Perceptions of Stonehenge

The Archaeology Archive would like to welcome our first guest blogger, Brendan Maione-Downing from Harvard University. Brendan has been interning with the Institute of Archaeology for the summer and spent a week working with us in the Archive.

One of the most interesting things about working in an academic archive is that I find myself studying the history and material culture of people who studied history and material culture. In practice, that means that there are really two distinct layers of meaning attached to nearly everything I work with. My current project – indexing the lantern slides in the Institute of Archaeology Archive – strikes me as an almost perfect illustration of this duality.

Two views of Stonehenge during Summer Solstice in 1936

The image I’ve picked to share today is simply titled “Silhouette at Sunrise, Solstice, taken 1936” and sounds like it might as well be a snapshot from someone’s vacation. The slide itself, though, tells a much more interesting story. By aligning himself directly between the henge and the rising sun and capturing the original photograph just as it is framed by one of the standing trilithons, the photographer is offering (perhaps even unconsciously) his own historical interpretation of the site. The way in which the photograph was taken is clearly meant to describe or imply an association between the megalithic site and the lunar calendar. From the year 2011, though, this slide is an equally compelling snapshot (so to speak) of two distinct historical periods. On the most basic level, it shows us an important, enigmatic archaeological site in a particular context – one that you would not, in fact, be able to observe the other 364 days of the year (or 365, since 1936 was a leap year, if we want to quibble). But, it is more than just that; this slide is a record of the photographer just as surely as it is a record of British prehistory. The date and time it was taken, the way it was reproduced on a lantern slide, and the fact that it survived in the archive for nearly 80 years tell us a great deal about the slide’s own place in history.

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About Archaeology Archives Administrator

Researchers in the archives of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford. Home of the Historic Environment Image Resource. Passionate about old photographs and fresh biscuits.
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