Stonehenge: The Story So Far

Julian C. Richards
English Heritage, hardback, £36 (RRP)

Reviewed by Barbara Ford

At first sight, this large and heavy book - with its glossy, gorgeous cover photographs - looks like your typical ‘coffee table’ book, bought by the well-off for the cachet rather than any informative content. However, further investigation reveals a book worthy of any academic library shelf, or indeed that of us mere mortals with more than a passing interest in ancient history in general, or megalithic monuments in particular.

The author, Julian Richards, is a familiar face from television, from such programmes as ‘Meet the Ancestors’ and ‘Blood of the Vikings’. His enthusiasm for archaeology, so palpable on TV, comes through in this book, one of a handful he has written on Stonehenge. His expertise and love for the monument and its environs manifest themselves in his style of writing. With humour and consideration for his readers (who may not all be experts in this field) he explains his subject with skill, yet also with obvious awe for a monument with which he has been involved for some quarter of a century!

The brief of the book is ambitious, to say the least. Richards attempts to gather all the information he can on Stonehenge. From as many sources as possible, he gives everyone with an interest in it a mention: from antiquarians to astronomers, the Romans to the hippies, and Ancient Druids to their present day representatives.

He begins with the actual structure of Stonehenge the monument, describing how it and the surrounding ditches may have been constructed. The accompanying illustrations and captions are such that (and this is the case throughout the book) a great deal of information could be gleaned from merely scanning the pages! There are excellent drawings of how the monument probably looked on completion circa 2000 BC, and how it looks today. Further on in the book, there are illustrations of the various stages of the henge, from its beginnings 5,000 years ago to its completion, using archaeological evidence.

Of course, the context of the henge in relation to its surroundings is just as important as the monument itself to the archaeologist, and this aspect is given a chapter on its own. As Richards points out,

“The majority of visitors to Stonehenge are drawn by the stones themselves and may not even notice the subtle traces of the earthworks that surround them. Very few venture beyond the confines of the car park to explore the surrounding landscape - a landscape so rich in prehistoric remains that much of it, in recognition of its international importance, was classified in 1986 as a World Heritage Site.”

Richards introduces the reader to the main prehistoric monuments that lie in close proximity to Stonehenge, which range from the Neolithic long barrows to the round barrows of the Bronze Age. Details are given of the location in relation to Stonehenge, and of the archaeological investigations into these sites, again accompanied by wonderful photographs.

The next chapter deals in depth with how Stonehenge has been regarded through the ages, by historians and artists for example. Indeed, as many of the stones have now tumbled to the ground, the ancient drawings of the stones are extremely useful, as they tell us how they were standing at that particular time.

This leads neatly on to the vexed question of restoration, i.e. should the stones be left as they are, or should they (where possible) be moved to their original positions? The stance today is to leave them where they are (as this too is part of the life history of the monument), while at the same time ensuring that no further damage is done. Richards tells of restoration projects of the past, both good and bad, which coincided with changes in which the site was run. It was in 1901, for instance, that Stonehenge was first fenced in and an admission charge of 1 shilling was implemented by the land owner, Sir Edmund Antrobus. In spite of a mass protest by locals, the admission charge stayed, and during the following five months, 3,770 visitors had paid up to visit the stones.

In 1915, the heir to the estate of Sir Edmund was killed in action, and Stonehenge was put up for auction. Fortunately, it was bought by a Cecil Chubb for £6,600. Three years later, he offered the site to the nation, and Stonehenge was saved.

Richards then brings us up to date with excavations and evidence amassed so far, through the 20th and into the 21st century, all of which have added to our still sparse knowledge of the Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples. Chapter 8 deals with the analysis of all of this gathered information, but it is done in such a way as to be easily accessible way for the general reader. He/she will not be bogged down in science speak. On the contrary, as the author’s face and voice are so well-known, my experience was that I could ‘hear’ him relating this information to me, in an easy going, conversational manner!

The following three chapters deal with the three big questions most heard on the lips of visitors to Stonehenge; who built it, how, and why? Of course, any answers must be varied and speculative, given the remoteness of the period in which it was built. Nevertheless, the author gives us answers, influenced only by the archaeological evidence, and his intense relationship with the monument over twenty-five years. As Richards says himself on his website (

“This will be the ‘big book’ that will explain our current understanding of Stonehenge, based on centuries of antiquarian speculation and investigation and the results of all the 20th century excavations, finally analysed and available. The title is deliberate; we will never know all the answers, never understand Stonehenge fully, but this will be the most up to date account available, written from my perspective of twenty-five years of involvement with the stones and the landscape...”

Moving on to the summary chapter 12, the author allows himself to relax a little more, in order to discuss his own theories along with the facts regarding, as he calls it, “the Age of Stonehenge”. This is a descriptively written account of what life may have been like for the people of the Stonehenge area of Britain; of how they used the land, both agriculturally and ritualistically, how they observed the seasons and the heavens, and how they worked together to build the henge, at first just a simple enclosure with timber structures and a ditch. A picture painted with words, it enhances the readers’ own imagination, and facilitates a deeper understanding of those ancient peoples.

A Postscript tells us of the future plans for Stonehenge. It is widely known that the road which currently cuts through the site is to be closed, and that the visitor facilities are to be moved to a greater distance from the Stones. This should give the visitor a better sense of Stonehenge and its relationship to the surrounding landscape and other monuments.

As a whole, the book is instantly readable and accessible. This is scientific fact put into an easy to follow narrative, descriptively written, informative, and peppered with many interesting details. I find the style of this book intriguing. It is written by a scientist, an archaeologist. That is evident from the way the facts are presented. Yet it is not stilted or essay-like. It is instantly readable and enjoyable. The warmth of the human being behind the cold facts, and the passion he holds for the subject stand out.

This book is beautifully written and presented. It treats this unique monument with respect, and we can only hope that a new age will appreciate the moves being made now to return Stonehenge to its former dignity, far from the sideshow status it has had in the past. Plaudits to the author, and to English Heritage for furthering this process. A reader of this book will have by default, an interest in Stonehenge: the reading of it will enhance that interest, and hopefully, they too will be concerned about its future.

The drawback is (and there has to be one) that the presentation of the book is so lush, that it pushes the price up to a massive and prohibitive £36!!! That fact alone will, I'm afraid, relegate this book to what I feared it might be on first sight - a coffee table book for the well-off. A shame. Hopefully, English Heritage will publish a paperback version for those of us with modest means.

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