We were, had the world not closed ranks against the pandemic, supposed to have been running a workshop at Avebury this summer, looking at some of the less obvious sites and addressing some of the deeper questions posed by the presence within our landscape of such a remarkable ancient site. One of the questions we might have asked is why, given all the evidence to the contrary, society in general still persists in seeing our ancestors as uncultured and brutish when we have been aware, for a very long time, that this is not so.
In 1939 a sculpture was found in Stadel-Höhle im Hohlenstein. Carved of mammoth ivory, the Löwenmensch, as the lion-headed anthropomorphic sculpture became known, was determined to be some 40,000 years old and is one of the oldest known examples of figurative art in the world. It is surprisingly sophisticated and, at first glance, could easily be mistaken for an artefact of the ancient Egyptian culture some 35,000 years later. The fusion of human and animal would imply a level of thought beyond the mundane… perhaps some magic to ensure a good hunt as the usual explanation would suggest, perhaps a desire to ensure the strength of the lion for the hunter… we cannot be certain. What is clear is that already our ancestors were looking at a reality beyond the purely physical realms… a reality where such magic was possible, or where perhaps they had the intimation of a divinity behind the forces of nature.
The caves where the figurine was found also yielded other carvings, some thousands of years older still, along with evidence of instrumental music. Hardly what we generally expect from our idea of ‘cave men’. The cave paintings of Lascaux, in France, date back some 17,300 years. The swimming reindeer carving from Bruniquel is 13,000 years old. Our ancestors were evolving a more and more complex culture, with an obvious appreciation of art.
Art is a luxury in many ways. It can only be created when there is no desperate struggle for survival. Its very existence at this far off time implies a certain amount of stability and ‘civilisation’. Its vision and complexity implies thought and creativity… and that was flourishing. From the simple napped flints of 50,000 years ago to more complex and purpose-designed tools like fish hooks and needles, the technological advances were spreading widely through cultural groups across Europe, Africa and Asia.
Nine thousand years ago the landmass now known as Doggerland still connected Britain to the rest of continental Europe. It is from this time that the earliest traces of human activity have been found at Avebury. It was not until much later still, a mere 4,600 years ago that the great stone circle within its henge was constructed, contemporaneously with the pyramids of Egypt.
It is astonishing that some still look upon the great monument as no more than a stock enclosure or defensive structure. Most, however, look at the wider landscape and see the enormous undertaking as a Temple complex. The circle of Avebury does not stand alone. The Avenues, the Sanctuary and the vast mound of Silbury Hill are all too close to each other to ignore… and that is without the incredible number of round barrows, the beauty of West Kennet and the other long barrows, or the fragmented circles that dot the landscape, many lost over the centuries to farming.
Merlin’s Mound is a mere six miles away, Marden Henge, another huge bank and lost circle, just ten miles southwards, and Stonehenge ten miles south of Marden. It seems inconceivable that the three should not be linked to the same purpose.
My personal opinion, and that of many, is that our ancestors knew more than we give them credit for. If it is acceptable that Egypt could align pyramids with the stars and build fabulous temples, creating a beauty and a body of knowledge that has been preserved through five thousand years, how can we not credit the builders of these circles with as much sophistication?
Much of what we know of Egyptian culture only became accessible after the finding of the Rosetta Stone that allowed the decoding of the hieroglyphs. The builders of the stone circles left us nothing so simple as a written language to decode… they left us stone and earth, art and geometry. Theories spring up daily about intent and purpose, alignments are discovered… and dismissed… from the convincing to the ridiculous. There is a fascination that leads us to question and wonder… and perhaps we will never know all the answers.
Perhaps we do not need facts carved in stone to begin to understand these sites, at least at a very human level. Whether or not we can interpret these immense landscapes, we can at least tread them with a shared reverence for the earth. The questions that echo in our own hearts, the search for understanding in our minds may not be so far removed from those behind the building of these temples. Life and death, purpose human and divine, the nature of being itself… I do not think the quest for understanding is exclusively the preserve of our modern society, but is rather a human and global one. For those who walk within the stones of Avebury, as we did for the Mountains of the Sun weekend, there is a sense of connection that does not span time, but transcends it, and snakes, like the stones of the Avenues, across the face of our shared and continuing story.