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Prehistoric Avebury

by Aubrey Burl
Yale University Press, 275 pp., $19.95

Writing this review in France engenders some thought about English and French attitudes toward antiquity. If Avebury or Stonehenge had been French—had they stood in France (outside Brittany)—I suspect that a past tense would be entirely appropriate to them. They would have been pulled down (though Stonehenge might have been useful for multiple hanging in the Wars of Religion). In Saumur I go down one of the streets to drink beer or white wine inside a dolmen which was too enormous to destroy. There are other dolmens which shelter farm implements or which serve, or have served till lately, as baker’s ovens. Many more have disappeared because they were in the way, or because they interrupted, or contradicted the normal. One might say that the French care too little for the past, their English neighbors care too much for it; that the French value things of the past only if they are gothic and grand, and very evidently French or Gallo-Roman, redounding to French glory; that on the whole ruins don’t go with the French sense of what Sydney Smith once called “the aujourd’hui” of life, which he preferred so much to his wife’s gusto for seeing “where Sigbert the Fat slew Fiddlefid the Bold.”

It is true that seeing the field of the fatal combat between Sigbert and Fiddlefid cannot much have enhanced Mrs. Smith’s historical sense, if she had one. It is true, per contra, that you can actually see the great stones, squat or slim, of Avebury and Stonehenge, you can touch them, yet even so civilized and modest an archaeological book as Aubrey Burl’s Prehistoric Avebury does make one ask if there isn’t something vital in the French attitude (which is changing, rather late—and regrettably?) and if in the interests of the aujourd’hui (and the demain, so far as we can prepare for it, or prepare it for ourselves) we are not suffering from too much pseudoscience in prehistoric archaeology, and in our attitudes to the irretrievable past.

The hard or visible facts of Avebury are simple. On a dry plain west of London, or rather in a slight hollow among ancient rolling grasslands on the chalk, a now gapped circle or approximate circle of stones encloses a small acreage, the enclosure and the stones being themselves enclosed with a deep ditch and a correspondingly high rampart. Stonehenge on a more naked surface, only twenty-two or twenty-three miles away, was reputed medievally as one of the Wonders of Britain. Its raison d’être came to be variously and often dottily interpreted, though by the end of the eighteenth century a consensus, uncritical yet plausible for the time, associated it with the British and their Druidical priesthood. The stones, according to earlier fancy, had been magically transported from Wales by the skill of Merlin. Imagine then the shiver of emotion when it was discovered that some of the stones arranged with such regularity, stones of a circle within the main circle of Stonehenge, were not local, but of a kind occurring only in Wales, in the Preseli Mountains, in Pembrokeshire, 200 miles away.

Much was heard of this. Folk memory was invoked, the British Broadcasting Corporation, having taken rather late to well-informed popular archaeology, hurried to make trials (under TV camera) with the sea transport, the river transport, and the land transport of such considerable stone legs or pegs, such, by weight and bulk, as had made the supposed journey from Pembrokeshire to Wiltshire.

Rather less was heard of the later skepticism of revisers of the Geological Survey, who talked (convincingly, I think) of such stones having made a less ad hoc journey to the Stonehenge neighborhood on the back of the ice-flow of a once largely glaciated England and Wales. Merlin, anyhow, has been dropped.

The odd thing is that the more extensive, if seemingly cruder and less regular, complex of Avebury had gone unnoticed—at least with wonder—until the seventeenth century. John Aubrey, of Brief Lives and the restlessly inquiring mind, came on the ivied or fallen stones and what was left of rampart and ditch, when he was out hunting one day in the winter of 1649. He had never heard of the Avebury stones, and he was a Wiltshireman, born and reared only a few miles away. Fourteen years later he showed them to Charles II when the king was on his way to Bath. So the fame of Avebury began.

The Druidical infection—every vacuum must be filled for comfort—spread at once from Stonehenge to Avebury. In brief, just as Stonehenge was a temple of the Druids, sickle and mistletoe in hand, so was Avebury (though other explanations were advanced—that it was a temple of the Romans, a planetarium, an amphitheater, and so on); and a temple it remains (if not of the Druids, who were Celtic latecomers).

