Looking at the map of prehistoric sites in Wales after our recent trip, where there are just so many to see, I wondered just how long it would take to visit them all. Derbyshire is the same. In fact, most of Britain is the same once you get outside the cities…
…except the place where I live. There is not a stone circle, dolmen or standing stone for miles. Granted, we have our fair share of historical landscapes and plenty of holy wells, but other than a handful of barrows and the odd hillfort, trackway and chalk carving of debatable age, there is not much to see of the prehistoric landscape.
What is found tends to be unearthed during the archaeological investigations made prior to building work… and subsequently re-interred where only future archaeologists will ever see it.
I was enormously excited to read of a massive prehistoric burial complex on the edge of Bicester, just fifteen miles from my home. Archaeologists investigated 134 trenches and found archaeological remains in 41 of them, including a Bronze Age axe head, an Iron Age settlement and hearth, plus later Roman and Saxon remains. If that wasn’t enough, the site was declared of national importance when the burials were found to be around 5,500 years old! The building developers had been slammed with an exclusion zone around the remains so that they would not be lost or damaged. The plans had to be altered… perfect. I was all ready to grab my camera and go!
Until I read further. The remains are now perfectly safe…and buried beneath a primary school playing field, with no trace of them showing above the surface…
It is undeniably frustrating. When our adventures were drawing such inspiration from the oldest churches, my area was the perfect environment for our forays. Very many ancient churches remain here, often no more than a mile or two apart. It has always been a relatively wealthy area and the churches have been well preserved. Wall paintings and carvings have survived, stained glass windows survive from medieval times… symbolism drips from the walls and we had a field day exploring their bounty.
It is not a tick-box affair, visiting these sites. When we visit a site we stay long enough to get a good feel for the place. It is almost always a first visit, not an only one. We tend to go back, sometimes very many times, and each time we look at the site with a different perspective born of an increasing familiarity and intimacy with its earth and stone. We had done the same with the churches, learning our way around them, little by little, missing much to begin with… until we learned what to look for. The same methods we use now in an older landscape.
On the odd occasion when we visit a place too far away to have any guarantee of being able to get back there once we have left the area, we take our time. Frequently, we return before we move on and, as at Bryn Celli Dhu last winter, the stones seem to respond, knowing the limitations of time and our desire to understand.
But what we learned edged us further and further back in time, into a more ancient landscape where the temples were roofed with stars. Following the trail, we were drawn into the ancestral past and began to learn how to work with the sites and stones of the old ones.
And I now live in an area where there are none.
I am working on that particular problem.
But, it occurred to me, driving home through the darkness with a full moon above, that before there were those sacred sites of worked stone and wood, we could go back even further, to a time when the sacrality of the earth itself led our ancestors both out onto the high places and deep into the caverns that are the womb of the earth. Only recently had Stuart and I felt the ‘invitation’ to go below ground seeking these sacred places. I had even suggested, just a few days earlier, that we needed to visit the site of some of Britain’s only surviving cave art dating back thirteen thousand years.
I flicked on the laptop to watch videos of the incredible paintings at Lascaux and Chauvet caves. The creatures of Lascaux were painted over seventeen thousand years ago, deep underground. They include a bird-man, thought to be a shamanic figure, and quite obviously both the paintings and the making of them held some kind of ritual significance that can only be called sacredness. The Chauvet caves date back thirty three thousand years…and they are so beautiful that even the video made me weep.
They put our five- or six-thousand year old remains in perspective, just as they had done for the thousand year old churches.
In one of those moments of lucidity, when what you have always known, what you have even spoken of with others, becomes so crystal clear that you kick yourself for blind imbecility, I understood… finally… that mankind’s concept of sacredness goes back even further than Chauvet. Not just because to reach that level of sophistication in art, they would have had to have been learning their skills for generations… even before that.
The dates on the earliest art made by humans keeps being pushed back ever further and art in itself is an attempt to capture something magical.
Yet, before ever paint was made from ochre and charcoal, the first Venus figurine shaped from clay or the first etchings made on bone. Before anyone spoke what was in their hearts, one human being looked upon the land and felt its life to be sacred, even though there were not yet words for what he felt.
Whatever temples we have built since then, from the mounds of earth to the pyramids, from the forests of stones to the starry roofed churches, we have echoed the forms of that very first sacred place… the earth.
It matters not at all that there are no prehistoric marvels near my home. I was born in a sacred space and my body will never know any other. All I have to do is step out of my back door and I am standing in a place as old as time and older than Man.