Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The World's Most Overrated Ancient Mystery

In 1989, I paid a visit to a place familiar to anyone who ever watched "In Search Of." I am, of course, talking about Stonehenge, that circle of really big rocks that a bunch of ancient Brits stuck in the ground for reasons nobody has figured out for certain. There weren't any druids dancing around the rocks on the day that I visited. There were, however, a lot of tourists. For a bunch of rocks stuck in the ground, it is certainly a major tourist attraction.

Photos of Stonehenge are often taken at twilight, showing the big rocks silhouetted against a darkening sky. Or they're taken from a distance, so we can see the rocks in their element, surrounded by an expanse of emerald grass. Or sometimes, we'll see a photo of Stonehenge up close, as the photographer crouches behind one of the rocks to photograph some of the other rocks, to emphasize he mysteriousness of this ancient, pre-historic whatchamacallit.

But here's what you won't see: You won't see the ropes around the big rocks, which keep the tourists at a safe distance and prevent anyone from spray-painting graffiti. If Stonehenge seems unapproachable, that's because it is. English Heritage, which runs the place, has set up a parking lot across the road. You pay the admission fee and then walk under a tunnel, where you're greeted by the following: "Step back in time 5,000 years!" As you proceed under the tunnel--wondering why none of those TV shows never bothered to show this stuff, you see the following signs as you approach your destination: MODERN ENGLAND...ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND...NORMAN ENGLAND...ANCIENT GREECE...ANCIENT EGYPT. Yes, not only will you step back in time, you'll end up in an entirely different place.

Once I got there, I walked around the big rocks, and my friends and I took turns taking pictures in front of the rocks. I remember us all feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the experience. I also remember the snack bar sold something called Stonehenge Rock Cake. And I later heard a theory that perhaps Stonehenge was "a prehistoric tourist trap, with priests handing out tickets." Maybe one day, archaeologists will find stone slabs with ADMIT ONE scrawled in some ancient language.

In the meantime, people continue to speculate as to what those rocks are doing there. Olbermann's show reported on a new theory, based on a nearby archaeological dig: that it was, in fact, a piece of swanky real estate, "Beverly Hills, 2000 BC," as Olbie puts it.

Stonehenge as a prehistoric McMansion? Come to think of it, that theory's not too far off.