USAs / Urban Solstice Alignments

This blog post is a collaborative effort between journalist and author Jimmy Thomson and myself. It concerns the phenomenon that I have taken to calling USAs (Urban Solstice Alignments). Jimmy is the Sydney-based polymath who first brought this concept to my attention, leading to an earlier blog post I wrote on the topic, What would we do if the sun died?, which focused on the most famous USA in the USA (and indeed the world), Manhattanhenge. In this new post, we’ll focus on the logistics of finding and making sense of urban solstice alignments through both analogue and digital means. By searching for the phenomenon, will we destroy its magic?

How to find your own Manhattanhenge by Jimmy Thomson

I have been promising the Urban Prehistorian for more than a year to write something about how to discover your own Manhattanhenge in a town or city near you. Now, I should make it clear that I am neither a geographer, cartographer, astronomer nor a mathematician.  I’m a journalist, author and travel writer with all the lack of useful skills that implies.

Manhattanhenge is a phenomenon that occurs when the rising or setting sun appears between the high-rises of New York and shines directly down its East-West aligned streets. People travel to New York to see it, and it occurs on two days in both May and December, so it’s a big deal (to some).

But given that it’s just the rising sun appearing or the setting sun disappearing between buildings or even the sides of a steep valley, surely this must occur elsewhere. And it does, although possibly not as spectacularly as in New York or, indeed, Stonehenge. In fact, you may be able to find one near you and this is how to do it.

Firstly you will need to identify a long straight road that drops towards the horizon and has no obstructions (like buildings) at its farthest end.  To get the full effect, you the sun to appear on the horizon where the diffraction of light through the thick layers of the atmosphere has greatest effect.  Basically, we’re probably talking about somewhere over water or flat land.

You don’t want the street to be perfectly aligned East-to-West as that would only work close to the equator.  The best streets in NYC for viewing Manhattanhenge are on 118 degrees, which is  full 28 degrees south of East.

Then you will need Google Maps and two free online apps called SunEarthTools and another named Mapping and Distance Tools.  There are other online apps that will do what we want here and if you can find them and get them to work, go for it. Basically you want one app that will establish the compass direction of the road line, and another that will tell you exactly when the sun will rise at that point on the horizon.

So first we identify a likely location – a long straight road, dropping to the horizon, with high sides and no obstructions.  This is where Google Maps comes in handy as you can use the 3D satellite view to check for obstructions and the height of the buildings along the sides.

For the purposes of this exercise, I have chosen Hooker Boulevard running down to Mermaid Beach (the thin while line in the centre of this image above, from Google Maps), in Broadbeach in the Gold Coast area of Queensland, Australia.

Why there?  Because I know that whole area has a lot of high rises that go all the way down to the beach.  It ain’t Manhattan but a quick scan of Google maps confirms that the road is straight and runs roughly East.

The next thing is to use Mapping and Distance Tools to draw a line from where you might view the phenomenon to where the road runs out.

The display in the top left corner will give you the azimuth or compass direction that this line follows.

In this case the road runs straight down a line heading 79 degrees from North.

Then we move on to the SunEarth app where we can fiddle with the times and dates to find out exactly when the sun will rise on or near that point on the horizon.

This tells us that the sun will rise there at a few seconds before 6.04 am on April 16, this year.

Now, the sun doesn’t go straight up, it also travels north or south as it rises, so you might want to adjust by a day or so to get the best effect when the sun has fully risen. SunEarth will show the variations hour by hour. So there you go. 

Find some canyon, concrete or otherwise, pointing roughly East-South-East in the Northern hemisphere, or ENE south of the equator, and start working the map apps to find the optimum date, and you have your own Manhattanhenge.

This can work just as well for sunsets although obviously you change the principal direction from East to West.

This may now be factored into holiday planning as well as potential romantic first dates for geeks, especially if you go for sunsets.

Most importantly, you may also have acquired a new appreciation of how clever the Mayans, Egyptians, Druids (if indeed it was them) and all the ancient standing stone cultures were.

The ubiquity of USAs suggests this is all a big coincidence but that doesn’t invalidate the experience that some people have of this phenomenon by Kenny Brophy

In a recent study of the levels of entropy of urban networks, Geoff Boeing suggested that ‘networks such as streets, paths, and transit lines organize the human dynamics of complex urban systems. They shape travel behavior (sic), location decisions, and the texture of the urban fabric’ (2019, 1). However, what if another organisational factor was at play here – the sun?

