Friday, June 7 (continued)

We are touring Neolithic sites on the Salisbury Plain with archeologist Dr. Edward Shepherd of the University of York, and Tours From Antiquity.  This is part two.

Leaving Stonehenge, the tour’s next stop is the city of Bath for lunch.  This involves a temporal shift of huge proportions.  We had spent the morning immersed in neolithic thoughts and open English countryside, and suddenly we are in a tidy Georgian town, with thoughts of Jane Austen.  We have a couple of hours to visit any sights we want to see, and have lunch.

The coach drops us in Terrace Walk, opposite Parade Gardens.  Ed and I go down York Street and step into Bath Abbey for half an hour, then we head west from the square and have lunch in a pub.  We walk toward the river and the 18th century Pulteney Bridge, which we admire, leaning on the parapet of the Grand Parade.  Below us is the Avon River, the same river that was the route for Neolithic people to float huge stones quarried in south Wales, destined for Stonehenge.

Avon_River_BathThe bluestones were floated up this river past…what? We need Dr. Shepherd.  We later ask him:  What was here before this tidy English gem of a town, and before the Romans?  There is archeological evidence, he tells us, that the natural hot springs, which were incorporated into a Roman bath in the first century AD, had a shrine to the goddess Sulis established by early Britons.  Viewing my photo of the Avon River, I can imagine that there may have been people on this high bank, watching the huge stones go upstream on log rafts, and perhaps helping provide refreshments and overnight lodging for the people managing the rafts.

Our tour coach takes us to West Kennet Long Barrow, which is in the countryside a few miles west of Marlborough.  Trevor pulls the coach over in a layby on the busy two-lane A4, and we carefully exit the side door, watching for cars zooming past , and sidle along the verge to pass through a wicket that gives access to the footpath.  We can see the barrow, a long, lumpy mound at the top of the ridge.  Our party walks up the path past fields of corn.  Behind us, on the other side of the A4, we have a view of conical Silbury Hill.

West Kennet Long Barrow is a chambered tomb formed of upright stones, covered with an earth bank, where archeologists found 46 burials.  It was in use by Neolithic people from 400 years before Stonehenge to 2500 BC, in the middle of highest activity at Stonehenge. The gloomy chambers are completely empty.  Edward points out grooves in one of the standing stones which holds up the roof of the tomb; archeologists believe the grooves are where people sharpened their bronze knives on the stone.  We modern people don’t consider hanging around a tomb in order to sharpen our knives to be an appropriate task, but early people may have had a different idea about burial in their culture.

Silbury_Hill_fromWKLBFrom the ridge, I look back at Silbury Hill across the valley.  It is the tallest prehistoric manmade mound in Europe, and required careful technical skill and, as Wikipedia phrases it, “control of resources” for neolithic people to build this artificial hill.  In its original state, no grass grew on the slopes and the hill was white.  The land around us has a chalk layer, and the chalk was used to finish the slopes of the hill.  The hill likely was hard to miss in daylight and looked ethereal by moonlight.  The hill’s purpose is debated by archeologists, however a theory we saw in a television program before we came on our vacation posits that the top of the hill was the location for a beacon fire.  What message the beacon fire conveyed — not sure.  Poor Silbury Hill; visitors are no longer permitted to hike up the  winding path to the top.  The hill has been subject to so many archeological digs, both careful and careless, that its structural integrity is threatened by further trampling or digging.

Our coach takes us to nearby Avebury, the largest ditch-and-stone henge in Europe. As we approach, Edward on the coach’s microphone points out a widely-spaced row of short, scarred upright stones that mark a neolithic avenue leading to the Avebury stone circle.  Avebury henge was constructed about 2600 BCE.

Part of the English village of Avebury is situated inside the henge.  Dr. Shepherd calls Avebury a “muscular stone circle,” meaning it is both huge and inward-looking, unlike Stonehenge which is outward-looking.  We walk along a curving row of tall, wide stones among sheep pastured in the circle to keep the grass mown.  Our archeologist tells us that the stones here have been moved, knocked over, buried, used in buildings, retrieved, and restored to their actual or possible positions. The henge has a mysterious, worn feel to it.  The ditch is deep and the bank, which is outside the circle of the ditch – the reverse of a defensive wall — is high.  It is astonishing that the earthworks are still so imposing after more than four thousand years of weather and human traffic.

Avebury_henge_villageEdward guides us to a spot where there is an inner circle of small stones.  Standing within that circle, it is possible to see the flat top of Silbury Hill beyond Avebury’s encircling bank.  This gives some weight to the idea that the role of Silbury Hill was to host a fire or other signaling method, which conveyed the start or completion of an activity occurring over there, which meant something to people within the Avebury henge. Or not.  It is one theory.

We have time to walk around before we need to return to the coach.  Ed and I walk a quarter of the way around the ditch on a path along the top of the bank. Strolling up the lane that roughly bisects the circle, we exit the circle and visit the Henge Shop, where I purchase locally-printed cards.  Houses in the village are neat and English, with lovely gardens, and the church has surely been featured in one or two BBC costume dramas.  I wonder what it is like to live in a village with a henge at the end of your street.

We find the coach and take our seats for the return to London.  We are all weary, and there is little conversation during the long drive, much of it on the multi-lane M4.  Between Slough and London the traffic crawls.  The tour ends, as it began, at the Natural History Museum on the Cromwell Road.

Dr. Edward Shepherd steps aside to bid goodbye to Ed and me.  He tells us how special it was to lead the tour today for such interested and well-informed people.  We made his day.

Recommended!  Tours From Antiquity.