Calling Stonehenge a “monument,” as most books and tourist guides do, is a bit like calling the Grand Canyon a hole in the ground. Both descriptions are, from a literal standpoint, accurate—but neither manages to encompass the magnificence of those improbable creations. The latter was carved from the earth by natural forces millions of years ago; the former was built over the course of millennia by people about whom we know little, for purposes that, thousands of years later, remain a mystery.
Was Stonehenge a place of worship? Probably. A kind of massive, three-dimensional calendar? Maybe. A pilgrimage site for the sick? Perhaps. A beacon for extraterrestrials?
A beacon for extraterrestrials? Anyone?
What one can say with certainty about Stonehenge, the Grand Canyon, Egypt’s pyramids, Machu Picchu, the Brooklyn Bridge and other natural and human-made wonders is that, in their presence, even the most atrophied imagination is likely to stir. We’re in awe before them, even when we know—as with Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza—that we’re gazing on a mere shadow of what was once a far more extensive, elaborate and vibrant complex.
But that, too, is part of the profound allure of these places: having fallen into ruin, they still possess a genuine grandeur.
Here, thousands of years after its first stones were erected on England’s Salisbury Plain, LIFE pays tribute—with a single photograph—to the structure itself, and to the long-vanished people who envisioned and built Stonehenge. One of many pictures LIFE’s Dmitri Kessel made on assignment in England in 1955, this photo manages to capture what feels like an utterly contemporary scene—the picture might have been made (and tweeted or posted to Instagram) moments ago—while also somehow evincing the mystery and majesty of an impenetrable, departed world.