Every year, over a million visitors are drawn to the Salisbury Plain in southern England to gaze upon a mysterious circle of stones. Meanwhile, in grade and middle school classrooms across the United States, scores of bored, unchallenged kids steal away from their peers during library-mandated “study time” to thumb through picture-heavy texts of the same famous site, their imaginations fired by the extravagance of varied possibility.
Yes, Stonehenge may be the best-known and most mysterious relic of prehistory, which makes the new short-form, NOVA-stamped documentary Secrets of Stonehenge both wildly intriguing and more than a bit frustrating. First, a bit of history: excavations from the mid-20th century revealed that the structure — with some stones standing 20 feet tall, and ranging in weight from seven to 45 tons — was built in stages, and that it dates back some 5,000 years, to the late Stone Age. The greater meaning of the monument, however, was until recently anyone’s guess, spawning all sorts of fantastic theories, inclusive of astrological worship, human sacrifices or even extraterrestrial visitation.
Running just under an hour, Secrets of Stonehenge takes a scientific tack, following a team of researchers as they attempt to get to the bottom of how prehistoric people quarried, transported, sculpted and erected the giant stones — some of which came from Wales, over 150 miles away. Archeologists Mike Pitts and Mike Parker Pearson, of the University of Sheffield, are able to give interesting speculative on-site overview, even as they refine their theories a bit based on things they uncover in fresh excavations.
Most interesting is the inarguable linking of Stonehenge to fellow Neolithic settlement Durrington Walls, which with its henge and large timber circle likely served as a gateway touchstone to the living, while Stonehenge was a complementary spot for clan members moved on, since rock had stronger ancestral connotations. Less engaging are curiously inexact experiments in stone movement, along with funny pronunciations of the words “cosmos” and “skeletal.” Also, somewhat damningly for those with a more rooted anthropological curiosity, Secrets of Stonehenge doesn’t delve satisfyingly into the day-to-day lives of the people, spanning generations, who crafted this amazing structure. Either way, though, there’s at least some truth in the title here, if not a complete and definitive rewriting of the story of Stonehenge.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Secrets of Stonehenge comes to DVD with a static menu screen, split into seven chapters and presented in 1.33:1 full screen. Optional English SDH subtitles are included, but there are no other supplemental features. To purchase Secrets of Stonehenge, phone (800) PLAY-PBS, or click here. Or if Amazon is totally and irretrievably your thing, then click here, by all means. B- (Movie) C- (Disc)