One of our mounds is missing!…

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Silbury Hill

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The plan was to base our inaugural public ‘solstice’ event at Avebury and thus it seemed natural to book a room at the Public House which is situated in the centre of the Stone Circle…
Only, The Red Lion no longer provides B&B so we ended up instead at a hotel some ten miles away in Ogbourne St George.
Now, Ogbourne St George is a curious name and one redolent of both mystery and intrigue, and given our literary proclivities, we thought it might be possible to find something of interest in the village to occupy our Companions for at least one of our allotted slots over the weekend.
We had stayed in Ogbourne… before and had a visual memory of a strange mound-like structure in one of the fields lying adjacent to the hotel and had pinned to it an accompanying mental note which ran, ‘…must have a closer look at some point.’
A little research in the form of flick through the ley-line dowsers’ classic, The Sun and the Serpent by Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst, confirmed both the visual memory and our hunch that the structure would hold some interest for us.
It was not a prehistoric construction at all but a ‘folly’ built sometime during the Second World War by a local farmer but somewhat amazingly it had, according to our venerable authors, been constructed over a node which marked the crossing of the Michael and Mary currents.
This, it seemed to us, was very curious…
The mound now looked like nothing so much as an overgrown hillock with its spiral causeway, rising twenty feet in height, all but obliterated by trees, bushes, and shrubs and there was a picture of it in the aforementioned tome which approximated with the mental image which had been stored in my mind for future reference all those years ago.
It was in this respect reminiscent of another of the mounds we planned to visit over the weekend.
The now slightly more famous, but equally tree-infested Merlin’s Mound stands in the middle of the private grounds of Marlborough College beset by houses of learning and no doubt deliberately dwarfed by both the sheer bulk and the lofty spires of the College Chapel.
This mound is a prehistoric structure and has recently been given a date of construction commensurate with Silbury.
As we had been unsuccessful in our request to the authorities concerned to climb the mound and as the third of our mounds, the aforementioned and world-famous Silbury Hill is now fenced off and no longer accessible to the public we were hoping that our unobtrusive poor relation in Ogbourne St George would afford our Companions the chance to scale its relatively modest sides and experience the dual currents of the Michael and Mary leys.
In this, though we were destined to be disappointed…

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Merlins Mound

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Out of time – a human story

avebury_reconstruction
CGI reconstruction of Avebury Henge, from ‘Standing with Stones’, by Rupert Soskin and Michael Bott

In 1939 a sculpture was found in Stadel-Höhle im Hohlenstein. Carved of mammoth ivory, the Löwenmensch, as the lion-headed anthropomorphic sculpture became known, was determined to be some 40,000 years old and is one of the oldest known examples of figurative art in the world. It is surprisingly sophisticated and, at first glance, could easily be mistaken for an artefact of the ancient Egyptian culture some 35,000 years later. The fusion of human and animal would imply a level of thought beyond the mundane… perhaps some magic to ensure a good hunt as the usual explanation would suggest, perhaps a desire to endure the strength of the lion for the hunter… we cannot know. What is clear that already our ancestors were looking at a reality beyond the purely physical realms… reality where such magic was possible, or where perhaps they had the intimation of a divinity behind the forces of nature.

The caves where the figurine was found also yielded other carvings, some thousands of years older still, along with evidence of instrumental music. Hardly what we generally expect from our idea of ‘cave men’. The cave paintings of Lascaux date back some 17,300 years. The swimming reindeer carving from Bruniquel is 13,000 years old. Our ancestors were evolving a more and more complex culture, with an obvious appreciation of art.

The Löwenmensch
The Löwenmensch. Image Wikipedia

Art is a luxury in many ways. It can only be created when there is no desperate struggle for survival. Its very existence at this far off time implies a certain amount of stability and ‘civilisation’. Its vision and complexity implies thought and creativity…and that was flourishing. From the simple napped flints of 50,000 years ago to more complex and purpose-designed tools like fish hooks and needles, the technological advances were spreading widely through cultural groups across Europe, Africa and Asia.

Nine thousand years ago the land mass known as Doggerland still connected Britain to the rest of continental Europe. It is from this time that the earliest traces of human activity have been found at Avebury. It was not until much later still, a mere 4,600 years ago that the great stone circle within its henge was constructed, contemporaneously with the pyramids of Egypt.

It is astonishing that some still look upon the great monument as no more than a stock enclosure or defensive structure. Most, however, look at the wider landscape and see the enormous undertaking as a Temple complex. The circle of Avebury does not stand alone. The Avenues, the Sanctuary and the vast mound of Silbury Hill are all too close to each other to ignore… and that is without the incredible number of round barrows, the beauty of West Kennet and the other long barrows, or the fragmented circles that dot the landscape, many lost over the centuries to farming.

From the caves of Lascaux
From the caves of Lascaux. Image Wikipedia

Merlin’s Mound is a mere six miles away, Marden henge, another huge bank and lost circle, just ten miles southwards, and Stonehenge ten miles south of Marden. It seems inconceivable that the three should not be linked to the same purpose.

My personal opinion, and that of many, is that our ancestors knew more than we give them credit for. If it is acceptable that Egypt could align pyramids with the stars and build fabulous temples, creating a beauty and a body of knowledge that has been preserved through five thousand years, how can we not credit the builders of these circles with as much sophistication?

Much of what we know of Egyptian culture only became accessible after the finding of the Rosetta Stone that allowed the decoding of the hieroglyphs. The builders of the stone circles left us nothing so simple as a written language to decode… they left us stone and earth, art and geometry. Theories spring up daily about intent and purpose, alignments are discovered… and dismissed… from the convincing to the ridiculous. There is a fascination that leads us to question and wonder… and perhaps we will never know the answers.

Perhaps we do not need facts carved in stone to begin to understand these sites, at least at a very human level. Whether or not we can interpret these immense landscapes, we can at least tread them with a shared reverence for the earth. The questions that echo in our own hearts, the search for understanding in our minds may not be so far removed from those behind the building of these temples. Life and death, purpose human and divine, the nature of being itself… I do not think the quest for understanding is exclusively the preserve of our modern society, but a human and global one. For those who walk within the stones of Avebury, as we did for the Mountains of the Sun weekend, there is a sense of connection that does not span time, but transcends it, and snakes, like the stones of the Avenues, across the face of our shared and continuing story.

Avebury, the Avenue. Image S. Vincent
Avebury, the Avenue. Image S. Vincent