The alignment of straight urban streets towards solstice sunrises and sunsets as discussed by Jimmy is a recognised international phenomenon. There are actually quite a few of these, almost all with the suffix -henge, making of course a conceptual connection with Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in England that is commonly thought to have solar elements built into its architectural organisation. (Perhaps we should call this particular effect Stonehengehenge.) These events generally happen on a day or two each year, and sometimes draw crowds of early risers wearing sunglasses.

And so in North America, we have Manhattanhenge, in New York, but there is also Chicagohenge, Montrealhenge, Torontohenge, and Phillyhenge (Philadelphia). It is perhaps not surprising that the best-known examples of this phenomenon are in North America. Boeing’s study concludes that, ‘on average, US/Canadian study sites are far more grid-like than those elsewhere, exhibiting less entropy and circuity’. This is certainly the case for Manhattan, Philadelphia and Chicago. Boeing’s data shows why there is a Manhattenhenge but not a Bostonhenge.

Boeing 2019 Figure 3
Cities that have USAs are more likely to be organised high-entropy cites (bottom left) (Boeing 2019, Fig 7)

Furthermore, opportunities to witness such events seem to be increasing: the equivalent in Washington DC is called ‘DC Henge week‘ reflecting the inherently non-precise nature of aligning the sun and skyscrapers, and this can all work for sunsets as well as sunrises, doubling the equinox fun. These events are perfect for instagramers and tweeters, wonderfully hashtaggable.

Chicagohenge, seen from West Adams Street on March 12 2020 (photo: Tim Hara from Adler Planetarium webite)
Phillyhenge September 5th 2012 (from Hidden City wesbite)
Torontohenge (@serenevistas)

Further afield, there are USAs in Australia (Melbhenge) and has been made clear above, Jimmy has found one on the Gold Coast. There would seem potential for a Sydneyhenge but this one does not seem to have got much traction online. This might be a chance for Jimmy to get something started in that city, and often a -henge event can take on a momentum of its own once someone points it out and gives it a hashtag.

Melbhenge from twitter user @_jlrreyes (on Secret Melbourne website)

What is the value in the identification of such solar alignments? The phenomenon is often flagged up by city planetariums (planetaria?) as a tool to raise awareness of an interest in the skies in general, as is the case for New York and Chicago. Dr Rebecca Allen of the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing in Melbourne has argued that, ‘Melbhenge is a great time to explore how our modern landscape reflects the efforts our ancestors made to track the motions of the heavens’ suggesting a deeper educational value akin to the aspirations behind the construction of the Sighthill stone circles in Glasgow by Duncan Lunan. There is a sense that these experiences are not so much educational as primal. Jackie Faherty, an American Museum of Natural History astronomer, has suggested that, ‘Daily life in the 2000s does not have the same connection to the solar system that daily life hundreds of years ago did. Moments where we get to see an interplay with the sun or the planets with our everyday experiences such as a city grid are a reflection of how the human experience is complemented with a connection to the bigger picture of the cosmos’ (USA Today). Maybe it just makes us feel small and insignificant, an effect cities already have on some people.

One of the most pressing questions I suppose that some of those who witness a -henge USA are surely, ‘are these deliberately built into the city design’? Or ‘is this just all a big coincidence’? One way to look at this could be around the statistical probability that in a large urban network there would not be at least one street that aligned towards a solar solstice event.

This is explored albeit perhaps not from the point of view of the latter sentence in a website called On solstices and city planning designed by Demeter Sztanko. Here is presented street plans of hundreds of cities and big urban areas across the world showing where solstice alignments occur. This data comes from some kind of algorithm that has been focused on Open Streetmap: Sztanko describes his work as ‘pure math’ (The Guardian). I suppose this shows that by looking hard enough and by asking the right questions, -henge events are commonplace and everywhere. One does not need to focus on one street in one city as Jimmy suggests when one could algorithm an entire country. I do not mean to downplay the complexity of this piece of work as it presumably needs to take into account the location of the city in relation to the equator as well as the street plan, but it does show how USAs happen accidentally, an unexpected (and more often than not un-noticed) outcome of building a city. This website also fails to demonstrate causality: just because a pattern is evident does not mean that it is significant or deliberate, something Sztanko acknowledges. ‘Unfortunately I don’t know whether these alignments are intentional or just happen to be such on statistical basis’.

