Tuesday, 12 November 2019

#041 Avebury Prehistoric Landscape

Six thousand years ago the rolling chalk hills of what is now Wiltshire would have been mostly covered with forests of oak, birch and a variety of native plant species. In the Mesolithic, a person could walk under unbroken canopy from the south coast to the northern highlands. But with the arrival of Neolithic farmers, came new ways of thinking, seeing and interpreting the environment. And slowly but surely, whether by intent or otherwise, the indigenous hunter gatherer’s way of life faded into extinction.
Avebury Stone Circle
What we see now at Avebury henge and stone circles, is the product of several hundred years (between 2850 BC and 2200BC) Neolithic and early bronze age cosmology with several intermediate phases representing shifts in cultural ideas, before eventually being abandoned around 1800BC.

The Avebury ring is the largest Megalithic stone circle in the world, originally comprising of about 100 stones, which in turn encloses two smaller stone circles.
Portion of henge ditch
The henge survives as a huge circular bank and ditch, encircling an area that includes part of Avebury village. The village itself makes it difficult to visualise the expanse of the whole site, which these days can only be fully appreciated from the air. However, in the Neolithic it is likely that the evolution of the henge and circles began in a woodland clearing or an area which had already been widely cleared of trees. With unbroken views across the sanctum, inside the henge.
Stones in the outer ring
In common with other Megalithic sites, there is a corridor of stones connecting to the circle, the West Kennet Avenue. Next to the B4003 road, perhaps its origin was a pathway through forest, but with the felling of the trees, the placement of the stones could have represented a more permanent channel in the now open landscape. Which over time and repetition, may have become more imbued with metaphysical connotations, a spiritual funnel to the gathering and rites practiced within the banks of the henge enclosure.
West Kennet Avenue
The Avebury sacred landscape is vast, shaped for rituals that involved inclusion, exclusion and procession. Features which strongly resonate in locations with the Orkney processionary route along a natural land spit from Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, Ness of Brodgar and Stones of Stennes. Ritual pathways are also found around Stonehenge, the Cursus, Lesser Cursus and The Avenue.
Avebury is part of an extraordinary set of Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial sites that seemingly formed a vast sacred landscape. They include West Kennet Avenue, West Kennet Long Barrow, The Sanctuary, Windmill Hill, and the mysterious Silbury Hill.
West Kennet Avenue at Avebury Ring
One mile, as the crow flies, to the south of Avebury is Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe. Similar in height and volume to the smaller Egyptian pyramids at the Giza Necropolis, it was completed around 2400BC, but apparently contains no burial. Though clearly important in itself, its purpose and significance remain unknown.
Silbury Hill
However, the act of elevating people, whether physically, metaphorically, or both, within a tribe or society is a familiar concept to us. In the era of the Scandinavian sagas, the Law Speaker stood atop the Logberg (the Law Rock) at Thingvellier and recited from memory the laws of Iceland. In more modern times, people stepped up onto their soap boxes at speakers’ corner, in Hyde Park. At rock concerts the performers stand upon a stage. When we think of ritual, we tend to make associations with ancient or indigenous peoples.
Althing Parliament at Thingvellir
However, rites of passage and tribal conventions are everywhere in our contemporary lives. We see the elite politicians at Parliament question time, squabbling and heckling, projecting their self-importance in order to retain power and influence for as long as possible with all the associated benefits, financial and otherwise. These theatrics promote the idea that governing class is indispensable, whilst they continue to serve their own interests first.

