I visited Stonehenge for the first time a little more than a year ago, and as I strolled around the ancient monument, I overheard an elderly American gentleman grumble to his companion that "this was a long way to go just to see a bunch of rocks."
Since my visit, I've spent more time thinking about that old man than I have about Stonehenge itself, wondering whether he was just tired from a day of sightseeing, or whether his inborn sense of wonder and curiosity had, as it seems to have with so many other unfortunate souls, dried up.
If it was the latter, then perhaps my complaining compatriot was just where he needed to be, because, according to Tucson writer and artist Dianne Ebertt Beeaff, Stonehenge and other megalithic remnants of our prehistoric past have an almost-mystical way of stirring the imagination and recharging our sense of the remarkable mystery of life. In Spirit Stones: Unraveling the Megalithic Mysteries of Western Europe's Prehistoric Monuments, Beeaff takes readers on a journey into the deep past, speculating on early man's possible uses for megalithic structures and how they can influence our lives today.
While Stonehenge may be one of the planet's most-famous prehistoric monuments, there are literally thousands of ancient stone structures scattered throughout the world, with a high concentration in Western Europe and the British Isles. European megaliths, the focus of Beeaff's study, began appearing en masse around 5000 B.C., soon after the advent of agriculture, and were continuously built until near the end of the second millennium B.C. Beyond that, we have little conclusive knowledge.
"The prehistoric stone monuments of the world," Beeaff writes, "form a huge jigsaw puzzle from which we will always be missing most of the pieces. In the end, we can only fully understand and admire them as living monuments to the spirit and aspirations of the people who built them."
However, it's possible, she says, to make some reasonable inferences based on archeological evidence and tradition. Writing that many of our traditions contain traces of the distant past, Beeaff examines a considerable body of mythology, folklore and religious custom, suggesting that megalithic structures served a host of purposes ranging from burial grounds and ancestor shrines to astronomical observatories, rudimentary calendars, festival and market sites, territorial and route markers, political power centers and ceremonial complexes that were likely the "cathedrals or parish churches of their day."
Noting that stone, "stalwart and everlasting," can be a powerful symbol for the ineffable, Beeaff writes that megalithic architecture is still capable of playing a significant role in people's spiritual lives. By meditating, she says, on various facets of these monuments—their aesthetic qualities, the ideas they invoke and, especially, "the powerful concentration of life they embody"—we can deepen our connection to the natural world and quicken our own eternally questing spirit.
While it's missing any discussion on how these monuments were actually built, this book is an interesting and scholarly introduction to one of the ancient world's most-mystifying topics. With its large section of photographs, and accounts of Beeaff's many evocative experiences at megalithic sites, the book conveys a sense of the enchanting effect these structures must have had on ancient humans.
The biggest problem with this book (besides a profusion of vacuous quotes from Bono) is the editing. The book too often reads like a rough draft, clogged with a vast array of interesting but irrelevant facts gleaned from Beeaff's copious research. Learning that pinto beans absorb water more quickly at lunar quarters and that large oak trees can have as many as 10 miles of twigs and branches certainly adds to our stock of general knowledge, but readers will probably find themselves wishing that Beeaff had spent more time developing truly pertinent information.
Still, with its emphasis on connecting past and present and its celebration of personal transformation, this book is a worthy read. Beeaff writes that, despite living in an age dominated by reason and science, we're basically no different from our prehistoric ancestors, still searching for spiritual meaning in a strange and baffling universe. More than just rocks, she might say to my fellow traveler at Stonehenge, megalithic monuments are actually repositories of mysteries and musings from a distant past.
"All societies," she writes, "have the same basic impulse to see the Divine in our natural world, to be touched with awe and wonder. Our call to return to this ancient precept is part of the legacy of standing stones."