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Bronze Age barrows on the Ridgeway near Avebury

 

Henges: dead or alive?

If you've watched a TV programme about Neolithic Britain in the last few years the odds are that Mike Parker Pearson appears, telling us that's Stonehenge is a place of the dead, with the nearby Neolithic site known as Durrington Walls the place of the living.


Mike Parker Pearson

Mike Parker Pearson


Stonehenge

Stonehenge. This photograph was taken during the author's first visit in 1980.

Durrington Walls

Durrington Walls


Now I've nothing against Mike. Indeed, by any standards he's one of the more interesting of the British prehistorians. His work first came to my attention about twenty years ago when he was putting forward innovatory approaches to the archaeology of Neolithic Orkney and Iron Age North Yorkshire. Since then he has continued to offer original ideas, often about death and funeral practices.

But every time Mike appears I grimace. Not because I think he's got it wrong – by and large he's on to something. His team's investigation of more than sixty-four cremation burials at Stonehenge is clear evidence that dead people were being buried there before, during and indeed after the erection of the megaliths. But think of any medieval church or cathedral in Europe. There are far more than sixty-or-so burials under the floors of any of them. Yet we don't think of churches as 'places of the dead' – the meaning and significance of these places of worship is far greater. Above and beyond their use for burials and liturgical rituals, they are the home of God. From within the Christian worldview a church is not a 'dead zone' but rather a place alive with the presence of God.

Stonehenge – and other henges, such as Avebury and the dozens of smaller examples that have more-or-less survived – could well have been places where the bones or cremated ashes of some Neolithic people were placed after death. But, as with our churches, the people who built these henges would have thought of the monuments as anything but 'dead'. Rather they would be have been places of life. Not of everyday, normal life, but alive with what the Ojibwa Indians refer to as 'other-than-human-persons'.

Let me explain. Only from the materialistic and reductionist Western worldview (which came to dominate academe until the 1980s) – does the realm of the dead appear as, well, dead. Almost all traditional cultures think of one or more souls surviving after death, and traditional European beliefs are no exception. The Christian view of the soul – especially the post-Reformation view of the soul – differs from most pre-Christian views but nevertheless it is a worldview in which the afterlife is important. This 'soul-full' worldview is shared, with many variations, by many cultures (I have discussed this in detail in Trubshaw 2012).

The few exceptions to this 'soul-full' worldview include some Western academics. Mike is presumably well aware of this. His fellow directors of the Stonehenge Riverside Project include academics who, like Mike, came to the fore in the 1990s when British university archaeologists were re-inventing themselves as something very distinct from their materialistic-reductionist predecessors (see Trubshaw 2005 Ch.4 for an overview). One of these fellow directors, Professor Colin Richards, has published and spoken at lectures about how he and Mike think that 'the living will have visited Stonehenge at certain times to meet the ancestors, and to communicate directly with them.'

Colin Richards brings to his understanding of Stonehenge considerable experience of the archaeology and ethnology of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Like Mike Parker Pearson he has spent a large part of his career excavating Neolithic sites on Orkney. However as prehistorians they are accustomed to looking at the surviving material culture – by definition mostly stone, ceramic and bone rather than more perishable materials such as wood, textiles, hides, wicker baskets and a whole host of objects which must have been essential to daily life but which are now usually 'invisible' to archaeologists. And the most perishable and least visible of all aspects of any pre-literate culture are, of course, its ideas.

And yet some objects which do survive 'resonate' with ideas which are both long-lived and widespread. Small pendants made from mammoth ivory depicting stylised flying swans have been discovered in two locations in the Siberian Angara valley and dated to around 13,000 BCE. They seem to be the oldest evidence for ideas which evolve into the swan maidens of recent Germanic mythology and a whole host of swan-related lore which can be convincingly linked with the early Neolithic in Britain.


Siberian swan carvings

Small pendants made from mammoth ivory depicting stylised flying swans. From the Siberian Angara valley and dated to around 13,000 BCE.


Andrew Collins has looked in detail at a number of ways in which swans – and the constellation Cygnus – seem to fit into the Mesolithic and Neolithic worldview (Collins 2006 (2008)). In my book Singing Up the Country (Trubshaw 2010) I devote one chapter to looking more specifically at how swans were seemingly linked to both primordial creation myths (a European version of the worldwide 'earth diver' cosmogony myths) and to Neolithic ideas about the soul.



Now clearly we will never know what Neolithic people really thought about souls. But, among a wide variety of local variations, certain ideas and worldviews about souls can be found almost anywhere on the world. Just maybe these ideas started at an early phase of human 'dispersion' around the planet. More plausibly they are a result of cultural contact over the millennia. Most probably they are just so 'obvious' that almost the same idea has been re-invented many times. Whatever, given the prevalence of these ways of thinking it is probable (although not proven) that they were established many millennia before the people who built the henges in Britain around five thousand years ago.

While every traditional society has its own way of 'elaborating' on the basic ideas, there are aspects which tend to be found around the world. These widespread 'underlying' ideas can be summarised as follows.

