Monday, 9 September 2019

West Kennet Long Barrow

West Kennet Long Barrow is situated just south of Avebury in Wiltshire, today offering views of the great Avebury henge, the Sanctuary and Silbury Hill. None of these monuments were present when the barrow was built, although likely the locations already had special significance.

The barrow was built around 3650BC, and comprises five chambers around a central passage, all built of sarsen stone and drystone walling, covered in a vast mound of rubble and turf, 104 metres long.

Like many other long barrows such as Wayland’s Smithy, it is not especially prominent and doesn’t appear to have been designed to draw the attention, respect and admiration of human observers, as later Bronze Age barrows were. It seems more about commanding a view of the land, probably the land the entombed people lived on and farmed, and continued to offer their guidance and guardianship after death.

It seems the barrow was used for little more than a generation – perhaps the ‘founding fathers’ of this farming community – and then the entrance was sealed with the huge sarsen stones seen today. The remains of thirty six men, women and children were excavated. Bones and cremated remains were occasionally added over the next thousand years by removing the roof slabs.

Inside the barrow                                                

The barrow was far more than a tomb. It was a place for the living as well as the dead, and some interesting research has been done into the acoustics of the chambers. Many long barrows of the Cotswold-Severn area were built to similar proportions, incorporating a 4:3 ratio into the chambers, which produces a particular musical resonance when singing or chanting. Infrasound – sound too low for human ears to hear – is also produced by the resonance inside the chambers, and this produces unsettling effects such as the feeling of an unseen presence, a sense of panic and danger, and glimpses of movement. This would all contribute to the feeling of the presence of the ancestor spirits around the living.  

Around 2200BC, the chambers were filled with chalk rubble and the monument abandoned. This time period reflects the arrival of bronze in Britain and a cultural upheaval which saw the abandonment of the old monuments and a surge in the building of new monuments such as stone circles.

But the old ways were never forgotten. Coins dating to the Roman period have been found inserted into the mound, perhaps offerings to millennia-old spirits whose presence was still uneasily felt.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Traitor’s Ford, Warwickshire

Traitor’s Ford is a ford across the nascent River Stour in Warwickshire which eventually joins the Avon near Stratford on Avon. The water today trickles peacefully over a modern concrete crossing but the shallow and stony crossing has been in use for millennia.
The intriguing name is not entirely explained. Local legend states that here were hanged rebel soldiers during the Civil War in the 17th century, but this is probably a recent invention. An antiquarian wrote in 1908 that he could find no local explanation or story for the name at all. More likely it is a corruption of ‘Trader’s Ford’.

           The ancient, sunken routeway

The ford was the crossing point of an ancient trackway, now partly a minor road and partly a footpath, known for some of its length as Ditchedge Lane. This ditch marks the boundary between Warwickshire and Oxfordshire, an indication of its antiquity. The routeway was a trader’s route following the high ground in a near perfectly straight line towards the north and south, linking sites such as the Rollright Stones, Edgehill and the Burton Dassett Hills, all places which have a wealth of folklore and history surrounding them. These routeways were well-used by traders and cattle drovers by the Bronze Age, and are perhaps much more ancient still.

                 Ditchedge Lane

It certainly feels like an ancient and powerful routeway, sunken deep from millennia of feet and hooves, and the entirely untouched woodland in the swampy Stour valley is exactly how the ancient travellers would have known it. It feels like a small part of the past reaching out to touch the present.

Monday, 26 August 2019

The Sanctuary, Avebury

The Sanctuary, an elaborate timber and stone monument, is part of the vast Avebury complex and was built on a promontory at the southern end of the West Kennett Avenue. The ancient trackway known as the Ridgeway passes adjacent to the site and the steep sloping hillside has a natural dominance over the surrounding area, attracts the focus for several miles, and seems a fitting location for the southern-most monument of the Avebury complex.

