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!
Awaiting us this morning as we all converged in the Ed room was another nice healthy buffet (courtesy of the lovely Yvette). This week’s featured fruit was the juicy Blood Orange. After everyone had arrived we settled down to some pre-outing talks.
Today we talked about aspects of archaeology. We discussed tangible cultural heritage, for example things that can be touched. We moved on to talking about intangible heritage i.e. songs, beliefs. Knowledge/knowhow, communications (language, instruments, visual, signs), myths, legends and folklore. Within the discussion, Yvette mentioned to a very interesting example of a language form. This was the whistling language called Silbo gomera, of La Gomera, Canary Islands. Well worth a look. We finished in the ed room hearing of archaeology as an ever evolving entity, all thanks to novel thinking and advances in transferable science and technology.
As in previous weeks, I again car shared with different members of the group. As we were setting off, I was asked if I would listen to music created, sung and played by one group member. I have to thank the person now, for what was a really emotionally moving journey. On arriving at Overton Hill/Ridgeway car park, I listened to a second song, this one taking me off into the distance with tears in my eyes. Thank you to this person for feeling you could share these personal lyrics with me! I will never forget that.
From the car park we headed for the road. We were somewhat behind the rest of the group at this point when, coincidently, and relating to the earlier talk about intangibles, there appeared to be some Gomeran sightseers, trying to communicate and sign with us? To the sound of whistles, I crossed the very precarious part of the A4, to reach the sanctuary of the Sanctuary.
We all gathered around a very knowledgeable Briony, who brimmed with passion for her subject and filled us with understanding of where we stood. I walked around the Sanctuary trying to imagine what it once may have looked like and tried to understand the reason/s for its use & position on this hillside. Very compelling.
The sanctuary site once stood as a concentric ring of wood and stone, built in phases of wooden posts possibly then moving on to stone circles. The posts have long since disappeared and according to William Stukeley, the remaining stones were removed from the site between 1723-24AD. One theory, mentioned by volunteer Steve, suggests the removed stones were used to help build a farmhouse and wall within West Kennet. Today contemporary concrete blocks mark the sites of wooden poles and also of the stone holes. The site joined to the Avebury Henge by the processional way of the West Kennet Avenue. The entrance is to the west of the outer circle and consists of three larger stones. The exact purpose of the Sanctuary is uncertain, with many theories being passed around. I will leave the interpretation up to yourselves.
There are some great panoramas of the surrounding area to be had from this location. Looking down the eastern slope, I pictured an avenue of stones adjoining the remains of the existing avenue and tried to position myself, walking side by side, with the peoples of those times. I tried to imagine what it may have been like. I looked up and took a picture of this Yellowhammer, a bird that most likely was observed by these peoples as they walked this hill top long ago.
Crossing back over the A4 with our life in our own hands dodging roman chariots (me and my imagination!) we visited the Bronze Age barrow cemetery known as Seven Barrows. The name derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Seorfon Beorgas’ (In actuality, the site really consists of twelve round barrows). Ten of the twelve barrows are situated on the north side of the A4, the other two being to the south of the road. We had visited these last two barrows first. I became aware of the bowl barrow south of the Sanctuary. This barrow had been flattened much by agriculture but originally had a diameter of 40m and a height of 3m. The barrow contained no evidence of a ditch or remains. (see pic below). Adjacent to the Sanctuary lies a bowl barrow, this example was originally surrounded by a ditch feature. The barrow contained an inhumation burial, a dagger and axe, a pin and a tree trunk coffin – that is, I’ve read. We didn’t actually excavate it ourselves! …wasn’t time.
The prominent mounds to the north of the road consist of the five barrows, four are examples of bell barrows, with a smaller fifth bowl barrow in between. All of these barrows contained cremation remains. The general construction of these barrows consisted of building material up and around bodies/remains within. The barrows had secondary use by peoples of other periods spanning hundreds of years. Often, later surface burials or burials nearby were created.
Briony also showed us the site of the old roman road and some special burial mounds. These included a Bronze Age bowl barrow, a Saxon/pagan inhumation cemetery and lastly, three unique Roman burial mounds. This portion of the site consists of a rare mix of burial mounds from a mix of differing time periods. The older Neolithic Bronze Age bowl barrow, is of a rarer form reminiscent of Beaker period styles seen in Wales. The three Roman burial mounds positioned next to the roman road, are said to be a very unique occurrence to Britain. Were these romans inspired to take on local customs? Briony then showed how these roman barrows were encircled with post holes creating a fence. They contained cremation pits and burial remains. The Anglo Saxon secondary editions to the site contained weapons and remains. In the opposite direction across a field, beech covered Bronze Age round barrows were seen. The one photographed below being an example of a well preserved bell barrow.
