NEOLITHIC ROCK ART AT THE AVEBURY STONE CIRCLES IN SOUTHERN ENGLAND
Terence MEADEN, Kate PRENDERGAST, Di PATTISON
Keywords: Avebury, megalithic art, rock art, Neolithic Wessex.
ABSTRACT: There is strong academic research on a range of different rock art traditions in Neolithic Britain. In particular, extensive work has explored the rock art associated with the passage-graves of Ireland and Scotland, and the open-air rock art of Northern Ireland, Scotland and northern England. These traditions, some of which appear to be related to Breton rock art, span much of the Neolithic era, and represent a major expressive medium for these societies. This paper argues that comparable rock art also exists in Neolithic Wessex, specifically at the Avebury stone circles in southern England. It presents evidence for dressed and carved stones and suggests that potential meanings associated with such carvings are integral to the wider ritual and symbolic uses of the monument. Hence it signifies a major, hitherto unrecognised , regional rock art tradition in Neolithic Britain.
The existence of developed rock art traditions across the European Neolithic is well established. In a recent summary, Bradley, Chippendale and Helskog identified the range and extent of regionally-based traditions (in press). Although these traditions draw on particular influences, follow their own trajectories and have important differences, nevertheless most seem to be associated with the introduction of agriculture and house-based settlement. The proliferation of rock art across Europe after the onset of agriculture may be part of a wider set of responses to agriculture, both in terms of indigenous Mesolithic groups already resident in outlying areas of western and northern Europe, and of the ways in which Neolithic economic and social systems developed across Europe until the introduction of metallurgy.
A major consequence of the arrival of agriculture was the emergence and development of monuments (Bradley 1998). Much of the earliest Neolithic rock art in Europe is associated with monuments. This should be seen as an integral part of the developing skills involved in dressing and positioning great megaliths in the landscape. The rapid evolution of monumental forms from c.4500 BC in areas where Mesolithic populations were well established (including Scandinavia, Iberia, Brittany, Ireland and Scotland) would indicate indigenous influences on monument building (Bradley 1998:51-67). In these areas we see the development of new forms of monument: chambered long barrows and passage graves, and the emergence of a rich megalithic art associated with them.
In Britain, whereas chambered long barrows have a distribution that includes central southern
England, round passage-graves have an exclusively western and northern distribution. Passage-graves appear to originate in Iberia and Brittany, and along with the simpler portal dolmens, spread relatively rapidly to Cornwall, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Monumental rock art in Brittany is associated with passage-graves: intensely elaborate examples of passage-grave art exist, for example at the Gavrinis passage-grave. It is also associated with decorated menhirs , sometimes singly, sometimes with individual or groups of monuments. Some are explicitly anthropormorphic , as for example carved standing stones like La Gran’mere du Castel (Guernsey), Prajou Menhir (Cote-du-Nord) and Laniscar (Finistere).
In Ireland, rock art is closely associated with passage-graves. Large passage-grave cemeteries, as at Loughcrew , County Meath , are associated with the emergence of a distinctive art form (Sheridan 1986: 23-27). This was superseded by the seemingly authoritative sets of engravings found at the Boyne valley passage-graves Newgrange , Knowth and Dowth. Comparable art with similar motifs are found in passage-graves in northern Scotland, and at open-air rock art sites across northern Britain and Ireland. Interpretations are ongoing, and include those that explicitly link the Loughcrew and Boyne Valley art to astronomical properties of the monuments (Brennan 1983, O’ Brien 1988, Prendergast 2004).
In northern Britain the later Neolithic is typified by new forms of monument: henges , stone circles and related types. Rock art is frequently associated with such monuments. Bradley (1997) has argued that open-air rock art has direct associations with these monumental forms: distribution patterns indicate that such art becomes more elaborate the closer it is to a ceremonial site.
