Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Avebury, Wiltshire

This is one of England’s most magical places. The vast stone circle, so big it encloses the entire village, and the archaeological landscape in which it sits, make up a complex whole that is rightly a World Heritage Site. Sometime between c. 3700 and 2200 BC, people in this part of Wiltshire constructed earthworks, arranged the large stone circle, erected other standing stones and stone alignments, and raised up long barrows to bury their dead.

Although the people who erected the stones lived millennia ago, there is a feeling of continuity too, whether in the happy combination of field walls and cottages made of the same hard sarsen as the standing stones, or in the fact that later houses, not to mention Christian places of worship, have been built within the vast stone circle. This combination of ancient stones and earthworks and a modern community living amongst it all is one of the things that makes Avebury special.

The exact dates, construction methods, and precise purpose of most of Avebury’s monuments is not known exactly, but the sheer size of the site makes its importance obvious. The careful alignment of the stones, the way in which they engage with the patterns of the movements of the sun and moon, point to a religious use. So does the atmosphere of the place. As one walks around the site, seemingly endless stones are revealed, and a combination of trees, deep ditches, and steep banks creates a play of shadows and light, of mystery and revelation.

Many have responded to the atmosphere of Avebury. The painter Paul Nash, for example. In his contribution to Herbert Read's Unit One anthology of 1934, he wrote: ‘Last summer I walked in a field near Avebury where two rough monoliths stand up, 16 feet high, miraculously patterned with black and orange lichen, remnants of an avenue of stones which led to the Great Circle. A mile away, a green pyramid casts a gigantic shadow. In the hedge, at hand, the white trumpet of a convolvulus turns from its spiral stem, following the sun. In my art I would solve such an equation.’ Stones, earth, lichen, and flowers: all followed the sun and do so still.


Thud said...

I wish more was made of places such as this...most Brits let alone tourists don't even know it exists...perhaps too many people would be a disaster for the magic this site exudes.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Quite a few people turn up on summer weekends, but at other times there are fewer visitors. The place is especially magical in the evenings and in winter, times when it's quiet and the shadows are long.

Peter Ashley said...

Mr.Keiller of marmalade fame used his wealth to excavate here. And I responded to Avebury's magic by having my first ever pint of Wadworth 6X here.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, Keiller showed Nash around Avebury on one of his visits. Keiler also used his marmalade money to help found the journal Antiquity and for other archaeological projects.

Neil said...

This is one of my favourite places too - so much more magical than Stonehenge with all its fences and fuss. Beautiful for a breakfast picnic, while the sun slowly wakes the stones. It's not just artists and antiquarians who have been inspired by Avebury. I can think of two long poem cycles, both excellent in their way - the book-length Avebury by Richard Burns (Anvil Press Poetry, 1972), and A Day at the Earth-House by Philip Gross (in his book A Cast of Stones; Digging Deeper, 1996).