Stonehenge at Dawn

August 26, 2009, 5:24 am --40 minutes to sunrise.  In the Stonehenge parking lot, we huddle by our cars, fumbling with flashlights and drinking coffee from a thermos to ward off the chill. Our cameraman and soundman have unloaded their gear, and we're poised to head into the stone circle for approximately three precious hours of "exclusive access."  But the security guards have decided there's not yet enough ambient light for us to move safely among the stones. So we wait.

The guards are mostly young strapping men.  They wear fluorescent yellow rain jackets that almost glow in the dark, but the rest of their gear is black --trousers, sweaters, gloves, knit caps, and massive flashlights that look a lot like billy clubs.  I wonder how spooky or lonely it might be to patrol Stonehenge all night, and I ask one of the guards.  He chuckles and says he much prefers night shifts to working days.  Why?   He smacks his flashlight rhythmically into the palm of his left hand.  "Because at night you get jumpers."   Jumpers?  "People who jump the fence.  They think no one's looking, that they're gonna get in and touch the stones.  But no jumper has ever got to the stones on my watch. Keeps it interesting. Keeps me fit."

Willumsen Shinefield MPP.jpg

Around 5:42 am, a smudge of dawn appears on the horizon and the guards let us in.  Laden with equipment, we sprint through the turnstiles, past the shuttered snack bar and gift shop, into the tunnel that runs under the A344 roadway, out the other side and up a steep ramp.  Finally, there it is, a study in somber:  the black mass of Stonehenge framed against a slate sky.  Unfortunately, there's no time to drink it in.  We rush to set up the camera, just in case the cloud cover miraculously parts and grants us a shot of sunrise through the megaliths.  Besides, we need to be ready to roll for Clive Ruggles, archaeoastronomer extraordinaire who's scheduled to arrive in 25 minutes.  Jill (Shinefield, my co-producer) and I check our watches compulsively.  Exclusive access at Stonehenge is difficult to secure and does not come cheap -so every minute counts.  

The clouds stubbornly stay put, but at least it's not raining --yet.  Clive shows up, more energized at dawn than most people at any hour.  By the time he finishes answering my first interview question, he's so warmed up he doffs his jacket.  So we shoot 'Take 2', and he does the rest of the interview in shirt sleeves. Archaeoastronomy once enjoyed a shady reputation, straying too often into weird science.  Almost singlehandedly, Clive rehabilitated the field with his rigorous study of the alignments at Stonehenge and other Neolithic monuments in Britain and Ireland.  He has since worked at sites around the world.  To be an archaeologist is one thing; to be an astronomer is another; but to be both... My theory about Clive is that his brain fires twice as fast as everyone else's, and he can pack twice as many ideas in his head.

The interview is over, and we're shooting 'B-roll' of Clive when the clouds let loose on us.  It's a mad scramble to open umbrellas and drag the equipment into the shelter of the tunnel.  We dash back and forth, and I nearly slip on the slick grass.  Then just before I head back down the ramp for the last time, I look back.  And finally I feel it - that shiver of awe.  I let the rain and the mystery wash over me, and it's like I'm seeing Stonehenge for the first time.

Photo courtesy: Kevin Tod Haug
Left to right: Producer Gail WIllumsen, Producer Jill

Publicist Note: An enduring question about Stonehenge remains: how did Stone Age people --without the wheel or the use of metal--move and raise its stones? NOVA's "Secrets of Stonehenge" airing November 16, 2010... features exclusive coverage of an ingenious new experiment, based on an unusual prehistoric artifact.

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Gail Willumsen

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