Over the Winter Break I walked at Avebury in Wiltshire with Nick Robins, a long term Platformer, who’s worked on several projects and was a Trustee. We had the chance to reflect on time and community.
The soft whale back curve of the Ridgeway rose to the left, its skyline punctuated by barrows ringed with Beech trees. Our morning had taken us past the ever-astounding human-made mound of Silbury Hill, across the dry winterbourne of the River Kennett and up to the long burial barrow guarding the crest. The gentle valley we had wandered through lies at the head of one of the main tributaries of the Thames, close to the springs of that great river system.
Ascending Overton Hill, we came to The Sanctuary. Enticed by its powerful name we were disappointed to find only a banal array of concrete blocks that marked out where a circular Neolithic timber monument once stood. Two lovers, undiscouraged by this lack of romance, stood at the centre of the windswept field and hugged, not a brief clasp but an embrace that lasted long after we had had followed the track along the ridgeway.
Half an hour later and we were walking north again between the lines of grey standing stones marching ahead of us towards the grass covered banks which we could see in the far distance. These massive earthworks surround the complex circles of sarsen stones at Avebury Henge.
We had both visited the village of Avebury on several occasions, that cluster of houses and a pub huddled within the great Neolithic circle. But this was the first time that we had sensed how the entire landscape of the hills and valleys that surround the village is orchestrated with burial mounds, avenues and henges in order to make the place sacred. It’s easy to see the whole land as a cathedral – this is the nave, there is the altar, and there the west door. Except that this cathedral, this temple, is turned inside out. It does not face in on itself, but outwards towards the sky. And, consequently, the entire locality becomes divine.
It is remarkable how effective these structures are in carrying out this task. The earliest Avebury henge and avenues were constructed between 3,000 BC and 2,800 BC. The great polyhedron of Silbury Hill was built out of chalk and turf around 2,400 BC. The first of these monuments is therefore five thousand years old and the space that they define still feels sacred.
Between the 14th and the 18th century, the sarsen stones were buried or broken up under the encouragement of the Church. Yet so powerful was the resonance of the way that the land had been articulated that it inspired an extraordinary resurrection of the circle and avenues. In the 1930s, they were excavated, re-erected and partly reconstituted, thanks to a marmalade millionaire.
Today, any attempt to damage them, move or destroy them, to build on these hillsides or to construct a road through these valleys, would be bitterly fought against. (As the thirty-year battle over a new road past Stonehenge attests.1)
These monuments that still define the landscape, were constructed by men and women of the Late Neolithic, the last millennia of the Stone Age, prior to the Copper Age and the subsequent Bronze Age. On the Wessex Downs, which interspersed woods with areas of open grassland, they grazed cattle and pigs, hunted for deer with bow and arrow, foraged for berries and fungi, and cultivated small plots of barley and wheat. The grains from these crops were boiled into porridge or fermented into beer. They made pottery from clay and decorated it in a particular style that led to Twentieth Century archaeologists categorising them as the Grooved Ware people. All this is divined from fragments and traces painstakingly excavated from beneath the fields that we walked over.
These people would have had a rich language, a deep oral tradition and surely cycles of songs. In this language they expressed their joy and melancholy, they talked of their lovers and broken hearts, just as we do. As much as the landscape speaks to us, however, we know not a single word or sentence from this civilisation. No written records remain. But could some fragments of their words, sounds and knowledge be buried in our daily speech, buried in the sentences that passed between us as we walked the land?
Of course, it is next to impossible to truly ‘know’ what these henges, avenues and this human-made hill really ‘meant’ to those who built them. Stonehenge, which began construction perhaps a hundred years after Avebury, has been the subject of four centuries of speculation. Current understanding holds that the stone circles were partly for the worship of the sun and the moon, but also places where the living met the dead. The stones did not symbolise the dead, but rather the dead existed within them. The houses of the living were made of wood and clay, as perishable and impermanent as human flesh, but the houses of the dead were made of stone, permanent and unchanging. The henge of Avebury is where the hunters and the farmers marked key moments in their brief lives and met with their ancestors whose existence was eternal.
These massive structures embodied the intensity of the labour required to construct them. As Nicholas Crane writes of Silbury Hill:
‘The multi-generational commitment to a project beyond the needs of food and shelter speaks of a belief so powerful that it could be inherited and sustained from birth till death. Everybody who had been part of this four-million-worker-hour enterprise was part of its story. The hill embodied an ancestral narrative.’2
The hill, henge and avenues were the infrastructure of a community, an expression of its shared beliefs about life and death, about the physical world and the world of the spirits. About the relationship between the human being and the land, the human being and the sky.
