It only took a tweet to confirm what I had long suspected.
Stonehengism isn’t just a problem for archaeologists. It is a social problem too. It is not just us – archaeologists – that seem to be obsessed with Stonehenge.
Despite being relatively well known amongst a certain select audience as someone who has, let’s just say, reservations, about the amount of time and attention focused on Stonehenge, the most popular things I do always seem to be about the fun or even positive aspects of Stonehenge.
My most liked blog post dates back over five years – and I can’t help feel that the visual focus and passing mention of Stonehenge in relation to it’s brutal look and feel attracted 220 ‘likes’, several pingbacks, and literally hundreds of new followers of the blog in the space of a week.
And so it has happened again, this time with a tweet. Posted on the evening of Friday 16th November 2019, it was an innocuous suggestion that twitter-users play a game which I called #StonehengeAnything
By any stretch of imagination compared to my usual social media track record, this went mental. Over an intense 72 hour period I struggled to keep up with all replies to my initial tweet, those using the hashtag for the game, and replies to others who retweeted the tweet, including a big signal boost from Alice Roberts and Sarah Parcak, who both played along as well.
As of the evening of 19th November, impressions and interactions were off the scale for what I normally achieve, plus I probably picked up over 50 new followers.
I added some variants as we went along, such as #StonehengeYourself. I also introduced the concept of a #StonehengeWhack – a noun that when matched with Stonehenge simply produces google images of Stonehenge with no added weirdness. This was based on an idea that comedian Dave Gorman popularised a few years ago, Googlewhack, “a contest for finding a Google search query consisting of exactly two words without quotation marks that returns exactly one hit” (wikipedia).
What prompted this? In part it was due to some research I have been doing with Gordon Barclay for a paper we are working on related to late Neolithic studies and Neo-colonial geographies. I was doing a lot of Stonehenge-this and Stonehenge-that searching online to follow up various lines of inquiry, and some of these got a bit silly. Then I realised that no matter how silly things got, I still seemed to get a directly related image.
Photos of the real Stonehenge with things in the foreground. Photoshopped images of Stonehenge added to things, or things added to Stonehenge. Stonehenge corporate branding. Stonehenge merch. Trilithons made of all sorts of weird and wonderful materials. Things that someone thought looked a bit like Stonehenge. Stonehenge memes. Cartoons of Stonehenge. Relentless bloody Stonehenge. And some deeply weird combinations.
But I had something else in mind. In his excellent 1999 book Metaphor and Material Culture, Chris Tilley included an essay which I have always loved (and believe me I don’t love everything he writes) on the genealogy and usage of the word megalith. The essay ‘Frozen Metaphor: megaliths in text’ is a gloriously granular exploration of how rigid adherence to archaeological vocabulary constrains interpretations. The legacy of the weird faux-Latin word megalith has been one of reductionism, leading to a narrow range of pre-figured interpretations of things we call megalith.
This was a study in archaeological banality. Tilley writes this about the word megalith but he might as well have been writing about Stonehenge: “The term creates a particular form of discourse and – such is its power – there appears to be an inability to reinscribe the past in a fresh manner” (1999, 83).
One of the things that Tilley explored in relation to text was words that were combined with megalith. He noted common matches in the archaeological literature: words related to burial, monumentality, ritual. Then, he did a curious thing which exposed the banality of our discourse and the inadequacy of our vocabulary: he created Table 3.3. Drum roll please.
It is no coincidence that in my initial series of #StonehengeAnything tweets, I included Stonehenge Volvo.
Tilley noted: Bearing in mind what the word megalith actually means ie ‘big stone’, why is it that we might laugh at megalithic (big stone) vegetable when it is apparently quite normal and unproblematic to refer to big stone evolution, big stone people, big stone territories, big stone rituals, etc?
And so, Stonehenge has been rendered banal through its ubiquity. Stonehenge limits and constrains our discourse as a word, concept, and image. Why is Stonehenge Ritual any less – or more – nonsensical than Stonehenge Whiskey and Coke? Why do we have to accept Stonehenge Age but laugh at Stonehenge Marmite?
