The directions we gave to the other half of our party were simple. Follow the road until a line of barrows appear on the horizon. It is that simple. Once you leave Marlborough you are already within the atmosphere of Avebury somehow, but the barrows on the ridge seem to mark a crossing point into another time, another place…an Otherworld where tourists walk as ghosts upon a landscape older than memory.
Yet here, in this field atop Overton Hill, there is little left of what once stood through millennia. The wood is long gone, the stones removed, their purpose forgotten. John Aubrey first recorded the site in 1648 and stated that the local people called it The Sanctuary then. Only concrete posts mark the pattern that once stood here and we are indebted to the antiquarian William Stukeley for capturing so many of the sites in the area before they were lost to the hands of modern man. His engravings preserve much of what was here three hundred years ago. Stukeley posited the theory… or realisation… that the various sites in the area were part of a single, sacred landscape. A place of ritual and spiritual significance to our ancestors, akin to the great cathedral complexes of the Middle Ages.
To Stukeley, the Sanctuary, where we now stood, was the head of a serpent, whose body were the twin avenues that snake across the land. Many interpretations have been put forward since that date. The archaeological facts throw some light on the possibilities; cremations, bone fragments and other remains and artefacts have been found, but we may never know for certain exactly what purposes were served here, what gods or goddess was worshipped and what form that worship took.
Everyone, it seems, has a theory or two… from the energy lines to the resonance of stone, from the geometries and alignments, to the purely mundane…. and perhaps it is not a case of ‘either/or’, but of synthesising the essence of many, born of the questions shared by humanity since the dawn of time. Perhaps it does not matter whether we find something we can call ’the truth’. Perhaps it matters more that we seek it in our own hearts and minds and find the landscape waiting, like an empty cup, to be filled with realisation.
It is over five thousand years since the pattern of posts was first placed in the earth at the Sanctuary. Later, stones followed… perhaps a turf-roofed structure, perhaps a temple open to the stars… we do not know. Three concentric timber circles, then two of stone, some 130ft in diameter and large enough to contain the great circle of Stonehenge.
It seems almost criminal that, as we moved into what we like to believe is an age of enlightenment, so much that might have given us a glimpse of a more ancient time and wisdom has been destroyed. Yet the pattern remains. Accessible to archaeologists and their instrumentation, accessible too to the dowsers who trace the energies with pendulum and rod, and to those who feel the earth in their very bones.
For me, in spite of the stark concrete and paint, there remains an air of peaceful guardianship about the place. It is a place where life and death meet gently and with mutual respect. From here there is one of the few distant glimpses of the barrow at West Kennet and the seemingly tiny silhouette of Silbury Hill, far to the right. It is a strange fact that in what appears to be a relatively flat landscape, few parts of the site can be seen from one another… as if each must be revealed in turn to the eye and heart.
As we stood there on that damp Saturday morning, sharing ideas and theories, seeking to understand the values and minds of a culture so far removed from our own yet sharing the deepest roots of our humanity, I don’t think we were so far away from the old ones. They had, perhaps, a certainty in their vision that many lack today… their faith was rooted deep in the seasons of the land beneath their feet and looked to the stars that wheeled overhead in an ink-black sky, long before its light was dimmed by sulphur. They would, I think, have understood our wondering far less than they would have related to our wonder as we turned and watched the hovering kestrel that, with each tremor of its wings, seemed to part the veil of time for us as we entered the sacred landscape of Avebury.