Silbury Hill seems to be the last piece of this Neolithic infrastructure. After its completion, and a pause of two centuries, new monuments to the dead were constructed by peoples of these downs who had the use of metal. The Bronze Age had arrived and with it the barrows we had seen on the Ridgeway skyline. As Mike Parker Pearson writes:
‘These round barrows were monuments on a much more personal scale. People were now building only for their family’s ancestors. To construct an average-sized round barrow would have needed only the labour of the extended family of a small lineage.’3
To build and rebuild the stone circles and hill may have taken several generations. Did people travel here from distant parts to mark key times of the year or to bury the cremated remains of their dead? How many women and men looked at Avebury henge as ‘theirs’, and felt a sense of ‘possession’ over it, if not a sense of ‘ownership’ in the way that we understand ownership? How many lived here all year round? Surely, just a few thousand people?
It is amazing that such a small number of women and men could have created a community infrastructure that may well have been in continuously in use for a 1,000 years into the Early Bronze Age. We do not ‘know’ how the society that created these monuments was organised. Perhaps it was intensely hierarchical, and the labour behind Silbury Hill was entirely coerced? Or perhaps it was horizontal and the henge is an expression of the freely given collective creativity of so many? The ceremonies that took place here could have expressed the most profound affection for the Earth and all its non-human inhabitants, or marked the deforestation of the hillsides and the slaughter of other animals. We can take whatever story we wish from this landscape and let it guide us.
And this made us think about what it means to live in a community. About the way in which we are both living within a ‘community’, a gathering of people with a shared concern for ecology and social justice. Inevitably, there are differences between us on these issues, but there is a core of beliefs that we share. We have a ‘belief structure’. We inhabit it together with so many that we work with, live alongside and are in regular communication with. How big is this community? Perhaps two or three thousand people? It is scattered globally, but a large proportion lives within the Thames Valley, within the watershed of this great tidal river and its tributaries such as the Kennet.
We live in our dwellings clustered in these valleys. We labour away, so often in solitude, assisted by technology and swaddled in security on a scale that would have been incomprehensible to the Grooved Ware people.
But what infrastructure are we creating that articulates this community of belief? What are we building together? What is it that we leave behind, that will be useful, adaptable or powerful for the generations that follow us? Avebury henge had a function for a community for a millennium, for perhaps 30 generations. How can we begin to think in such time dimensions? What does it mean to imagine relationships across such as stretch of time? (Doubtless the people who constructed Avebury imagined it would be eternal. In some ways, it has become so.)
The work to prevent climate change is also measured in millennia. But when we plan our actions we struggle to project our thinking beyond the next thirty years, and realise how the structure of our imaginations have been shrunk to a very short ‘now’. We who seek to end the fossil fuel age have had our hearts and minds crushed down to the momentary timeframe of finance. A turn away from a society of fossil fuels may require as fundamental a shift in our thinking and feeling as that which occurred between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age.
What happens if we turn our imaginations, and others act likewise, to helping to engender a sense of ‘community’ that stretches over time? What if the focus of creative activity becomes about helping to draw that community together? What if we try to articulate what is common within that structure of belief? If we mark periods of the year? If we mark places in the landscape? If we mark the passing of our dead?
Is this a pointless activity? In itself the engendering of community will not bring about measurable change. It will not halt this pipeline or install that wind turbine. It will not prevent this abuse of human rights or directly cut poverty. Yet without a framework of community, none of these things are likely to be achieved.
On this cold, wet day just after Winter Solstice, what Avebury seems to suggest is that the henge was about helping a community to survive by creating shared monuments which were about more than just daily needs. These were structures to help a people through the ravages of disease in families and livestock, or through bitter hunger in winter and in drought.
It feels as though we need structures that rise above our daily struggle for survival, our daily competition for capital. Structures that help emphasise our communalities not our differences, and assist our community to survive over time. Indeed creating structures for survival seems ever more important, as we try to shake off the narcotic cornucopia of fossil fuels.
This piece was written in close collaboration with Nick Robins
With many thanks to Jane Trowell
2 Nicholas Crane – The Making of the British Landscape – Weidenfeld & Nicholson – 2017 – p119
3 Mike Parker Pearson – Stonehenge – Simon & Schuster – 2012 – p348