sandstone, it is stone's business to be durable. Stone is tough; stone is not easily pushed around; stone makes human life look a brief affair indeed; stones were the first ones and:
Stones will be the last ones;
They are earth's bones, no easy prey
For breakers …1
But while stone's density derides time, its character is endlessly fascinating. It is rough and smooth. It takes light while offering none and it is transparent, or lustrous, or even glitters with its thousand minuscule mirrors. It holds its warmth at midsummer long after the heat has gone out of the day and it is icy to touch at midwinter.
The surface of stone, moreover, tells stories of various encounters. Here the scrape of a mason's adze, there the patient craftsmanship of a skilled engraver, and everywhere the unending struggle with wind and rain. It gleams in sunlight and it seems to weep after rain. Each stone is an account of survival and suffering.
Not only the fabric but also the location of prehistoric monuments has a great attraction for many of us. A good proportion of them are situated in places where there is little other evidence of the hand of man. You sense that the power of the monuments lies not only in the stones themselves but in the elemental theatre in which they are placed. And even when a village or a cluster of farm buildings stands nearby, it is usually still possible to appreciate the truths in the lie of the land and understand why the original builders placed a monument just where they did. On the whole - and, of course, Stonehenge is a serious exception - Neolithic and Early Bronze Age monuments are to be found in peaceable places where continuity presides and gives the lie to Thomas Hardy's 'Channel Firing':
Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.
The third pleasure afforded by stone circles is that they are circles, albeit often irregular ones. Ovals would not be quite as good, and triangles or rhomboids or plain squares would be very much worse. The natural world consists of curves, not of straight lines, and the great comfort of the circle itself is that its curve is unending: it suggests the womb and the skull, the cycle of life and death and life, the rhythm of day and night, the round of the seasons and the year; earth and moon circling the sun.
The close proximity of circle and standing stone suggest the sexual relationship and mutual dependence of male and female. Without each other they are individual and finite; taken together they express not one life or two lives but Life itself.
The mystery of stone circles and prehistoric tombs also has to do with aspiration. All over Britain people lugged and tugged stones into position; they stood them upright; they dressed them. The megaliths may be monuments erected in the name of deities or astronomy or the dead or justice or commerce (and in all probability a combination of these), but they are also memorials to the ambition of their builders. Like Rome, they were not built in a day and their builders clearly did not mean them to perish in a day. Without cement, without mortar, simply placing stone next to stone and stone upon stone, they made quite crude structures (however complex their purposes) that awaken deep longings in us that we, too, will not die on the day we die:
And what is Time but shadows that were cast
By these storm-sculptured stones while centuries fled?
The stones remain; their stillness can outlast
The skies of history hurrying overhead.2
That we do not know exactly what the aspirations of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age masons were can be frustrating, but it can also be an asset because our innocence sets our imaginations free. This is not to say that stone circles appeal because they baffle us but, rather, to assert once more the incomparable value of word and image and dream. This is the other way of seeing, the nourishing vision that no amount of fact gathering can ever achieve. It is the making real of a place to ourselves - the making personal of a place - that is indivisible from self-discovery.
As time passes and we grow older, we each want to understand rather more about our lives on this planet. We begin (or we continue) to look for meanings. When we gaze at a prehistoric circle erected 4000 or 5000 years ago we may not be sure of its function, but we know we are looking at a kind of expression - a stone understanding - of inner truth. This is why the stones draw us back. They are reflections of our own quickening search; they are monuments to the living spirit.
1 Kevin Crossley-Holland, ‘A Place of Stones’, The Rain-Giver, 1972
2. Siegfried Sassoon, The Heart’s Journey, IX, 1928.