Whereas the Neolithic megalithic and rock art traditions of northern and western Britain have been well researched, less work has been done out on rock art in southern England. This is partly because the evidence is not as abundant or obvious as in the north and west. Little investigation has been undertaken for evidence of rock art at the chambered long barrows of the earlier Neolithic in southern and central England, so our understanding of stone-carving traditions in these areas remains limited (Meaden 1999).
In southern England earlier Neolithic monuments came to be replaced by great ceremonial sites centred on impressive timber and stone circles. The largest, and one of the most elaborate of such ceremonial centres was at Avebury in Wessex . The sheer scale and complexity of the later Neolithic megalithic landscape in Avebury is astonishing. In total, about 600 sarsen megaliths were erected at Avebury, in complex arrangements comprising stone circles, avenues and Coves, during a time span approaching five centuries: c.2900-2400 BC.
Comparable ceremonial monuments were erected across Wessex during the same time span. The most famous is Stonehenge. Yet, despite the scale and elaboration of megalithic culture at these sites, little recent work has been undertaken on the stone-working methods used to dress the sarsens. At Stonehenge, the working and dressing of the sarsen stones is undeniable. It is common knowledge that woodworking traditions are echoed in the lintel joints, and research is being carried out on the early Bronze Age rock art (depicting daggers and axes) evident on some stones (Goskar 2003). But little attention has been given to the extent and detail of the late Neolithic working of the sarsens. Even less work has been done at Avebury , and most archaeologists assume that, unlike at Stonehenge, the sarsens at Avebury are in their natural state (but see Meaden 1999). In this paper we argue that many of Avebury’s megaliths are not only worked in ways typical of many megaliths in the western European Neolithic, but that there is deliberate and complex imagery carved into many of the standing stones.
Of the original standing stones at Avebury's circles and avenues, only 80 out of 600 can be seen today. A few dozen more remain buried; hundreds have been destroyed. Avebury’s sarsen stones were brought a short distance from nearby sarsen beds on the Marlborough Downs. This was also the origin of the sarsens that were taken to Stonehenge 30 km distant. Sarsen is a very hard siliceous sandstone of Lower Eocene date, the result of cementation of sand beds overlying the Cretaceous Chalk at a time when they lay beneath the sea, and at some early period the sandstone beds cracked through shrinkage into their characteristic polygonal forms. Subsequently, following geological uplift, the sarsen beds were raised to their present heights on the chalk hills of the Marlborough Downs. The hardness of sarsen varies greatly, from a friable sandstone to the fully-developed sarsen variety known as quartzite.
The dressing of the Stonehenge megaliths was examined by earlier generations of archaeologists in Wessex. Herbert Stone (1924: 75-98) was among the first to do so. His manuscript notes (at Devizes museum) illustrate his research into various stone-working methods, including energetic mauling, and abrading or polishing and gentler activities, like scaling by using shallow, carefully-controlled firing and hammerstone -beating. Eyewitness accounts of these methods in contemporary use in other countries together with Stone’s conversations with elderly Avebury stonebreakers are recorded and discussed in personal correspondence. Stone (1924:49) nevertheless stated of Stonehenge that in its quartzite form sarsen “is extremely hard and cannot be scratched, or even marked, with a hard steel tool.” The Neolithic stonemasons of Stonehenge therefore chose the hardest quartzite boulders for their mauls to define the initially-desired form. In India Herbert Stone watched how granite was quarried by this method. After repeated use, the 20 kg mauls (being thrown from head-height to crack a target stone on the ground) increasingly wore to their characteristic football-size form. The finer work at Stonehenge was achieved by abrading the surface with a rubbing stone over a scatter of wetted sharp flint grit—a much-discussed and very laborious process not far different from modern wet-and-dry grinding methods.
