Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Circles and Standing Stones: part 2

He was in a kind of gallery walled and roofed with blocks of stone.... At intervals along the walls there were openings that led into small rooms filled with bones....

Nhiall, the hero of Journey to Aprilioth, is trapped in West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire's largest and most famous neolithic chambered tomb.. The mound is spectacular-- a vast wedge-shaped hummock stretching nearly three hundred and fifty feet along the crest of the hill, with a seventy-five foot sarsen-stone facade.

The tomb itself occupies only about an eighth of the total length, which raises an obvious question: if they were only going to use the first forty feet, why did they make the mound so long?

Nineteenth century antiquarian Sir Richard Colt Hoare speculated that West Kennet was the mass grave of a slaughtered army. Finding no evidence to support this theory, he threw up his hands in despair, declaring himself "utterly at a loss to determine the purpose of such gigantic mounds of earth".

The underground passage is built of huge up-ended boulders capped with slabs of undressed stone. Modern glass bricks set into the roof provide a little murky light. The two pairs of side chambers were in use as tombs for over a thousand years, and remains of over forty bodies have been recovered. Nearly all the adults had arthritis-- telling us something about the British climate in 2500 B.C.
In one of my English photographs I'm standing outside West Kennet Long Barrow, gazing across a bare field at the vast conical shape of Silbury Hill. My expression is faintly puzzled. Silbury Hill was built somewhere around 2750 B.C.--the largest man-made earth mound in Europe-- and it's been puzzling visitors ever since.

One hundred and thirty feet high and covering more than five acres, it looks as though somebody very important indeed must be buried underneath it. According to local legend it's the tomb of King Sil, who was interred on horseback in golden armour at the centre of the mound. Others maintain that the hill is the site of a magic circle so powerful that it had to be buried--rather like radioactive waste-- under twelve and a half million cubic feet of chalk-rubble. The fact is, that although people have sinking vertical shafts and driving tunnels into Silbury Hill since the mid-l700's, they've have uncovered nothing more revealing than some antler fragments and a Viking bridle bit.

New-age thinking sees the entire British landscape, with its fascinating clutter of tombs and mounds and cumuli and henges, as an enormous image of the earth-goddess. Silbury Hill's splendidly suggestive shape (in aerial photos you can clearly see the nipple on top) lends weight to this argument. But then shouldn't there be two of them? One can only suppose that government funding ran out.


Anonymous said...

maybe they were amazons?


Clélie said...

Great blog, Eileen. Ex-husband's parents lived in this neck of the world and this is all familiar territory to me.