Sophisticated theoretical and technological techniques may have provided new ways of assessing prehistoric man as the long-awaited Stonehenge visitor centres attracts people internationally to the ancient site.
But in fact the vital missing links in the centuries-old saga still remain about prehistoric man who built one of Europe’s most fascinating monuments, according to Ronald Hutton, professor of history at the University of Bristol.
“We can tell from where they came, what they are, what they looked like, what tools they used, how they lived and what the climate and landscape were like when they did so,” he declares.
“The missing element, which is apparently lost forever, is what they thought. We have no better idea now than we had 200 years ago of what their political, social, legal or moral systems were like, what their gender relations were, or – this being the really big one – of what their religion consisted.”
Writing in the Christmas issue of the BBC History Magazine, Professor Hutton adds: “As a result, each generation has had to make up answers to these questions for itself. In the case of the religion practised at Stonehenge, these answers spring from people’s attitudes to religious behaviour in general, which in turn are generated by their attitudes to their fellow human beings.
“In practice, the results have always been polarised. In one camp are those who want to see the monument as one inspired by an admirable, spirituality, characterised by love of – and care for – the natural world and an instinctual understanding of its ways.
“In the other are those who view the monument as the product of a primitive and bloodthirsty world, representing ignorance, savagery and superstition.”
He points out that the first school of thought is what draws so many people to celebrate the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge each year while the second offers a clue as to why one of the fallen megaliths has been known as “Slaughter Stone” since the 18th century – and with no justification for it.
Modern people who hated and feared religion in general used fantasies about prehistory a means of attacking what they took to be the worst aspects of religious zeal.
“Finally, the hostile view of prehistoric religion made a food fit with two other trends of modernity,” adds Professor Hutton. “One was the cult of progress, which decreed that – with crushing inevitability – the further back in time you go, the worse life was.
“The other imperialism, which equated the imagined barbarism of the British past with the savagery alleged against modern Asians, Africans, Polynesians, native Americans and Australian aborigines.
“According to this world view, the latter could be civilised and improved, to everybody’s benefit, even as the former had been before.”
Where does this leave us today?
“The fact is that when we imagine the beliefs that inspired the building of Stonehenge, we draw on one or the other of these two banks of imagery,” he replies. “They have just proved too useful and convenient to abandon.”
And he concludes a four-page feature: “We seem to be compelled to accept that the evidence left to us by the practitioners of ancient religion is ample and exciting in its own right.
“And we surely must acknowledge that each generation – not to mention individual people and interest groups within each generation – will read different things into it.
“This being so, we my as well make it a cause for celebration and utilise its benefits to the full.”