The Modern Antiquarian



My experience of ritual landscapes of Britain is pedestrian. It is on foot. Maybe these landscapes were meant to be taken in on foot.

I have lost count of the times I have visited & walked the Avebury complex in Wiltshire. You can easily in the space of a day walk down from the Wessex ridgeway into the village & the stone circle, along the avenue of stones,to the Sanctuary, then past Silbury Hill & on to West Kennet Long Barrow.

The act of walking between these places feels significant as it is what the people who created these earthworks & stone avenues & chamber tombs would have done. Avebury is a complex of sites close to each other perhaps with interlocking significances.


West Kennet Long Barrow was built around 3650 BC & used for around 1000 years until it was sealed up, filled to the roof  by the Beaker People with earth & stones. It is a chamber tomb about 25 metres long which you can walk in. Whenever I go I offer a libation before entering the chamber. I pour out the contents of a fine bottle of beer to show my respect to the older ones.
Silbury Hill is the largest man made mound in Europe. It is about the size of a pyramid & was completed around 2500 BC. There is no evidence of human burial associated with the hill.
Built around 3000 BC, the Sanctuary was originally a complex circular arrangement of timber posts, which were later replaced by stones. These components are presently indicated with concrete slabs. Huge numbers of human bones have been excavated from here accompanied by food, suggesting elaborate death rites & ceremonies.
The stones & henges of Avebury were not all constructed at the same time. 3000BC for the central cove, 2900 for the inner stone circle, 2600 for the outer circle & henge & 2400BC for the avenue. This is the late Neolithic period.

The henge, a large circular bank with an internal ditch is over 1000 metres in circumference. Within the henge is the outer stone circle, Britains largest, with a diameter of 300 metres or so. Within the outer stone circle is the inner circle.

The avenue of paired stones leading from the south-eastern entrance to the henge is a designed passage through the landscape leading us from the Avebury stone circle towards Silbury & West Kennet.

There is no written record of what the function of the Avebury complex is. Maybe the stone circles were a representation of the world of the Neolithic peoples. Some historians have speculated that between 5000 to 10000 people would gather regularly at the site to demonstrate tribal loyalty or for religious observance.
Pagan rites seem to have been practiced at the circle as late as the 14th century, for at this time the local Christians considered it their religious duty to fell the stones. One of the Christians was crushed to death by the stone as it fell & his skeleton was discovered in the 1930s pinned to the side of a burial hole. The contents of his purse identified him as a barber surgeon & the stone is now known as the Barber Stone.

With the advent of the modern religions of Druidry & Wicca, Avebury has regained ritual significance & at equinoxes & solstices neopagan ceremonies are performed at the site which is considered to be a living temple.
On a visit in the year 2000 I picked up a book from the village shop in Avebury called “The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey Through Megalithic Britain”. It is a poetical gazetteer of scores of barrows, standing stones, megalithic monuments scattered across the British Isles. Written in 1998 by Julian Cope, it is one of my treasured books. It has accompanied me on drives across Scotland to see chambered cairns & carved stones, on hikes across Bodmin Moor & Dartmoor to interlocking stone circles & Arthur’s Hall, & on & on.
It seems fitting that I found it in a bookshop in a village encircled by a living temple.

I take it with me on most journeys. It is a fine sleeved hardcover which is starting to fray & dog. I like the erosion from pristine to decrepit that loved objects undergo. Eventually the spine will crack & the sleeve will split & I am not sure whether I will repair it or let it fall apart. Maybe I should take pages from it & place them on the monuments they have led me to. The stones will be here long after the book has gone & it’s where the book takes you which is important. The pilgrimage to these sites is a ritual in itself, an observance that these places have importance.

The third song on my upcoming album; Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground (released March 24th) is titled The Modern Antiquarian.

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