Myths of Britishness at Stonehenge
A recent visit to Stonehenge filled my little British heart with warm fuzzies. Its unmistakable greenish stone set against a pastel grey sky and adorned here and there with coal-Black ravens. I had been here before as a boy and then a few years ago drove by without going in, so this was my first real up-close experience with this monumental piece of British heritage as an adult. Why did it make me feel proud to be British so? What mystical power does this obscure ancient structure, about whose actual purpose we can only make mild inferences, hold over a twenty-first century Englishman?
Social scientists define ethnicity as an imagined community held together by a myth of common ancestry. Perhaps Stonehenge subconsciously imbues such a myth in me, and for modern-day Brits more broadly. But are they my ancestors? A recent study in the journal “Nature” shows that there are numerous distinct DNA clusters throughout the British Isles relating to the waves of immigration and conquest that have . And another study has shown that the original builders of the structure in 3000 BC were completely wiped from the genetic map 500 years later. Then, by 300 BC, it was in use by the people of the Celtic culture, whoever they were.
This last point is interesting, since Stonehenge tends to make me feel more British, rather than English. This is partly because I, erroneously, believed for much of my life that it was of Celtic origins. It’s kind of like when Andy Murray, a Scot, won Wimbledon. I felt proudly British, not English.
Regardless of which of those two identities it invokes, I am not sure where the idea came from that this was part of my ancestry and therefore my ethnicity and nationalism. Perhaps it was through the education system, my history classes growing up, or from television and books. Yet I can’t remember any specific lesson or television program or story. Such is the power of identity constructivism. Did anybody actually intentionally try to create Englishness or Britishness? The historical record is weak on this. Perhaps Alfred the Great. Perhaps Bede. Maybe the Tudor monarchy or aristocracy. But really, nationalism seems to have a life of its own. Security seems to be a particularly potent factor driving this. Who can you trust? Whom should you sacrifice your life in defense of? Whether Vikings or Catholics or Germans or whoever the threatening group is today, nationalism tells us we can walk through the streets and feel confident our fellow citizens won’t harm us. Nationalism tells us it has always been that way — Brits have protected each other since ancient times.
Whether that is true or not, the myth works. Being cognizant of the myth makes little difference. We want to believe it. Perhaps we need to believe it. We may, like me during my recent visit to Stonehenge, may not even know we want or need it. But I must admit that I like the myth. Stonehenge gives me joy and pride in the idea of a British culture with longevity. It gives me a desire to understand these ancient peoples with whom I supposedly have a biological connection. How did they live? Which ones exactly am I related to? What parts of my culture today are influenced by them? There is something familial about these sentiments. But then, social scientists say that nationalism is an extension of ethnicity, which is an extension of clans, kinships, and ultimately families. So perhaps my warm fuzzies were genealogical rather than nationalistic.