The ubiquity of Stonehenge is something that has been playing on my mind for a while. And not just in terms of the disproportionate amounts of intellect, money, and time spent on the archaeology of this monument and its surrounding landscape. I have also been concerned about the dominance of Stonehenge in the public imagination when it comes to British prehistory (not even just the Neolithic period). For many people Stonehenge is British / English prehistory.
For some Stonehenge is a political symbol of Britishness / Englishness, which is deeply problematic, and in some senses is enabled by the ways that archaeologists fetishise this place, and probably not helped by its pop culture aesthetic.
This ubiquity comes in many forms. For instance, the coverage of Stonehenge in Britain’s popular archaeology magazine, British Archaeology, is remarkable in its quantity and depth in comparison to any other site, never mind any other Neolithic site. (The only story that came close to competing in the last decade was the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III.) To quantify this, I considered the front page, the main selling point of this magazine in shops and online, to be representative of the main stories and headlines contained within each edition. I looked at every cover of this magazine published between November 2003 and May-June 2017 (83 editions in all). A remarkable 11% of these editions had as the main front cover feature Stonehenge. On seven occasions, Stonehenge was the cover feature two editions in a row.
In the same period, only one other Neolithic site was afforded cover story prominence (0.13%), and this was the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, the other dominant pole of British Neolithic studies.
Internal content shows an even stronger bias towards Stonehenge, with at least 29% of the issues containing an article about Stonehenge. A few stories were about Durrington Walls which is gradually adopting the role of ‘the place where the Stonehenge builders lived’ in the literature. For this dataset, I only focused on articles mentioned on the front cover of the magazine, and it is likely this underplays the true level of Stonehenge content. News stories about Stonehenge are commonplace and are not included in these figures. Only five other British Neolithic sites were mentioned on the front cover of any of these 83 magazines, and three of these are in Wessex (Avebury, Silbury Hill, Dorset excavations the name of which currently escapes me….).
I am not being critical of the editor across this period, Mike Pitts. He clearly knows his audience! And I have not looked at this for a few years so the balance may well have shifted.
Stonehenge ubiquity is therefore reflected in archaeology the discipline, and academic and popular publications. And it seems a vast array of other walks of life.
Did you know, for instance, that there are over 80 replica and fake Stonehenges around the world today, lovingly documented by the wonderful Clonehenge blog.
This is where #StonehengeAnything comes in.
I analysed 319 tweets that used the hashtag #StonehengeAnything or replied to a thread prompted by my initial tweet, over the period of 72 hours from evening of 15th to 18th November 2019. I may have missed some, and this data does not include some random latecomers to the party since that period so apologies if your bizarre suggestion is not reflected here.
I divided the Anything part of equation (Stonehenge being the recurrent ‘anchor’ word) into a series of rather arbitrary categories, with ‘Other’ capturing a miscellaneous assortment of things. So for instance Stonehenge Underpants was filed under clothing, Stonehenge Monty Python under popular culture. In some cases I had to guess what the tweeter had initially searched under. In other cases, searches produced unpredictable results eg Stonehenge Pineapple brought up Liver Salt tablets. Stonehenge Idiot produced a fabricated picture of Nigel Farage with Stonehenge behind him. (Hang on, is that really that unpredictable?)
In other words, this is dirty data.
The most popular connections were food, animals, and then household and garden items. The two most popular individual searches were Stonehenge Breakfast and Stonehenge Cheese. An image of a cat apparently taking a selfie was the individual image I saw most, four times.
As Chris Tilley found, combining an over-familiar archaeological word with a random noun is surprisingly powerful. The Bodily Matters category especially so in a sort of David Cronenberg way.
There was a focus on horror themes and professions which overlapped to an extent. Is a vampire a profession? What about a pirate? Astronaut is more cut and dry. Thus are the pitfalls of classification.
