After the last drops of HP sauce were wiped from our chins, we were ready for our next ceremonial adventure. We had a chat with Briony about making a ceremonial totem style pole to symbolise our journey. A tree would be chosen and using clay, we would create images that represented our memories of Human Henge. To illustrate, Briony drew some detailed, life-like image examples on the white board 😉
We headed back out to face the chill and to create our totem. Next to our tree was set up all the clay making equipment needed and a tree stump length was used as a table. We selected our clay and started to create individual symbols of our journey. People chose different parts of the tree trunk, and soon everyone was working intently within their space. Creations started to cover the trunk, right the way around. All the while, a cold easterly wind blew at us as we worked, but it didn’t deter us from having a good laugh as we went along. A bucket of warm water had been provided to wash our hands, and as the time went on attracted group members like flies, using it to warm their hands in.
Our totem took shape, covered in clay to head height. There were moons, stars, stones, snakes, hands, faces, naked figurine forms, a fairy and even a Ghostbusters logo? And there it stood, it was now complete, our collective group symbol, our group identity.
We headed back into the warmth of the gallery room. We relaxed and settled down to hear some music that had been written by a group member. I was looking forward to this moment as I had already heard the two songs performed in a previous session. Overcoming her fears, she played the guitar and started to sing. Wow, what a voice and what moving and emotional lyrics. Everyone in the room was focused on the song, the words, the voice, the meaning. It was very powerful indeed. On her second song Max joined in with his flute for a harmonising duet of styles, it was perfect. Yvette also took the floor and sang a most beautifully haunting melody that awoke a deep, ancestral spirit within me. After the singing, Yvette handed round a plate of Preseli Blue stone. It was for us all to take a piece home to remember our time during Human Henge, which was a lovely thought. There were also some groovy Easter Bunny biscuits for all to have too. During this time, post-it notes were given out so we could write a personal message to go on a large board, I believe to be shown at the conference coming soon.
As the day concluded Laura thanked all people involved and there was a large round of applause for them and all the work they had put into this project.
I would like my own personal note of thanks to go to the other group members, who made this a very memorable and happy experience. Human Henge was very much a unique shared experience. A shared experience that, I hope, we all can go on sharing, together, in the future. I would also like to thank Yvette and Laura for letting me write the blog.
And on behalf of myself and all group members: I would like to thank all at National Trust Avebury, Human Henge, Richmond Fellowship, Restoration Trust, Volunteer Steve, the peoples of the Neolithic period, the weather gods and lastly of course Greggs, for a very unique experience.
P.S. I have a confession to make…it was me who was man down and fell into the planter and squashed the spring bulbs! Sorry NT gardeners 🙂
Well this was it folks, the final session, the culmination of the past 10 weeks of the Human Henge Project. And what a session it was!
With the alarm beeping, I awoke before my resident Blackbird (I got the worm) around 5:40am. Our session start time today was 7:30am, thus the early wakeup call. As I had my breakfast the sun started to illuminate the dawn sky with its brilliance. It was the sun that was to be the crux of today’s celebrations. Today would mark the astronomical first day of spring, a time of rebirth and new beginnings – the vernal equinox. However, no one had told the winter this fact and it still had a strong, icy grip on proceedings. Over the days, there had been more easterlies, bringing temperatures dropping with lots of snow. The ‘Beast from the East’ 2.0 had struck!
On arrival, Avebury was dressed in a picturesque white coating of snow. After all meeting in the gallery room for a chat, we walked over to the SW sector of the henge. Along the way, a few group members & staff couldn’t resist the appeal of the snow, and an all-out battle commenced. There were snow balls flying everywhere, with many near misses and a few direct hits. Suddenly, we had a man down! They had tripped over a large stone planter and ended up lying flat out on top of it squishing some of the sprouting bulbs! After recovery, the battle died down and we walked through the lovely village church yard. We arrived at a snow covered SW Sector of the henge, which was to be the start of the stone processional walk and equinox celebrations.
