5,000 years of Stonehenge


It has stood - in various incarnations - for some 5,000 years on the Salisbury Plain in southern England. It has drawn and inspired astronomers, druids and 'wannabe' druids, ancient and modern pilgrims, and even overenthusiastic heavy metal bands whose amplifiers go to eleven.

Stonehenge is one of the world's most famous man-made creations, but there has never been a website which offered virtual visitors a thorough tour of the monument and its environs, until now. The Stonehenge World Heritage Site Interactive Map brings visitors into the center of the circles, and also introduces them to the archaeological context of the surrounding countryside.

Launched on June 11 (and referred to by its creators as a 'microsite'), the Stonehenge Map was designed as a supplement to a larger Stonehenge feature at the Web home of English Heritage (An organization dedicated to protecting England's "historic environment"). But even standing on its own, the Map offers extensive coverage of the famous circles of stones, as well as a roughly 5 x 3-mile area of adjacent landscape - providing both a geographical and historical setting for the ruins.

And while many online maps are little more than basic images with a few interactive hotspots, the Stonehenge map was created by Oxford ArchDigital - a company born of the University of Oxford's Institute of Archaeology, and known for its expertise in map-based websites.

Whether visited directly or via the main Stonehenge resource at English Heritage, the Map presents a spartan design with a basic graphic and two tabbed options for exploration - Map and Time Travel. The first of these choices offers 10 archeological sites, ranging from prehistoric burial mounds and an Iron Age hillfort to Stonehenge itself, with each site offering background and virtual tours of varying degrees of detail. Once your exploration of a given site is complete, simply clicking on the Map tab will return you to home base, from which you can set out for the next destination.

Naturally, the Stonehenge link has the most exhaustive tour of the microsite, with text, photos, and artists' renditions tracing the landmark's history from the circular earthwork bank and ditch (or henge) of 3,000 BC to the present day. Also included are a pair of 360-degree panoramas (from within the circle, and from the path leading to the monument) available in both Flash and Quicktime formats, and -theoretically- a pair of WindowsMedia video clips of aerial surveys.

In practice, the links to the video clips returned inaccurate 'broken' plug-in notices, and even after downloading a video directly to my hard drive and opening that into MediaPlayer, I was still unable to play the clip. (Mac incompatibility? MediaPlayer quirk? I can't say - but it's a shame the ArchDigital folks didn't just stick with QuickTime, as they did with the panoramas.)

Leaving the sacred stones of Salisbury, visitors can follow the Map to such additional locations as the King Barrows (Bronze Age and Neolithic burial mounds), and the Durrington Walls (a sacred circle, 500 yards in diameter, which predated Stonehenge). And while the other landmarks may not be covered quite as thoroughly, there is still a rich collection of histories, photo galleries, panoramas, more aerial surveys, and a pair of 'Virtual Walks' - along the Cursus (a long rectangular earthwork that runs for about 2 miles to the North of Stonehenge) and The Avenue, which approaches Stonehenge along the axis of the Summer Solstice sunrise.

Time Travel introduces the chronological context with the tidbit that Stonehenge's development covered an equivalent span of history as that between the fall of the Roman Empire and the modern day. While not as extensive as the Map, Time Travel still offers three features - a "Time Map" which designates the various sites by Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages, a "Timeline," juxtaposing the development of Stonehenge with other monuments in the area, and "Burial Mounds," which describes the prehistoric tombs so common in the area.

In a thoughtful nod to the more practical chronological concerns of dial-up visitors, multi-media components are labelled with file sizes and estimated 56k modem download times. As it turns out, those estimates proved to be optimistic during my visit, but that's probably a result of heavy traffic so soon after the launch of the site.

Occasionally, Cascading Style Sheet instructions don't seem to have loaded in to the browser correctly and text would flow outside its defined borders, but refreshing the page would always put things right. The CSS instructions for the Timeline, on the other hand, revealed wildly different layouts between Netscape and Explorer (in both cases, badly misaligned) - and neither could be corrected despite repeated efforts.

If you're interested in learning more about the area, the future of Stonehenge, or are perhaps thinking of joining the druids during the next summer solstice, English Heritage's main Stonehenge site has more information of interest to the virtual or potential tourist, as well as FAQs and a collection of related links.

In the meantime, while you may not have been among the estimated 19,000 people on the Salisbury Plain for this year's celebrations, a visit to the Interactive Map offers the consolation of lower travel costs, fewer traffic problems, and a more complete knowledge about Stonehenge and its archeological neighbors than if you had visited in person.

The Stonehenge World Heritage Site Interactive Map can be found at http://www.english heritage.org.uk/filestore/stonehengeinteractivemap/index.html

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