The route of the West Kennett Avenue leading up to the Sanctuary

Today, there is little at the site but concrete markers. The two concentric stone circles were destroyed in the 18th century. The outermost was 40 metres in diameter, and they were built around 2500BC. This was the culmination of over a thousand years of activity at the site, and it seems the memory and sanctity of this was eventually immortalised.

The inner stone circle, 15 metres in diameter, was flanked by six concentric rings of oak posts, 1-6 metres in height, rising in height towards the centre. A single post stood in the centre. An entrance to the north-west roughly aligns with the point the West Kennett Avenue joins the monument. Other stone and post holes suggest more layers of complexity which are near impossible to interpret.

It’s believed the postholes represent a single structure rather than successive rebuilds, and it’s been suggested the posts may have supported horizontal wooden lintels, rather like at Stonehenge. The posts seem to have been regularly replaced, often long before they rotted, suggesting a dynamic function where the construction was more important than the finished structure. Deposits such as pottery and flint arrow heads in the postholes perhaps link to individuals or families who left part of their identity with the post they raised.

                                Churchyard yews.

Various theories have been proposed for the purpose of timber circles. One idea is that they reflect the growth of yew trees, which layer themselves and eventually form radial groves. Yews have an ancient sacred heritage and are still found in churchyards today. A venerated yew may even have grown near the circle. A large tree hole was actually found in the timber circle at Woodhenge.

An alternative theory is that the posts were linked with wattle screens to create a labyrinth or spiral path. Turf labyrinths and spiral paths such as at Silbury Hill and Glastonbury Tor would become of great importance in the millennia to come.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Avebury Monumental Complex

Avebury, a vast henge monument discussed last week, was developed into a far more elaborate complex during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. This is probably linked to the influx of a new people and culture from Europe who brought with them bronze-working technology and a vastly different way of life. It’s most likely the two cultures blended to form a new way of life and spiritual tradition. In this new world, individual wealth and power were becoming paramount.

Avebury’s two avenues, running from the south and west entrances, were built between 2600-2300BC; the early Bronze Age. There is no evidence for corresponding avenues for the other entrances.

The Beckhampton Avenue, now comprising only two stones, ran westwards along what is now Avebury High Street then curved southwest to the Longstones Enclosure, a causewayed enclosure created 600-800 years before the avenue itself. The enclosure had been long destroyed but its significance had remained in folk memory. Two long barrows, much earlier still, were also found nearby. Clearly the avenue’s builders were careful to include these ancient features built by their earliest ancestors.

The West Kennet Avenue runs southwards from Avebury to the Sanctuary, a stone and timber monument above the river Kennet. The serpentine route has been suggested to reflect the sinuous flow of a river, and it crosses the low-lying and once marshy ground around the Kennet before climbing the hillside to the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is visible from almost all parts of the avenue, but Avebury itself is almost entirely hidden, suggesting the avenue may have been a processional path leading from Avebury to the Sanctuary rather than the other way around.

The West Kennet Avenue looking towards the Sanctuary.

Some of the stones had pottery, flint-working debris, human bones and sometimes entire burials at their base. People used the stones to mark graves, or to safeguard memories of lives or key events. Did individual families or settlements bring a stone from a place meaningful to them and raise it in the avenue, then leave gifts or loved ones’ remains at its base? The monument as a whole would then form a unified meld between all families and communities, strengthening relationships in a world where increasingly every person was for themselves.

Around this time, an unusual amount of human bones was deposited in Avebury’s ditches. This may have been ancestral remains from the now-ancient long barrows, which were closed for good around this time. Perhaps Avebury was a last haven for the old culture. Or perhaps people were sealing the memories of their past into its confines, so the land itself would remember them.

A nearby sarsen field. Stones with particular significance were taken to Avebury and incorporated into the monument.

Avebury now seems to be about memory and story. The avenues link several ancient features, including an ancient feasting site incorporated through a bend in the West Kennet Avenue, to tell a narrative history. I imagine people came to Avebury and processed from stone to stone in a communal remembrance of people and events, a commemoration of the histories of the places they passed, and their myths and legends of their existence.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Avebury Henge

Avebury henge in Wiltshire is Britain’s largest stone circle and formed part of a vast complex of monuments built and used over 2000 years. The story of its construction will perhaps never be fully understood.

