Stonehenge. A history in photographs, by JULIAN RICHARDS
For anyone interested in Stonehenge, archaeology, history and photography this book will not disappoint. The original idea of the book was to present Stonehenge using only aerial photographs. Fortunately this temptation was resisted and Julian Richards’ deep knowledge and understanding of Stonehenge has successfully been transmitted through the wide variety of images, both in time and subject area. The text is rightly brief, informative and easy to read; the readers’ eyes will be drawn to the images first but the text does provide a very good commentary on 150 years of history, as well as keeping us up-to-date on all the latest information on the dating (when was it built?) and the origins of the builders of Stonehenge.
For me what the makes the book so important is that Stonehenge (and therefore any archaeological or historical site) is not static; it is ever changing. The photographs, taken over a period of 150 years, remind us if this on every page. In addition they also show that the site means many different things to many different people. The photograph of the Visit of the Grand Lodge of Ancient Order of Druids (page 32), taken in 1905 should be contrasted with the festival views taken in 1976 and 1982. One showing the restricted elitist use of the site (but the sickle staffs of the Druids look like ‘question marks’ – as if to say ‘why is it here?’) and the others of a more open, accessible approach. It can be argued that both approaches have their merits (but the Druids were considered by the locals to be a total sham at the time) but the greater the interest in the site, from as wide an audience as possible, the better will be its future.
Another factor makes this book significant: good use of the archives of the National Monuments Record (NMR) in Swindon. The NMR holds literally millions of images, in one way or another connected to the ‘historic environment’, in its broadest sense. If future authors, editors or photographers see this book and it sparks an idea for their use of the NMR then it will have served its purpose.
There are a few niggles, which probably only bother me and not the general reader but why is it that only the aerial photographers do not receive the credit or acknowledgement for their images? The image (page 112) of Stonehenge showing a wonderful crop circle in the foreground, as if trying to emulate the earlier, more permanent site, was taken by Roger Featherstone (now retired, formerly with the RCHME). Roger deserves the credit, just as James Davies does for his wonderfully atmospheric photograph on the final page, but only the latter is mentioned. The date of the earliest aerial photograph (on page 34) is also incorrect; we know it was taken in 1906 but the date of January 1st is purely an administrative nicety for the NMR records; on the previous page another photograph (which I have always assumed was taken on the day as the following image) is labelled as dating to 1905, for which there is no evidence at all; it too was taken in 1906.
Perhaps the most important point to make about the photographs is that they are all in black and white. I am a great fan of black and white photography and thought that this idea worked well; however I would have liked to have seen one, perhaps two, stunning colour images, just to make the point that there are many colour images of Stonehenge and that it is a remarkably photogenic and colourful landscape.
The archives of the NMR are important for those engaged in the future management of a site as they can help to understand the recent past. All photographs are a record of the condition of the site; we see Stonehenge as it is today not as it was left by its builders but as the result of 5,000 years of use, abuse, neglect, repair, restoration and fabrication. Thus it is slightly surprising that in the final chapter, ‘Stonehenge in 2004’, there was no reference to the potential, enormous changes to the current landscape and the way in which we experience Stonehenge. If funds and permissions allow, the road system will be completely transformed making the Stonehenge landscape more accessible to many but removing the car-park which attracts so many visitors to the only the Stones and the henge. Linked to this is the Visitor Centre proposal, if approved, which will be well away from Stonehenge. If these proposals go ahead, and I hope they do, then we will be able to walk up the Avenue and into the Henge, without the interruption, nay dislocation, of a modern road. I understand why Julian wanted to keep away from the future as this is a ‘history in photographs’, but history is a continuum and 2004, although a significant year for Stonehenge, was just another cycle of solstice and equinox, for which the site is so famous.
Review Submitted: January 2005
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