…I then realised I had forgot my walking boots! So I had to walk all the way back to the gallery room to pick them up. Whilst I was gone, there was a brief talk by Prof Tim Darvill about the amphitheatre like nature of the henge and the symbolistic idea of the inner world being the henge and the outer world being beyond the embankment. The group then started the equinox celebrations with a spiralling dance around the first stone, complemented by flute from Max. …Ok, I was back with the group, and ready for the procession. Max fired up an evoking tune and we started walking anti clockwise along the line of stones. The sun was coming and going through the clouds, creating contrastingly lit scenes on the snow covered embankments.
We continued journeying along, melodies flowing between the stones, we felt the atmosphere, we were a group, and we were smiling. Some of us stopped to touch the stones: to have a moment with them, to connect, to understand, to respect them. Others danced along, laughing and having fun as they went. This was a journey, part of a bigger life journey, a journey that we were all walking along together.
At the ‘barber stone’ we gathered to listen to Max play and Prof Darvill talk about the stone’s history. He mentioned change; that everything over time is always changing. The Stones act as anchors for us through these changes. We carried on the procession, up over the road to the SE sector where we were greeted by more impressive stones. We walked over to the ‘Ring Stones’ that form an inner circle in the southern half of the henge. Within this inner circle was a square like feature of stones, called the ‘Z-stones’. These stones form a straight line within the circle. There was also a central stone, called the ‘obelisk’. For us, it acted as a marker, a beacon, and we all converged around it.
An evocative talk was given about more symbolic meanings of the henge. The possible way the stones represent a controlling of the inside, inner world, from the outside self-determining universe. A kind of Inner manifestations of outer occurrences.
And now, gathered around the obelisk, the procession had reached its ceremonial destination. Music started to be played loudly and we danced around the stone holding a partner by the shoulders – forming a human chain. We circled, we let go, our inhibitions melting as we went. More dancing commenced and people were expressing themselves in their own way. We were having great fun, and for brief moments life was wonderful, and there wasn’t a care in the world. Even the cold couldn’t chill our mood! …it was an emotional peak of the Human Henge journey…It felt special.
After the stone ceremony was over we decided to have fun over in the deeper snow. Some members created snow angels, whilst others transformed into their inner child and ran about and jumped in it. We eventually left the SE sector through a gate, but not before leaving our mark as we went.
All around us, the wintery views were fantastic. The snowy downs scape creating a sense of longing and awe. From here we returned towards the manor with a brief look at the NE sector and the remains of the northern inner circle, The Cove. We ended this part of the morning’s celebrations and strolled back through the village to the gallery room…some faster than others… follow that smell of bacon! Courtesy of Laura (and Greggs), we all had bacon and egg baps and warm drinks awaiting, which was most welcome indeed, after being outside in those cold, wintery conditions…
The weather for today’s session was a lot more stable than last weeks. Most of the snow had cleared but the temperatures were still low. We made our way to the gallery room to meet the rest of the group. On entering we were delighted to the fluted sounds of what could only mean one thing, Max had returned. We settled down to a brief chat about what may happen after the group sessions finish and what previous groups have done. We also talked about next week’s equinox plans.
Briony talked about theclay making process and mentioned modern examples of creations made by others and how productive and fun it had been for those involved. We were shown examples of clay faces and how they were formed onto tree trunks. We touched on Neolithic pottery and some of the round based pots that were used during this period. We learnt about the hands on aspects of the Neolithic clay pot makers and the process of heating and burning during use. We also learnt about even heat distribution of round based pots for cooking on fires. The information lead us nicely into our next activity.
We all walked to a tree lined avenue adjacent to the Keiller museum. Half way down the avenue we came to some cut tree stump seats and a table. Here, the clay was cut and a selection of clay making tools were laid out (see pic below). Briony started by showing us an example of clay making techniques by forming a face on a tree trunk. As we watched, Briony created facial features with such ease (I believe she has done this before!) and before long an anatomically true face manifested from the clay. With all of us confident we could imitate Briony’s creative side (yeah, right), we collected our clay and tools and all chose our own tree trunks to work with. A few people sat at the tree stump to make clay pottery.