It seems the earliest structure was a large wooden building, perhaps a house or hall which often featured at the earliest Neolithic settlements. After its demise it became the focus of a square arrangement of stones, now long removed. The building was perhaps built by the first settlers in the area, now revered ancestors, and was immortalised in memory as an example of ‘history-making’. This was eventually followed by the henge ditch and bank, then the huge outer stone circle with two smaller circles inside were raised, then finally two stone avenues were added.

The linear 'z-feature', with the south ring and the southern entrance stones beyond.

Avebury is in a natural ‘bowl’ surrounded by higher chalk ridges, one being the course of the ancient trackway called the Ridgeway. Although the henge is visible from the high ground all around, it’s surprisingly inconspicuous. Many stone circles are prominent in their landscape, designed to be seen, which suggests a different reason for Avebury’s location or purpose. Although, perhaps its size and therefore importance and fame meant it didn’t need to advertise itself. Inside the monument, little is visible of the outside world and it gives the impression of being an enclosed ‘microcosm’. It has often been suggested that circular monuments surrounded by a water-filled ditch are a microcosm of the earth with its surrounding ring of water.

Avebury comprises a circular ditch with an outer bank, 330m in diameter. The ditch was originally nine metres deep; a phenomenal undertaking using only antler picks. It was dug around 2900BC, replacing an earlier, more modest ditch. The stone circle inside comprised 98 huge sarsen stones, weighing up to 100 tonnes, many of which were destroyed or buried during Medieval times. Two smaller circles, around 100m diameter, were built inside the monument, and a variety of other stone features whose original layout and purpose remains unclear. Four causewayed entrances, slightly offset from the cardinal points, are the locations for the modern roads.

The two very different Cove stones in the northern circle.

Avebury’s earliest phase of construction was during the early Neolithic period, but intriguing evidence suggests its importance began long before this point. Many sacred sites in Britain, immortalised in stone during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, were respected by the earlier hunter-gatherers who had populated Britain after the Ice Age. Neolithic settlers, or hunter-gatherers who adopted the farming lifestyle, built these monuments around natural features whose importance was perhaps known to a few and now forgotten or ignored by most. Groves, springs or rock features became an immortalised memory.

Avebury’s biggest sarsen stones, such as the now-destroyed Obelisk in the southern circle, the Cove Stone in the northern circle, and some of the entrance stones, are believed to have been naturally present, in contrast to the majority of the stones which were dragged into place from the nearby downs. Were they subject to millennia-old veneration and the reason for the henge’s location? Intriguingly, some stones at Stonehenge and Stanton Drew are also believed to have been raised in their natural locations, and the capstones of many portal dolmens were also raised in their original positions.
Avebury also incorporated more recent ‘history-making’. Several stones in the monument had been used, perhaps for centuries, as axe-polishing stones or polissoirs while they lay in their natural positions on the downs. These stones with their own histories and stories were then brought to Avebury and incorporated into the vast, story-telling monument.

British culture changed dramatically when people began to master and control their landscape, by clearing forests and growing crops and also by raising monuments which would exist for millennia, but I believe Avebury shows its seed lay in the earlier respect for the natural landscape of people who walked lightly on the land and whose presence left little trace behind.

The northern entrance stone, one of the huge sarsens probably respected for millennia before it was raised.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Windmill Hill

Windmill Hill is the earliest site of the Avebury complex. A causewayed enclosure was built on the hill between 3670-3620BC. This comprised three concentric, ovoid ditches with inner banks and regular causeways to give access.

The ditches are not focused on the hilltop. They are offset to the northeast and the outermost, being 360m in diameter, stretches almost to the bottom of the slope. The reason for this is unclear, but it seems the ditches were designed to enclose pre-existing features such as ritual or offering pits. The ditches may also have respected natural features such as ancient trees which have vanished without archaeological trace. The banks and ditches are almost entirely eroded away; what is visible today is the result of excavation and restoration in the 1930s.

