Sunday, December 23, 2012

Prehistory: Avebury and Surroundings









It was the 31st of May, 2003. Hot and hazy; this mysterious date that is only just spring.

We abandoned my earlier thought of beginning the walk right here at Pewsey station. I had wanted to troll through this valley, which was strange to both of us, to walk a little on the towpath of the canal and to grow threads of inhabitation, like the byssustrådar of a mussel (I don’t know the English word) so that we could discover what contrasts lay in the ascent to the plateau. There just wasn’t time; Mirre, my sister, would eventually have to find a way back to Putney, me to Somerset. It meant another broken link, another loss of perspective, but there it was.  We drove the couple of miles up to the top of the Marlborough Downs (a tape of Joni Mitchell's Blue in the player) and parked near the Wansdyke.

Probably it just meant that we shared everyone else's perspective. It was a Saturday and there were plenty of people around. Sponsored walkers, joggers, and  a St John’s Ambulance man on point duty. He was clipping nettles away from the stile with what seemed to be scissors from a First Aid Kit.

The Wansdyke is a very long rampart that runs east-west across central southern England. It’s basically a raised mound with a ditch on the northern side. Here, the ditch attracted nettles and an abundant frost of silverweed. On top, the most eyecatching plants were vigorous masses of germander speedwell. (As often on flat downland, there were few distinctively chalkland plants, apart from the musk thistle Carduus nutans, its fierce armoury of spines defying grazing, like the nettle’s stinging hairs.)

Knowing nothing about the Wansdyke, except that it was very old, we speculated about its purpose. It seemed useless as a fortification (and would need an impossible number of people to man); it seemed grossly labour-intensive as a road (when a naturally beaten path would do quite as well, or better). Perhaps it was intended to mark a frontier, simplifying judgments about intrusion and whose laws were to be obeyed. Here, it was dramatically placed on the southern crest of the chalk, but to the west of us it ran straight across the low cheese country of West Wiltshire.

[It is, in fact, a defensive frontier, built to defend a Romano-British kingdom to the south, which is why the ditch is on the north side. You can find out about all this at an excellent site:
http://www.wansdyke21.org.uk/wansdykehomepage.htm]

What was the history of this walk, which began at the Wansdyke and criscrossed around Avebury? Could it be summed up by drawing lines on the map? This would disguise our perception that some parts of the walk were pre-planned, while other parts were spontaneous detours. But perhaps the history should include Paddington station, Millets, our emails and our jobs, the place we grew up?

Every year the cow parsley begins again from the ground. It springs up and flowers, noticeably fond of ancient earthworks. The froth of petals falls, the stems become tough and yellow, the fruits enlarge. It disintegrates into wintry kexes.

The cow parsley frothed on the sides of West Kennett Long Barrow. We were eating “Devon” cookies, manufactured under license in Malta. Perhaps the history of how I came to have these cookies was also relevant? Here’s the timed photograph that I tried to set up. The camera tipped as I pressed the button, so it only shows our feet.

Toughened glass panels have been let into the roof, so you can go into the burial chamber and see something – very rough niches. It dates from around 3500BCE, comfortably earlier than any word we know.* Who were they?

[*I made this statement because the earliest true writing system cuneiform dates from around 3200BCE. The earliest language whose forms are indisputably encoded is therefore Sumerian. But it's of course possible that the Avebury people, even this early, were speaking an early Celtic Brythonic language. So Aubrey Burl suggests - they may have called a river an Avon and the sun Hawl. This is basically to claim that none of the turmoiled history of the next 3,000 years, the dark ages, the violence, the supercession of eras characterized by different burial customs, pottery, cultural artefacts etc, involved fundamental linguistic change.] 

The long barrow has some connexion with Silbury Hill, with Avebury, and with Avebury’s predecessor, which is known as “The Sanctuary”. This last is the oldest (3000BCE) and perhaps the most potent. The stone circle was destroyed by a farmer in 1723 (an engraving of it survives). Today there are only concrete markers to show the position of holes in the ground that form a pattern of circles. It’s the most potent because you aren’t distracted by “remains”. You look around at the skyline and it’s quiet and sunny. You’re here. Here.

But all prehistoric sites are primarily what you can’t see, just empty forms and traces. There is nothing old about the horseshoe vetch that clusters on the south face of Silbury Hill. You aren’t allowed to walk on Silbury Hill (in principle, this is because of the recent collapse of a shaft) – but even if you could, you would only be walking on today.

In the car-park alongside Silbury Hill, my phone rang. Loudly I talked Alison through shutting down the Exchange server. “Choose ‘Shut Down’ – just like a PC. Do a cold boot if you can. The power-off button is on the front of it somewhere – it’s the one at the bottom of the rack.” I was half-conscious of people interrupting me; then I became aware that I was standing beside the information sheet for the Hill. And the information sheet is the bit that matters now – I was right at the heart of the shrine. Embarrassed, I asked her to call me back, but then I lost reception altogether when we started walking in the direction of Avebury, a well-known effect that some people have excitedly attributed to the monuments themselves.