I suppose the sheer quantity and banality of the data ultimately points towards this being a unexpected byproduct of urbanisation. To illustrate this, I used this website to explore a city close to where I live – Glasgow. There is indeed a Glasgowhenge. In fact, there are potentially many of them in the area, due to the northwest-southeast trend of many streets. Most of these are short stretches of road and one would have to carry out some fieldwork to establish if they have the correct criteria for working as a -henge event as set out by Jimmy earlier on. Some are interesting from a coincidence point of view, such as Kenmuirhill, Mount Vernon, which runs close to the location of a Bronze Age cemetery that was excavated in the 1920s by Ludovic Mann. A short stretch of Cochno Road, near the Cochno Stone, also fits the bill.

Screen grab from Solstices & City Planning website: Glasgow. Red lines = solstice aligned street sections

But there are essentially no possible solstice alignments in the city centre, the grid layout of much of the city north of the Clyde running in the wrong direction. Furthermore, in Boeing’s data, Glasgow is no Chicago when it comes to grids and entropy.

From Boeing 2019

Having said that, there is more than one type of Glaswegian prehistoric urban alignment if Harry Bell is to be believed, his network of aligned sites somewhat more free-form and not dependent on either street layout or the movement of the sun.

The map from Harry Bell’s Glasgow’s Secret Geometry: the City’s Oldest Mystery.

A combination of the high-level data at mapping level, followed by fieldwork at the right time of the year, would no doubt illuminate some fun experiences to be had some mornings or evenings in some cities around the world. This is probably enough to be getting on with.

USAs are derived from two different overlapping human urges – pareidolia (seeing patterns in things) and an obsession with the sun. In USAs this becomes entangled with our concepts of time and the calendar, and desire for urbanisation. In that sense if it is fascinating contemporary human phenomenon. What is remarkable about the song and dance, the branding, the crowds, the sunglasses, and the search for meaning is that in almost all cases this is meaningless in the sense that whatever we think we are experiencing was never intended to happen. This does not invalidate the experience of a USA but it does suggest that we are making this stuff up as we go along and reading our own meaning into the experience. As Boeing notes, cities can be ‘planned or unplanned, ordered and disordered’, and the same could be said about stone circles and henges.

There is nothing wrong with any of this, and searching for a -henge in the streets of you city, or on the screen of your laptop, is not in itself futil. Reading too much into whatever you find might well be, but then that is what makes us human, and connects us to the original henge builders from millennium ago.

Sources and acknowledgements: I must thank Jimmy Thomson for writing part of this blog post and encouraging me to think about USAs again. This blog post also makes reference to this academic paper:

Boeing, G 2019 Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy. Applied Network Science 4: 67.

A pint of prehistory

Prehistory is frequently justified but not always ancient. In this ghost story for Christmas, I am going to take you on a journey from the walls of a pub, to the pop charts and a board game, via the portal of a crop circle.….

Imagine now that I am the ghost of urban prehistory, taking you by the hand, flying out of the window and up, up and away into the snow. Below you, once you get control of your faculties, emerging from the mists of time and space is a familiar stone circle. Stonehenge! But thankfully we are not stopping there, not just yet, our engagement only as tangible as the ghosts passing through in Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor. Soon below us emerges a much larger setting of stones, recognisable as Avebury due to the fact that it is occupied by the living as well as the dead. Then Silbury Hill whizzes past, momentarily mistaken by you for the defunct mound at Marble Arch at London. Atop the mound nestled in the depression lies a sleeping deer. Pausing only momentarily to fight off a pigeon, there below looms the lengthy grandeur of West Kennet, a long streak of megalith, then things become a blur of whiteness, chalk ups and downs.

You awake with a start. You have in your hand a pint of foaming nut brown ale and the sky – or rather the ceiling – is dancing, Rich vibrant colours assault your senses. The Southern Lights, Aurora Stonehengis.

Your are in the Barge Inn, Wiltshire, located near the village of Honeystreet and on the bank of the Kennet and Avon Canal. The walls here are adorned with a wonderful mural that showcases the very best of the local Neolithic archaeology along with some crop circles and other weird and wonderful things that occupy the spaces between archaeology and arcane-ology.