So, although we can only make a guess at the sort of rituals, proclamations or subjugations made from the summit of Silbury Hill, perhaps by tribal leaders or shamanic priests, the size of the construction certainly effectively projected these messages to the surrounding audience and landscape.
West Kennet Long Barrow
Within sight of Sibury Hill is the West Kennet Log Barrow. It is one of the largest, most impressive and most accessible Neolithic chambered tombs in Britain. Built in around 3650 BC, it was used for a short time as a burial chamber, nearly 50 people being buried here before the chambers were blocked. It is classified by archaeologists as one of the Cotswold-Severn class of tombs.
Entrance to West Kennet Long Barrow
Concealed entrance viewed from above
The tomb is on top of a natural hill. Placing the dead nearer to the sky, perhaps an important element in an astronomical cult. In common with other Neolithic tombs, the deceased were likely to have subject to an excarnation process before the bones were carefully sorted and placed within the chambers.
West Kennet main passageway
Across Western Europe, Early Neolithic pople built chambered long barrows, rectangular or oval earthen tumuli which had a chamber built into one end. Some of these chambers were constructed out of timber, although others were built using large stones, now known as "megaliths". These long barrows often served as tombs, housing the physical remains of the dead within their chamber. 
West Kennet side cell / chamber
Individuals were rarely buried alone in the Early Neolithic, instead being interred in collective burials with other members of their community. These chambered tombs were built all along the Western European seaboard during the Early Neolithic, from southeastern Spain up to southern Sweden, taking in most of the British Isles.
West Kennet side cell / chamber
The architectural tradition was introduced to Britain from continental Europe in the first half of the fourth millennium BCE. Although there are stone buildings—like Göbekli Tepe in modern Turkey—which predate them, the chambered long barrows constitute humanity's first widespread tradition of construction using stone. The specific design featured found in the West Kennet Longbarrow, classify it among others with similar features in the Cotswold and Severn valley area.
Entrace end of the barrow
Within the Alexander Keiller Museum in Avebury village is an impressive and diverse collection of artefacts recovered from the soil. Many of the items bring context and insights into the life of our Neolithic and Bronze age ancestors. Red deer antlers, the tool of choice before metal, were used as picks to quarry chalk and create the deep henge ditches.
Red deer antler picks
There are some fine examples of decorated pottery, itself part of its own cultural phase, known as the beaker culture.
Decorated earthen ware
Many animal bones have been found. Bovine bones in quantities which indicate great gatherings of people and feasting. However, the numbers of cattle killed, possibly at the behest of the elite class, may not have necessarily been in the best interests of the population. Similar evidence of great killings has also been uncovered in the Stonehenge area.
Goat skeleton
Other animal bones such as goat and dog, allude more to domestic life and paint a picture of dwelling houses with small holdings of arable crops, with the younger generation tasked with shepherding the smaller animals.
Neolithic lamp
Animal fat lamp, modern museum recreation
Animal fat lamps extended the useful hours of the day for creative activities, such as the decorative etching of a small piece of chalk.  With a couple of pieces of chalk picked from a beach on the Isle of Wight, I remade these artefacts.
Neolithic decorated chalk talisman
What I noticed, as I was etching the lines, is that the image resembled a leaf, but then the circular feature also looked like an eye. Archaeologists have speculated that this item may have been a talisman. With this in mind I embellished the chalk piece with a through hole, so with the addition of a leather lanyard or woven string, it could be used as an adornment. In common with a earlier paleolithic lamp recreation (see #037 Paleolithic Lamp and the dawn of creativity ) I added a design on the underside: A basic labyrinth pictogram of a type from the late Neolithic - Bronze Age.
Chalk stone lamp & talisman by Stu Westfield, Nov 2019
Underside of chalk lamp and talisman by Stu Westfield, Nov 2019
The artefacts and evidence from within the Avebury prehistoric landscape, tell us a story of highly developed and evolving cultures. A tribe, or society of tribes, which had time and energy to devote to the sharing of cultural ideas. People who were doing a lot more than merely surviving, but interacting with their environment physically and spiritually in a way that they best understood it.
Chalk stone lamp by Stu Westfield, Nov 2019
In 6000 years time, with the benefit of scientific developments and discovery, our successors may look back upon our times in the same way. They may even wonder at how our current elite brought down our civilisation with their obscene, rapacious greed.

Our stone age crafts made in Hayfield are inspired by the human journey from paleolithic beginnings to the Viking era. Ranger Expeditions also offer challenge trekking days and discovery themed walks guided by local Mountain Leaders. 

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