Culture

How Stonehenge Replicas Became The World’s First Meme

by Jed Oelbaum

February 15, 2018

THE GOOD NEWS:

From Carhenge to Sconehenge, replica Stonehenges are popping up where people least expect them.

 

Mark Cline is just finishing up his work on a sculpted dinosaur head when I call him at Enchanted Castle Studios, his workshop in Natural Bridge, Virginia.

Once called “ the Barnum of the Blue Ridge,” the artist has built a one-of-a-kind career creating sculptures, props, haunted houses, and other immersive experiences drawn from legend and the annals of monsterdom. You can find Cline’s Bigfoots and towering lizards at theme parks all over the country, but he also has the distinction of having built, not one, but two, large-scale replicas of Stonehenge. 

“As it is, I’m probably the only man in history to build two full-size replicas of Stonehenge,” says Cline. “And to think it took the Neolithic people 1,500 years just to build one.”

The 57-year-old artist says he’s motivated by his ability to bring people joy, which he sees as a kind of catharsis. “People come to my replicas of Stonehenge and they get healed,” says Cline. “Now, don’t expect them to come up there with leprosy and walk away healed; I’m not talking about that. There’s nothing really magical — it’s just something that gets triggered, a positive energy.”

Foamhenge. Images by The Last Cookie/Flickr.

Built for a local tourist attraction in 2004, Foamhenge was made from thousands of pounds of foam and has attracted thousands of sightseers. It was once even an answer on “Jeopardy!” From a distance, Cline’s close attention to the recreation of the original’s crags and lichen could probably fool most casual onlookers into thinking the megalithic work of some lost prehistoric people has somehow been teleported onto a Virginia hillside.

Bamahenge, his second henge, was made from fiberglass and built for Alabama billionaire and former race car driver George W. Barber. “Barber gave no particular reason,” for wanting his own version, says Cline. “He just whispered in my ear: ‘Stonehenge.’” 

Though Cline tells me he doesn’t know if it will end up happening, Barber has toyed with the idea of commissioning yet another henge. When you’re that wealthy you can have as many Stonehenges as you want, it seems.

But for those of us who can’t just order up a Stonehenge, there’s still no shortage of replicas, big and small, accurate and irreverent, to experience. In fact, when you start looking into just how many Stonehenges are out there, far from the hallowed original on England’s Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, their prevalence even starts to feel a little weird.

Built over thousands of years, Stonehenge’s complex of earthworks, burial sites, and (obviously) its iconic stones, has been a bottomless well of arcana and an endless source of fascination as researchers continue to unearth clues as to who created it and why. The astronomical alignments of the site and other puzzles of its construction hearken to ancient, forgotten knowledge and a prehistoric life framed by nature’s annual solstices and equinoxes.

Often overlooked, though, is another unexplained element of Stonehenge’s legacy, a phenomenon that might be as mysterious as the origins of Stonehenge itself: Why is the world peppered with Stonehenge replicas? And what makes a person wake up one day and make a Stonehenge anyway?

Maryhill Stonehenge. Image by Frank Kovalchek/Flickr.

Rise Of The Clonehenge

Clonehenges come in many forms. They are popular attractions like Foamhenge or Carhenge, as well as war memorials like Maryhill Stonehenge, which is solemnly perched above a breathtaking stretch of the Columbia River in Washington state. There are Stonehenge-shaped astronomical observatories at universities, personal Stonehenge passion projects in backyards, and Stonehenges for reflective meditation in gardens and cemeteries.

It’s hard to tell exactly how many henges are out there in total, but a rough worldwide estimate is about 90 big, permanent henges; many more mid-size Stonehenges; and thousands of temporary mini-henges, goofy “food henges,” and Stonehenge dioramas.

This spate of Stonehenges can’t just be explained away as the work of history buffs with too much time on their hands — each is also a monument to its builder’s personal obsessions and a hard-to-describe compulsion to recreate one of the world’s most mysterious sites. Nancy Wisser, who has cataloged the ever-expanding world of megalithic knockoffs for a decade on her blog Clonehenge, calls the circle of stones a “self-replicating image” and “the world’s first meme,” pointing to centuries of copies.

“I joke that Stonehenge somehow reproduces itself through the human mind,” she says, laughing. “People see it or they see pictures of it. They dont even have to even go there, really. And then they think, ‘I want to build a Stonehenge.’” (Cline, for example, says he’s never been to the original Stonehenge.)

“The first one that I know of, in England, was built in the 1700s,” says Wisser. “Its not a great one, but somebody built it on their property as a mystical thing. People were also building these small, very detailed ones out of cork.”