The mural is the work of artist Vince Palmer, the ghost of urban prehistory tells you as he puts another pint on the table you appear now to be sitting at. The beermat, you notice just before it is eclipsed by the glass, is a Scarfolk Brexit pastiche, ‘Britannia’s Folly’. The mural is sometimes known as the ‘sistine chapel of crop circles’. It was painted in 1997 ‘on the day Princess Diana died’ went on your ghostly drinking partner, quoting from the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald newspaper. The walls are adorned with crop circle imagery and artworks showing Stonehenge and Avebury, and crop circle enthusiasts used to meet here to compare notes and new discoveries.

Crop circle typology

Suddenly the ghost is gone, and you are left alone to gaze upwards at the ceiling, an inverted and fantastical prehistoric world. You need a better view of this.

The mural and the crop circles set off all sorts of connections in your brain, your cells lighting up like Christmas lights on a bush. Lying on the pool table you notice a discarded copy of the Fortean Time magazine issue 413 (Christmas 2021). Flicking through it in your hyper aware state, beer bubbles on your breath, you land on a weird article by the Rev Peter Laws on boardgames of a Fortean nature. A two page spread focuses on one of the most bizarre of all such games, in a piece entitled A boardgame from an alien? It is a board game about crop circles and …. Stonehenge.

Taking another sip of your Hopback Brewery’s Crop Circle ale, the story unfolded in front of you like an abandoned cardboard origami dog. During the filming of a BBC / Japanese TV documentary on crop circles in 1990, six crop circles appeared in a field near where filming was happening (in Wiltshire?). This was a moment of high excitement for Project Blackbird, with definitive evidence being sought for the crop circle phenomenon that was accelerating at that time.

Operation Blackbird researchers (Hoaxes website)

Within these circles were found, amongst other things, numerous board games pinned down by sticks, this cardboard diversion called Crop Circle: Mystery Adventure Board game.

BBC coverage of the hoax / Hoaxes website

The imagery of this board game contains several references to Stonehenge. The box has a stylised complete version of the monument amongst the complex imagery on show, with the promise of a ‘revelation of the ancient wisdom’ on the roll of a double 6. Inside Stonehenge formed the centrepiece of the board itself, being depicted in plan form, with baked in solar alignments.

Peter Laws / Fortean Times

Laws notes that, “In the game players become druids or aliens who must place the altar in the centre of a miniature Stonehenge made of blocks” so to that end there were little blue wooden (?) Stonehenge megalith building blocks as well. Board Game Geek documents that this game also included a treasure hunting element and had different covers through time. They note, “This may be the strangest game you have ever seen!”

Stonehenge building blocks (Board Game Geek)

The crop circles within which the board games and other objects had been placed in the dead of night were essentially crap and clearly some kind of prank. One of the team members involved in Operation Blackbird got a note delivered to them the next day, with a claim of responsibility for the crop circle board game prank from the JAMMS. Of course this is a reference to the Justified and Ancients of Mu Mu, also known at the time as the internationally successful band The KLF.

Fortean Times / Peter Laws

Interviews and research by Peter Laws lead him to conclude this was a fake letter and had nothing to do with Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. Yet to coin a phrase of our time, it might not have been true but it was believable. As Laws notes also, they created their own crop circle depicting their band logo. But moreover The KLF are the most prehistorically orientated band that have ever existed with mad dabblings, claims, threats, and artistic creations connected to Wiltshire’s Neolithic monuments in particular an intriguing strand of their career.

Now you are vaguely aware of another ghost, one that is substantially, er, bonier than the urban prehistorian, and likes to point a lot. This ghastly skeletal robed figure is holding a tablet and has just, so it seems, done a google search for KLF and Stonehenge. A bony finger points you to the small screen and beckons you to scroll.

It becomes clear that Stonehenge is a recurrent theme in the work of Cauty and Drummond, going back to Cauty’s time designing fantasy posters for the chain Athena in the late 1970s in the style of his more famous posters for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Like the crop circle board game, this poster included two versions of Stonehenge – a stylised ‘complete’ iteration and a plan view.

Jimmy Cauty’s Stonehenge poster

Someone slaps you on the back as they stagger past on the way to the gents, momentarily breaking this magic chain of thinking. You snap to the side, noticing a hooded figure pointing with a rather bony finger towards a previously un-noticed television set in the corner of the bar. On it is playing a frosty version of The KLF video for their song Last Train to Transcentral. A miniature film set in grainy black and white is the backdrop for a race between a police car and a train, both KLF branded. From time to time megaliths loom in the background amidst a dystopian industrial wasteland.

