Iâ€™ve not traveled to Stonehenge, located west of London on the Salisbury Plain. Others have during the past 4,500 years; including, remarkably, the â€œAmesbury Archer,â€ a seemingly wealthy metalworker from the Swiss Alps, who made it to Stonehenge and was buried there around 2,400 BC, only to be unearthed in recent excavations, as reported in Caroline Alexanderâ€™s fascinating article in the June issue of National Geographic. Parts of the monument itself traveled far. Some 80 stones, the â€œbluestones,â€ weighing up to four tons each, were hauled in from Wales, 250 miles away. Larger stones, some weighing up to 50 tons, were hauled 20-30 miles.
How many theories dance on the head of a bluestone? Weâ€™ve studied Stonehenge enough to think it was built for a purpose, but what? Alexander summarizes the explanations, so far, of its origin and meaning:
Secure in its wordless prehistory, it can thus absorb a multitude of â€œmeaningsâ€: temple to the sunâ€”or the moon, for that matter; astronomical calendar; city of the ancestral dead; center of healing; stone representation of the gods; symbol of status and power. The heart of its mystique is, surely, that it excites in equal measure both zealous certitude and utter bafflement.
Its very mystery leaves us free to steal some of its power. My favorite mystery-thriller, Joseph McElroy‘s Lookout Cartridge, has a scene set at Stonehenge, a group of late 1960s hippie-pagans exorcizing the evil spirits unleashed by the Vietnam War. East of Portland 100 miles, Sam Hill built a replica Stonehenge as a monument to soldiers killed in World War I. A pacifist, Hill thought Stonehenge a place of ritual sacrifice, and his Stonehenge is cold concrete, a bitter place overlooking the Columbia River.
â€œCarhengeâ€ near Alliance, Nebraska is chief among the playful henges, to include â€œFoamhengeâ€ in Virginia and â€œFridgehengeâ€ in New Mexico. My own modest proposal is a temporary public sculpture in the Park blocks, made from frozen sides of beef. In the middle of summer, Beefhenge could speak loudly if not necessarily eloquently for veganism, I think, something in the counter-spirit of Hillâ€™s monument. And I wait for the inspired used car lot construction of â€œSUVhengeâ€ or â€œPeakOilhenge.â€
The current issue of Tin House sports a photograph of â€œCarhengeâ€ on its cover, an example of â€œOutsiderâ€ art; that is, art created â€œoff the gridâ€ or outside traditional boundaries. Tin House‘s Elissa Schappel explains that Carhenge typifies the “eccentric, amateurish, maybe even laughable” art “created by folks who wouldn’t necessarily even call themselves artists.” The naive, of course, doesn’t exhaust the rather limitless possibilities of “Outsider” art. See, for example, the definitions in “Outsider” art’s institutional publication, Raw Vision. But perhaps it is true that â€œOutsiderâ€ art can be described and defined as such only by . . . â€œinsiderâ€ artists and critics? And if you were to build a monument as a symbol of that kind of status and power, what would it look like? Would we recognize it had a purpose, but wonder what?