With my focus on the tree trunk and the clay and with birds singing in the distance, I experienced rare moments of internal peace. The creative therapy was engrossing, making me lose myself in the process, thus leaving worries and stresses at the gate. Up and down the tree avenue, faces and forms began to sprout from the bark, familiar objects rose from the tree stump table, an expression of all our inner worlds and pure and unique creativeness. As we neared the end of our time for this activity, some had completed their creations, whilst for others, there was a mad rush to finish ‘the original idea’. I’m sure a lot of us would happily have stayed doing this for a least another hour. Time was thus called and we all met for a chat about what we had done and we all walked along the avenue admiring others creative expressions! The whole activity was symbolic, powerful, joyful and yet so simplistic and primal.
We touched more on pottery and its makers. We heard about Neolithic peoples and tried to imagine and understand what inspired them to create what they did. We heard how pottery was vital for the culture and how over time the skills develop into specific specialisations. We then pondered on questions such as; what was the social structure like and specifically who would have been making the pottery? How many people had the pottery making skill? Were there expert craftsman solely for the process or was it learnt and utilised by many? Was pottery made by males, females or both? What age groups were involved, for example, did children make pottery? Was it taught at a young age or did the children pick up on and mimic the adult’s creations? Whose job was whose?
Thus on deeper reflection, I ask myself; can we really associate with the peoples of the Neolithic period or have we lost that specific perspective forever? Have we indeed lost the meanings and intentions (being ephemeral in nature) behind the permanent, organic, physical finds, therefore creating an absence within archaeological knowledge? Or conversely, was the basis of ideas and thinking of Neolithic people all that different to more modern peoples? For example, does there exist a timeless, innate, common, universal theme to human thought, expression and creativity? With this last thought in mind, can we then not glean meaning an understanding of older cultures from perhaps, modern cultural examples? We may never truly know the answers to these questions, but I hope that at some point we will.
As we returned, Max played and communicated with the avian fauna (see video below & link for more from Max.
Back in the gallery room, Max played a bit of freestyle flute and talked about the artistic expression of our ancestors. He shared the origin of his music with us, mentioning that when he was young, he left school with no qualification. However, he did then discover music and later played flute in the streets at the age of 18. For him, this was a doorway to a new concept of the world, a way of self-expression. He was following a dream, one of which was to be a guitarist. Max never learnt to read music but found his own way, his own musical interpretation. He talked about a powerful moment of hearing an instrument and had a life revelation, an awakening. To Max his music is about a personal quest of the past within the present. Another huge door Max walked through, was into the world of faerie (I myself have walked through this door). He saw the energy of this world of the small people and the magic it holds. He mentioned inspiration also from the movie ‘Dark Crystal’.
Max then mentioned an encounter with a little man who made incredible instruments. He then played a Celtic flute for us, inspired by fairy and evoking the spirit of the elves and Celtic memories. He also shared his experience of living in montane forest and how this opened another door for him. Max explained that he was sitting at foot of tree one day, listening to a bird singing, and decided to practise with the bird, gaining inspiration from its tune and learning new music. A shamanic instrument was next, a symbol of the migrating bird (to go and to return). He explained his animal themed instruments in helping thus to commune with such an animal, the spirit of animals, past and present.
Max finished talking about living in a reconstructed tribal setting complete with tepee, skins of animals and living like prehistoric man around a fire. He told a funny story about meeting a modern man whose car had broken down, the story ended with police looking for kangaroos and how they started calling themselves the ‘kangaroo tribe’! Doesn’t get more surreal than that! Max continues on his journey of discovery, looking for talents from within, an innate memory from prehistory, linking past to present, a universal music, transcending time through one’s consciousness.
