WESSEX

But first...

been suitably impressed by the show-stoppers - the Avebury circles and Silbury Hill - we ought to have a quick look at the supporting acts.

This little district is crammed with evidence of human activity - some more easily recognisable than others.

Of course, human beings have been around this territory for tens of thousands of years, but they left little mark on the landscape until about 6,000 years ago, when they started stripping back the forest to make farms for themselves. Before that, they'd been happily hunting those forests for game animals, and gathering berries, roots and nuts from them. What possessed them to give up this idyllic life and take up the back-breaking toil of agriculture, we'll probably never know. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Archaeologists can identify signs of this early agriculture, pointing excitedly to scratch marks made by bone ploughs. To you and me, they look like - well - scratches, but they've got degrees in this stuff, so we'll take their word for it. There isn't much else to show - these farmers didn't stay in one place long enough to establish lasting dwellings (of the kind that would leave something for us to find, today). But, after a while, people began to build more substantial structures, of which some recognisable remains can still be found. On Windmill Hill (which we passed on our way into Avebury village) there are signs of informal settlement dating to 3700 B.C. (or thereabouts). Later (about 3300 B.C.) Windmill Hill saw a more complex causewayed enclosure, of which there are visible remains.

Life is short, and the shadow of death hovered over these farmers' lives just as it does over ours (perhaps more so). Like us, they developed rituals associated with death, and built structures to express their beliefs. We have no idea what those beliefs were, but we can see the structures.

Around 3600 B.C., Long Barrows began to appear. These are groups of chambers, built of large stones, in which we find the mortal remains of unknown individuals. Not everyone was buried in a long barrow chamber - there wouldn't have been room - but we don't know what qualified these people for the honour. After a time, these chambers are covered over with earth, leaving a long, low mound about 100-150 feet long and 40-50 feet wide. West Kennet Long Barrow - above Silbury - is one of the best, excavated examples.

In the whole of Britain, there are some 100 long barrows (that we know of - advances in aerial photography and remote sensing techniques keep discovering more). Five of these are in the immediate Avebury district, and a further 22 are within a five mile radius. This must have been recognised as a special area, very early.

Just to confuse things further, some long barrows (including one of the Avebury five), are empty of bodies. They haven't been looted, there never were any.

It may be that these long barrows were used to bury just the great and the good from a clan. After a time, they became an expression of that clan's right to the land. It may be that the empty barrows were built by late-comers who had the land, but wanted to fake a history to go with it.

But all of those were just preliminaries for the big event(s).

© David Craig Send me a message