Does Avebury’s collection of vast monuments represent ritual space, a failed civilisation or cosmic ordering?
A few months ago I was asked by my old FE College boss to give a talk to the Swindon Philosophical Society about the origins of civilisation. I spent the next few months obsessing over something I discovered I didn’t know much about. Of course it didn’t stop me having plenty of conclusions but that’s for another post when I pluck up the courage. I gave the talk a week ago to a small audience who were perplexed that I didn’t mention morals or existentialism once.
This weekend I took a walk with my partner Steph in the landscape around Avebury. It’s not the first time we’ve been there. Living in Swindon I think we must have passed it or walked through it a hundred or more times. But this time, coming from the Kennett valley into view of Silbury Hill, that massive mound of earth and sweat, I couldn’t help thinking once again about what it all meant and coming to conclusions I’d never really allowed myself to before.
The Avebury landscape, as seen now, is a mass of earthworks and erected stones. It’s beautiful but a little eerie. Archaeologists have dug over it with little intensity for the last hundred or so years. They have found pots, of course, as well as a few bodies, an assortment of flints and quite a few postholes. They have also given rather vague dates (which I hope will be improved) of around 2600-2200BC ish. All of these lack the spark of interest that the burial of a golden king would evoke. But unfortunately, much that could rot has rotted in the mildly alkaline soils of the chalk downland.
All of this gives Avebury a weird feeling – something that doesn’t make sense to us now. When you find a complex of big buildings, such as a shopping centre, you expect evidence of the great mass of people who passed through it – if nothing else all their litter. You also expect a Taylor-Woodrow or a king to have organised the building program. Avebury’s landscape seems to lack all that. So people have tried to make sense of this weirdness.
Avebury story 1
The prevalent Avebury story is one of a small number of egalitarian, mythical ancient beings, on a higher religious plane from us. These strange and mysterious people carried out rites to control cosmic and earthly forces in this site of higher energy. They created a landscape of harmony with the Earth.
This idea is not new, I suppose. People have always looked for an Arcadian and better past. The only problem is who put in all the effort digging the ditches, stacking the mounds, moving and erecting the stones? Only the most extreme in their views would evoke the cosmic forces themselves to do the work.
Avebury story 2
Archaeologists are, of course, more rational in their outlook. Using the evidence of the pots, the bones and the stones they have evoked a slightly different world. Here was a strange and mysterious people. Theirs was a ritual landscape, one where people came to the area seasonally to worship whatever gods they had and to hold ceremonial feasts.
In this landscape they built great ritual enclosures from wood, then burnt them down in symbolic acts to do with life and death and rebirth. Their society was a form of chiefdom or ‘priestdom’, one with an unbroken tradition extending back to the Mesolithic and changed forever by the advent of the Bronze age.
Again, very nice, but who did all the work?
Avebury story 3 (mine)
The Avebury complex’s short peak on this Earth and its impressive monuments tell a simple story, repeated in many other centres throughout the world. Such monumental architecture, built over a short space of time, needs massive manpower to build. That manpower needs to have been highly organised, with division of labour to organise seasonal food supplies and food distribution. This is the basis for all civilisations around the world. In that respect Avebury is no exception. And that division of labour requires some form of wealth to initiate it.
What makes Avebury perhaps more interesting is that it was also a failure. This complex society never reached the crucial point of goods manufacture which turned such sites as Uruk in Mesopotamia or Erlitou in China into lasting civilisations. Why I don’t know.
How one chooses to read the past
The major argument against Avebury being a form of proto-civilisation is the lack of houses, the lack of burials of any kind, either wealthy or not, and the lack of fine art. In fact the buried evidence seems quite impoverished. Certainly their pots are not very exciting. I suspect that there’s much to be dug up and, preservation willing, more buildings still to be found. However, I don’t think it will necessarily improve the case.
But if we can’t see the large numbers of people that made the monuments of Avebury and we can’t see their wealth (whatever it was) that’s not because it wasn’t there. People’s methods of disposing of the dead vary from culture to culture. Likewise, sometimes they bury their wealth but often they recirculate it. Whatever, if archaeologists choose to interpret the huge wooden West Kennet enclosures just to the south of Avebury as being a ritual space and not an urban setting then I’m unlikely to persuade them of an alternative anyway.
Pollard, J. 2012 Living with Sacred Spaces: The Henge Monuments of Wessex, In: Enclosing the Neolithic: Recent studies in Britain and Europe (ed A. Gibson), pp93-107.