Next to talk was Steve, a group volunteer. Steve talked about equinox, linking this in with our equinox plans and next week’s final session. In an informative talk, Steve mentioned that the equinox meaning can cause arguments in its understanding. Is it equal day and night? Or is it when the sun rises due east? Is it the half way point between the winter and summer solstice? etc. He did say that the equinox is a return to a position after a completion of a cycle and that cycle is represented symbolically as a zero ‘0’ with zero meaning the return or completion of a cycle. Steve said we don’t have to start at the top of a circular cycle, we can start anywhere. For some ancient cultures they started in the east. Commonly the 3 o’clock position. An example given was the Vatican and its great temple facing to the East. And the great ceremony for Christians is of course called ‘EASTer’.
We also learnt about the cycles of star constellations and the precession of the equinoxes. For example, the constellations go through a cycle, taking turns to be in line with the sun at the equinox position. It is called the precession of the equinoxes and it goes backward through the star signs. Our present astrological age is Pisces. The age started about 2000 years ago -the birth of Christ. It is why Christians use the symbol of the fish. The constellation of Aries was the sign that the equinox sun was pointing to, i.e. about 2200 BC. It was about then that Avebury went through its final and grandest transformation.
We then learnt about the spring equinox. This is where the sun moves to its high point and rises north of east, and the full moon crosses over and rises south of east. At Avebury however, there doesn’t seem to be a place in the henge to celebrate the equinox. But there is West Kennet long barrow. Around the time of the equinox, if you wait in the back chamber, a small patch of sun light travels across the sarsen at the end of the back wall. Steve ended explaining that spring is, “a time of new growth, new life and new beginnings. A time to sing and dance and tell happy stories. A good time. We have made it through the long cold nights of winter. Here comes the sun”.
We finished the extended day’s session planning next week’s equinox ceremony.
Next week’s final Human Henge session – Stone circle ceremony of the spring equinox!
There was to be a small gap in proceedings, as last week’s Human Henge session was cancelled due to adverse conditions. Initially, Avebury’s surface conditions were deemed too poor and the henge site was closed. Added to this, of course, was the media termed “Beast from the East” that struck our shores and left many areas snowed in. This made for dangerous, and in some areas, impossible driving conditions.
This week, along our way to Avebury, snow still lay around 9 days after it had first fell. Large white drifts were visible in the field margins and on the road sides. On arrival at Avebury, we walked into the henge where, here also, snow still lay about in clumps. At the National Trust buildings we were met by Steve, a volunteer, who let us know our venue for today had changed. We met instead in an old room of the beautiful manor. Everywhere there were low beams, old wood & stone and wonky stairs.
Due to last week’s cancellation we were to have a slightly altered session plan. Today, we met Laura Drysdale, Human Henge Project Manager, & Dr Ros Cleal, Curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum. Laura & Ros were introduced and Laura talked about the Human Henge Project (After many emails it was a pleasure to finally meet). We then split into two groups either side of the room and partook in a clap along with Yvette. We created some interesting acoustics that resonated between us. Afterwards, one group left with Ros over to the Alexander Keiller Museum, while our group stayed to listen to a talk by Briony on modern (17th century) archaeology.
Briony talked about some investigative work that had been carried out at Avebury Manor during December 2017. One of the rooms ceilings needed repair and in exploring the floor space an opportunity arose to look for finds. Many interesting items were indeed found under the floorboards; the whole room’s floor space having been meticulously mapped and methodically inspected. Around 70 bags of dust were amassed during the exploration as well as the odd dead mouse! Briony discussed with us the preliminary findings mentioning that she is still investigating and interpreting the findings of this room of the house. Briony also mentioned about a very intriguing, and until recently, unknown space found behind two walls within the house. I pondered what secrets & stories might lie hidden behind these walls.
After a while the other group had returned and it was our turn to set off to meet Ros at the Keiller Museum. We walked over to what was the old coachhouse building of the manor and had a brief look around the museum’s exhibits.