It is protected by the Ministry of the Environment. It has been face-lifted through the concern and generosity of a marmalade manufacturer, with the best archaeological supervision. The great ditch has been cleared to its depth, fallen stones have been re-erected. Everything about Avebury is “explained” by a charming little museum, set in the stable (outside the stones, the ditch, and the rampart) of the Jacobean manor house, alongside the Saxon church and the manorial pigeon house.

At present Avebury has something of an edge on Stonehenge. At Stonehenge it is hard now to experience, in our time of incessant, scarcely even seasonal, tourism, that old sense of enigma and solitude, which so affected Blake and Wordsworth and Coventry Patmore (The Angel in the House) and Thomas Hardy (in Tess) and Henry James (in English Hours). Crowds at Stonehenge are turnstiled, given a snack bar and a concrete piss-house (the mot juste—or should it be called a cespasienne, or a druidienne?), admitted by an under-road tunnel, and then allowed only to encircle the circles (not touch them any more) on a broad mat of artificial grass.

Avebury, still much less frequented, has been slowly acquiring a power of extra enchantment. It looks the part, but I am not sure that the part does not deserve to be called just a little ridiculous. For Avebury, as for Stonehenge, it is perhaps fairer to say that the basic word has changed from “temple” to “ritual center”; or it is “temple” for the many, and “ritual center” for the archaeologists. The two descriptions may not be quite synonymous; and I remember how the late Gordon Childe, who liked to apply common sense to archaeological mystery, used to complain that archaeologists always say “ritual” when they are stumped about the nature and purpose of some prehistoric monument.

Aubrey Burl is too much of a templeman or a ritualist. I wish he wasn’t, because he writes with skill and charm, and maintains, which is a hard thing to do, some three hundred pages of interest and entertainment about a monument which is only plain and rough stones and ditch and rampart and green grass and situation. He is well read in more than archaeology—out come the quotations, from Shelley, from Byron (very apt),

The Druid’s groves are gone—so much the better:
Stone-henge is not—but what the devil is it?

from Keats,

a dismal cirque

Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor,
When the chill rain begins at shut of eve,
In dull November, and their chan- cel vault,
The Heaven itself, is blinded throughout night.

Aubrey Burl can refer with even temper to the looniest kinds of mysticism, which are larded nowadays with unexplained and perhaps inexplicable antiquity. But—he is still a ritualist; he still descends, like every other archaeologist of henges and Stonehenge and Avebury, from that batty cleric William Stukeley, who after John Aubrey’s day saw in Avebury a carefully constructed symbolic shape of egg and serpent which foretold Christianity. All he does is stand nearer to rationality, in that vague word “ritual.” Who made the world? God. Who is God?—etc.

In his vocabulary Aubrey Burl does have some room for the undogmatic, even for that saving or half-saving vocable perhaps. Yet he is the Master of “Was”—Avebury was this, Avebury was that. A temple of the religion of fertility? Of course. Of course the Neolithic herdsmen of the Wiltshire Downs lived by their sheep, their cattle, their pigs, and so “Death and regeneration are the themes of Avebury.” “The natives”—a name Aubrey Burl often gives to the third millennium builders or frequenters of Avebury—did this, did that or the other thing. They danced (dancing was what the enclosed space was for), they banged their drums. “The drum beats and the dances were no more than a warm breath on the window of Time”—nice figure, but don’t look into it too closely—“They have gone but we can be sure they existed.”

Don’t ask how we can be sure, and on what decisive evidence, because you won’t be, you can’t be, told.

It is this was, and not always the may of archaeology, that we have to reject frequently or at least criticize, even now when archaeological methods are more severely disciplined. If methods change, if the scientific supervenes, mood often shifts only with reluctance, only appears to shift, in step. Avebury, like Stonehenge, is “mysterious.” Avebury goes back so far beyond memory or record, Avebury is big and cannot have been “built” all at once. The digging and the elevation of Avebury required considerable manpower (though see what Mao’s Chinese have managed with buckets and spades), in a society which excavation has shown to have been materially and mechanically ill-equipped. So the mystery must be religious. What else?

