Last week I was sitting in the café at the new English Heritage Visitors Centre near Stonehenge, listening to a conversation between two American visitors.
“Well,” said one, “I definitely think it was three things; a church, a burial ground and a place of healing.”
“You don’t mean church,” said her friend.
“Oh no. Well, a holy place. That sort of thing.”
People love speculating about why those who created Stonehenge went to so much trouble to transport huge stones from West Wales to Salisbury Plain to construct their monument which took many hundreds of years – at a time, 5000 years ago, when their own lifespan would probably have been only about 30 years.
Because of the wonderful new exhibition English Heritage have designed in the Visitor Centre, our minds are now filled with all the most up-to-date theories based upon the latest research. And we are now imagining those Neolithic people in a new light, and wondering about their skills in planning and design and organisation, in engineering and architecture and building – skills which are far beyond those we might have credited to them even a couple of decades ago – if we’d ever thought about them, that is.
Before this visit, I last went round Stonehenge a year ago, and even then I was moved by the story that English Heritage tell us through their wonderful audio guide.
But now I have new reflections. They are about the rise and fall of civilisations on this planet – and how easy it is for us to forget, or disregard, the sophistication and skill of previous civilisations that have disappeared.
Only a few centuries back, we are told, people “had no concept of prehistory.” In James I’s time, Inigo Jones researched Stonehenge and concluded it had been built by the Romans.
But no. Now we learn that this magnificent structure was begun by people who lived in 3000 BC.
How sure can we be that our own immensely sophisticated civilisation won’t disappear, to be lost to time, and forgotten by future races? Will they, I speculate, rediscover us and be amazed at the things we were able to achieve, which they would never have credited to us?
How many of us believe that all we have discovered and attained will last forever?
What will we leave behind for the people 3000 years into the future to wonder at and and admire? What will be left of us, to fuel their imagination, in just the same way that Stonehenge now fuels ours?