Touring Stonehenge with an Archeologist # 2

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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.


Touring Stonehenge with an Archeologist #1

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Friday, June 7

It is Stonehenge visit day of our two-week London vacation.  At home on the internet, Ed and I  purchased tickets for a tour of the major prehistoric sites of the Salisbury Plain, from Tours From Antiquity.  At 7 a.m., we board the 16-passenger coach on the Cromwell Road, across the street from the Natural History Museum.  We have backpacks with coat, hats, and snacks.  After a week of pleasant June weather in London, today it is raining.

Our archeologist introduces himself as the coach proceeds out of London, as Dr. Edward Shepherd of the University of York.  The other tour patrons are a couple of families —  parents with older children – and other couples like ourselves.  We fill the coach.  The driver’s name is Trevor.

Dr. Shepherd ventures that it might be better weather out on Salisbury Plain, since we may drive under the weather front.

An hour and a half later we arrive at Woodhenge, not far from Amesbury.  As the coach approaches the site, Dr. Shepherd – Edward – takes the microphone and tells us more about what we will see.  We arrive at a broad flat grassy plot inside a fence, next to a small car park, surrounded by farmland.  There is a pattern of short, round concrete pylons sticking out of the ground, marking where the postholes were located.  In spattering rain, we walk among the markers, trying to image that here stands a forest of wooden posts – perhaps decorated?  Then Edward points to the pastures around us and describes the huge circular structure we are standing in, Durrington Walls.  Almost eradicated due to long years of weather, the bank is still discernible.  My husband Ed starts with his questions.  Has anyone dug within the circle, and if so what was found? Were any artifacts found when Woodhenge was investigated?

A field with concrete posts in it.

Woodhenge, near Amesbury, Wiltshire

Edward answers, and begins to look at us with more interest.  He realizes he has a couple of people on his tour who are intensely interested, already have some knowledge, and want to know more.

Next stop, Stonehenge.  Again, an orientation from Edward at the microphone as we approach the site.  Trevor slides the coach into a slot in the small car park, which is already full of cars and some tour buses.  Edward is an active young man and he heads straight in to the ticket kiosk to arrange entry for his tour.  The rest of us are in need of a toilet break.

DrEdwardShepherdAfter an orientation at the map showing what the stone circle looked like at its most complete, we pass under the road and up the sloped path, and look left.  There is the henge, hulking in the field like forgotten project of building blocks mislaid by a giant.  We must walk around the circle on a tarmac path, outside a rope boundary.  No one is permitted to walk among the stones any longer.

Ed and I stay with Edward as we walk around the circle, gazing at the stones.  Edward pauses periodically to talk to members of his group about something underfoot or about the stones.  At the far end of the path, we have almost but not quite circumnavigated Stonehenge.  He points out the pasture where an ancient  wide route marked by stones, called an avenue, once led from the Avon River to Stonehenge.  If it were not raining, he says, we would go out there and walk on the avenue.  I am so sad, I wanted to walk on the avenue, but I did not bring Wellington boots.  And there is nothing to see in the field.  Edward had an archeological season here, in one of the many recent investigations of Stonehenge that continues to shed light on what occurred at the henge four thousand years ago.

In the other direction, at the far side of the grassy sward that surrounds Stonehenge, I see a small cluster of travel trailers parked on a dirt road near a lone tree. I ask Edward, “Is that a group of archeologists conducting a dig?”  He smiles ruefully.  “No, that’s the Druids.  They stick around and keep an eye on the site.  There is no proven connection between the people who built Stonehenge and Druid beliefs.”  But the site has been adopted by modern Druids, who gain full access to the site on the summer stolstice.

A field with some large gray standing stones

Stonehenge, near Amesbury, Wiltshire

In heavy rain, we return to the coach, which becomes steamy inside.  Trevor drives west down the road, and we start to see heavy construction machinery along the road.  Edward tells us some astonishing news.  British Heritage is building a large new visitor’s center a mile from Stonehenge.  When it is complete, they will tear out the A360 that goes so close to the site.  Visitors will be ferried to the circle in battery-powered coaches.  No more diesel trucks roaring past the stones.  They will stand alone in a field again, except for the visitors.  I cheer.

Tours From Antiquity was founded by Dr. Edward Shepherd in 2011.  In seeking additional archeologist-guides in addition to himself, he wrote in the University of York Department of Archeology newsletter, “The USP [unique selling proposition] of the tours is the opportunity to visit these landscapes, the whole landscape, as we walk between many of the key monuments … guided by an archaeologist, offering hopefully a more detailed, passionate guiding experience.” He added, “The job itself is lots of fun, visiting famous archaeological sites, talking to small groups of people who are interested in the subject, and the daily pay is great … at least compared with the daily wage of many heritage-based jobs: I should know!”

I will return to the next portion of the tour in my next blog post.

Recommended!  Tours From Antiquity