After thousands of years, Stonehenge remains a prehistoric mystery.
Stone circles dot Britain and Ireland. The largest, just 24 miles north at Avebury, is older than Stonehenge. But none have the dramatic look of a doorway into a dark past that Stonehenge has. A recent count had more than 700,000 a year paying to see it from a distance.
A tourist can't seem to go anywhere in Britain without feeling accosted by history and gift shops. Most of the people who see Stonehenge could be excused for feeling disappointment, even if they stopped at Legoland on their drive from London. Prehistory can become just another attraction amid the sounds of traffic.
"They're looking over each other's backs and eating their ice cream," said Astral Travels guide Robert Halkertt from a path around the 5,000-year-old World Heritage Site, before taking about a dozen visitors beyond the ropes for an hour-long special access tour.
The tour took place on a gray morning, shortly after a September sunrise and before the monument opened for regular tours. Halkertt promised the cold, hard stones would be "quite magical."
"We know a tremendous amount about this monument," Halkertt said. "But we can't determine what it was used for, who built it or what's it's doing here."
Some of the clues are tantalizing. The alignment to the sun, signaling the longest day of the year, has intrigued many. But solar alignments were not uncommon back then. Chambered tombs in Ireland and Scotland had more spectacular solar alignments.
Some believe Stonehenge hosted human sacrifices in a less civilized time. An 18th century archaeologist even dubbed one of the inner-circle rocks the "Slaughter Stone." But by the time Romans arrived to make Britannia part of their empire, Stonehenge was already ancient and mysterious.
After 20 years of guiding tours, including an average of two a month to Stonehenge, Halkertt has the questions down but doesn't pretend to have the answers. He does know that the ropes went up to protect the stones in 1978. And he knows the most photogenic spots when members of his tour want him to take their picture.
There are days, though, when a medieval cathedral can be just another church. But he said he never gets tired of Stonehenge and he enjoys sharing what he knows.
"It has nothing to do with Druids," he said. They seem to have just found it when they arrived on the scene in about 300 B.C., according to the researchers who figure construction began in about 3000 B.C.
If the reason for Stonehenge is elusive, the scale of effort that went into construction is unimaginable. The inner circle of granite stones, known as the bluestones, were set up at the site in about 2000 B.C. Each weighs up to five tons and was pulled from a quarry in south Wales, 250 miles away.
About 500 years later, a closer source was found for the huge stones that give the monument its distinctive look. The stones that stand upright and lie flat atop them were cut - with tools fashioned from animal bone - out of rock only 20 miles away.
At about the same time, the bluestones were rearranged.
"They had no rope as we know it; no wheel," Halkertt said.
English Heritage, the foundation that manages the site, credits three cultures with construction at different times. It is the later cultures that have let it decay. At one time visitors used to bring chisels to chip away their own souvenirs.
"There were over 100 stones at one time," Halkertt said. "About 30 remain." Some of Stonehenge has ended up in the buildings of Shrewton, a village about four miles away, he said.
Picturing Stonehenge in its greatest glory requires an imagination. But given the opportunity to view it without large crowds of tourists, it can be an inspirational place.
It's just too bad the tour is over before the gift shop opens.
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.