As one monument tumbles, the whole country crumbles
News that Stonehenge is about as authentic as a pair of silicon boobs was received with remarkable aplomb at English Heritage last week. Ducking and weaving under heavy questioning, the quango's spokesperson stuck like glue to the line that 'the people who look after the past' (as they like to be known) had always intended to attach a 500-page appendix detailing every alteration made to the monument since Roman times to the 26-page official guide book, but through pressure of work had never got round to doing it.
A likely story! The truth is that the entire conservation corps had to be put on a war footing when it turned out that the dogged young PhD student responsible for leaking the truth about Stonehenge had also cast doubt on the age of Avebury Stone Circle - believed by some archaeologists to be older than the earth itself - claiming that it had been made out of huge pieces of play dough by Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s.
By the end of the week confidence in heritage values was cracking. All over the country people had begun to tear up their framed Antiques Road Show valuation certificates. No one had realised what a talisman of value Stonehenge had become with its UNESCO World Heritage five-star rating. Now, as a result of a few hours of careless scholarship, the entire cosmology of the past was being thrown into the dustbin of history.
In vain did English Heritage fling denials in all directions, to dismiss the rumours that were causing the value of sterling to plummet at precisely the moment the government had almost decided to join the euro. So widespread was the alarm that the Bank of England was obliged to add its name to a Europa Nostra press release denying as a 'scurrilous falsehood' the rumour that Stonehenge had always been in perfect condition until 1917 when an artillery exercise on Salisbury Plain went horribly wrong. Nor was there a scintilla of truth (it said), in the shocking allegation that Italian prisoners of war had manhandled the Avebury stones into a circle.
Scientific study had long since proved that it was the work of giant rabbits who had lived there in prehistoric times.
But not all the questions thrown up by this episode could be so easily dismissed. There were looks of disbelief when another spokesman insisted that Nelson's column in Dublin really had been blown up by the IRA, not demolished in the course of an experiment in accelerated ageing carried out by the Building Research Establishment. The same reaction greeted the shrill assertion that there really, really was an entire Roman leisure resort, complete with exercise machines, underneath present day Swindon. True, 'more than 1,000 fake antiquities' had been discovered on exhibition in the nation's leading museums - but the number was less than 2,000.
And no, it was utterly false to claim, as so many did, that a lost masterpiece by Michelangelo had been discovered in the boot of a Metro in a car park in Wales.
It wasn't a Metro but a priceless early model Austin Allegro, the one with the quartic steering wheel. Yes, of course Spanish police are now impounding fake Picasso prints at the rate of 3,000 a week. And yes, all of Lewis Hine's photographs were fakes. But no, Fort George was not a brilliantly disguised nuclear submarine base, it was something else.
But still the headlines kept coming: 'Sale rooms sold fakes for years'; 'How to tell if marble is genuine'; 'How to download masterworks'; and, most damaging of all, the admission that, contrary to popular belief, hardly any houses at all were really designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.