More connections are made. This film-set is closely reminiscent of Jimmy Cauty’s recently toured artwork Estate, an “interactive dystopian art exhibition featuring four scale-model concrete tower blocks”.

Jimmy Cauty by L-13 Light Industrial Workshop (The Skinny)

One these four blocks “appears to have functioned as a pagan religious centre” (NowThenMagazine). This contains a stone circle. Cauty told The Skinny magazine that his favourite thing in Estate was visiting “Brenda, the teenage Queen of the Iceni Tribe who lives in Iceni Heights….she draws spiral patterns and maths equations on the concrete walls”. Prehistory + crop circles = ??.

Stone circles from The Estate (source: NowThenMagazine, link above)

Just before you disappear down a JG Ballard High Rise rabbit hole, someone slots pennies into a jukebox that again you had not been aware of and on kicks What Time is Love followed by that daft song they did with Tammy Wynette. It was all a big joke for The KLF wasn’t it, except when it wasn’t. John Higgs’ 2012 book The KLF: Chaos, magic, and the band who burned a million pounds documents the Discordian roots of the band and their eventual demoralisation by their own excessive acts. There is a cruel side to their humour. Higgs documents a time when just to piss off Julian Cope no less, Bill Drummond threatened to flatten Silbury Hill with a bulldozer. When Cope heard this “he went white, it was a shock to see him like that actually”.

Some of the most infamous KLF acts surround their appearance at The Brit Awards in 1992 when they appeared with grindcore band Extreme Noise Terror, machine gunned the audience and dumped a dead sheep at the venue. Higgs notes, “As the band left the stage a voice declared over the PA that ‘The KLF have left the music industry’. It was only meant as a joke. They didn’t realise at the time that it was true.” What is less well known is after this event the band took their Best Band award and buried it at Stonehenge. It was subsequently “dug up in the vicinity of the mystical stone circle by a local farmer” (source).

Film Threat

It keeps coming back to Stonehenge. It was here that The KLF in another guise (The Timelords) played out part of a weird relationship they had with now disgraced glam rocker Gary Glitter, who appeared with them once on Top of the Pops almost by accident. The NME documented a solstice visit that in hindsight can only be viewed in the poorest of taste.

The Cope threat presaged aspirations to destroy or modify prehistoric monuments, something that becomes very clear to you when your attention is brought back to the tablet by your creepy pal who you notice has not even touched the bag of peanuts sat between you.

According to Clash Music, “After founding a digger firm called ‘K2 Plant Hire’ with Jimmy Cauty, they nearly bulldozed Stonehenge on the basis that it either needed fixed up or flattened as ‘unworkable’. After looking into hiring helicopters to repair it, they realised all the airspace around there is military controlled, so Drummond and Cauty decided to have their photos taken with Gary Glitter in front of the ancient site before flying off to the Sierra Nevada to blow all their cash making a road movie.”

The plans for Neolithic modification were even more dramatic. In the seminal 1988 book The Manual by The Timelords (aka Drummond & Cauty), the plan was set out in more detail: “we originally wanted the record fronted by real daleks. we could not get permission. it was after that we came up with our car idea. we then wanted to smash the car into stone henge or have a helicopter place it on two of the vertical stones whose horizontal was missing. we thought of dragging it to the top of silbury hill, digging a hole and tipping the car in, nose first, with about four feet stuck in the ground and the rest stuck in the air, so that it looked like we had just arrived from outer space” (source: Andy Burnham on megalithic forum).

Bill Drummond: How to be an Artist

What hold did Neolithic monuments have on The KLF and their other guises? We may never know but through time these engagements moved from destructive to transactional. They tried to sell art outside Stonehenge. In 1997 psychogeographer Stewart Home wrote in The Big Issue that “the KLF are performing again and will do anything to raise enough money to purchase Stonehenge from English Heritage and use it for ritual purposes”. At the same time they tried to buy the Rollright Stones, according to Drummond in Sarah Champion’s book Disco 2000.

Was it all just a capitalist joke, a subversion of social values, an attempt to rule the world through chaos? In this sense Drummond and Cauty were shamanic figures, orchestrating their own ritual-magic, machine-gunning convention, chasing immortality, desperately clinging to the old ways, coveting megaliths.

