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Avebury sunrises and sunsets
Stonehenge in 1980 with the Heel Stone to the left.
Stonehenge famously aligns with the midsummer sunrise – or is it the midwinter sunset? But dramatic as these events still are, is that it? What about watching the rising and setting sun from the numerous other prehistoric monuments surrounding the iconic trilithons?
Simulacra on the megaliths at Stonehenge were first described by Benjamin Franklin in 1757. This photograph of the Heel Stone – coincidentally showing one of the simulacra – was taken in the early 1920s during excavations by Colonel William Hawley and his assistant Robert Newall.
Those who take an interest specifically in the Heel Stone – the 'foresight' of the midsummer sunrise alignment – might notice a 'simulacra' – a face-in-the-stone which is looking to the north-west, the direction of the midsummer sunset. Actually you've probably only spotted about one of six different simulacra on the stone, depending which side you are looking at and at what time of day.
If you think six or more faces on one stone is just coincidence try walking around the eastern part of the henge at Avebury at daybreak. There is a plethora of such simulacra facing the rising sun. Some can be seen for much of the year, but other faces appear only briefly during different months. Visit the stones later in the day and these faces are either unimpressive or indiscernible – it takes a 'trick of the light' to make the crevices and undulations seem anthropomorphic or, much less often, zoomorphic. Or should we think of them as theriomorphic, that is images of deities in animal form? (See Avebury's simulacra.)
Yes it could be chance. Photographs of the stones should reveal more faces if the photos are turned upside down. But someone I know tried this and could not spot any simulacra at all except when the photographs were the right way up. Not conclusive, but certainly consistent with intentional selection of specific sarsens. At the time the henge was built there would have been tens of thousands of such stones to chose from, lying almost continuously across the Marlborough Downs. A night-time walk with burning torches would have allowed simulacra to be 'hunted down' before moving the stones to the henge.
The most dramatic of the stones at Avebury is this 'Dawn Watcher' in the north-east sector, looking out at the eastern entrance to the henge.
Terence Meaden has spent more time than most looking for simulacra on the stones at Avebury. He has also worked out that at certain times of year the shadow from the now-gone so-called Obelisk Stone in the south circle would have 'kissed' a surviving stone. Although 'kissed' is something of a euphemism – the surviving stone looks like a larger-than-life vulva, complete with clitoris. And you don't have to be called Sigmund to spot that the Obelisk Stone was distinctly phallic in shape, once standing up to twenty feet above ground.
There are also simulacra inside the chambered tomb known as West Kennett long barrow, which was built right at the start of the Neolithic, before the henges and stone circles. All eight 'heads' inside West Kennett face to the left. When viewed by flickering light they are seemingly animated. One of those furthest from the entrance is like a skull – and speaking or chanting while squatting in front of this stone creates deeper resonances than elsewhere. To the left is a 'living' head.
This photograph was taken by daylight coming through a modern rooflight. These simulacra are clearer when seen by artificial light after dark. When constructed the chamber would not normally be lit by the sun. However at sunrise on the equinoxes a shaft of sunlight reaches all the way through the chamber tomb to light up these two heads – the 'skull stone' is spot-lit in this manner for about fifteen minutes. Before the entrance to the tomb was blocked with a massive stone then the full moon nearest the equinox would also have lit up these faces.
Late April sunrise seen from the forecourt of West Kennett chamber tomb. A misty clump of trees in the valley, in line with the sun, marks the location of a contemporary early neolithic chamber tomb near East Kennett.
All the simulacra at Avebury and Stonhenge are on megaliths made of sarsen, a sandstone which is notoriously difficult to break or carve, even with metal tools. These simulacra were created when the sediments were first deposited and then the curious shapes were specifically selected.
At midsummer the sunrise shines in to one of the side chambers. Standing outside the chamber tomb the May and August sunrises align with another such tomb near East Kennett (see photograph). And West Kennett long barrow is exactly on a north-south line (which, of course, marks the direction of the sun at noon); the places to the north and south of this line are no less than the henges at Stonehenge and Avebury. Curiously the long barrows predate the henges by a few centuries, although it may well be that places that later became henges were already important.