View east from Windmill Hill. The restored ditch is visible in the foreground.

The site was used for occasional feasting – large numbers of cattle were slaughtered and eaten on the site – and was perhaps a site for annual gatherings and trade events over a period of around three hundred years. It attracted people from across Britain; pottery from Cornwall and stone axes from Cumbria have been found. Bones from thousands of cattle, pigs, sheep and dogs were carefully deposited in the ditches after feasting events. Cattle skulls were placed in the ditches flanking the entrances. Disarticulated human bones suggest the deposition of revered ancestors, possibly from barrows such as the nearby West Kennet long barrow. In all, the site was a key part of Neolithic spiritual and practical life with a depth we shall probably never understand.

Bronze Age barrow and ditch. The sheep indicate its size.

Windmill Hill was probably chosen because it is the most prominent natural feature of the relatively flat landscape around Avebury, which stretches south and east to the steep escarpments of the chalk downs. The wide, flat hill offers 360ยบ views, including the sites which would one day become the Avebury henge and Silbury Hill.

The site retained its importance long after the enclosure was abandoned and the ditches filled in. The later Neolithic monuments were arranged below it, perhaps so the ‘founding fathers’ could watch over them, and several Bronze Age barrows were erected on the hill, over two thousand years later, including one on the highest point which now dominates the hillside.

Unlike the more famous monuments, Windmill Hill is now largely forgotten and sees few visitors except sheep.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

The River Thames

The Thames is Britain’s most important river. Today it is a reflection of Britain’s commercial might as it flows through the heart of London, and for millennia it has been central to trade, defence, invasion, sustenance and ritual.

‘Thames’ is perhaps Britain’s oldest place name. It derives from Tamesis, the name recorded by the Romans, which has a pre-Celtic origin and means ‘dark’. This is in common with other river names including the Thame, a tributary of the Thames, and the Tamar in Cornwall. Its flow is typically muddy and it is tidal for a large stretch of its course. Its flow is much lower than other great rivers such as the  Severn, and its tidal range is fairly modest making it much more suitable for trade, naval bases and for the founding of the settlement which would eventually become England’s capital city.

The confluence of the Thames and the Windrush in Oxfordshire

The river's importance far predates the Romans who founded Londinium. The Thames has one of the highest densities of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments of any British river. These include the great henge monuments of Stanton Harcourt near Oxford, the Dorchester Rings, and the henges under the city of Oxford and at Abingdon. Many of these were situated at confluence points, which were perhaps used strategically for their landmark value or symbolically as a meeting point of waters and people.

The Devil's Quoits at Stanton Harcourt

The source of the Thames is disputed but often said to be at Seven Springs in Gloucestershire. The river Kennet which flows through Wiltshire is one of its earliest tributaries, and is suggested by some to be the original ‘source’ river. The Kennet is sourced at the springs which surround the world-famous monuments of Avebury and Silbury Hill. Perhaps some of these monuments’ prestige came from their location at Britain’s watery heart.

The ritual importance predates even the Neolithic period. Large numbers of human skulls and other bones, along with stone axes and tools, were deposited in the waters of the Thames during the Mesolithic period, long before the first farmers arrived. There is increasing evidence that many of Britain’s sacred sites had a sanctity thousands of years older than previously realised.

                 The River Kennet

Many rivers have a female identity. The Thames is one of the few that is considered male. ‘Old Father Thames’, a bearded old man, has long been the personification of the river. It is often linked to the Egyptian Goddess Isis. The Thames at Oxford is called ‘Isis’. This is suggested to be a cult brought by the Romans, or an esoteric mystery cult of much greater antiquity, but in fact this is a much more recent name, probably coined by Oxford students in the Medieval period, and is a truncation of the Latin ‘Tamesis’.

Unusually, there is little more folklore associated with this mysterious and long-revered river.

            Old Father Thames