There’s almost no way to seriously research the phenomenon of Stonehenge recreations without interacting with Wisser’s exhaustive work. She might be the only one out there with enough of a bird’s-eye view of the Stonehenge pandemic to understand it. Her mix of humor and historical rigor has allowed her to build relationships with the full range of Stonehenge aficionados: astronomers and archaeological experts, compulsive micro-henge builders, and conspiracy theorists who suspect it was built by aliens.

Like many others in the self-dubbed “henging” community, Wisser says she formed a mystical connection with the stones — and the prehistoric peoples who erected them — at first sight. “I’ve liked Stonehenge since I was a little girl,” she says. “It was one of those things. When I saw it, it was like, ding, ding, ding! Bells went off.”

Cheesehenge. Illustration by Alison Dubois.

The World’s First Meme?

Like any good meme or viral image, Stonehenge’s origins are hard to trace, though its endless copies somehow seem to be everywhere. (Unlike most memes, though, I can’t just assume 4Chan first made it.)

Wissers introduced me to Simon Burrow, who sold his small manufacturing company in California and moved to Arizona to retire. In a phone call, Burrow explains that he first started henging after a trip to Stonehenge about 20 years ago. But what started as a family inside joke became something more as he “gently slid into making henges with various things.”

Burrow, who’s made henges from potatoes, cellphones, oranges, and other found objects, has even hosted henge-building parties. “It turned out that they were really good events that get people drinking, and thats really the important thing,” he tells me.

Burrow admits that he now considers himself part of an online henging community that connects connects via Facebook groups and sites like Wisser’s. Building some small gag henges might not seem like it takes the same kind of dedication required to make a large-scale model — but if anything, the food hengers and postmodern jokers might have an even more severe case of Stonehenge Syndrome than the big-model builders.

Sconehenge. Photo by Saeru/Flickr.

Matthew Richardson works at a glass bottle factory and serves as a trade union representative in Leeds, England. Richardson is likely one of the most prolific small hengers of all time, having built about 325 eclectic henges. In an email, he laments that he is “running out of things to henge.”

Richardson began with a Cheesehenge, which is a “classic beginning henge,” according to Wisser. “When I henged sardines, the house stunk for about two days,” Richardson writes. “The smallest henge the I have made was Peahenge; I had to use tweezers to henge the peas. The biggest henge that I have made was out of custard cream biscuits. It was made of 177 biscuits in total.”

Sometimes when he feels “a bit mischievous,” he tells me, he will even “make henges out of other people's things without permission, like the time when I henged some whiskey bottles when the shopkeeper wasn’t looking.”

Though surely some historians and Stonehenge pedants would disapprove, Clonehenge acknowledges a wide, inclusive range of efforts. Sometimes a “henge” — big or small — can just be a simple single trilithon (the combo of two vertical stones topped with a horizontal lintel). Others strive for accuracy in dimension or include details of the site, like an altar stone. Some envision and attempt to convey what Stonehenge might have looked like intact and in use.

I think part of the reason prehistoric people were building some of these things is that they felt like the whole world was speaking to them and communicating with them in a way that we never feel anymore.

When it comes to the larger replicas, at least, “you can tell who built a Stonehenge — what kind of person — by how it looks,” Wisser tells me. “When a scientist builds a Stonehenge, they think of it as an observatory, and so they build it with very clean lines and its all about the sky. And the ones by artists are never neat or uniform.”

The most beautiful replica, according to Wisser, is a white limestone Stonehenge on private land in Montana. She also praises the attention to detail in Cline’s work, as well as in artist Jeremy Deller’s “Sacrilege,” a life-size inflatable Stonehenge bounce house. And although she doesn’t care for the movie, she says a set built for “Transformers 5” was the “best Stonehenge replica I have ever seen.”

“Theres a beautiful one in Spain, in La Coruña, built in memory of people killed by the Franco regime,” says Wisser. “Its up above the sea, with paint to look like blood and this very evocative, sort of poetic phrase on it about the dead. So, sometimes, when theyre built in a serious way, it can be very moving, really, what can be done with a Stonehenge replica.”

Piggyhenge. Image courtesy of Simon Burrow.

Close Encounters

In the 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Richard Dreyfuss’ character is mysteriously compelled to mold a plate of mashed potatoes into the shape of the Devils Tower butte after an encounter with a UFO. The urge to henge is similar, says Wisser. “It’s like that. People don't really know what's making them build them. They really aren’t sure.”

Yes, these henge-builders have ostensible reasons — but more often than not, in her conversations over the years, she gets a sort of shrug, something vague about “being inspired,” or told that a given project is “just a joke” or a fun flight of fancy. And of course, it’s possible that’s all there is to it.

But even if we’re to take these explanations at face value, doesn’t it still seem more than a little bizarre that so many different lives and situations seem to funnel into Stonehenge-related outcomes?

