In Search Of… S01E24: The Magic of Stonehenge

We open on Stonehenge, silhouetted against the sun. Awesome. Nimoy talks about how people built 'this great machine' then disappeared, leaving their work behind them.

Great cold open, seriously. Almost immediately, we're looking at footage of modern day druids, and Nimoy's talking about a 'strange power' in the place. I'm kind of pleased. After a couple of not-too-factually-awful episodes, I could really use some of the good stuff. We're not just looking at Stonehenge. We're looking at the magic of Stonehenge. Now, is that going to be the main thing we're looking at? Or is it going to be an enticement to see a relatively straightforward documentary, a la the Inca Treasure episode?

The Druids invented lens flare?
The Druids invented lens flare?

Nimoy, in the studio, claims that Stonehenge is a 'classic mystery' which I guess it is. He divides the mystery into two questions: who built it and why? Both good questions. Nimoy claims that the 'why' part of the question is 'so simple it was overlooked for centuries'. I feel a little let down, now. It's just going to be that it's a calendar, isn't it? I guess that was a new and exciting idea in the mid-70s, so I can't fault the In Search Of… people for making a big deal about it. Even so, it's a bit of a letdown.

Next up is a helicopter shot of the site. Nimoy claims that it 'defies the usual methods of archaeology' because it lacks written records, which… no. Just no. Nimoy points out that a lot of early theories about Stonehenge were pure speculation. Gerald Hawkins, an astronomer, is interviewed. He wrote a book called 'Beyond Stonehenge', in the 1960s in which he set forth the 'astronomical calendar' theory of Stonehenge - the idea that the monoliths are aligned according to the sun or planets as they rise and set at certain specific times of the year.

Nimoy tells us that the world of 2000 BCE (when the site is thought to have been constructed) was dotted with only a handful of civilisations. Which is true depending on how you define 'civilisation'. He assures us that most of the people in the world lived in caves, which is… again, no.

But he does say the Pyramids were being built, the Bronze Age was entering full swing, Jericho was standing and Mesopotanians were writing away. I don't know how accurate this is. Even if it was well-researched in the 1970s, I'm sure the dating of all of these things has been refined in the last forty years. What is interesting about it is that it tries to put Stonehenge in a global perspective, which is an unusual way of doing things.

Nimoy goes on to say that the Dead Sea Scrolls weren't yet written, the Minoan Empire was at its height, but that its hadn't sent ships out into the Atlantic yet, which I guess is an Atlantis reference. No explorer had arrived in North America (other than the ones who crossed the Bering Strait, I guess, but they don't count).

We're back looking at Stonehenge. Nimoy asks 'why' again, and we're listening to Hawkins discuss where the stone comes from. I think I get it now, they're building tension for the big reveal when they pull out the 'astronomical calendar' theory, which we all kind of know about now. Ah. This was probably effective when the show first came out. It doesn't work so well now, but you can't really blame the producers for that.

Now we're talking about how the megaliths were quarried from extremely tough stone, which is difficult to cut now and must have been nigh impossible using flint tools. It comes from Wales, meaning it had to be transported a long way using very basic technology on unpaved roads.

Now we're talking to Francis Hitching, who's talking about the different types of blue stone megalith and wondering what sort of 'power' they contain. Ok. Maybe we're not just headed for 'astronomical calendar'.

Let's have a little aside here to talk about the two 'researchers' who are being interviewed. Gerard Hawkins was Professor of Astronomy at Boston University. While the 'astronomical calendar' theory was disputed when it first came out (and, I gather, remains only one of a number of competing theories today), it was a well thought out theory based on scientific examination of evidence. Hitchins, on the other hand, is described by Wikipedia as a "Brisith author, dowser, journalist and filmmaker." I'm jumping the gun here, but my guess is his theory of Stonehenge will basically be about ley lines--lines of ancient energy notable for not actually existing in any way.

Just sayin', is all.

Nimoy tells us that Hitchings investigations were based on the idea that the builders of Stonehenge were concerned with the spirits of the countryside. Nimoy tries to prove his point by looking at another megalith, which has an indentation that supposedly comes from the devil's heel. There's a great musical sting when he says it. Then we're talking about a different stone circle, which is said to have been formed when nine maidens who danced on the moor were turned to stone at dawn. Other megaliths were thought to dance, and some other stuff about gnomes and witches.

That's all well and good, but these are legends that later generations have imposed on megaliths. They tell us nothing about what the builders of these megaliths believed. Cool story, though.

But Hitchings claims that the builders of these megaliths basically had the same ideas about the power of the stones that can be found in recent folklore. To be fair, they may have. Then again, they may not have. We're seriously in the realm of speculation here, but Hitchings goes on to say that a 'certain kind of power' existed within these stones, and the people of that time knew about it. Now that's the sort of nonsense I like!

We're looking now at a map showing how the stone got from the quarry to the Stonehenge site. There's some lovely footage from the 50s, showing a BBC experiment to find out how the stones might have been transported. Nimoy claims that there was a folklore belief that the stones were transported by Merlin, who made the stones so light they floated. Nimoy says that the workforce must have involved a huge proportion of the population of southwestern Great Britain – if we eliminate the possibility of magic use.

That's a concession I'm prepared to make.

Hawkins makes some very interesting points about Stonehenge as a collective activity. This is where monuments become interesting. Because monuments involve the labour of many people, expended on a task that is superfluous to day-to-day survival, monuments can tell us many interesting things about how the societies that built them organised and where their priorities lay. Hawkins claims that the builders of Stonehenge were neither slaves nor employees, so concludes that they all wanted to build Stonehenge.

