Encounters with the Neolithic (3)

(Read Part 2.)

West Kennet Long Barrow 3

It was a long, hot mile through the fields from Avebury Ring, past Silbury Hill to West Kennet Long Barrow, and the cool air in the empty barrow was very welcome indeed.

Avebury sites map

By the time Avebury Ring was constructed, around 2600 BC, West Kennet Long Barrow had been a feature of the landscape for a thousand years. It would remain a focus of ritual activity for about a century longer. And a century after that, people began to construct Silbury Hill, the largest human-made prehistoric mound in Europe,

Silbury Hill from West Kennet Long Barrow

and still a complete enigma, despite four centuries of digging and prodding. One thing’s for certain: it wasn’t an outsized barrow mound. Nobody was buried in it. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it might not have functioned as an abode of the dead. If there was any continuity between the Neolithic and later Iron Age inhabitants of Britain (as neo-pagans and New Agers tend to assume), perhaps it was something like the Irish sídhe, an entrance to the Otherworld. Or perhaps it was a symbolic representation of the cosmos, and/or an axis mundi. One recent theory holds that the hill was something of a by-product:

A study of soil, rocks, gravel and tools inside the hill show that it went through 15 distinct stages of development.

Dr Jim Leary, English Heritage archaeologist, said the creators were building the mound as part of a ‘continuous story telling ritual’ – and that the final shape of the mound may have been unimportant.

He argues that the familiar outline of stepped sides and the flat top visible today is largely the result of Anglo-Saxons and later alterations.

‘Most interpretations of Silbury Hill have, up to now, concentrated on its monumental size and its final shape,’ he said.

‘It has generally been thought to be a concerted effort of generations of people building something out of a common vision and spiritual zeal akin to what spurred the creation of soaring medieval cathedrals.

‘The flat top, especially, was often seen to be a “platform” deliberately built to bring people closer to the skies.

‘But new evidence is increasing telling us that our Neolithic ancestors display an almost obsessive desire to constantly change the monument – to rearrange, tweak and adjust it. It’s as if the final form of the Hill did not matter – it was the construction process that was important.’

Hmm. It sounds a bit like blogging.

Silbury Hill

In Roman times, there was a town at the base of the hill. The Anglo-Saxons then apparently re-shaped the hill for their own purposes. In more recent times, Christians gathered on the hill for Palm Sunday rituals, and told stories of an El Dorado figure, a golden King Sil, buried inside. As for the people who built it, given the importance of farming in their lives, it’s easy to believe that participating in the re-shaping of the land would have been surrounded with ritual and fraught with significance.

West Kennet Long Barrow 4

By the late Neolithic, the surrounding area had been quite deforested, and we know that stone circles were preceded by circles of wooden pillars or tree trunks in many cases (as at the nearby site called “the Sanctuary,” which we didn’t have time to visit). Sacred groves in places like West Africa and the ancient Near East gain power and importance in part because of the relative scarcity of trees in the landscape. Standing stones may have originally been symbolic trees, and both stones and trees/pillars may have been seen as representations or spiritual embodiments of people (presumably ancestors). And it’s easy to imagine the people who erected the stones at Avebury in 2600 BC believing the same sorts of things about the people who built West Kennet Long Barrow in 3650 BC as modern New Agers believe about them: that they were uniquely wise, deeply rooted and attuned to the cosmos in ways we can only begin to imagine. Perhaps they were trying to harness their forebears’ spiritual “energy fields.”

West Kennet Long Barrow 5

Maybe they saw the long barrow as a felled tree or a sleeping stone, and a late religious revival spurred by an existential crisis of some sort (crop failures, invading tribes, outbreaks of disease) spurred the need to symbolically wake it up — to build the ultimate Standing Thing, and thereby enlist cosmic forces on their side.

West Kennet Long Barrow 1

Yes, I’m aware that this is all pure B.S. But it’s no worse than the other fables in circulation, the ones about ley lines, male and female stones, and ancient extraterrestrials.

West Kennet Long Barrow 2

In the back of the excavated burial chambers at West Kennet Long Barrow, we saw more evidence that these ancient monuments have once again become a focus of reverence. I was beginning to realize that the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites UNESCO World Heritage Site is kind of like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for New Agers, right down to the insertion of prayers in the Western Wall.

Personally, I’ve always been partial to the American poet Paul Zweig’s interpretation of Silbury Hill and other Neolithic monuments in his late poem “Skywriting,” which the all-knowing Google reminds me I once posted to this blog in its entirety. Here’s a bit of it:

And the shell-heaps;
The fifty-ton stones turned on end;
The mounds to keep the dead from getting loose:
All those acts to keep life from getting out of hand,
The dead shells of deeds forming another kind of life.
The 120-foot-high earthen nipple of Silsbery [sic]
Took a hundred years to erect out of chalk blocks,
Rubble, and a fine skin of earth.
What a job for a handful of shepherds
Who also ploughed the soil in their season:
A laborious outcry, meaning here! Or a curse.
Curse the intractable earth, death, blindness, rotten teeth,
Arthritis, dead babies; curse winter, curse summer!
Can you hear me, heaven? Am I making enough noise
For you? Suck on this teat of dust and rock.

“The dead shells of deeds forming another kind of life.” Isn’t that kind of like Jim Leary’s hypothesis?

crop circle beside West Kennet Long Barrow

As you can imagine, the fields around Silbury Hill are a very popular place for guerilla land artists UFOs to make crop circles. This is as close as we got. Then again, who needs unidentified flying objects with so many unidentified standing objects strewn about?

(Continue to Part 4.)

2 Replies to “Encounters with the Neolithic (3)”

  1. Ah, once again a revisit! I’ve been to the West Kennet Longbarrow (on the same tour as Avebury and Stonehenge and others). It was cool to step inside. We saw Silbury Hill from there and from the tour bus going past but did not get close. Your photos and information are great, Dave.

    1. Thanks. We were actually closest to Silbury Hill when we drove out, since the road goes right past it. They are still trying to keep people from climbing the Hill — not that we would’ve wanted to in that heat — but we saw people doing so anyway.

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