Firstly, there are at least two souls. One is the 'breath soul' which departs soon after death. This is the one familiar to the Christian worldview. The other is the 'bone soul' which lingers long after death. This is the soul which, for example, all Chinese people honour at the rituals to their ancestors. The concept of two souls seems alien to Christian thinking but it is implicit in pre-Reformation ideas about a person's soul being reunited with their bones on the final Day of Judgement so that they can be redeemed. More specifically, think of the power attributed to the bones of pre-Reformation saints. While there is no explicit sense of the bones having a 'soul' nevertheless they retain an abstract but clearly-defined sense of 'identity' with the once-living person which is tantamount to a soul in all but name.

Throughout the world the soul is most clearly associated with the skull – an idea which persists in Britain and Europe until well into the eighteenth century in the form of the spiritus or 'winged angel heads' which appear on funerary monuments. Indeed it continues in a more secular form with the modern Western belief that our consciousness is 'inside' our heads. Seemingly it is why people in the early Neolithic – before henges – were placing the bones of the dead in chambered long barrows and, sometime after all the fleshing had decayed away, removed the skulls to place in the ditches of the causewayed enclosures built near to such long barrows.


A spiritus or soul underneath an eighteenth century sepulchral monument inside Avebury church.

A counterpart of a similar age on a gravestone at Nether Broughton, Leicestershire.


Secondly, there is a wealth of legends and material culture from northern hemisphere societies which link souls with swans and geese. In Britain we have the anomalous folklore that babies are brought by storks – which are not normally seen in this country. On the Continent comparable lore speaks of swans, not storks. I have looked in some detail at this swan-lore in Singing Up the Country (Trubshaw 2010 esp. Ch.9) so will not repeat all this evidence here. Suffice to say that there is British folklore which speaks of peoples' souls being embodied in swans (Armstrong 1959: 48). One of the more comprehensive accounts of these beliefs comes from the Scottish Western isles where people seeing either whooper swans or greylag geese migrating north to their Icelandic breeding grounds thought they were carrying the souls of the dead to heaven which lay 'north beyond the north wind' (Collins 2006 (2008: 100); based on personal communication with Eileen Buchanan in 2004). {As a footnote to this, on the morning of my father's funeral in July 2015, just after the hearse arrived and the family and I had moved outside to take our seats in the limosines, a flock of geese flew noisily over, though largely hidden by nearby houses. I hasten to add this is the only time I have heard geese while visiting my father's house.)

Another still-current German expression translates literally as 'it swans me' and is used for those circumstances the English would say 'someone has walked over my grave'. Americans are more likely to say 'a ghost has walked over my grave'. But this is just a corruption of the older expression 'a goose has just walked over my grave'. Perhaps this is a back-formation from the goose-bumps which go with such a suggestion – but equally probably the goose-bumps and the goose walking are the origins of the later forms.

Swans and geese are migratory (although the Mute Swan, the most commonly-encountered species of swan seen in Britain, is less migratory here than in other parts of its range). A flock of swans or geese flying in 'V'-formation on their migratory journeys is a dramatic sight. It is also a dramatic sound – which usually heralds the flock being clearly visible. As these species often migrate at night, this dramatic sound is even more distinctive than their appearance. At night a flock of geese 'gaggling' or swans 'trumpeting' or 'whooping' (Trumpeter Swan and Whooper Swan are two popular names for the same species – and, interesting, make a distinctive contrast with the eponymously 'Mute Swan') sounds eerie and almost Otherwordly. No wonder that these birds become mythological psychopomps, taking the souls of the recently-deceased to the afterlife. And, although less well attested in myth and legend, they may also bring the souls of the about-to-be born back on the return migration about six months later.

What has this to do with the early Neolithic? Well, firstly those Siberian mammoth ivory pendants suggest that swans had been significant a long time earlier – indeed longer before the builders of Stonehenge than Stonehenge is to us. Secondly most henges are associated with water. Stonehenge is no exception, being close to the south-flowing River Avon. Avebury too is near the source of the River Kennet, which flows eastward into the Thames. The henges on Orkney have especially dramatic relationships to sea-lochs. In part this may be for pragmatic reasons – waterborne transport was clearly key to Mesolithic and Neolithic life in the British Isles – but may also reflect a deep mythological association between migratory waterfowl and the henges.

Those deep associations may have been retold in myths about stars, such as the constellation we know as Cygnus, which sits in the so-called 'Great Rift' of the Milky Way. Indeed the Milky Way itself – known in some cultures as The Way of the Birds – may be a crucial part of such myths. I have attempted to outline this in Singing Up the Country (Trubshaw 2010: Ch. 9).