You snap out of your early 1990s dance music trip and come back to earth with a bang. A bell is ringing loudly behind you, someone calling ‘last orders please and remember to put your fucking mask on when you stand up!’. You realise that you are still in the Barge Inn. There is a sense of time running short now and you become aware that you won’t have time to go outside to see the sarsen stone outside the pub that once had a Banksy painted on it….or did it? It is all rather confusing and a sensory overload is fast approaching.

The Heritage Trust / Wiltshire Gazette & Herald

Worse, you are starting to feel…..woozy.

A trip to the toilet seems in order and for the time being at least there are no ghosts to guide you so off you pop through a side door and a corridor, following the arrows on the walls that you hope will lead to a Stonehenge-free urinal. However a wrong turn later and you are in a annex to the building, no longer in the ancient canal-side pub, but more of a fancy youth hostel. Your eyes are drawn to a stage on the left-hand side of the space, a modest arena for musical performance although it would not have accommodated The KLF, their kit and entourage.

At the back of the stage is a mural, a weird tableaux of temporal and spatial dislocation, showing what you presume to the pub you seem to be trapped in surrounded by prehistory and pagan symbols. A standing stone in the foreground, Silbury Hill (again!) in the background, and a green man partially obscured by a stack of speakers. Things start to go woozy again, and you feel yourself drawn to the image like a fly to a venus flytrap, knowing that what lies inside is sticky but perhaps worth it. You drift towards the open door to the left of the mural, still hoping for a toilet but fearing for the worst.

The door leads to inky blackness. Bill Drummond’s voice (you assume) comes from somewhere to your right, the aural equivalent of the leather bag with hands from that MR James story, dripping from a hole in the wall into your ears. He says in a mellifluous Scottish accent: Stonehenge is a crap circle. Stonehenge is a crap circle. (Or did he say crop circle??) Then you are enveloped by what feels like a huge towel, not with arms thankfully, but nonetheless a struggle ensues in the dark…..

Then! You are safely back in your bed fighting with your bed curtains [or insert 21st equivalent] and realise that was all a dream and it happened in one night, of course it did, because of course 3AM is eternal when in the company of Timelords. You have not even missed Boxing Day.

As you wipe the sleepy residue from your eyes, your attention focuses on a wall to your left. There are two pictures hanging from the wall that you don’t remember seeing there before. Slippers are slipped on (as in put on, not a comedy stumble) and you head over for a look. Screwing up your eyes as if staring into the sun, the pictures start to come into focus, and the events of the last 1500 words come flooding back. Was it really all just a dream?

Time for another pint of prehistory, You never know what it will lead to next.

Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank Susan Greaney and / or Jack Rowe for alerting me to the murals in the Barge Inn, and Andrew Watson for accompanying me to a recent visit there. I think all online sources and image sources have been made clear above, any photos with no credit are my own. I also want to acknowledge Peter Laws and his FT article for sending me down the particular path that this blog post ended up travelling which came as much of a surprise to me as it did to you.

#StonehengeAnything

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).

Stonehenge Sausage (source: Chimmy Blog, tweeted by @HeyerdahlKing )

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.

Stonehenge Clothes / Clothesline
(Markus George, Die Macht Der Bilder,
tweeted by @pighilltweets)

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.

Tilley 1999 Table 3.3 – one of the most important tables published in an archaeology book

It is no coincidence that in my initial series of #StonehengeAnything tweets, I included Stonehenge Volvo.

Stonehenge Volvo. No idea what this has actually got to do with Volvo and I now can’t find the source!

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.

The Sun, 12 June 2018

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.

Stonehenge Ice Cream (image: Whitby Morrison, tweeted by @DSAArchaeology)

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.

#StonehengeAnything results over a 72 hour period, n = 319

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.

Stonehenge Cat (source: a pinterest board about cats, tweeted multiple 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.

Stonehenge Nipple

Stonehenge Feet

Stonehenge Tampons

Stonehenge Penis

Stonehenge Hair

Stonehenge Fingernails

Stonehenge Dildo

Stonehenge Skull

Stonehenge Germs

Stonehenge Sex

Stonehenge Teeth

Stonehenge Teeth (source: Freaking News)

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.