There were a range of #StonehengeWhacks, combinations so obscure that no-one anywhere in the world had thought to create or fabricate an image to fit this bill. Examples included Swingball, Finch, Vaccine, Turtle, Circus, Aardwark, Parrot, Rockabilly, Radiator, Japan, Wallaby, Covfefe, Pigeon, Narwhal and – surprisingly – Gorilla. (Stonehenge Monkey did work.) I am sure there are many more examples, and on balance I would imagine that searches that did not work were less likely to be tweeted than ones that did work. I failed with Stonehenge Two Ronnies for instance. But even as I write, someone might be messing about with a picture of a tapir at Stonehenge.
I think however that #StonehengeAnything works about 95% of the time.
One curious footnote to this searching frenzy was the identification of a series of weird cartoons, all of which are stock images for sale, using the same Stonehenge background. These are produced by VectorToons, all sell for 20 dollars a pop minus the watermark, and feature a foreground element and eccentric caption. I assume these are generated by a bot.
The example above, one option which is found searching for Stonehenge Vampire, includes some additional detail. Cartoon image of an immortal man, with graying hair, wearing a black coattail tux with pointed collar, red bow tie, white shirt and socks, black shoes, oversized head with pointed nose, ears and red eyes looking onto his right, lips sealed in a smirk showing his fangs.
Stan Sagrott @archaeostef tweeted that there are 102 pages of these, and with 32 per page, this means that there are something like 3264 variants on this! I have not had time to crunch the numbers on this but a lot of them are animals, often in anthropomorphic situations (eg a cat using a laptop in front of Stonehenge).
This one is confusing because it is not even a pirate, it is someone dressed as a pirate. Stonehenge Fancy Dress? Stonehenge Accountant letting his hair down?
The rather simple and elegant description for this one is: A regular cockroach with brown outer wings, six legs, and two antennae.
Each of these cartoons has the same Stonehenge information: A mysterious landmark in England, made of large boulders of rocks forming a circle, on a green grassy area. I’ve read worse descriptions.
Talking of Cock-Roaches, one of my favourites was #Stonehenge Ken Barlow, submitted for consideration by @vopiscus_bm.
Finally, it is worth noting how complicit English Heritage are in all of this. A lot of the results eg Stonehenge jumper, Stonehenge Ginger Wine, were merchandise that they market and sell. There are literally hundreds of products with a Stonehenge angle in their online shop, up to a piece of jewellery costing £1250.
As Aaron Watson preciently wrote in 2004, the word HengeTM had become in archaeology, through over-use, a brand. And so it is for StonehengeTM: the brand.
Stonehenge can be lots of silly things. Why this is the case is not easy to work out. There is of course something iconic about this monument? Where else has pictorial images with the Rolling Stones, God, Alice Roberts, St Patrick and Zombies. What other stone circle has been drawn by Vic Reeves? Which other monument was one of the stars of This is Spinal Tap?
But Stonehenge can be serious things as well. A World Heritage Site. A symbol. A synedoche. A metaphor. A noun, a verb, an adjective. It is a period of time, it is a cultural tradition. It is a phenomenon.
But does it also represent a narrowness of focus, a constraint on our imagination, a failure of archaeologists to lead us all beyond the shadow of an enormous, grey, looming trilithon?
Tilley concluded his essay by writing, Is it useful for us now to start to cross the word out in our texts, in a classic Derridean move, and accept that megaliths do not exist, while realising they will almost certainly continue to do so?
For megalith, replace Stonehenge.
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to everyone who tweeted, retweeted and joined in the fun.
In this post I have referred to a couple of essays:
Tilley, C 1999 Frozen metaphor: megaliths in text. From Metaphor and Material culture (Oxford: Blackwell), pages 82-101
Watson, A 2004 Monuments that made the world: performing the henge. From Rosamund Cleal and Josh Pollard’s edited volume Monuments and material culture (Hobnob Press), pages 83-97.