However I would like to draw attention to a third aspect of henges. It is least obvious at Stonehenge, where the bank and ditch around the sarsen stones is not especially dramatic. But it is far more obvious at Avebury and almost all other henges. The bank is outside the ditch. This is indeed part of the archaeologists' definition of what a henge is. Doing things this way makes the earthworks less useful for defensive purposes. But it implies that something – whether physical or less manifest – was intended to be kept in. We still do the something very similar today. All churchyards and cemeteries have well-defined boundary walls, with the entrances often 'enhanced' by lych gates and the like. We like the dead to be kept in their appointed place. Transgressors, such as the restless dead and their more modern counterparts such as vampires and zombies, inspire endless Gothick novels and films.

Fourthly, although leading on directly from the last point, the stones of Avebury henge seem to have been chosen and placed so that at certain times of day, most noticeably spring and autumn dawn, they take on the appearance of human faces.


'Dawn watcher' simulacra in Avebury henge


As academic archaeologists are rarely among the people walking around Avebury at dawn, they are not aware that these faces make the henge seem magically 'alive' at this time of day. See the separate article on simulacra.

This notion of keeping something in leads to a fifth point. Iron Age pottery and artefacts are conspicuous only by their almost total absence from the Avebury henge and surrounding monuments. Odd, because they had impressive hill forts at Barbury Castle to the north-east, Oldbury not far away to the west, and Rybury to the south. Given the amount of archaeological activity in and around Avebury it is reasonable to expect that more Iron Age evidence would have turned up, if only by chance. So, for once, the absence of evidence can be interpreted as evidence of absence.

As Mark Gillings has suggested (Gillings et al 2003: 141–2), presumably in the Iron Age the Avebury landscape was the subject of myths and stories which rendered it taboo to people. Was it an area where the gods roamed or where the ancestors strolled? Given the large number of Bronze Age barrows overlooking Avebury, my money is on the dead rather than the deities putting the frighteners on the people of this era.

To list the ethnographical parallels for such fears would repetitive to the point of become tedium. Suffice to note that the ethnographer Irving Hallowell invented the phrase 'other-than-human-persons' to describe Ojibwe beliefs (Hallowell 1960, discussed in Harvey 2005 33–40) and it is a phrase which embraces a wide range of ghosts, souls, spirit-deities and spirits of place.

This sense of 'other-than-human-persons' is central to Graham Harvey's re-appraisal of animistic religions which sees animism as far more than an ethnocentric dismissal of 'belief in spirits' (Harvey 2005). Applying Harvey's insights to beliefs plausibly associated with Stonehenge in the Neolithic makes phases such as 'place of the dead' entirely inappropriate. Rather, Harvey's fully-fledged sense of animism makes them places of life – albeit what was thought to be living there would fit into the Ojibwe sense of 'other-than-human-persons'. Pretty much how a Christian thinks about a church being the house of God rather than building with a lot of human burials under the floor…

Plausibly we could think of Neolithic people believing that the souls of their loved ones travelled on the backs of swans and then entered a realm where they stayed until reborn. That 'place of the souls' may have been envisaged initially as causewayed enclosures, such as Windmill Hill then, after a shift in cultural practices, to the henges. I say plausibly, partly because we are unlikely to ever have enough understanding of Neolithic culture to offer proof, but more importantly because whatever people were thinking and doing about five thousand years ago will be more complex and varied than such simple 'bare bones' ethnographical parallels.

 

Adapted from an article published in Northern Earth No. 132 (2012) p15–20.

 

References:

Armstrong, Edward A., 1959, The Folklore of Birds, Riverside.

Collins, Andrew, 2008, The Cygnus Mystery (2nd end; 1st edn 2006), Watkins.

Gillings, M., J. Pollard, D.W. Wheatley and R. Peterson, 2008, Landscape of the Megaliths: Excavation and fieldwork on the Avebury Monuments 1997–2003, Oxbow.

Harvey, Graham, 2005, Animism: Respecting the living world, Hurst.

Parker Pearson, M., 2012, Stonehenge Explained: Exploring the greatest Stone Age mystery, Simon and Schuster.

Richards, C., 2010, 'Wrapping up Stonehenge: a dermatological approach', paper at Reasearching the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Conference, Devizes (May 2010), as reported by Dennis Price online at www.eternalidol.com/?p=7267

Trubshaw, B., 2005, Sacred Places: Prehistory and popular imagination, Heart of Albion.

Trubshaw, B., 2011, Singing Up the Country: The songlines of Avebury and beyond, Heart of Albion.

Trubshaw, B, 2012, Souls, Spirits and Deities, Heart of Albion; published online at www.hoap.co.uk/general.htm#ssd


Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs

Altars not burial mounds

Henges – brands or performances

Henges – dead or alive

Simulacra photos

Sound in the prehistoric landscape


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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs

Overview of prehistoric Avebury and environs

Altars not burial mounds

Henges – brands or performances

Henges – dead or alive

Simulacra photos

Sound in the prehistoric landscape


Avebury and environs in the Roman period


Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary

Upstream-downstream

Wiltshire battles

Understanding the Wansdykes


Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

Overview of medieval Avebury and environs

St James' – from minster to mother church

St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

The 'barber-surgeon'


Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history

Overview of twentieth century Avebury

Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

photo gallery