It was then everyone’s favourite sing along time.There were no skylarks present this week, I guess the larks knew they couldn’t compete with us! We all sang a live rendition of ‘living bell’ courtesy of Yvette, with some fun and games mixed in courtesy of Danny.
Afterword’s, I took some time out to breathe in my surroundings. I noted the barrows studding the landscape with a soft, non-angular, lush green undulating flow, highlighted by a bright blue winter skyscape, just lovely. I must come back and take photos under different settings.
We walked back along the Ridgeway to the car park chatting. There is a nice familiarity growing within the group as we get to know each other. I got stopped and had a chat with an interesting local man who was living in a large truck. He knew a lot about the local sites and mentioned his adventures with a metal detector, he had yet to find that elusive roman gold hoard! We all drove back to the ed room to have lunch and conclude this week’s session.
Using historic landscapes and heritage resources of various kinds to promote well-being represents one of the most significant advances in archaeological resource management for many years. Its potential contribution to health-care and wellness initiatives is boundless. Prompted by the ongoing HLF-funded Human Henge project, this conference provides an opportunity to hear about this and work going on across the country and at many different scales, share experiences, and to discuss the outcomes, implications, and theoretical underpinnings of heritage-based well-being projects.
Please use the Eventbrite link to book a place at this free conference
With the alarm set for 7:40am, I went to sleep with the anticipation of tomorrow’s adventure. All
prepared the next morning, I awaited pick up by my personal chauffeur (he never wears a suit and tie?). We set off to pick up someone else in a nearby town. In passing along the roads to Avebury, taking in the scenery of deep rural Wiltshire, there is always time to contemplate life’s important things. Like, how will the day’s challenges go? What are my goals in life? Where do I want to be this time next year? When will spring arrive? Did I turn the grill off and lock the front door!? (We’ve come too far too turn back now!).
The weather man had forecast wintry showers for today and on arrival there was a keen chill to the wind. On passing the barn gallery, I could not miss the looming storm clouds brewing up from the north. Was that rain clouds or snow clouds I wondered, as I headed inside?
Today in the Ed. room, archaeologist Dr Sara Lunt, Assistant Archaeologist at Avebury Briony Clifton & voice practitioner Yvette Staelens got down to talking about many topics with a central theme around stone. We talked about the sarsen stones that are very numerous in this area and there significance to prehistoric man. We also talked about prehistoric axe heads, with an example passed around for us to examine. This axe head example had been reworked then discarded during the rework. It was a heavy, polished stone with an obvious cutting edge.
During the Neolithic period, agriculture and improved settlement created time and need for
specialisation of tools. These tools were used for cutting wood and clearing ground, for skinning, scraping, butchering and for protection. A high level of workmanship went into making the utility tools. Tools were discarded if impurities or weaknesses were discovered. Axe heads could be made from hard stone and flint which would be chipped, (called knapping) flaking pieces from the main body to create a sharp edge. These tools were often traded or passed within families, generation to generation.
This topic led onto the mention of the ‘Polissoirs’ or polishers. Polissoirs are hard stones that were used to shape and polish flint & stone tools, for example the flint axe heads. Within the Avebury area, sarsen stone was used due to its hard abrasive nature. There are some good examples of Polissoirs to be found locally. Some Polissoirs were later incorporated into the building of the monuments themselves. The stones are generally large and flat, with highly polished indentations being seen running across then. An example of a polissoir made by a student was shown and the smooth surface was very obvious to the touch.
The Preseli Bluestone was also mentioned and passed around. The bluestone comes from
Pembrokeshire, Wales and was used in the construction of some of the inner sections at
Stonehenge. Being igneous in form, the bluestone can be traced back to a precise origin. This
bluestone contains spotted dolerite, local to these Welsh hills. We talked about the movement of this stone and how that may have happened. It was nice to see people discussing the subject
matters with a real honest passion. A level of passion I could relate too with my core interests.
…Then all of a sudden and in answer to my earlier thought, outside it had started to snow!
Eventually turning into proper thick snowflakes too! With the inner child in me brimming, I wanted to go outside and run about in it. I believe at least one other person in the room was feeling the same thing too – (You know who you are). After some more informative talks we headed out to see some sarsen stones in situ. The snow had now stopped but the wind chill was still felt.
