James O. Davies. 2013. A Year at Stonehenge. With introductions by Mike Pitts and James O. Davies. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd. ISBN 978-0-7112-3483-3. 128 pages, large format (~10x8 inches), mostly full-color images. Brief bibliography.
If you go to your local bookstore and pick up the new book from Frances Lincoln press called A Year at Stonehenge and quickly page through it, you might be misled. Ah, I can hear you now: just another coffee table book full of images you've seen before. Oh, the title? So, a guy went out a photographed Stonehenge every day for a year. Big deal: but you'd be wrong. A Year at Stonehenge is a re-introduction to the monument we all know, a filling-in of spaces in our understanding of the peculiarity of a monument that is so familiar to us as to seem, well, trite.
The introduction to the book written by archaeologist Mike Pitts is a perfect compliment to Davies' detailed photographs, and I don't say that lightly. What Pitts does is provoke the reader, right from the get-go, by telling us about the last 100 years of Stonehenge's history, how English Heritage and other governmental bodies in the UK have rebuilt and reengineered Stonehenge, at times using a Brabazon crane, iron bolts and cement. It's shocking, until you read through the rest of Pitt's introduction, and realize that reformation and rebuilding and reinterpretation and reuse is what Stonehenge is and has always been about.
Architectural photographer Davies' introduction promises that he spurned the use of filters and limited the post-production editing of the mostly digital imagery, a fact that you need to know, because at first glance, some of the photos seem highly color-saturated, and unless Davies was fibbing, it must be the effects of natural light reflecting on the facets of the stone.
Collectively, the finely detailed photographs emphasize both micro- and macro-views of the monument, in mist and snow, sun and shadow, occupied by revelers or by jackdaws. (I could make a point about the importance of crows and ravens to prehistoric people in Europe, but I'll restrain myself. Some.). With a closer examination of the images, Davies' experience as an architectural photographer is clear. What you see is the sheer physicality of the monument, how the shadows of light mimic the structure on the frosted grass, how some of the stones are muscular in their carvings or lack of them, while others are daintily etched in lichens and mosses.
My personal favorite is Stone 56, the one that looks a bit like a Lego block, smooth on each side with a little remnant of a connector tab on the top. The variety of colors in the pictures is quite astonishing: sometimes the stones are purply, sometimes they're grain-colored, depending on the time of day and season. Context is important in this book and, thank heavens, Davies is not shy about leaving the nearby highway or the Bronze Age barrow in the shot. I'd like to have seen the iron bolts or concrete mentioned by Pitt: but they may be hidden beneath the turfs.
Lessons to be Learned
There's a lesson I have to keep learning as an archaeologist, and A Year at Stonehenge is that lesson again. Some archaeological ruins are not dead and static--maybe all of them for that matter--they continue to have relevance and meaning that exists beyond the "authenticity" of what archaeologists discover about them.
We get hung up on thinking that there is one, archaeologically definable "authentic" reality to the monuments in the world. We scoff at the Druid revellers at Stonehenge, because--sorry about this, but the Druids didn't build Stonehenge--but they and do have a role in the essential meaning of this pile of rocks. The Druids--and their modern counterparts--did and do hold ceremonies there, and they did and do interpret Stonehenge in their own way. They have no less authentic an interpretation than the builders did, although it pains me some to say that.
Monuments such as Stonehenge are remarkable--and I say that with a strong flavor of irony. I've often thought, as I know others do, that there are thousands of other megalithic monuments around the world that are far more interesting or unusual--Stonehenge isn't the only stone circle in the world, it's the one with the best PR man. But that really misses the point, and that point is that Stonehenge still is a living monument, that has meaning that's not limited to the small group of scholars or locals that are up on the archaeological details. Stonehenge is ensconced in popular culture: it's on our computer wall papers, it's referenced in the mockumentary Spinal Tap for heaven's sake. And let's be honest about it--it's still got a deeper significance despite its age and state of enhanced decrepitude.
At first glance, A Year at Stonehenge isn't particularly provocative, and quickly flipping through the pages, the photos seem like other images of the monument that you've seen. But the wake-up smack in the jaw of Pitts' introduction, coupled with the detail of Davies' images, deepens the reader's understanding of the physicality and significance of the stones in their setting, whether that setting has been altered by plantings, by erosion, by ancient or modern day reconfigurations, or cluttered up by hundreds of revelers. Ya gotta love it: after 5,000 years of use and reuse and re-reuse, Stonehenge still trips atavistic triggers throughout the world.