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Avebury's simulacraWhat are simulacra? Simulacra are copies that depict things that either had no original to begin with, or that no longer have an original. In this context they are natural objects, such as trees or stones, which look like animals or human beings. And Avebury has plenty of stones which do just that.
Why haven't you heard about them before? The simple answer is that most people never stop to look. And, even if they do, they may miss them. Only a few of Avebury's simulacra show up on cloudy days, while the ones that only appear in sunshine do so at different times of day and year.
If you've never walked around Avebury during a sunny dawn in spring or autumn then put it on your 'must do' list. I've even driven all the way from north Leicestershire to get to Avebury for such a dawn. (Later I moved here. which saves about two-and-a-half-hours of driving... ).
Simulacra in Avebury henge.
Every morning when I wake up and open the bedroom curtains I see several dark, hooded figures when seen from the henge. These are the stones at the northern end of the West Kennett Avenue standing on a slight rise of ground to the south-west of the henge itself. Any such sense of them being hooded figures is lost as you walk towards them. Indeed they are very much wider when seen face-on.
The 'hooded figures' at the end of the Avenue, looking from the direction of the henge.
One pair of the stones in the above photographs, seen sideways on.
However, given the prevalence of simulacra faces on other stones, I do not think that my impression is entirely frivolous. Rather, when looking along its length, the Avenue acts as a double row of hooded 'mourners' to honour the dead – or maybe just their souls – on their final journey; a double row of psychopomps offering eternal advice the newly-deceased spirits, silently chanting a 'swan song' to guide them through their nocturnal journey. Indeed there is no reason to suppose that the Avenue marked out a processional way for humans – just as conceivably it defined a taboo zone the dead could pass along unhindered.
In Chapter Nine of my book Singing Up the Country I discuss the worldwide myths which suggest that migrating birds – notably swans – might act as psychopomps, but for the moment we might want to consider that the stones of henges 'stored' the souls.
Spend enough time with these stones at different times of day and year and the number of faces and other simulacra can be counted in the dozens. Walking around Avebury at dawn is a magical experience as face after face looking at the rising sun 'appears' on the stones – faces that are difficult to discern later in the day. The most transient is a 'smily face' which only appears at dawn for a few days either side of summer solstice. Look at the same stone at any other time of the year and there is no suggestion of this happy chappy. And as this is one of the few stones surviving in the north circle it is not one which was erected by Alexander Keiller in the 1930s we can be confident it really was erected to be in exactly the position it still occupies.
The large number of 'simulacra' faces on Avebury's megaliths cannot be simply accidental. They are not carved – sarsen is simply too hard to carve. This is not 'accidental' weathering as sarsen barely weathers, so we can be confident the stones look pretty much the same as when they were first erected around five thousand years ago. The only rational explanation is that these stones were chosen (from the vast number which were then scattered over the landscape) because they looked like 'something' or 'someone'.
'Dawn watcher' simulacrum in north-east sector of Avebury henge. This is one of the few stones left standing of the north inner circle.
Archaeologists have ignored these faces, presumably because they rarely walk around Avebury at dawn to see them. This is a significant oversight. as standing stones and other megalithic monuments of north-western France include a number of man-modified stones which are anthropomorphic. Standing stones in Madagascar are known as vatolahy, literally 'man stones'. And British folklore tells of numerous stone circles, such as the Rollright circle on the Oxfordshire border or the Merry Maidens in Cornwall, which are held to be people turned to stone. While the origins of such legends are difficult to date, the prevalence of this trope does argue for some antiquity.
If, as at least some Neolithic people might conceivably have done, I deeply believed that these massive sarsens in some way 'trapped' the spirits of my immediate ancestors, or held within them the souls of an as-yet unborn offspring, just how much more 'magical' could an early morning saunter become?
Next time you walk between the two south entrance stones (one of them is commonly known as the Chair Stone) then look for the 'guardians' lurking in the sides of each one, facing each other. Then walk to the south-west sector and look at the outsides of the stones there, taking the time to look from different angles. The outsides of almost all the stones in the outer circle are more mis-shapen than the inside faces. This is because of the way the sand settled in shallow water prior to forming into rock – there are 'negative impressions' of eddy pools, plant roots and such like. The Neolithic henge builders selectively put the stones up so the smooth side faced inwards – perhaps because if people were moving by the light of a fire near the middle of the circle then their shadows would 'dance' on the smoother side of the stones, making them seem alive.
There are simulacra elsewhere. The five 'side chambers' which make up West Kennett chambered tomb themselves can be seen as two legs, two arms and a head (with, rather significantly, the entrance between the legs). In the 'head' chamber are two simulacra of human heads, one akin to a living face and the other to a skull. Perhaps not coincidentally, the acoustics of the chamber are most 'lively' close to these simulacra.
One of the simulacra along the West Kennett Avenue. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the one stone of the reconstructed avenue which is at an 'odd angle'. It points to the midsummer sunrise (when this photograph was taken).
There are plenty more along the West Kennett Avenue, and I have also spotted simulacra on the 'Long Stones' near Beckhampton.
Thanks to Peter Knight for sharing his enthusiasm for Avebury's simulacra, and to Terence Meaden for writing the first book-length study.
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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs
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