One of the other surviving Neolithic chamber tombs near Avebury is known as Adam's Grave and is situated above a dramatic escarpment above the Vale of Pewsey. The tomb itself and the ditches down each side are aligned to the midwinter sunrise (ignore information online which alleges the alignment is with the midsummer sunrise).
Summer solstice at Avebury
On the day before the midsummer solstice in 2012 I was living in Avebury and got up before 5 a.m.. What follows is the entry in my diary made later that day. If you are wondering why I did this the day before the actual solstice then clearly you are not aware that several thousand people have an all-night party in and around the henge, starting in the afternoon of Midsummer's Eve. The sunrise is effectively the same time and place on the horizon for at least a couple of days either side of the solstice itself (the word 'solstice' is from the Latin solstitium 'point at which the sun seems to stand still').
Tree shadow on Waden Hill at midsummer sunrise.
'Sunrise stone' at the southern end of the Avenue, photographed several minutes after midsummer sunrise.
As I approached the stone at the far end of the Avenue which points to the sunrise I noticed a clear shadow on the slope of Waden Hill (see photograph). It was cast by one of the copses of beech trees on some Bronze Age barrows by the Ridgeway. Curious that something so far way should cast such a clear shadow. Presumably any Neolithic or Bronze Age – and even Anglo-Saxon – tree clumps would also once cast shadows on Waden Hill.
If the 'sunrise stone' (known to its archaeological friends as 35N) is a midsummer marker then it is a symbolic one as anyone standing on the higher parts of the Avenue will see the sun rise just before the sun can be seen from this stone! And anyone on the summit of Waden Hill or the Ridgeway will have seen it rise several minutes before. This all smacks of 'theatre' and 'off stage prompting' of some kind!
The 'sunrise stone' is shadowed by a hawthorn tree at the side of the road. It took a long time for the sun to pass around this. And even then the more southerly face of the stone stayed in shadow (the photograph above was taken after the sun had moved round). This suggests that the dry valley – at least the western side – was more or less cleared of trees by the time the Avenue was constructed. Alternatively the stones replace trees which once cast shadows on the side of Waden Hill…
A more interesting way to experience the midsummer sunrise in and around Avebury is by intentionally trying to see as many different sunrises as possible during the same morning. The best I got was four – but the first was from a good few miles to the south. I climbed to the summit of Walkers Hill and the Neolithic chamber tomb known as Adam's Grave. This is so high above the surrounding landscape that the sun can be seen a few minutes earlier than the 'official' sunrise time for that longtitude.
I walked back to my van (which takes about five minutes) and drove back towards Avebury (another five minutes) and saw the sun breaking over the Marlborough Downs to light up the Avenue – pretty much what was described in the diary entry, but looking to the west not the east. I then parked, walked towards the eastern entrance of the henge (which took about another five minutes) and saw the sun breaking over the top of the henge bank and illuminating the Cove Stones near the centre of the henge (and on slightly higher ground than the rest of the interior of the henge). Sometime later – I didn't make a note of the time – the sun has risen high enough to light up the surviving stone on the eastern side of the outer stone circle.
Midwinter solstice at AveburyOn Midwinter's Eve in 2015 I joined Maria Wheatley and Busty Taylor about 3.15 for the free guided tour of the midwinter sunset alignments and such like. And the sun played ball! The stone to the north of the 'barber-surgeon' stone in the south-west sector of the outer circle has three faces on it, facing east, south and west – to the sunrise, noon and sunset.
Everyone trying to photograph the 'shadow line' extending to the Obelislk Stone; the site of this now-gone megalith is marked by the concrete block to the left of this photograph.
We then stood at the site of the Obelisk Stone looking to the left of a prominent tree on the henge bank. This revealed a 'shadow line' from multiple stones which extended to the Obelisk. Seemingly it would have extended from the Obelisk to the eastern side – not too tricky with a twenty foot high stone and the ground sloping away.
We then went to the Chair Stone at the southern entrance, the biggest stone in the outer circle. The midwinter sunset is visible when sitting in the chair – the only time of year when that is possible. And, before the henge bank either side of the southern entrance was moved (to straighten the road), the midwinter sunrise would have lit up the chair. Busty recounted a paranormal voice which guided him to the Chair Stone to observe the experience.