We arrived in the picturesque village of Lockeridge to explore the sarsen stones of this area. We
entered Lockeridge Dene by the gate at the front of the site, stopping to read the info board.
We passed many examples of sarsen stones, the whole valley was speckled with them. After a
short time, the sun started to emerge out of the snow clouds, creating a good opportunity for
photographing the stones. As we walked along we listened to talks given about this site from
National Trust Ranger, Peter Oliver.
The sarsen stones are a siliceous form of sandstone called silcrete. Owing to the high composition of silica the stone is very hard. The name ‘sarsen’ is usually said to have been derived from the word ‘Saracen’, meaning foreign/alien (i.e. the Arabic/Muslim peoples mentioned in the crusades). I also came across a different origin relating to the Anglo-Saxon word ‘sar stan’ or ‘sten’ which translates as ‘troublesome stone’. Another more contemporary name for sarsen stones is Grey wethers, (relating to the stones likeness from a distance to grazing sheep). The sarsen stone was created 30-40 million years ago, when this area was said to be a tropical wetland ecosystem. Sand and silica mixed under these water habitats and over time, cemented & solidified. Some sarsen stones still have the holes remaining where tree roots and trunks grew within the sands. This layer of sarsen stone was broken up around the last ice age and deposited predominantly within the valley areas by glaciation. These deposits being specifically known as sarsen drifts. This process, as well as heavy melt waters, finally created the landscape we see today.
Personally, I have always found the stones owning a unique presence and awe within the landscape. Their feel, texture, patterns, the holes, the weathering, the lichen and the puddles, all owing to this uniqueness.
(At another nearby site, called Fyfield Down, the largest concentrations of sarsen stones in the
vicinity can be found. Having visited Fyfield Down on many occasions over the years, I never tire of walking in this somewhat other-worldly setting. So if there is anyone reading this that has yet to visit Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve, then I highly recommend it. A spring visit will see lots of bright yellow gorse out in flower. The smell of these flowers, is to me, reminiscent of coconuts).
Lockeridge Dene is also an important chalk grassland site with examples of many chalk grass related animal and plant species. The site lies on a south/south-east facing chalk hillside and can be a warm sight during the summer months. This warmth is loved by the Yellow Meadow Ant and much of the hillside is scattered with ant hill colonies. Whilst standing on the slope, we heard a brief talk about the chalk grassland ecology and talked about the flowers and butterflies seen here. We then talked about the lichen communities that are found on the sarsen stone. One particularly rare species being only found on this type of stone. I enjoyed photographing these sarsen stones decorated with colonies of lichen. Each stone has a unique pattern and composition of species.
On the sunny walk back through the valley, I noticed and snapped this cheeky blue tit eyeing me from a bush.
We ended the session back at the Ed. room for a chat and some lunch. One member had brought back some tree lichen for us all to look at. They had also brought with them a nifty little hand lens so we could all see the lichen and stone examples up close and personal. Very cool!
I must say the project is something I look forward to every week. It is a nice place to meet interesting people, with the added bonus of lots of fresh air, scenery, history and nature. There are good conversations to be had and, of course, there is always something new to learn. Being involved with the project gives a sense of purpose, an act of doing and achieving. Granted, it may involve many great challenges, however, there is a huge potential of satisfaction waiting to be gained from it.
A lovely start to session 3 with clear blue skies, sunshine and good company.
We all met at the education room for our weekly catch up and chat. We gorged ourselves on
another tempting array of nibbles, which included chocky biscuits & Jaffa cakes. The nibbles were all washed down with hot beverages. After a while we were told two guests were waiting for us at the barrow, so we made our way out to the cars. It was decided that people who didn’t know one another were to go to the barrow together. Along the way the driver and I got chatting and before we knew it, we had ended up going completely the wrong way, being alerted to the fact by a fellow passenger! But not to fear, a quick 360 at the Red Lion pub and we were back on track down a sun filled West Kennet Avenue, happy days.
We again parked at the roadside car park at the base of Waden Hill. It was a bit of a tight squeeze getting us all in, but it all worked out in the end. A sunny stroll by the water meadow took us over the River Kennet and up to the metal gate. The gate being kindly held open by one member for everyone to pass. Our group then walked up the hill path to the barrow, the path having become very muddy by so many visitors.
