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Avebury - subtle obstructions to sacred spaces

Bob Trubshaw

Julian Thomas has attempted to show [1] how the neolithic monuments at Avebury cannot be understood completely from maps but only when we consider the position of people in relation to the natural topography and man-made earthworks. By 'being there' and moving from place to place we can experience an intriguing interplay of visibility and concealment which sheds light on neolithic attitudes to sacred places and rituals.

Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric earthwork in Europe, seems designed to catch the eye of the onlooker from a distance. Yet it is not visible from much of the north and west (the area where the Avebury henge is situated), being hidden by Waden Hill. As Paul Devereux observed [5], only the very top of Silbury Hill is visible from the Obelisk (a massive but now-lost stone in one of the inner circles at Avebury), raising the tantalising suggestion that activities on the top of Silbury could be observed during simultaneous rituals at the Obelisk.

To the south-east of Avebury is a smaller site made up of circles of timber and stone, known as the Sanctuary. Unlike the main henge, this has no ditch, and Thomas speculates that 'its unbounded character suggests that its role was to admit rather than exclude.' From here, the Avenue prescribes a path through the valley towards the henge, 'insinuating rather than forcing a particular passage.' It is as if 'the Avenue served as a guide to the correct way to act for those submitting themselves to approved rules of order, rather than forcing particular acts upon the unwilling.'

Along most of the Avenue the henge is invisible. About 400 yards from the henge, where there is a rise in the ground, the henge comes into view. At precisely this point the Avenue abruptly changes direction. Yet the protrusion of the eastern bank and two especially large stones in the outer circle mean that the stone circle is still obscured. Even after entering between the massive 'portal stones', further subtle arrangements of stones partially impede vision. This means that the central stone, the Obelisk, was at the centre of a series of nested spaces, 'separated by barriers which impede rather than totally closed off access.'

Thomas takes this to infer that in neolithic society knowledge was 'graded' rather than there being a binary division. The architecture of the ceremonial complex at Avebury is able to accommodate a large number of people and also to segregate their movements and thereby subtly 'grade' their access to ritual activities.

Source

Julian S. Thomas, 'The politics of vision and the archaeologies of landscape', in B. Bender (ed.) Landscape - politics and perspectives, Berg, 1993.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.24 August 1995.


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