Avebury Project (2016 - 2024)
A personal project dedicated to archaelogists Keiller and Meaden, scholars who have done so much to reconstruct and revive the great glory of Avebury. All errors and omissions on this site, however, are my own.
Juxtaposed Neolithic Carved And Pareidolic Stone Faces
Key: Avebury Henge = Light Purple, West Kennet Avenue = Green, Beckhampton Avenue = Yellow,
West Kennet Long Barrow = Blue, Silbury Hill = Pink, Bank and Ditch = Peach, Alton Barnes Goddess = White
My son Joshua's comment, looking at the images above was "Kind of funny that in the background of those is me being cold somewhere." (27/11/2020). Joshua kindly accompanied me for the Avebury shoots which meant I had to keep less of a lookout than usual for other inhabitants of the night. For one of the photographs at least we were shadowed by someone mentally or narcotically challenged who insisted on serenading us with random squawking noises. Other times we were surrounded by amorous cows whose activities kept threatening to overthrow my lighting stand.
If you are new to Avebury you might be surprised to learn there is a controversy about the monoliths. Very many ordinary visitors to the site observe faces appearing on the stones, faces that change their appearance and visibility according to the time of day and year. You might think this would be universally accepted proof that the stones were artistically carved by our ancient predecessors, but you would be wrong. Bizarrely it is often claimed that the faces do not exist, that they are merely the products of the mind attempting to impose order onto the meaningless noise of random marks on the sarsen stones - examples of a kind of lithic Rorschach inkblot test. My photographs are partly intended to explore, and rebut this view. Yes of course there are simulacra at Avebury, but many even of these were deliberately selected, and for the dense concentration of faces on many of the individual stones to be explained as mere chance is actually quite unthinking, mathematically improbable. Additionally it is striking that these supposedly random faces are often themed and furthermore usually appear either completely upright or have some other explicable orientation, such as looking up to the zenith, or to the southern equatorial sky. The themes and orientations of the faces are very often not random at all.
The Avebury faces need to be studied properly, in the same way that carvings at neolithic Newgrange, Barningham Moor, Dunchraigaig Cairn, Rombald's Moor and even Stonehenge itself are studied - if recognised carvings are possible at all these places why not at Avebury? Some say the sarsens at Avebury were too hard to carve, they conveniently overlook the totally accepted existence of far larger scale carving and dressing of sarsens at nearby Stonehenge! (although it is clear that the difficulty carving sarsen did of course affect the style of the Avebury carvings which are often minimalist and sometimes rather attenuated. According to Stover and Kraig a hammer stone can remove 6 cubic inches of sarsen an hour, p92, so there is no credible theoretical objection to artistic carving having been possible at Avebury). This lack of even handedness between assessing the stones of Avebury compared to those of Stonehenge is a good example of the unhelpful bias which holds back Avebury studies.
Avebury had a spiritual ethos and artistic style of its own and it often takes time even to find the sculptures, let alone attempt to interpret their meaning. This is basically because the Avebury artworks were deliberately intended to be accessed by tribal initiates mainly at certain times of the day and year, possibly forbidden to ordinary people without priestly involvement - each lithic face illuminated from a specific direction which of course differed according to the position, orientation and meaning of the particular carving to be worshipped. This, of course, can make the faces hard to find because you need light coming in from the proper angle at the exact time you are looking. Even when "activated" by the right light the carvings were intended to blend with nature (not to compete with her) or to gently accentuate/liberate spirits already living in the sarsen, this too can make them hard to find. The very evanescence of the faces marks them out as belonging mystically to another, supernatural world, rather than the fully delineated, grossly obvious forms of our own. I have often had the experience of trying to find a particular known face in different lighting, or at a different time of day, and cannot find it. It is as if the stone has magically absorbed the carving, and this process must have been at least as awe inspiring to our neolithic predecessors as it is to me. Presumably they would have believed that the spiritual figure represented on the monolith had returned to the supernatural realm, and will return again at the appropriately magical time. Photographing at night is such a powerful tool for discovering these hidden faces, I can activate them at will, I don't have to wait for the sun or moon to oblige me.
There are certainly plenty of sceptical critics who will swear blind that there are no monolithic artworks at Avebury, merely natural stone illusions to fool the credulous or overly romantic (we have been variously denounced in print as being poetic, jocular, optimistic, drunk even - apparently we are not sufficiently "prosaic"). The doubters here fail to engage with (i) the existence of toolmarks on the stones (ii) the repetition of designs/themes displayed on the stones (iii) the positions/juxtapositions of the carvings and (iv) the rich collections of material set out in Meaden and Pattison's books, material which sets out in detail how and why the monoliths were decorated with carved animistic faces and symbols.
The creators of Avebury are well known to have been illiterate, why is it therefore surprising that they should have chosen to incorporate imagery and visual symbols into their labouriously built and nationally important temple?? I cannot think of any major culture which failed to place permanent visual art on their buildings, why would we expect less from the Avebury people? Clearly, the Avebury monoliths meant something and were chosen, labouriously moved into place, and then shaped to produce specific outlines hosting detailed carvings. The monoliths are not mere markers in the landscape, such an assumption seriously underestimates the intelligence, artistry and piety of the neolithic people who were interested in spirits and the forces of nature, not traffic bollards.