The rather cloudy midwinter sunrise seen from the Avenue; the sun rises between two Bronze Age burial mounds now marked by clumps of beech trees, although these are difficult to make out in this photograph.
The following morning I set off for the south 'end' of the Avenue to watch the sunrise. It is not really the end, just the end of where Alexander Keiller re-erected the stones in the 1930s – the Avenue continues to the south but any stones are now buried. The sunrise was slightly cloudy but nevertheless dramatic. The midwinter sun rises between the two beech tree clumps nearest the end of Overton Hill. The trees were planted at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But they were planted on Bronze Age burial mounds. Although these are several hundred years later than the Avenue and even older than the henge they are situated on the 'false crest' of the Marlborough Downs. By which I mean that, seen from the megalithic sites at they appear to be on the horizon. But when you walk up to them they are about two hundred yards away from the actual summit.
West Kennett long barrow perfectly 'skylined' when seen from the River Kennet just downstream from the path used by most visitors.
Prehistoric monuments, especially Bronze Age burial mounds, are frequently located on a 'false crest' – as seen from lower ground – than the actual ridge. This practice starts with the oldest of the burial mounds as West Kennett long barrow, erected about 3,000 BCE, also sits on the skyline when seen from the River Kennet. As this photograph shows, this is best seen a little way downstream from where the modern footpath leading from the layby to the monument crosses the watercourse – we can reasonably assume that Neolithic people visiting this chamber tomb were travelling on small watercraft up the Kennet from the confluence of the Thames at Reading, rather than driving along the A4 looking for a parking place…
What a difference the delay makes! About ten minutes after the cloudy sunrise seen from the Avenue (see photograph above) then sun makes a far more dramatic impact over the henge bank.
And it's just as dramatic facing west! Seconds after taking the previous photograph I turned around to admire my very crisp shadow striding out into the centre of the henge. The shadows flanking mine are from two of the large stones of the southern inner circle.
I wandered back along the Avenue and got to the henge in time for a clear sunrise over the henge bank seen from between the south entrance stones. I then took some photographs of the south circle with long shadows striding into the centre of the henge. Compared to the cloudy sunrise I'd seen about fifteen minutes before, the impact of the sun coming over the henge bank was vastly more impressive. It was, literally, dazzling. And the long, sharp shadows stretching westwards just added to the sense of theatre. If you have ever wondered why henges have high banks then wonder no more – the sheer drama of the delayed sunrise is worth effort!
Other solar alignmentsIn 2012 I needed to be in Glastonbury quite early on the 12th May as I had been booked to be one of the speakers at the Megalithomania conference there. As I drove from Avebury to get there the rising sun was behind me most of the way, which the shadow my van stretched out on the road ahead. The more astute of you will realise that the same would be true if I drove that route in early August, as the sun would once again be rising 'behind Avebury'.
Others of you will go, 'Golly Gosh, that's the Michael and Mary line.' If you don't already know about this load of undiluted tosh put together by Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst which has created a small army of followers then Google will keep you busy for ages…
As Anthony Thorley has more sensibly suggested, far from this being the 'Michael and Mary line' it is more like the 'Lugh and Brigid line', as it aligns with sunrise at Lughnasagh (August) as well as Beltane (May).
And the moon
The August full moon rising from the side of Silbury Hill.
The moon does some interesting things too. Michael Dames' book Silbury Treasure, published in 1976, makes much of the August full moon rising from the 'causeway' which links the mound of Silbury Hill with the promontory rising to the south-west. This has now been cut by the A4 road, but this 'causeway' survives. The best place to view this phenomena is the modern 'viewing platform' to the east of the small car park.
In 2015 it was too cloudy to see the moonrise. Indeed it was drizzling lightly. But I did get to see two very pink rainbows – the second one had no crock of gold as its feet were off the ground. In other words this was just after sunset!
AcknowledgementsNumerous people talked to me about simulacra while I lived in Avebury although often we did not exchange names. People who influenced what is written here include Michael Dames, Tom Graves, Peter Knight, Terence Meaden, Gordon Rimes, Anthony Thorley and Maria Wheatley. Apologies to anyone who I have left out – please email me so I can emend.
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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs
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