Later we walked to Fyfield Down, crossing the splendid gallops belonging to the stud and dropping into a dry valley full of sarsen stones. The valley was yellow with bulbous buttercup. I don’t know if the dry valley was formed during a post-glacial period of high rainfall (see G.H. Dury, The Face of the Earth (1959), p. 33) or is due to a glacial period when frozen subsoil prevented the natural percolation of the chalk; the sarsen stones are the remnants of an Eocene cap of silicrete. This place, most likely, is where they collected the sarsens that were used to make the circle at Avebury. A hare ran over a rise in a weedkilled field, stopping dead once it no longer saw us; we could still see its ears, though. Lapwings went through their uneasy routine.

Nature has no ruins; everything, like the carcinogenic cells on the old slides (cf Adrienne Rich), is up to date.

In the very centre of the Sanctuary, someone had laid two florists’ carnations crosswise, and added, by way of sacrifice, some segments of a picnic orange. It seemed to me that the immense durations of the Avebury culture (Avebury itself dates from about 2600BCE) persisted unbroken in that fragile gesture of consent.

We walked back along a track marked on the map as the Ridgeway. Mirre wondered if she’d ever ride horses again. Her boots were rubbing, they were too small. She was in training for Macchu Picchu. I knew the Ridgeway was a long track, because I’d once walked on it in Oxfordshire. I didn’t know that it was probably even older than the Avebury culture.

We now inhabit the vales. In those days they were impassable, an immense sea of tangled trees, thicket and undrained swamp that without interference had rioted and rotted since the melting away of the last Ice Age. Bronze Age existence was lived out on higher ground. While the relics of later phases of history are engulfed by our own, some marks of these most ancient ones stand clear. The more so since the vanishing of rural labour.

Salisbury Plain and the Marlborough Downs are now among the emptiest bits of southern England. H. J Fleure (A Natural History of Main in Britain) argued they were to Bronze Age England what London is to England today. It's hard to quite believe, despite the evident importance of the Ridgeway. Why so far from the coast? There are, of course, a lot of things about these monuments that are hard to believe. For example the labour that built Silbury, or the moving of the sarsens from the Marlborough Downs to Stonehenge.*

 [*But  I accept the view of Burl and others that the Stonehenge bluestones were the pick of a random litter of glacial erratics found nearby, i.e. no-one miraculously transported them from Pembrokeshire or from any other remote place. A pity. I  like to imagine a crack gang of Neolithic slaves portaging the bluestones over the Lower Greensand ridge between the rivers Frome and Wylye.]

At the solstice it is usual to ban car-parking within a few miles of Avebury, in order to secure the few residents from all but the most dedicated pagans.

Having misread the timetable, we ended up with an hour to drink bitter-shandy in a pub at Pewsey (“Under New Management”). It was Saturday evening, packed and friendly.

*

These vague forms on the land are now indissolubly connected with the idea of leisure. They are, for example, a recurring theme of Andrew Young’s A Prospect of Britain (1956), a book that is now troubling to read – one can’t help meditating on how the author utterly avoids the prospect of any Britain in which people actually live, then or now. When we read, in a characteristic sentence, “You may feel that you belong to it more than the residents in the ugly surrounding villas”, it is like reading the rules on the lid of an old Spears board-game that we baulk at playing. But that’s as readers. Then, at the week-end, we go for a middle-class walk and “may feel” that we have turned into Andrew Young.

Prehistoric remains are after all comfortable. They are blatantly surrounded by “don’t knows” (what was the function of Silbury Hill?), and that makes us feel less inadequate. And they are extremely minimal – there is no overwhelming volume of specialist detail to absorb. So we can pretend to be scholars, taxed with the glamorous and easily-conceived problems that are invented for them by a middlebrow novelist.

Despite, or perhaps because, Bronze Age Avebury cannot be seen, its hyper-real dimension flourishes. I am in a newsagent in Bath, which is a local town for me. “My” Bath is a complex network of significant locations; a Chinese Necklace Poplar in the Botanical Gardens, the Riverside Café, two Oxfam shops, an unoccupied house with a gloomy garden of dizzying cypresses, a fleamarket in Walcot Street, a large hospital and so on. I am buying a book of stamps, and have turned round to leave when I see the postcards. STONEHENGE, AVEBURY, SILBURY HILL, THE ROMAN BATHS. The place where I live is transformed and, at first, I think, falsified. I have indeed read that Bath is the oldest continuously inhabited place in Britain. But for us who live like lichens on a sarsen stone these looming ancientnesses have no great prominence. Temporarily I am converted into thinking that the tourist’s visit to the west country is actually a tour into a deeper reality, un-beset by contingency.

(2003, 2012)

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