On the other hand, from the sceptics I have never seen or heard any proper discussion of the topic at all, just simple blunt denials that there are any carvings at Avebury, as though the truth were knee-jerk self-evident, and that photographic evidence was irrelevant.
[It's worth pointing out that even on their own terms the sceptics fail - even assuming that they are correct in interpreting the faces as completely natural (which is of course untrue) surely this begs a crucial question. This is how exactly did the neolithic builders of Avebury select, place and juxtapose monoliths in order to convince their worshippers that the stones contained spirits? This must have been the intention, which is why to this day so many visitors to the monuments see so many faces].
Happily, the sceptics are wrong. It is blatantly, blatantly, clear that some artificial changes have been made to the monoliths (presumably for religious reasons) even if there is plenty of legitimate room for disagreement about the precise nature of many putative faces. Why can't the sceptics catch up? I've given it a lot of thought:
One of the key lessons of Avebury is that neolithic people were subtle artists inspite of the apparent crudity of their sarsen medium. Their work still presents us with a set of unique and exhilarating puzzles - multifaceted sculptures hiding in plain sight. There is therefore no obligation for any particular commentator to accept the existence of artworks here - but it does bother and surprise me that the issue is viewed as being absolutely untouchable, perceived as the territory of the gullible or flaky. It brings home to me that as well as being brilliant, Professor Meaden has been incredibly brave. Denying that something exists is easy, affirmation on the other hand, takes effort. This Avebury minisite is my own small contribution to the large scale Avebury research project initiated by Meaden's 1999 book, a project which will inevitably be completed by the scholars of the future.
The True Genius Of The Neolithic Sculptors - Deliberately Conditioning The Subconscious
It is not absolutely essential for us now to agree which faces are completely natural simulacra and which are sculptures - due to the attentuated style often employed at Avebury many of the faces are quite ambiguous as to their precise mode of creation/operation. The key point is that by creating some artificial faces the neolithic artists effectively primed visitors to subconsciously expect more and more sacred characters to appear on the strange, apparently organically shaped sarsens, multiplying the power and number of their carvings many times over. The artists were priming the subconscous minds of their audience to conjure up new, temporary and entirely subjective sacred faces in the monoliths for religious purposes - a strikingly creative partnership between the sculptors and the pious viewing congregations of the new stone age. Their lithic effects made even more productive and exciting by utilising the additional hallucinatory effects of moving torchlights, flickering bonfires, drumming, dancing and fasting to exhaustion, shamanic ceremony and natural narcotics.
For clarity I will restate this idea a different way. The psychological conditioning intended by the Avebury sculptors was fostered by their deliberate creation of a relatively small number of well executed sculptures. The finding of these artificial faces by visitors was intended to prime their minds to subconsciously interpret entirely natural features on the stones as additional faces. It should go without saying therefore that simulacra necessarily outnumber the actual carvings. This inevitable imbalance apparently allows modern sceptics to ignore the issue entirely because all they need do is point out one or two obvious simulacra and hold that all the other marks on the monoliths must be simulacra too!
Given the current mindset of denial even very clear carvings will be dismissed automatically, and that has been my experience. Never mind, the sarsens are very patient, and future generations of researchers will see the light, presumably aided by detailed 3D scans of the stones, a process which I believe has already established the existence of carvings at Stonehenge [click here for link to New Scientist article] - as is stated prophetically there the “... possibility that other unknown carvings exist on the other stones is very exciting and may hopefully lead to a more complete interpretation of Stonehenge.” Indeed, and I am utterly convinced that when the scanners come north to comprehensively survey the surfaces of the Avebury stones, an absolute goldmine of prehistoric art and symbolism will be both confirmed and revealed - a superb and unique treasury that will once again reiterate Aubrey's famous statement that Avebury does "as much excell Stonehenge as a cathedral does a
My years photographing Avebury have given me a profound admiration for our neolithic predecessors. They only possessed the clothes they stood in and simple tools of wood, stone and bone, yet the imagination and sophistication of their works is truly astounding.
This project can never be complete, there are many Avebury carved faces known to me that I have not photographed, often because they may be inferior versions of work I have already recorded. And in addition to the artworks here that I know about, at Avebury there is the certainty that I have unknowingly walked by the most stunning carvings! The ancient sculptors worked here for more than 1000 years (c. 3000 - 1800 BC) and I cannot flatter myself than I have found everything they created. Additionally, there must be more sacred art buried with the stones of the Beckhampton Avenue and in East Kennet Long Barrow. The archaeologists of the future will inherit a fabulous trove of neolithic art. I hope they will learn to appreciate what they find here. For now, with one or two honourable exceptions, the silence on the topic is deafening.
The words "amazing","unique" and "awesome" are seriously overused in our spiritually bankrupt culture, but Avebury embodies all three. I believe that the characters, faces and figures carved into the enduring stones of Avebury were reproduced in wooden monuments throughout Britain. Monuments decorated and carved by pilgrims returning from Wiltshire, their heads and hearts filled with the miraculous art of Avebury. Indeed it is possible that the Avebury carvings were well known to travellers from the continent also, meaning that the site was a world center of religious neolithic art. What has been lost to decay elsewhere is preserved here, preserved in sarsen.
Page updated 05/February/2024