South of the River Kennet, something remarkable is being unearthed in a non-descript field. Although we’ve had a classroom introduction, and I’ve dutifully undertaken a little research, it all seems relatively meaningless once we come into contact with the archaeologists engaged on this dig who bring ancient history alive. The answers to our questions only serve to deepen a new mystery in this enigmatic landscape.
I’ll try to place this field within its geographical, topographical and multi-layered historical context. Journeying down yet another apparently insignificant lane that runs from the A4, a little way before that dangerous lay-by where folk wanting to walk to the long barrow stop, Andy crosses the river and parks the mini-bus whereupon we all tumble out. Silbury Hill, which we can easily see, is less than a kilometre to the east; and Silbury is 1.5 kilometres south of Avebury and the same distance again from Windmill Hill. The ancient world is seemingly aligned. The Sanctuary is 700 metres to the east and the ceremonial, sarsen-lined avenue that links it with the Avebury henge passes by to the north. We’re talking Neolithic and Bronze Age by the way. Literally, ‘by the way’: the way along which folk processed. And we also have the West Kennet and East Kennet long barrows in close proximity. Whittle, who briefly investigated this site in the late 1980s, noted that, given all the monuments to hand, it was remarkable that the presence of so much strange and important archaeology in this field went unnoticed until 1987. Ironically, however, our field is, at some points, outside the current designated boundary of the World Heritage site of Avebury (and Stonehenge). They may have to re-think the frontiers.
So, what is here? In 2000, aerial photographs unexpectedly revealed previously unrecognised cropmark features associated with Late Neolithic (4500 BCE) palisaded enclosures. I can feel myself getting too technical. Basically, within our windy field, something strange to us was happening back in pre-history. The archaeologists have determined that a huge, as yet inexplicable, series of linked circles and walkways existed. That would be a ginormous timber construction of something or other which, in trying to explain by means of our 21st century culture, defies enlightenment. Further, the holes in which the wood was placed, sometimes sharpened, sometimes burned, were immediately back-filled with sarsen stones and earth to stop the timbers collapsing. And did I mention that they’ve estimated there were at least 4000 holes and tree trunks?
I won’t sleep tonight; and what keeps me awake is trying to get my head around this figure. I’m minded of Lennon’s four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire in the seminal A Day in the Life… ‘nobody was really sure if they would fill the Albert Hall’; and nobody’s really sure what was occurring in our field. Firstly, where did they get 4000 or more tree trunks from and how did they get them here? In the middle of the nineteenth century, the naturalist Richard Jeffries surmised that further along the Ridgeway, the earthworks at Barbary Castle, along with a vast swathe of the surrounding countryside, may well have been forested. But here’s the rub: can you imagine how busy it would’ve been here? How many folk did it take to work that quickly to dig the holes before it rained, plant the timber, and fill it in before it subsided? The place must’ve been like a super-efficient building site: noisy beyond comprehension in this now tranquil landscape. And in order that all these palisades linked with each other – and we know that alterations were made to fit the plan – someone without a computer or even a pencil made such a plan. It’s beyond my limited intellectual capacity or imagination.
It gets better. Today’s archaeologists surmise that there were separate timber-ringed enclosures for different groups of people with the most important in this hierarchy being closest to the river. There’s no evidence that folk actually lived here which means they came for a reason. It makes me think of a concert, a festival or a restaurant where some people get the better seats. Standing in this wind-blown field, I feel so privileged to have been allowed access to this conundrum. The next day, I mention to a fellow traveller that I was unable to sleep because … ‘were you thinking about all those trees’, she asks?
Map courtesy of English heritage