In contrast Herbert Stone noted in his manuscript that shallow firing (by stoneworkers boiling water for their tea beside a stone) sometimes resulted in the outer skin of a stone flaking away in a localised area. This also browns the skin of the stone—a phenomenon observed by Passmore at Avebury in 1919-20 and recorded in his manuscript (MS. 1920: Pt 4, p. 9). Stone’s manuscript includes an eyewitness account of an African woman rhythmically and relatively gently beating a stone to shape it with a cricket-ball-sized (c.80 mm) hammerstone. The result at the edge of a shallow-fired zone would be a well-defined edge separating the burnt and hammered surfaces—i.e. a lower surface on the hammered side and a characteristic pattern of small arcs and rounded hollows left by the tool. This sharp contrast of brown and the natural stone colour , and the ‘irregular line between the two different surfaces’, was noted at Avebury by Passmore who concluded ‘it has been tooled off’ – and we avow the same thing. .
At Avebury , Keiller and Piggott had no doubt that the stones had been dressed. Writing in Antiquity (1936: 420): “The stones...have hitherto been erroneously referred to as 'rough unhewn blocks of sarsen '. Actually these megaliths have been dressed, and very carefully dressed, although not, it should be noted, to the flat surface obtained at Stonehenge. Moreover there can be no question but that the stones were dressed deliberately to conform to certain required shapes, and to this end were in the first place selected as near to the required form as possible, with a resultant economy in the labour of the final dressing”.
Keiller and Piggott (1936: 417-27) specifically argued that the lozenge and ‘long phallic’ pairs of stones located in the Kennet Avenue had been explicitly selected and shaped to symbolically represent male and female. Ironically, despite the lack of recent study and the generally prevailing assumption that the Avebury stones were not worked, Keiller and Piggott’s observation about an intended lithic sexuality is widely acknowledged to be correct.
Similar techniques to those known for Stonehenge were used at Avebury. Mauls at Stonehenge helped define the rectilinear blocks of trilithon uprights and lintels upon which distinguishing tell-tale scoop-marks remain visible to this day. It was used, as Herbert Stone observed, in the manner of flint-knapping on a giant scale. An example is the bladed below-ground section of re-erected trilithon Stone 30 carefully drawn by the Office of Works and reproduced by Pitts in Hengeworld (2001: 216) featuring a group of 19 concoidal fractures, five of which are about a metre long, with the smallest group about 30cm in length.
Similar concoidal fractures on Avebury’s sarsens must be seriously considered as artificial because hard sarsen stone rarely breaks like this through natural causes. They are surely deliberate when the evidence points to an ordered or specially placed group, as in the blade formation, a group of uniform size and depth, or a group resulting in a special silhouette shape.
In discussing Avebury, Pitts referred to his observations of ‘ artefactual scarring’ on some stones without specifically referring to the tool or particular examples, and he does comment that this is worthy of further study (personal communication, 2001: 214). We believe that these large shell-shaped fractures help define some of Avebury’s classic silhouettes. They can be seen occurring in groups just above ground level on certain stones (e.g. Avebury Stone 26A, Stone 8) and appear to be good evidence for mauling.
At Stonehenge the matching mortises and tenons were carved, and the tenons stand up to 120 /150 mm proud of the body of the stone. Bladed hard-stone chisel-like tools were used extensively at Avebury, leaving vast numbers of characteristic v-cuts at the terminals of frequently-grouped linear incisions. These are visible to the naked eye in bright directional sunlight. Blade angles can be measured on photographs, and templates can be made from tracings that can be tested for fit against neighbouring marks. This demonstrates the fact of deliberate carving activity, and the number and contrasting blade profiles of the tools. From this and other evidence, such as the cutting direction, the handedness, expertise and stance of the carver, even the time spent working can be potentially determined.
At Stonehenge abrading and polishing techniques are well understood. At Avebury the technique was limited to stones having either special significance due to their size and location (e.g. the inner face of the blocking stone at nearby West Kennet Long Barrow) or those featuring the most advanced sculpture as with Stone 26A in the Kennet Avenue.