From the museum, we climbed some stairs to enter a room built into the roof space of the building. Here, many important local archaeological finds were stored and catalogued. Old dark wood presentation frames, display cases and glass cabinets held an array of pottery, stones and other period treasures. We all put on surgical gloves and listened as Ros talked about pottery finds. We first looked at Neolithic pottery shards collected from Windmill Hill. As seen in the photo below, there have been many examples of vessels discovered. Looking at all of the styles and patterns was fascinating. People later noted how they enjoyed being able to actually handle the pottery, as opposed to seeing it in books or behind glass. The hands-on learning brought people closer to the past, to the peoples who created this pottery. People started to think how it may have been. What the peoples may have experienced.
We also looked at examples of gabbroic pottery, (as I discussed in the session 2 blog). The speckled appearance of this pottery standing out from the rest of the collections. In regard to this, Ros talked about ‘opening agents’ that are found in gabbroic pottery. Without these agents, water and air gets trapped in the clay causing cracks and breaks when fired. We then looked at the contrast with Beaker pottery, which generally has a paler look, made to perhaps imitate the look of bronze. We discussed how pottery was made and by who. For example, it was noted how pottery making techniques involved forming coils of clay, working upon the last coil as they went. Also, that it may predominantly have been women who created pottery due to social structure. For example, the pottery would have been used for essential domestic uses. A comparison was talked about between bonfire firing compared to oven-type firing. An example of pottery was shown exhibiting the black colouration due to the presence of carbon from high heat. This example of high heat oxidisation occurred when bowls was placed directly within fires. From this, you could then see how the bowls were placed into fires and used from all those years ago. Discussed also, were details such as the diameter of the rims in working out circumference, lug creations used for carrying and artistic design/patterns.
We moved on to look at examples of Neolithic Stone. There were an array of Neolithic stone examples. Many of the stones had smoothed polished areas. Drilled holes were present on some whole stones. A now somewhat faded Jadeite axe butt was shown. This axe was discovered to have travelled all the way from the north Italian Alps via Brittany 6000yrs ago or later. The stone was discovered locally at Beckhamton Avenue. We finished with examples of Germanic lava stones.
Back down the stairs in the museum, we had a longer look around the exhibits. There was a lot to see in the time we had left, so I missed a few things. However, there was a brief history of the archaeology of the complex and examples of finds. There was a skull and a skeleton, models of the henge and how the stones were positioned as well as some examples off flint arrowheads. There was also an exhibit on more modern finds from around the henge. I must come back for a proper look some time.
We headed back to the gallery room for a final fascinating talk from Ros. We all sat around to have a hands on look at many examples of Neolithic scrapers and axeheads found within the Avebury complex. This was a good chance to ask Ros and questions we had about all the finds. On commenting about this week’s session, one member mentioned how they thought it couldn’t get any better than the last session (the night walk) but how this week’s session indeed had been. As with other weeks, I had to leave early but others stayed to have lunch and a chat.
Next Week: Double Session with clay, music and equinoxes!
This week’s session was quite a unique experience indeed, as we explored a nocturnal Avebury…
On arriving at Avebury, it was already cold and dark. We assembled in the public village carpark, especially eager for this week’s offerings. I personally, have never been around the stones at night, so I was glad of the opportunity and was looking forward to the experience. Above me, framed by eerie silhouetted branches, grey and misty clouds pushed through the cold night sky occasionally giving up an ephemeral, mystical treasure, the glowing crescent moon. We got clad in our cold weather apparel, had a brief catch up and chat before setting off. People appeared energised by the exciting and somewhat unknown adventure that lay ahead. With torches, head lights and phones at the ready, we made our way out towards the stones.
We traversed the south west sector of the henge, crossed the main road and entered the south east sector. Mist was starting to creep in all around us and the cold air was trying to bite. All of a sudden, out of the darkness ahead of me, appeared two huge grey figures. These figures stood sentry to a pathway yet trodden. Between them lay an invisible gateway, a portal, suggesting both start and ending. Slowly, more grey figures appeared to my side, flanking me as I preceded through the night.
