Touching the Stones
Author: Ruth Tringham
Touching the Stones, a Minimovie about Stonehenge
There was a time when you were allowed to touch the stones of Stonehenge. Now, thanks to heritage conservation, nobody can approach them. This raises thoughts about the value of enjoying monuments and sites to appeal to all our senses, build an intimate memory about them. Let’s hear it in the words of Our Lady Ruth Tringham…
I have re-used this movie many times in many different contexts, courses, public presentations, websites. It is a very tiny movie in all respects (640x480 max, 1m.51sec duration), but it keeps resonating with my thoughts and research.
I created the movie as part of a course that I taught in Spring 2004 with Meg Conkey, Michael Ashley, Sarah Gonzalez, and Burcu Tung, called “L&S127: Who Owns the Past: Heritage Futures in a Digital Age”. This was the first iteration of a course that Meg and I taught again in Spring 2011, and were even called back out of “retirement” to teach again in Fall 2015.
In the 2004 course, each instructor guided and supervised the research of a section of the class in examining and presenting the heritage issues of a well-known site. My section of ten students focused on Stonehenge. Their final product comprised a website that presented the site from the point of view of Preservation and Conservation, Stakeholders, its position in Global Heritage issues, and Representation/Documentation. The website is archived in good working order (on my personal Thunderbay 4 drive[s]!) waiting to be disseminated via our course website whoownsthepast.com. Each part of the website comprised an introductory text, links to related websites and other resources, and 3 or 4 1-2min movies. This small movie, Touching the Stones, was my contribution to the Stakeholders area of the site.
2004 was an interesting time from the point of view of digital technology, with digital cameras and camcorders on archaeological sites replacing analog image and video capturing technology. But there were no smartphones with embedded high quality image and video capture. The students had access to the digital capture devices through the MACTiA (the Class of 1960 Multmedia Authoring Center for Teaching in Anthropology) equipment and facilities on the UCB campus. Many students did not have their own laptops. Apple was not yet dominant on the campus, although it did dominate the MACTiA. So technological challenges were quite steep for many students.
One of the ways that we overcame such limitations in creating these “minimovies” was to adopt the guidelines of the (then) Center for Digital Storytelling (now Storycenter). In spring of 2003, I participated in one of the CDS workshops, where I was introduced to the idea of Digital Storytelling as a way to create a small (1-3min) movie, with relatively simple technological know-how, that told a personal story, using still photography, text, and voice-over. The workshops have been made even easier technologically by the introduction of software such as iMovie and smartphone image capture, but the principles are the same, described in Joe Lambert’s Digital Storytelling Cookbook, that suggests that a powerful story can be told in under 3 minutes with a montage of images and the voice of the storyteller.
“Touching the Stones” follows these same guidelines; it is a montage of personal photos about Stonehenge, my voice and some (legal because it is under 3mins?) background music. The story was built around the images that I had found in my personal collection. The text that followed the images came to me very quickly – one of those pieces of writing that seem to flow effortlessly from one’s hand. A lovely experience!
The story begins with my first memory of viewing Stonehenge (age 12) and being less impressed with the famous monument than I was with its nearby sister, Avebury. The next set of images is from when I was an undergraduate student of archaeology at Edinburgh, excavating at a site (Wayland’s Smithy) near Stonehenge, and spending a thrilling night sleeping among and on top of the stones (with friends, obviously, because it was a little scary [not mentioned in the movie]). The final episode of the story takes place in 1997, after English Heritage had taken over the site and cordoned off public access from the stones to 50 meters away, so that they could no longer be touched, but only seen from a distance.
Much of the current resonance of this story for me is that what makes a place affective and engaging for a visitor, inspiring re-visitation, is that it appeals to all our senses in a multisensorial way, close-up, with opportunities to experience the place as a context for social or cultural practice. Lucky are those people who can rarely experience Stonehenge in this way at the summer or winter solstice. For the normal visitor, however, experiencing Stonehenge is little different from navigating an empty virtual 3-dimensional model – unless you were caught there in a thunderstorm and then…..
This brings us to another discussion, about the multisensorial experience of virtual worlds…But that is another story.
My first memory of visiting Stonehenge, was when I was about 12. We were driving past on our way west, and it was a disappointment at how dwarfed this famous site seemed by the surrounding landscape of Salisbury Plain. But my mother told me that the whole landscape was filled with ancient places. She showed me Avebury, and I felt better. I always thought of Avebury as female and Stonehenge as male.
Figure that one out. My next memory of Stonehenge  was when I was a student like you all are now. I was on an excavation with the dynamic duo of Stuart Piggott and Richard Atkinson [actually the other two people in the photo are Sir Mortimer Wheeler and Seton Lloyd], not very far away at Wayland’s Smithy. Richard Atkinson on an official excursion showed us the carvings he had recently identified. I and some friends made an excursion of our own one night and had a sleepover. We role-played on the stones, but of course did not deface them. And it seemed totally magic to touch and to sleep among the stones.
My next memory was when I returned to the UK for a vacation a few years ago . And it was a shock at being kept distant from the stones, and how you could feel nothing at all at that distance of 20 yards away. The rationale was to protect the stones. But from what? They had already been set in concrete. I witnessed some of that process. So no one could push them over; maybe from graffiti; maybe, but I could only see the 19th century stuff or prehistoric.
Close proximity is an essential aspect of being at Stonehenge; immersing yourself in the structure and experiencing the intimacy of the place – touching the Giants.