I’m writing this up June 23. Yes, I write some entries that far in advance. It’s how the daily updates happen at 9:00 exactly. I file a bunch at once and let the computer auto-post. It means I can work on my PhD with no distractions, or at least no blog related distractions. It also means that I can go back and re-edit entries, though taking a few days before starting writing this entry means I’m not going to be as scathing as I could have been. Just as well. I didn’t think Stonehenge Live was that bad, just disappointing and a bit of a missed opportunity.
For those of you who didn’t see the first episode, which I think is everyone I know, it dealt with the process of creating the model. A lot of the time therefore wasn’t about Stonehenge, but rather Foamhenge. I think this wasn’t that bad and the Foamhenge problems were used to contrast with the ancient problems in building Stonehenge. The stand out segment for me was Gordon Pipes and his stone-rowing team.
Stone-rowing effectively puts a half-a-dozen levers on either side of the megalith and then gets a couple of people on each lever. You then lift, shift the stone slightly and then drop. Then repeat the process. He had hoped to get his team to move the megalith twenty-five yards in twenty minutes. In the end he only moved it thirteen which sounds like failure. I liked it. I think the method could be improved, but it’s certainly worth persevering with. For a start it wasn’t an entirely fair test. I imagine his crew was unpracticed. I think fitter (sorry) Neolithic people who were trained could turn a decent speed with the technique.
The other experiment, dropping the stone into a hole was memorable, though for different reasons. It didn’t budge an inch from its stand when the ropes were cut. This baffled me. Not that the experiment failed, it looked odd when it was set up. Rather that he has a better technique burning the support out. It looks more spectacular and it works. I’ve no idea what changed his mind. I don’t think either system was used, there are ramps by the stones, but nevertheless I expected something better. All-in-all though his engineering ideas were interesting. Gordon Pipes is clearly thinking about practicalities. My only caution is that there’s almost certainly more than one way of moving the stones. Just because you find a way, it doesn’t mean it was the way. You’d still need correlating archaeological evidence to convince someone.
Programme one then was frothy, but fun froth and not mad. Lightweight but as far as it went sound. I thought they’d set up something interesting for programme two.
I’ll declare an interest here. Most of my suggestions for programme two weren’t used so I could just be bitter. Nevertheless programme two was poor.
The programme name was Stonehenge The Ultimate Experiment…Live! Now my idea of an experiment is when you get an idea and test it. That happened. We had a look at what sunrise would like, and what sunset would look like. Clive, I thought, was very good given the time restraints he had. His segment was over in about seven minutes. There wasn’t a lot of time for him because the other ‘experiments’ included druids blessing the circle and an authentic Bronze Age ritual.
They blew their credibility and they blew it early on with the druids. They said in programme one that the druids didn’t build Stonehenge and weren’t around in the era they reconstructed. So bringing them in for five minutes was spending five minutes when all we ‘learned’ about was that some modern people like to wear robes and wave things. What did this tell us about how Stonehenge was used in the Bronze Age? What, even, does it tell us about modern Druidism – which would be anthropologically interesting phenomenon? The end was dominated by this authentic Bronze Age ritual and that was painful. I really do respect Francis Pryor. I think he’s more intelligent than me and he really knows the Bronze Age but I can’t work out what planet he was on for that programme. As the Bronze Age people processed up the hill and the horns droned he was asked if that was authentic Bronze Age music. “Oh yes,” he replied, “We have surviving instruments and we know the range of notes they can play, the rest is a matter of imagination.” Right. So if I stick a piano in front of someone and ask them to hammer a few keys I’ll get authentic 20th century music? Where were the drums? Where were the whoops and hollers from the people? Mike Parker Pearson commented that it was a very Church of England reconstruction and he was exactly right. It simply reinforced tired clichés and dated stereotypes of the past.
I could live with that. If the programme had been called Noël’s Henge Party I’d have been cock-a-hoop about the programme. But it wasn’t. As ultimate experiments go this one was pants. And as for the ending about “opening a new era” in Stonehenge studies? I’ve been reading Kate Fox’s book on the English and she suggests the English national catchphrase would be “Oh come off it!” It fits beautifully. A new era? Oh, come off it.
The reason I’m so disappointed is that the model was unreservedly brilliant. Mike Pitts and the manufacturers did an amazing job putting it together. It was outstanding and it should have been the star of the show. Instead it wasn’t exciting enough so it was filled with druids, or fake Bronze Agers. Anything that could distract from the stones. There was a lot they could have done.
Some people noted the Altar Stone shifted around a lot in the programme. Sometimes it was behind the Great Trilithon, sometimes in front of it and sometimes outside the stone circle having a quick cigarette. It was usually in a controversial place. Mike Pitts put it behind the Great Trilithon with good reason. There is a large pit and a break in the bluestone circle there. Placing the altar stone there could make sense. But not all the archaeologists agreed. Why didn’t they turn the boffins loose in the circle to argue about the placing of stones? There’d be passion, arm-waving and you might actually get a sense of what they thought Stonehenge was for as they each tried to justify their own positions.
I’d have also tried following up on something Mike Parker Pearson said. He noted the problem of visibility. It was hard to see into the centre of the circle from the outside. Well that depended very much on where you stood and what you were looking for inside the circle. With a full scale model you could test the lines of sight and see if there were significant viewpoints.
They could have also used the polystyrene nature of the stones to better effect. If they are polystyrene you can move them. Was there one Heel stone or two? What would happen if you moved one away? There are three slaughter stone pits, but does that make three slaughter stones? Was one moved around a lot? What would it look like if one had been moved? These are things you could test to see why Stonehenge looked the way it did. You genuinely could have learned something new.
Rituals aside it wasn’t bad. You couldn’t jump up and down and yell “THAT’S PLAIN WRONG” at the screen. I think the fault was that it was over ambitious. By seeking to include everything Stonehenge it could also deal with anything superficially. Add in the need to preview what’s coming up later in the programme during airtime and you end up with very little time and a lot to squeeze in. That’s a shame because the effort and the detail in the site was slightly intimidating. But if you still want to see a good programme on Stonehenge, then it’s still Julian Richards’s Stonehenge: The Enigma that you should see.Google+