Each figure grabbed my attention, their sense of presence was extremely powerful. As I approached the ‘gateway’, the huge grey figures loomed above and either side of me. I couldn’t help but feel honoured yet humbly uninvited as I committed to this path. The two huge entrance stones (no.s 1 & 98 – pictures below) mark the Southern entrance of the henge and the start of the ‘avenue’. Stone 98 is known as the ‘Devil’s Chair’. As the pathway winds and snakes down the edge of the hill you are greeted either side by animate forms. We were now all following the avenue of stones.
We stopped with Prof Tim Darvill at the top of West Kennet Avenue to talk about what the avenue might have represented for the early peoples. We tried to understand it through their eyes. We thought about its practical use and the possible symbolic meanings. What would the peoples have seen as they followed its winding path? Whether coming from the Sanctuary area or from the henge itself, there are many different and hidden perspectives as one travels its flowing length. Was the avenue used by many or just a select few? After contemplating these questions we preceded onwards.
More stones manifested out of the darkness, some of which were quite small; being the modern markers for where a stone would once have stood. One theory proposed by Keiller & Piggott is that the avenue & henge stones can be separated into male and female anatomical forms. These stones are labelled (Type a) and (Type b) respectively. The typical comparative example being stones 13a & 13b as seen below.
To my side, Waden Hill rose gently off to the right, hiding the western horizon. I stopped to touch one of the standing stones. Were the stones trying to speak to me? I tried to communicate with these sentient figures but I am as yet not fluent in the language.
On reaching the end of the restored section of the avenue we talked about the connection between the Neolithic peoples and their monuments to the cosmos.
The Neolithic people had already built up a considerable astronomical knowledge base from earlier times. They were very familiar with the heavens, the sun, moon and stars. These Neolithic people had none of the distractions and visual entertainment of today. The day and night skies were their windows, their TV screens, their pages of a book and they would have spent much time observing them. They would have witnessed the movements of the celestial bodies, of the stars and the galactic plane. They also would have witnessed strange repeating occurrences such as eclipses. It was an ever moving story, of life and death, rebirth, symbolism, spirituality, the celestial sphere was their very guidance. The peoples would have planted and harvested by these cycles. They would have planned daily events and ceremonial activities in tune with the heavens. The celestial cycles help track the passage of time. Looking within Archaeoastronomy, the night sky inspired the building of the monuments. The monuments may have mirrored the night sky, “as above, so below”. The peoples of this time were looking for their identity within the great cosmos.
We gathered around an image of the impressive Bronze Age artefact, the Sky Disc of Nebra (see image below). The disc is understood to represent an astronomical clock, bringing together both solar and lunar calendars. The gold leafed highlights represent the sun, moon, stars (Pleiades) and an arc. The arc is interpreted by some as a sun boat (the sun would travel the waters of the underworld by boat every night re-emerging from the waters at dawn). We compared it to a modern planisphere that Danny was discussing.
Luckily the cloud of earlier started to clear and the moon and stars revealed themselves. Another group member and I had brought telescopes, so we set these up so others could have a closer look at the night sky. We looked at the crescent moon and the shining Pleiades to peoples awe’s and wows. We also looked at the stars of Orion and the Orion nebula, the pole star Sirius, the constellations Gemini, Auriga, Taurus and also Ursa Major (aka the ‘plough’).
We ended the session walking back along the avenue toward the henge. Another person and I walked alone at the back. Being alone in the avenue, surrounded by grey figures and misty fields, shrouded by the starry night sky, the atmosphere felt heavy. I was being transported back in time to a place of unfamiliarity and yet, at the same time, feeling strangely familiar?
I looked up to the stars, the sky and the earth connected as one. I was being drawn in, into the briefest of glimpses of a cosmic plan. As I left the avenue behind, mist hung over the ground, the moon shone, stars twinkled, and all was still.