Stonehenge Astronaut (patch for sale on Amazon, tweeted by @wildgem23)

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.

“A Vampire Standing Confidently And In Content and Stonehenge Background” (c) VectorToons

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).

A man dressed as a pirate for Halloween (c) VectorToons

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?

“A Regular Cockroach and Stonehenge Background” (c) VectorToons

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.

Bill Roach (middle, multiple sources of this image online)


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.

Stonehenge Wooden Spoon, £6 (English Heritage)

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.

#StonehengeAnything

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.

Car park prehistory

The well-publicised recent news that the skeleton of Richard III has been found by archaeologists in Leicester is not the first archaeological discovery that has been found beneath a car park. The desire for places to park cars and cover flat locations with tarmac and straight white lines describing car-sized boxes has uncovered all sorts of prehistoric traces in recent decades and one in particular sprung to mind when I read about the twisted bones of a king. Urban prehistory is paradoxical though: the three huge postholes found near Stonehenge just about survived having a car park extended over them, only to be further threatened today by the removal of the same car park.

Throughout the 20th century, Stonehenge became increasingly entangled with the local and regional economy, and the financial fortunes of whoever claimed ‘ownership’ to the extent that access to Stonehenge is now mediated by bus tours, and expensive exclusive pre-dawn access arrangements. Such arrangements appear to date back to attempts by the then owner Sir Edmund Antrobus to charge one shilling for access to the stones in 1901. Such financial disincentives to visit, however, have never put people off. In 1966, the car park at Stonehenge had to be extended. This was because by then Stonehenge was becoming an increasingly popular ‘tourist attraction’ drawing ever larger numbers of visitors who had access to their own car or who could afford to jump onto a touristic omnibus. The ‘excellent’ road links at Stonehenge (the A344 runs a few metres away from it, the A303 nearby) meant that the car (and bus) was increasingly the main way of accessing the monument, and parking on verges on the roadside became untenable.

stonehenge in the 1930s NMR photo
Stonehenge in the 1930s: commerce and cars

hotel advert

The first formal Stonehenge car park was actually constructed just across the A344 from the standing stones in 1935. This was constructed on National Trust land, to service the some 15,000 visitors per month who were drawn here even in the 1930s. This car park was furnished with a small ticket kiosk and toilets, and ice cream vendors soon swooped like confectionary vultures. This facility was described by John Piper in 1948 as, ‘a clearly visible eyesore and the custodian’s chalet in a tasteless and decorative art style, flanks a car park, a turnstile revolves in the wire fence and the ladies and gents is a good solid eyecatcher’. Yet compared to the bloated and extended car park that for now serves Stonehenge, the ‘phase 1’ car park could be said to have had ‘an atmosphere of quiet, almost pastoral charm’ (Lloyd Jones & Crosby 1992).

the first car park

Demand for the monument continued to grow, to such an extent that the original car park and the much abused road verges and tracks around Stonehenge were no longer adequate, and so the aforementioned 1966 car park extension was undertaken. This work was carried out by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works between 7th February and 18th March in that year, with the car park extended quite considerably to the west. The ground level was initially stripped and levelled by a JCB, under the monitoring of archaeologists Faith and Lance Vatcher. In their report on this work, published in the Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine in 1973, they state what happened next. ‘During the cleaning down of the surface to the chalk, three circular holes appeared….in a line running approximately E-W, with a fourth disturbed patch in the chalk of more irregular shape at the western end of the line’. Upon subsequence excavation, these three regular features were shown to be very large pits that had once held timber posts. The fourth ‘blob’ was more amorphous and thought to be a tree throw, that is an irregular pit indicating the location where a tree once stood. There followed in the excavation report a description of the large postholes – which were up to 1.5m deep – and their arrangement relative to one another, and Stonehenge itself a little to the northeast.

excavation details

These postholes could have supported timber posts with diameters of 60cm to 80cm, and using a simple posthole depth / post height ratio of 1:3.5 (the standard measurement for such things) these posts could have been up to 6m in total length, 4m or so of that above ground. These would have been impressive posts, but what was most surprising about the Vatcher’s discovery was that the posts appear to have been made of pine. As Mike Allen has noted, pine would not have been native to the chalk downs of southern England in the Neolithic, yet the Vatcher’s supposed these posts to have been Neolithic in date. But, radiocarbon dates undertaken on samples in the mid-1970s revealed the remarkable discovery that these posts had been erected in the Mesolithic period, making these perhaps the earliest monumental structures ever found in the British Isles, dating to over 8000 years ago, millennia before Stonehenge was constructed. It is not known, however, if all these posts stood at the same time, or if one replaced another over time.