An example of what may be wedge-splitting is visible on Avebury’s Stone 4, among others. If the regularly-spaced marks are not natural, then part of the stone was split using a technique similar to that inferred at Stonehenge and Stanton Drew, e.g. lintel 154 at Stonehenge shows regular wedge marks evenly spaced. Although we may be unsure as to how they did it, nonetheless at Stonehenge and Stanton Drew it was certainly done—and very likely at Avebury too.
At Avebury the fervent destruction of megaliths by villagers using intense fire and cold water was famously witnessed by William Stukeley in 1720. However four millennia earlier the monument builders had used this very method with a positive and possibly ritualistic intention. Maud Cunnington (1931) found scorched and fractured sarsen blocks in many post holes at the Sanctuary. In discussing this evidence Dames (1996: 76) concluded that “no explanation of the scorching has been advanced to date. Wood fibre from post bases was found uncharred , so the stones were not burned in a general conflagration. Instead, they were submitted to intense heat before the timbers were erected.” Intense heat—when quenched by water—fractures sarsen uniformly and scorches a brown-red colour more deeply into the body of the stone. Keiller and Piggott’s observations may relate to this practice. Burl rejects any possibility that the burnt sarsens at the Sanctuary were due to stone-burning in more modern times because they had been in the ground for so long and earthen material had been deliberately placed over them. He suggests (2002: 42) a ritualistic purpose commenting that “similar scorching is known in other southern tombs: among them Belas Knap, Tinkinswood, Nympsfield, Rodmarton, Stoney Littleton…it was a widespread Neolithic practice.” In 2006 excavations at ‘stoneless’ Woodhenge have revealed local deposits of burnt sarsen too.
While it is clear that some Avebury stones were worked, in this paper we extend the arguments of Stone, Keiller, Piggott, Passmore and Pitts, to suggest that they were also artistically carved, and on a scale and in quantity and quality commensurate with the grandeur and singular nature of this monument complex. The resulting images are a major feature of the whole and would have played an essential part in its ritual and ceremonial purposes, conceived as they must have been during the stone selection and erection process. They are absolutely not an afterthought, an incidental inclusion, or prehistoric graffiti. The execution of these carvings was skilful and time-consuming, often involving a series of increasingly specialised and creative activities that had to be directed and mastered: these techniques would surely have been passed on and developed from generation to generation.
In this paper, for reasons of space, we present evidence from only two stones as examples of figurative carvings: Stones 206 in the north-circle setting and 26A on the Kennet Avenue.
This splendid megalith weighs about 22 tonnes . A fine human head in south-east right-facing profile is visible from the east (Fig. 1). Most obvious is the well-carved nose, mouth and chin but there is an exquisitely sculptured twisting horn too that rises from the right temple. The eye is a natural feature, and perhaps the major reason that inspired the Neolithic artist to develop the image on this scale at this location. The sculpture is more than a restricted profile because the horned head holds good through about 40 degrees of arc between 205 and 245 degrees east of north. This horned image is one of a small group of surviving sculptures combining the characteristics of animal-human hybrids with the grossly accentuated facial features and iconic motifs of what we recognise as archetypes. Was this figure a hunting deity manifest in human imagery? Close examination reveals a series of v-shaped indentations and linear grooves created by the sculptor’s tool (Fig. 1). They are best identified by inspecting the shapes of shadows and the patterns of lichen growth, the lichen having developed in the micro-environment of the cut marks. Natural hollows and protuberances were accentuated to further enhance this form.
The whole of the eastern side of this anthropomorphic megalith was carved to create a human head in profile facing right (Fig. 2). This straight-sided stone, three metres high, comes under the Type A or ‘male’ category of Keiller and Piggott. The head, which is adorned with a headband or diadem, looks northwards to the Avebury stone circles. Black lines on the photograph indicate the marks of a chisel and the ‘v’ profile of its stone blade. A broad area may have been smoothed using the abrading and polishing technique described earlier. As this is a softer, sandier stone, this area may later have been subject to erosion, which is not evident generally on most of the sarsens.