The long barrow was now becoming dominant on the crest of the hill. On approaching the barrow we could hear ethereal tunes riding on the breeze. These tunes were of the flute being played by Maxence des Oiseaux, a French musician, who was standing by a large sarsen stone. The group gathered around to listen to the music and take in the views.
A short while later we were joined by Professor Timothy Darvill who gave a talk on the peoples of the barrow. The individuals discovered in the barrow all died within a short space of time, perhaps over six generations. However, the barrow remained open for ceremonial deposits for over a 1000 years. The long barrow may have been used as a way of marking a family owned territory. A place to celebrate the lineage of the families present. The large size of the barrow making it a prominent and noticeable land marker to other peoples for miles around.
There is evidence of transference of bones from here to local Windmill Hill at certain ceremonial
times of year. One time of year being that which we now celebrate as the pagan Samhain (1 st Nov) or the Roman All Hallows. Said to be the time when the worlds of the living and dead come together. The professor coined a term ‘the night of the living dead’ referring to the barrow as a burial place for the living. The ancestors of the peoples, through ceremony, were seen to be eternal, forever alive. This talk really set the scene for our entrance into the dark unknown chambers of the barrow itself.
The West Kennet Long Barrow was constructed around 3700-3635BC and is 104m long, making it one of the longest barrows in Britain. There are over 1000 barrows that have been discovered in Britain. West Kennet Long Barrow is of a type called the Cotswold-Severn and is similar to others within that area. The mound was formed by the digging out of ditches around the sides. Additional material was brought in from elsewhere. Only around 10% of the length of the barrow was used for burial. The rest of the mound contains a line of sarsen stones, a layer of chalk rubble and earth. The barrow contains 5 burial chambers. The chamber structures is supported by huge sarsen stones in a corbelling fashion and filled in with dry stone walling (oolitic limestone). The limestone was sourced from nearby calne but also near Frome. The chambers were thought to contain at least 46 individuals ranging from 3 – 50 yrs old. West Kennet Long Barrow was restored in 1956 to its present state by archaeologist Stuart Piggott.
We entered the 9m long central passage of the barrow waiting for our eyes to adjust to the dark
before making our way to the end. A few people were fearing the dark and closed space within. We passed the side chambers and entered the larger western chamber. Here we stood in a circle with Maxence and Professor Darvill in the middle. A few candles had been placed around the chamber giving it an eerie feel. The professor gave a small talk about the barrow and Maxence began playing a tune. Personally, I have been in the barrow many times before but I have never experienced an atmosphere quite like it when the different music was being played. It really did transport you elsewhere and made you contemplate a far off time, surrounded by distant ancestors. It was a special, somewhat meditative moment. The long barrow was being brought back to life!
Maxence first played a ceramic harmonic instrument that had no tuning holes. It played only one tune so the sounds created were made by the player’s mouth. We then listened to a hollowed out bone whistle, similar to one found at a long barrow. This whistle had 5 holes, whereas modern examples typically have six holes. A large horn of antelope was next up, which played a deeper, hollower sound.
We then moved to the forecourt of the barrow to hear some more instruments being played. Shown next was a llama bone flute, a traditional instrument from Peru. The flute has 4 holes and is embossed with precious stones and topped with a carved jaguar head motif. Other instruments included a swan bone flute & longer antelope horn.
Emerging out of the barrow and back into the world of the living, we were greeted by sunlight and the song of skylarks. We all got into a line for a group photo along the stone façade and then preceded to sing the Human Henge classic, “piggy pig, dog dog”. We followed some steps up to the top of the barrow mound and walked its length. From here great views were had. We came around the flank of the barrow chatting as we walked. One group member noted how the meeting of people on this project really brings her out of herself. It is a way of escaping other things going on.
We all walked back the way we came to the parked cars, chatting as we went.
The day’s session ended back at the education room where we were treated to more of Maxence’s unique music. Thanks to a member of the group being fluent in French we were able to fully understand Maxence’s crafted instruments and passion for music. With music of a
medieval/renaissance style we were played out with a flute made from an elder tree and a large
antelope horn to finish.
What a lovely day!
Next Week: Lockeridge Dene.
Iron Age Malham Piper by Peter Dunn, 2008
‘One of the secondary burials in the Seaty Hill Bronze Age Barrow on Malham Moor contained Iron and the pipe. This may be one of Max’s musical ancestors and he invoked the sounds of that time and many other periods. I imagined the piper living on in the beautiful Dales landscape through his music as his body was interred in the barrow.’