There is something about the south-western quadrant of Avebury’s great circle of stones that feels different. It has a secluded feel, as if it is set apart from the rest. Perhaps it is the relative position of the roads and the lack of intrusion by the village that has grown up within the stones… perhaps the high, sheltering embankment that seems to shield it from the outside world. Whatever the cause… and we have the odd theory beginning to formulate, this little section feels quite different. Calmer… more withdrawn from the continual footsteps of its visitors.
I had, for some reason, never fully walked the length of this segment before. There is nothing else to see within the field except the henge and circle; no enigmatic features lie within the curve, so the stones themselves have all your attention. Not that it would be anywhere else with such forms and faces looking back at you and the distant glimpse of Silbury through the trees.
The line of stones is incomplete. Missing monoliths, felled and used as building material elsewhere in the village, are marked with concrete posts. Yet there is an odd feeling of completeness. The steep bank of the henge merely suggests its former height and depth, both found to be far greater when excavated than what remains. It must have been an awe inspiring sight, four and a half thousand years ago, when from ditch to summit the bank stood some 55 feet high. It is thought the henge may have been used by those who came to watch the rites within the circle, much as we are seated at a stadium today. If so, then looking at the stones we wonder if the outer faces and inner were placed deliberately so that the priesthood saw the inner spirit of the stones and the uninitiated masses the outer.
For all the stones have a character of their own. Some seem to be great heads, other forms frozen in dance and movement. Some have many faces… others but one, as clear as if deliberately sculpted. It is undoubtedly a talent of the human mind to find faces and forms in random shapes and patterns, but if we can see them today, divorced as we are from the life of the earth, how much more evident and meaningful must they have been to those for whom the land was alive and sacred? What we can see, they could have used in making their sacred places.
There is a darker tale associated with one of the stones, however. Centuries ago many of the stones were thrown down. Some were buried, others broken. During the excavations in the 1930s by Alexander Keiller, the skeleton of a man was discovered. Not one of the circle builders… he was found with the scissors and probe of a barber-surgeon and coins that dated him to the 14thC. It was long assumed that the stone had fallen on him when it had been toppled. Later forensic investigation, however, suggests he may have been dead before being placed beneath the stone. He was not to rest in peace; the bones were taken to London and were thought to have perished in the bombings of the Blitz. It wasn’t until 1998 that the skeleton was once more found in the Natural History Museum.
We had lingered as long as we could, but we still had a long way to go. By this time it was well into the afternoon and the weekend workshop required our presence the following afternoon. Even on the motorways it would be the best part of a five hour drive. Were we likely to use the motorways? Not on your Nelly! So off we went to the Henge Shop to get the bits we needed for the April workshop, then we headed back to the car.
Except, we got sidetracked, just a little and went to have a look at the chapel that backs onto the southeastern quadrant. Built largely of the sarsen stones, we expected a lovely, peaceful place. What we found was locked and a glimpse through the windows was disappointingly functional. The birds seemed to like it though… and we got some final shots of the entrance and the strange ‘z’ feature from the little garden behind the chapel.
We couldn’t afford to linger much more, though, and finally made it back to the road that cuts through the circle. We were, finally, heading north. We needed to get on and find a hotel for the night somewhere. Except… “Oooh, what’s that….?” And suddenly, we were heading east again…