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…

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