Avebury, early July. A sweltering day in a landscape made of chalk. I’m not sure about mad dogs, but the Englishmen and women were very much out in force. Not to mention a whole lot of foreign tourists, including at least one American. The Neolithic is more popular than ever these days.
Of course, Avebury, unlike its near neighbor Stonehenge, is super accessible. I suppose this was always the case — the four breaches in the monstrous henge bank and ditch through which roads now pass were apparently part of the original design. And in any case, as with almost all henges, the ditch is on the inside, so if it ever had a defensive function, its purpose must’ve been to keep someone (or something) in. But more likely it was symbolic. According to the aforelinked Wikipedia article,
Archaeologist Aaron Watson highlighted the possibility that by digging up earth and using it to construct the large banks, those Neolithic labourers constructing the Avebury monument symbolically saw themselves as turning the land “inside out”, thereby creating a space that was “on a frontier between worlds above and beneath the ground.”
There’s a crossroads and part of a village inside the site, which makes the current approach at Stonehenge — keeping the unwashed masses at a safe distance — impractical if not impossible here.
Which is precisely why we chose to spend a day there, and at nearby associated sites, rather than go to the slightly more famous namesake of all henges 17 miles away. We knew we’d be able to get up close and personal with the megaliths.
And of course each stone had a distinct personality. Some were highly approachable,
while others had a bit of a Cubist feel and demanded more reverence.
Some invited silliness,
And many of the stones rewarded a close look.
Although the site had been largely destroyed in recent centuries, its reconstruction under the benign stewardship of the King of Marmalade is very convincing indeed. The re-erected stones are avatars of eternity, sitting peacefully among the trees and houses.
Jackdaws perched on them. Sheep and goats grazed and defecated all around.
And the awestruck tourists circled,
or engaged in sun-worship, oblivious to the sensitivities of their stone companions. Which may be just as well. This particular stone, if I’m not mistaken, is the one that crushed a man back in the 14th century as he dug what was intended to be the stone’s grave — a “rite of destruction” gone horribly wrong (or not, depending on your perspective). His skeleton was discovered under the stone when they went to re-erect it in 1938.
When archaeologists excavated his body in 1938, they found that he had been carrying a leather pouch, in which was found three silver coins dated to around 1320–25, as well as a pair of iron scissors and a lancet. From these latter two items, the archaeologists surmised that he had probably been a travelling barber-surgeon who journeyed between market towns offering his services, and that he just happened to be at Avebury when the stone-felling was in progress.
It appears that the death of the barber-surgeon prevented the locals from pulling down further stones, perhaps fearing that it had in some way been retribution for toppling them in the first place, enacted by a vengeful spirit or even the Devil himself. The event appears to have left a significant influence on the minds of the local villagers, for records show that in the 18th and 19th centuries there were still legends being told in the community about a man being crushed by a falling stone.
We noticed much more recent, and presumably more willing, offerings beside some of the stones. The sun was broiling by this point, so I felt uncommon gratitude myself as I flopped down in the stone’s shade. It felt cool against my back.
We decided to have our picnic there, under the watchful gaze of jackdaws and megaliths,
among the other picnickers, each communing with the Neolithic ancestors in our own way.
4 Replies to “Encounters with the Neolithic (1)”
Oh, thanks for providing this revisit with your great photos, Dave! We were there in spring 2009, with a small Ancient Britain tour group and it being the last stop of the day, there was not enough time left to see it all, sadly.
That must’ve been frustrating. Well, I hope to post the rest of my photos from Avebury, Sillbury and the West Kennett Long Barrow tomorrow, then follow with another post (or two) about Neolithic monuments elsewhere. And then maybe blog about some more recent pagan stuff.