In 1987, after returning to the U.S. from time spent working as a petroleum engineer in England, Jim Reinders built a Stonehenge out of cars. Like the original Stonehenge, Carhenge is a burial ground for vintage automobiles that are sprayed a matte gray and stacked tall against the open horizon of the High Plains in Alliance, Nebraska.

Reinders, now in his 90s, has always bordered on coy when asked why he built the sculpture. In an email, he quotes Oscar Wilde, telling me that “to be understood is to be found out.” (Reinders has also said at times that the sculpture was a tribute to his father.)

Still, he is eager to share some of his experience. He sent me journals he kept while building Carhenge and from his first visit to Wiltshire. On June 22, 1975, Reinders wrote:

“My first trip to Stonehenge, a memorable trip — the time of year (Summer Solstice) for strange doings: a nearby rock concert, nudity, pot. People doing bizarre dances around Stonehenge. The whole affair intrigued me greatly. I had approached the monument by car and was surprised by the smallness of it — had expected something much larger, like the Great Pyramids. Aside from that, Stonehenge was more than I had imagined, though it took many trips to fully appreciate the monument.”

Reinders’ journal about his time in Europe feels like a whirlwind of expense account dinners, trips to Paris, business meetings, and ‘70s continental flair. In contrast, his account written during Carhenge’s construction is a messy slice of glorious beer-soaked Americana.

Reading his entries from 1987, it’s hard not to grin at the sheer joyful tomfoolery: The engineer and his entourage wink at inquisitive reporters, shoot an old TV, crack jokes, and drag a fleet of beat-up junkers across the state.

We like believing that there is life after life and that we will see our loved ones in heaven. Mystery gives us comfort. It gives us hope.

Though he has since moved away from his creation to Texas, Reinders returned triumphantly to Carhenge in 2017 to view the total solar eclipse. “For 85 minutes, an almost childlike excitement took hold of the engineer, according to the Lincoln Journal-Star. It had been 30 years since he first built Carhenge and more than 40 since he’d measured the stones by hand on one of his trips to the site, back when visitors were allowed to touch Stonehenge. (There is now a barrier to protect the monument.)

Despite this intimate moment, frequent follow-up visits, and the fact that he held onto the idea for years before actually brought that henge to fruition, Reinders says there is “nothing profound” about his decision to build Carhenge.

Regarding the ancient stone circles, he says, “Though I have sat on the rocks and pondered, there was no epiphany.” Later, he adds, “theorize if you wish,” perhaps as a consolation to my curiosity.

Stonehenge Winter Solstice 2016. Photo by Stonehenge Stone Circle/Flickr.

A Circular Bridge

Reinders notes that from an engineer’s point of view, Stonehenge is surpassed by other ancient monuments he’s visited, like the Great Pyramid of Giza, Persepolis, and the Baalbek. “We know who, how, and why [these sites] were made,” he adds, speculating on Stonehenge’s unique lure. “Stonehenge is more a mystery, and we love mysteries.”

Cline agrees, citing Stonehenge as a singular symbol of the unknown among historical and archaeological treasures. “You dont get that with the Eiffel Tower, he says: 

“[People] love their gods, their Bigfoots, the ghosts — they love to believe in something just a little bit beyond their reach. We like believing that there is life after life and that we will see our loved ones in heaven. Mystery gives us comfort. It gives us hope.”

Maybe people build Stonehenges, Wisser posits, “because, in our society, mystical stuff isnt a part of everyday life; we need to project it somewhere because we still feel it inside.”

We can look at Stonehenge not only to envision the ancient, ritualistic people who built it, but also to imagine a version of ourselves closer to nature, unburdened by modernity, and imbued with a “wordless relationship with the world,” according to Wisser. She thinks that “ part of the reason [prehistoric people] were building some of these things is they felt like the whole world was speaking to them and communicating with them in a way that we never feel anymore. ... We feel cut off from that history.”

Maybe invoking this iconic image — whether it be in the form of food stacked on a kitchen table, a laborious work of personal expression, or a roadside tourist attraction — casts a spell that connects us to a history we miss terribly on an existential level. One of the reasons there are Stonehenges at so many schools and universities, says Wisser, is to “[reach] to the ancients and the history of mankind. Thats part of what learning is about.”

And, in a way, those faceless ancient builders who built monuments like Stonehenge are reaching forward toward us as well. “For me, those people wanted to leave a mark, a footprint,” Reinders says. What they left among the stones, pits, and human remains are symbols we understand and recreate almost instinctively.

Today, and into tomorrow, we have received the signal.

Illustrations and share image by Alison Dubois.

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How Stonehenge Replicas Became The World’s First Meme