At this point laymen should be asking sensible questions once more. For instance, do peoples in such a stage pay all that fairly grand attention to whatever gods they revere, for whatever vital purposes? Isn’t the evidence round the world that they incline to be rather mean to their deities, and more considerate of themselves? Why, in a land so small as Great Britain, should a small population have been so god-be-sotted as to require, from the Scotch isles to the southwestern moors, so many “henges,” so many “temples” (or calendrical or astronomical calculators, etc.) more or less of the forms of Avebury and Stonehenge? Does the evidence of excavation and does analogy rule out more ordinary explanations?

What about cattle, which must have been wealth and power as well as food? And central kraals, even capitals?

Is it impossible and implausible that the stone uprights were infilled with timber for fencing, or in the case of smaller circles (such as the two inside the great circle of Avebury) for the walling of what we are pleased to call huts (a word which goes with “natives”)?

Community, wealth, sustenance, selling, buying, exchanging—and religion, are all socially interwoven. A medieval castle will have its chapel: how odd it would be to interpret the whole of the castle complex in terms of worship. So isn’t the balance likely to be wrong when “temple” is dumped in so broad a way on to Avebury?

Aubrey Burl hedges and hedges on the matter rather more—and this includes rather more sensibly—than some. “Avebury itself was built by people driven by megalomania to create a colossal center where their leaders lived and which would be used by everyone for their communal ceremonies. It was the focus of their private world.” I am not so sure about “megalomania” or “colossal”: you need space and strength for heaving, jostling cattle, and for sheep and pigs, if you have to enclose a great number of them every so often. And as for being “the focus of their private world,” why not the focus of their public world?

All the same this does improve—just a scrap—on “temple.”

Avebury became almost a metropolitan centre to which people came from miles around to trade, to settle disputes and to worship in marvellous stone rings that expressed the barbaric pride of the natives.

Marvellous”—mystery is in again; of which seepage I must give one more impressive sample. From the Avebury enclosure one or possibly two stonefenced tracks led northward toward the little river Kennet, which dries up nearer the circle, where it is only a winter stream. In his mad fancy Stukeley in the eighteenth century united these tracks and made them out to be his Avebury serpent, symbolizing the son of God emerging from the Trinity egg, which was Avebury itself. Aubrey Burl assents to the usual in saying that the Kennet Avenue so-called (the one of which there are still remnants) “was”—that was again—“surely a processional way” (“surely” does indicate a minimum of uncertainty). Then he comments that other stone circles were connected with water by stone avenues.

Why? Don’t cattle need water, and plenty of it? Doesn’t common sense at least suggest cattle in the Avebury enclosure or fairground—cattle at seasonal fairs, which needed to be driven to and from the nearest adequate flow of water? And doesn’t common sense suggest that the avenue stones, again, were no more than the uprights infilled with timber to keep the press of beasts in control, on their winding track to the springs?

But listen:

The Kennet Avenue passed very close to the headwaters of the present river. Water being so vital to life it has been an essential part of many religions, although, like dancing or prayer, it leaves nothing for the archaeologist to find and its use can only be inferred.

So much for watering the cows—for at least a sane possibility which goes unmentioned, let alone refuted.

This is an enjoyable book, yes; splendidly illustrated. But it does prompt reflections on the study of the prehistoric past, as conducted or at least as now written up. Its popularity is alarming, and I begin to see in it one of our new ways of bypassing that aujourd’hui of life, or bypassing the arts of the aujourd’hui which is the only life we know or shall ever know. There is bad speculation, mad speculation, and of course viable and desirable speculation. In Aubrey Burl’s chapters I find the three oddly mixed; it is as if he could not wriggle out of the tatters of an old chasuble, or surplice. Like Hefner the Ineffable creating a brownbodied, bulb-breasted, richly pubic-haired never-never land of willing sex in every number of Playboy, or space fictioneers driving their slimy shiny vehicles across the immense vacuity of their own minds, I see archaeology of various kinds, as it becomes more and more popular, creating a deceptive time-fiction, a tricky pretense of recovered actuality. A drug, and not a stimulant of the imagination. And I like to remember that driving up to Stonehenge prompted Henry James to talk of the “pathless vaults” below history. A trouble is that the paths can be faked, virtuously.

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