What were these posts doing here? There is little consensus on this, other than that archaeologists typically describe them as ‘totem-pole like structures’, which conjures up visions of colourful posts with carvings, perhaps to be worshipped. This is as good an explanation as any, although we have little concept of what Mesolithic rituals may have entailed, and no parallels for posts of such antiquity have since been found in Britain. The tree throw has been interpreted by Mike Allen as also once having held a post, although its position on the post line may also suggest that a living tree was once part of this monument. Further work in the car park in 1988-1989 by Martin Trott of Wessex Archaeology discovered a rather amorphous pit or posthole feature in the vicinity of the current ticket offices. This again dated to the Mesolithic. These ‘whole trunks of pine’ (as Tim Darvill has called them) suggest a synergy between posts and trees, and seem to indicate the first instances of monumentality in this incredible landscape.

white painted posthole marker

Immediately after they were excavated, the postholes were backfilled with gravel, and then aluminium tubes were places into the centres of the holes where the posts once stood. These then were used to position concrete markers which were set into the car park tarmac. These are indicated in the modern car park surface by three quite regular white painted circles, which may or may not be the upper surface of the concrete post markers. Little is made of the three holes beneath the car park (never mind the tree throw) and it is walked across, driven across, and generally ignored by most visitors in the clamour to get to the stones. The car park and amenities have stimulated a number of excavations – in 1935, 1966, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1989 and so on – but these are the only discoveries to date of such significance and the only finds to stimulate the use of white paint, concrete and aluminium in such a way.

stonehenge car park may 2012
Stonehenge’s much expanded car park, May 2012

And now the postholes are about to undergo another transformation. With the ongoing construction of the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre, the current car park is now about to be decommissioned. The fate of the postholes is unclear, but from what I can gather online, it appears that English Heritage will continue to mark the postholes for visitors, using ‘sensitively designed low level markers’ . The postholes will also sit within a very different context. The major transformation of the Stonehenge visitor experience will involve a new visitor centre in an entirely new location, with the current kiosks, subterranean bogs and the shops being replaced by – according to EH – ‘a very small hub … near the stones to provide emergency toilets’.

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The marking of these posts has always struck me as strange. On the one hand, it is commendable that the location of such ephemeral features (that do not fit comfortably into the Stonehenge narrative) have been afforded some paint in the car park. On the other hand, the lack of information on site means that they have been rendered meaningless, just another tarmac variation. The renewal of the visitor amenities at Stonehenge offers an excellent opportunity to rethink the presentation of these Mesolithic marvels to the visiting masses; EH should act while car parkaeology is in fashion.

Sources: For the original excavation report of the tree throw group, see Vatcher, G and Vatcher, F 1973 Excavation of three post-holes in Stonehenge car park, Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine 68, 57-63 (source of the excavation plans reproduced above). Subsequent reporting on the radiocarbon dates can be found in the journal Radiocarbon volume 29, although it is better to go to Mike Allen’s comprehensive synthesis of the Vatcher’s work, subsequent dating and the 1988-89 excavations. This can be found in Cleal, Walker and Montague (eds) 1995 Stonehenge in its landscape: Twentieth century excavation published by English Heritage. For a more accessible overview, see Tim Darvill’s 2006 book Stonehenge: the biography of a landscape (Tempus). For an excellent summary of the ‘treatment’ of Stonehenge over the past 150 years, including touristic developments, see Peter Lloyd Jones and Theo Crosby’s excellent 1992 book Stonehenge Tomorrow (the source of the first Stonehenge car park photo) . The Old George Hotel advert came from Frank Stevens’s 1929 booklet Stonehenge Today & Yesterday, while the black and white image of 1930s Stonehenge is reproduced from a Guardian article, and is part of the National Monuments Record. The Stonehenge posthole marker photo belongs to ‘AngieLake’ and was initially published on the megalithic.co.uk website; this was also the source of the comment on the fate of the postholes. The John Piper quote comes from the Architectural Review, and the Antrobus anecdote from Julian Richards’ book Stonehenge: a history in photographs.