MOST of us were educated to believe that the pyramids of Egypt are the oldest stone monuments in the world, and that the first temples were built in the Near East. ``It comes, then, as a shock, to learn that all of this is wrong,'' the renowned Cambridge archaeologist, Colin Renfrew, tells us in his book ``Before Civilization.'' With the advent of new methods of dating ruins, many suppositions have collapsed. According to Renfrew, the megalithic tombs of Western Europe are now dated earlier than the pyramids - indeed, they rank as the earliest stone monuments in the world. It appears that the colossus of England called Stonehenge was completed long before the Mycenaean civilization of Greece even began. In fact, Stonehenge, that remarkable and enigmatic structure, can now be claimed as the ``world's oldest astronomical observatory.''
Thus, Renfrew concludes, ``the traditional view of prehistory is now contradicted at every point.''
The repercussions of this fundamental revision of architectural history has changed our entire perspective of ``civilization.'' Our customary focus upon the Near East and Egypt as the homeland of the first great civilizations has led us to the assumption that skills like metallurgy and architecture were very belatedly acquired by the barbarous inhabitants of Europe, who - being incapable of such achievements on their own - had to assimilate technology from the greatly ``superior'' cultures in the east. Much as it was once believed that the great monuments of Mexico, Central America, and South America were built by Egyptians, so we were once led to believe that the remarkable British monuments, such as Stonehenge, were created through the tutelage of Mycenaean Greece.
Today we realize with considerable surprise that Stonehenge was the result of the architectural mastery of its own local artisans. This realization has turned England into one of the most fascinating archaeological zones on earth. Fortunately, and despite neglect, there is an abundance of British prehistory left for the 20th-century visitor. Janet and Colin Bord, who are authorities in such matters, estimate that ``1,000 megalithic tombs, 30,000 to 40,000 round barrows, over 900 stone circles, around 3,000 hill forts, and countless thousands of standing stones still survive in varying states of decay or preservation.''
The mere number of ruins in England alone is impressive, but perhaps what most attracts more and more travelers to such famous sites as Stonehenge and Avebury is the fact that these stone monuments of the distant past are gradually being understood in strikingly new ways. Their mysteries are being decoded, and we finally recognize in them the achievements of the remarkably vast and rich period of time we have usually written off as ``prehistory.'' As we discover the astounding astronomical orientation of British ruins, and as we begin to see these structures as intellectual achievements, we realize the immense possibilities of the question asked by French historian Jacques Le Goff: ``Is prehistory really prehistory, or simply a different kind of history from our own?''
The evidence of scientists and art historians suggests that the long forgotten ancestors of England were people with a brilliant capacity for thought, social organization, and - judging from the evidence of their ruins - remarkable architectural prowess.
Traveling in Cornwall, North Wiltshire, Salisbury, Berkshire, and Norfolk, I could easily recognize some major relics of ancient culture: pre-Roman hilltop forts and elaborate roads later constructed by the Roman emperors. All of these structures are familiar to us. But, as archaeologist John Edwin Wood has pointed out, there are many other relics - strange and mysterious, without apparent purpose and having no obvious counterpart in our 20th-century culture.
Chief among these are the incongruous and mighty standing stones - some massive, some rather small; some standing singly, and others in ritual groupings, in rows and in circles. These silent witnesses of a vanished past astound us, for they still cast the shadows of a time and a people long forgotten.
In the centuries before archaeological research was established as a science, people wondered at the numerous stones that had stood in mountains and moors through more time than memory could recall. Ignorant of their origins and unaware that their own forebears had erected these startling monuments, they invented tales of supernatural events to explain them. Folk thought of them as the ``devil's thunderbolts,'' or meeting places of the ``little people,'' so popular in Celtic lore. For many of the rural people whose families had lived among the stones for generations, they had a force of magic. In the rationalistic 18th and 19th centuries, scientists tended to approach the stones as historic relics of the Danes or the Romans - utterly ignorant that long before Britain's domination by Rome there stretched a vast history of native peoples.
We now know that the architects of the stone monuments, whoever they may have been, lived many centuries before the Roman invasion of Britain. In our own time, scientists have arranged the monuments into a chronological framework that has been greatly disputed and often refined. Recently, a great deal of research has been devoted to determine the original purpose of the ancient stones, but all conclusions are controversial, and our understanding of these prehistoric ruins remains speculative.
It is believed that a few of the main ruins, like Stonehenge and Avebury in southern England, became cultural centers of considerable influence, perhaps the capitals of elite groups of astronomer-priests whose oracular statements held sway over tribes extending from Brittany in the south to the Orkney Islands in the north.
Stonehenge, the most famous of these prehistoric monuments, is a temple around which cluster many burials. Although entirely a product of the Early Bronze Age (1900-1400 BC), it was not all constructed at one time, but was built over a long succession of generations. Most of our knowledge of Stonehenge begins in the period of the Roman invasion in AD 43, when Druid priests held ceremonies there. The Druids probably had their own tales about the origin of Stonehenge, and superimposed their own rites upon it. But the longstanding assumption that Stonehenge was a Druid construction is now clearly understood as an error. Stonehenge long predates the Druids.
Some of the stones used to construct Stonehenge are local, but many were brought by water from Pembrokshire in Wales, some 200 miles away. This navigational feat, as well as the awesome task of placing the huge lintels on top of the supporting stones, and the remarkable masonry ``dressing'' of the monument - many with intricate tenons and mortises - suggest very considerable technical powers and intellectual resources on the part of the builders. We have little understanding of that technology, however, and we shall also never fully understand what beliefs Stonehenge ritualized in architectonic forms. We must, however, marvel at the industry and prowess which was used for its construction. And we must be impressed by the religious fervor that motivated its builders.
These stone monuments of prehistory bring us closer to a reluctant realization: long before us, before our oldest memories and legends, there were other times and other peoples of vast achievement. We are discovering the first traces of the development of a highly evolved consciousness, of science, of intricate religion, and technology, and art in a time and a place once conceived by us as a primitive abyss. Out of that darkness has emerged a great light: one of the most remarkable and ancient periods in the whole of human history.