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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Back From Stonehenge

It Was Not Indiana Jones — No Space Ships — But

staying with the archaeologists at Stonehenge was thrilling. Last year when I went I was with my family. We found a wonderful Bed and Breakfast in a 17th century manor hous, ate oatmeal every morning and joined in the digs later on. This year I went alone, so I bought a sleeping bag and joined the over 150 students and the squad of senior archaeologists in their campsite. We all had nice, clean, dry tents — but it was a field of mud. Mud, mud, mud, mud, and more mud. England had not seen steady rain like this in years. One morning we were at a convenience store and someone pointed out a headline about people being drowned in another part of England — something that just never happens. We were not in any danger, but when the bedraggled crew assembled at 8:15 every morning to get their marching orders for the day, the scene was a cross between photos of the trenches in World War I and my not entirely fond memories of being at Woodstock.

Apparently there was some grousing from the students — one of the senior archaeologists gave a very English lecture about bucking up, seeing things through, and not moaning (after all someone else might hear you). And yet — despite the mud, despite the Bridge On the River Kwai tone, many of us would not have chosen to be anywhere else. Because at the 17 trenches that had been opened all around the area, really smart, well trained people were interrogating the past. It is not that they were making spectacular discoveries. Rather it was more like an advent calendar. Open the ground and you find a new insight. For example, just in front of Stonehenge they located the very spot where the giant Sarsen stones were shaped — they found the stones used to shape them, and even the trail of debris left as they were trimmed and smoothed. This will not make headlines, but it adds one more important detail to our understanding.

Thinking Done Here — might have been the banner rippling in the breeze over the whole site. The experience left me feeling — once again and all the more — that if we can do anything in nonfiction for kids it is to stimulate them to think. Thinking, as this hardy band of muddy scientists was doing, keeps opening new doors. I don’t have the full list of discoveries yet — in fact the lab tests on artifacts they found will not even be complete until the end of the year. But it is safe to say that, for the very first time, we are finding how Stonehenge functioned as a part of a larger world of sites and rituals, and how that changed over time. As one archaeologist told me, this is not prehistory anymore, we can describe what happened year in twenty years periods.