Stone 26A is very expertly worked. At its base it is coloured brown, indicating some localised and deliberate—but not vandalistic—firing. At the base is a series of plainly-visible concoidal maul-marks. They are neatly grouped and regularly spaced having even depth and uniformity. From a photograph a template of one of these marks can be made and fitted against its neighbours , establishing that a single tool of a particular size having both rounded and sharper sections was responsible for all the shaping at the base of this eastern side of the stone. It is consistent with the carving skill evidenced on Stone 26A that extra time was taken for the final smoothing. Evidence of the care in the chisel work is in the line of tiny v-cuts rising at the junction of two key maul marks. Moving right and facing the narrow end of this stone from the north a second face comes into view with a mouth very cleverly worked under the cheek area of this three-quarter back view. The head-dress featured on this stone suggests that the subject of this carving was perhaps a personage of status and/or veneration, someone worthy of so much effort. This profile is so well sculpted and so realistic that one may suggest that the image may possibly be a portrait.
This introduction to the evidence for abstract and figurative rock art at Avebury demonstrates the reality of a developed rock art tradition in southern England, hitherto un recognised . The presence of such art has significant implications in terms of extending our understanding of Neolithic rock art in Britain.
First, the artwork would have been closely related to the ritual uses and symbolic understandings
associated with the monument. The creation of art-forms may have been linked to initiation ceremonies into the secrets of the stones, whether mythological or spiritual. The lozenge and the pillar or ‘long stone’ were interpreted by Keiller and Piggott in terms of gender symbolism. Burl, Meaden and other writers have related this very specifically to fertility veneration, centrally important in this early agricultural context.
Second, explicitly anthropomorphic motifs may add to other evidence for a Breton influence on late Neolithic Wessex , and may represent a cultural sphere of influence comparable to the passage-grave zone further to the west (cf. Burl 1999: 158-167).
Third, the rock art at Avebury extends our understanding of ceremonial centres in late Neolithic societies, of art history, and of some peoples’ actual clothing, hairstyles and possible appearance. Figurative subject-matter reflects an interest in groups and types of characters including fictitious identities, archetypal figures, possible supernatural beings and deities, animals, animal-human hybrids and individual men and women of all ages including children.
Individually and collectively, the sculptures are integral to their setting. The figures could have communicated visually and metaphorically to reinforce deeply held beliefs and experiences. By their gazes and gestures they react to other features of the human-made environment and to the viewer. By their positioning they are deliberately intended to be revealed and concealed by the moving sun as well as by the approach route or by the angle of view adopted by the beholder. The sculptures and the entire monument are intentionally placed to interact with, and communicate an essence of central importance about, the wider cosmos. As at Stonehenge so at Avebury there are astronomical functions associated with the positioning of certain megaliths, indicating that awareness of the sun and seasons was built into the monument. Moreover, some carved faces at Avebury stare either vertically to the sky or at a very sharp angle towards the heavens. An example of each is located on the topmost part of the inner and outer surfaces of Stone 206.
Avebury’s magnificent rock art testifies to, and is on a scale commensurate with, the obsessions of monument-building groups. It evidences monumental, freestanding, stone sculpture and a superlative technical skill and creative innovation of a regional school of artists that developed their expertise over many generations (Meaden 2007). In the language of contemporary art, Avebury’s circles and avenues are a site-specific land-art installation. Successive generations of artists and craftspeople selected specific materials from that landscape to devise sculpture that responds to and metaphorically communicates something mysterious, esoteric, about that place and the beliefs of that community. We can see how the art is conceptual in being interactive and four-dimensional, the moving sun and the gender imagery playing a central role. Notions of a female deity and a polytheistic tradition can again be openly debated. This, the acceptance within archaeology of the importance of prehistoric rock art, as well as modern observation and recording techniques may help explain why we are only now able to identify and appreciate this highly innovative artwork for what it is.