It's an interesting point. Nimoy interprets that to mean that they were held in the grip of a 'magical' idea. Ooo! Tricky. Actual magic, or is it a metaphor? Could be either.

Now we're watching white-robed druids having a ceremony at Stonehenge. Nimoy says that the modern druids claim spiritual descent from Stonehenge's builders, but in a rare moment of scepticism says that "there is little support for their claims", which is true. Modern Druidism is not so much descended from Ancient Druidism, as it is an attempt to reconstruct it, and anyway the Druids came long after the construction of Stonehenge. Still, their procession, overlaid with some eerie music makes a nice background for Hitchings next speech.

Hitchings points out that (so far as we know) the builders of Stonehenge had no written language, and yet they had impressive skills. Which is interesting in itself, but in the hands of people like Hitchings it gets weird. He goes on to talk about other stone circles, and Prof Alexander Thom. Thom, an engineer, saw a pattern in the arrangement of these circles -- as Nimoy puts it, "a deliberate and far-reaching plan". Black and white photos of Thom fade into helicopter shots of these circles. And then Hitchings gets into talking about the ley lines.

Sigh. Right. Ok. This is like the due date for my tax return. I knew it was coming, I just hoped it wouldn't get here. Right, various people (not really starting with Thom, but whatever) saw a pattern in the placement of sacred sites in Britain. Whether this is true was contested at the time, and I don't think has ever been a particularly influential idea within the archaeological community since.

Now, this "pattern" comes from drawing imaginary lines (called 'ley lines' because reasons) between ancient sites. These lines were initially just lines on a map, no more magical than lines of latitude or longitude. Where it gets all new agey is from later writers who claimed that this pattern of lines follows actual lines of mystical energy. Hitchings explains this theory over some very nice footage of ancient sites, and medieval structures thought to be built on top of older sites. Nimoy claims that these more recent sites were situated where they are to absorb the power of the older building.

Or just because the reasons the original builders had for siting their construction were still valid later. Whatever.

Hitchings, over still more lovely footage of Stonehenge (can't fault this episode for camera work) claims that there are anomalies in the Earth's magnetic field on some of these sites supposedly on ley-line nodes. Then we watch Hitchings playing with a compass and map while Nimoy claims that ancient magic is just another term for electromagnetic energy.

This bugs me. I'm not a believer in magic, but if you want to believe in magic then fucking believe in magic. Tell me about spells and incantations and frigging unicorns. If I want to know about electromagnetic fields I'll consult a high-school science textbook.

Hitchings then spins a lovely line of nonsense about using electromagnetic anomalies in healing, and it's hard to know where to begin the snark. Perhaps look up the word 'anomaly', or wonder why doctors don't wave magnets at you.

Then he starts claiming, over footage of wildlife, that megaliths are basically palantirs. Nimoy identifies telepathy with electromagnetism, because of course he does.

Now we're back to Hawkins is talking about how he used observation, inference and mathematical analysis to come up with his theory. The fact that his theory has literally nothing to do with Hitchings theory is not mentioned. It's vexing. More footage of Stonehenge while Nimoy talks about the 'astronomical calendar' theory.

Now we're talking about the Druids again. Hitchings says that the Druids built Stonehenge, on the basis that there were Druids in England when Caesar arrived, which is kind of like claiming that Catholics built the Colosseum because there were Catholics in Italy when Napoleon invaded. But, to my amazement, he is only making a rhetorical claim. This idea is wrong, he says, bless his little denim jacket.

He talks about Druids for a bit over footage of Modern Druids.

So who did design Stonehenge? Nimoy claims that the builders of Stonehenge "suddenly to have become possessed of a superior, highly sophisticated intelligence."

So. Aliens or Atlantis?

"The answer may never be known."

Oh. Didn't see that coming.

Hawkins wonders whether the builders of Stonehenge worshiped a god of time, but makes it clear that he is just speculating. And more Druids.

Nimoy wonders what they were looking forward to. Perhaps something something outer cosmos?

Now we're looking at Mayan temples, Egyptian pyramids and Indian observatories. Archaeoastronomy is interesting, but I bet they're going to add aliens. Nimoy asks us "for what were they waiting", which kind of begs the question that they were waiting for anything.

Final shot of the sun through the megaliths of Stonehenge. Beautiful. Just beautiful. And summing up: the usual blather whereby we underestimate the intelligence of those less technologically advanced than ourselves, and then attempt to solve the 'puzzle' that this misapprehension creates. "Or perhaps they had help," Nimoy says, and we cut to credits before he has to back that up.

If I've learned nothing else from writing this series, it's that In Search Of… varies hugely in terms of content. Some have some vague notion that they want to get across, so lots of padding and repetition. Others, like this one, are extremely dense, and flip from point to point with dizzying speed. I have the advantage of a pause button and Internet access but the poor souls of the 1970s just had to let it wash over them. Sometimes whiplash of information and speculation just looks like an excess of enthusiasm. Other times, it seems deliberate -- like this week's attempt to piggyback Hitchings' nonsense theory onto Hawkins' sensible theory.

Anyway, I'm tired now. That's the end of Season One. Back next week with the beginning of Season Two.

Best Quotes:

Hitchings: "Is it just possible that people in those times somehow knew how to tap the electromagnetic anomalies that are in these stones and use them in their healing?"

No, not really, Francis.

Hitchings: "Is it possible that they used it as birds do and as dogs seem to in telepathy?"

Yeah, well you see, the thing is… what?

Summing Up

Camerawork: 9/10, Intrusive Electronic Music: 8/10, Nimoyness: 7/10, Convincing theory: 5/10, Druids: 6/10. Overall: Distinction.

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