Picnic of the Giants

Another sacred landscape, even more powerful and complex than Stone-henge, can be found just a few dozen kilometers to the north.

Imagine a family of giants having a picnic. The parents polish off the wine and then have a nap while the children play in the meadow. The children make two circles with pebbles, and then a third circle around both. They dig a little moat around the pebbles and then fill it with water. They model mounds and bridges, they scratch roads and channels into the ground. At sundown, the family goes home and the traces of the children's games remain.

This is the impression you get when visiting Avebury, one of the most complex monuments erected by any megalithic civilization, anywhere. Avebury is an enormous ring mound 400 meters in diameter with the customary corresponding internal ditch, impressively deep here (I will resist the temptation to urge you to stop and think about how many meters 400 are, or how many tens of thousands of tons of earth were moved to do this). Inside is a circle of preposterously large megaliths; I say "circle," but the stones are not disposed along a true circumference (that would be too easy), but rather on a geometric figure obtained by superimposing the arcs of several circles. Inside are two smaller rings of megaliths, each about 100 meters in diameter. Various other giant stones are distributed here and there, and there were two double rows of standing stones conducting away from the structure, making for a total of about 600 megaliths. One of these rows, called West Kennet Avenue, was originally 2.5 kilometers long and connected Avebury with a smaller stone circle known as the Sanctuary.

Figure 2.6: Avebury in a reconstruction of the 19 century
Figure 2.7: One of Avebury's megaliths. Do you see a human profile on the right, on the left, or on both sides?

The date of Avebury is more or less the same as the first phase of stone construction at Stonehenge, around 2800 to 2700 BC. You get a different feeling at Avebury, though. There is an intimacy with the monoliths, and what's more, there is a living, functioning, modern-day village inside the outermost circle, the construction of which unfortunately involved the removal of a number of stones—all of which makes it more immediate. A popular game there consists of finding human faces and profiles on the stones, with "game" being the operative word. While no one will deny that some of the configurations of bumps and fissures and pores thus ""discovered'' are interesting, that is a far cry from assuming they were created deliberately. Nevertheless, the stones here seem to have lives and histories of their own, like the "Barber Stone,'' which fell in the 14th century upon a man, probably during an ill-conceived attempt to remove it, killing him. The body, exhumed in modern times, turned out to be that of a barber, accompanied as it was by scissors and a razor, the signature tools of the trade.

Looking south from Avebury, one's eye is drawn to a hill—a strange hill, disturbingly regular, similar to one of those monovalves that cling to ships' hulls and coastal rocks, a great big barnacle. It is Silbury Hill, which is not, of course, a hill at all. It is a man-made structure, the largest of its kind in Europe, 40 meters high (equivalent to an 11-story building) and 160 meters wide. To build it, not less than 300,000 cubic meters of material were displaced. I say "material" because I want to distinguish it from mere "earth," for it is a mistake to think of Silbury as a pile of dirt.

An object as massive as Silbury, had it been conceived as an accumulation of soil, would not have stayed there very long. After a while it would have begun to erode, to wash and wear away, such that within a few hundred years it would not have been much more than an amorphous lump.

Yet there Silbury stands, intact, as if it had been built last week, wearing its minimum of 4300 years remarkably well. It would be more appropriate to call Silbury a pyramid rather than a hill, because when it was built it would have been as resplendent as the pyramids of Giza, similarly faced in limestone cladding. To ensure its stability, its builders made stone foundations and a core of alternating layers of impermeable mud. They almost certainly proceeded in an upward spiral rather than using the

Figure 2.8: Silbury Hill

method of stepped terraces, as was thought up until recently. In any case, no one knows why this object, unique in all the world, was built. One thing is for sure: Silbury is not a tumulus—that is, it was not built for funerary purposes (or, should I say, no tombs have ever been found there).

Not far from Silbury, however, is West Kennet, a large chamber tomb. West Kennet is extremely ancient, built around 3700 BC, and consists of an oblong corridor built with huge sarsens and then covered with earth. The corridor ends in a system of three chambers, one central and two lateral, which were used over a long period of time, as the many remains found there attest.

Avebury is thus the center of an extremely complex sacred landscape constructed over the course of the centuries. Because it is composed of separate and distinct monuments that nonetheless are clearly harmonized between them, there is the strong suspicion that the whole thing was developed according to an overarching design. This suspicion was first voiced in the 18th century by the antiquarian William Stukeley, who proposed that the complex seen from above represents an enormous serpent coiled on a ring. Despite the fact that this image probably has nothing to do with the aforementioned overarching design, it is right to credit Stukeley with the originality of his idea to interpret an ancient sacred landscape as a monumental replica of an image—an argument that, as we'll see, is central to this entire book.

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