Project - Photographer's Statement
A. My Photographic Assumptions About This Project
Perhaps it is a mark of me getting a little older, but for this project I wished to return to the kind of "feel" my 35mm film cameras used to give me when I started making night photographs back in the early 1980s. Accordingly my Avebury images here have been created with a budget APS-C format camera, mostly pushed to 1600 ISO to simulate film grain and to achieve a slightly reduced range of colours. The lens I chose to use most was the excellent and fast Sigma 18-35mm f1.8. This lens at its widest angle setting gave me a perspective similar to my much loved 28mm f2.8 "M" series objective on the good old ME Super 35mm film camera of my youth, although I am the first to appreciate that the older technology couldn't deliver the round star images that digital can - trails were the order of the day back then! This was a major deficiency with film, with digital you get to choose whether you want fixed or trailed stars.
This attempt to return to the imagery of a simpler time reminds me that as
a photographer I have always prized the atmosphere of my images above all other
considerations. All the technical photographic perfections that are
meant to be so important like absence of grain, corner sharpness,
lack of vignetting, correct use of the “law of thirds” and so
forth, have never been my guides, never seemed worthwhile as long as
my images felt atmospheric to me. I want to prove to myself through
my photographs that the world only appears dull when I am being
lazy, not looking hard enough, failing to see the true wonder of what
is in front of my nose at that moment. I have not always found that task
B. What Avebury Means To Me
is why my discovery of Avebury has been so very important to me. I
have never been anywhere so incredibly redolent of other times and
other worlds as this. Avebury is nothing if not atmospheric,
visiting at night has been like leaving the planet and going
somewhere completely new and unexpected, and strangely finding a
welcome there. This large and freely accessible site was built in
Neolithic times by approximately 30 generations of people whose outlook, religion
and concept of art are so very different to our own, particularly with their astonishing emphasis on symbolism. Exploring any
site at night means to some extent abandoning our normal rational and
complacent vision and sense of security, and instead opening
ourselves up to the true spirit of an alien place. At Avebury this
means being highly aware of the site's creators who stamped their
personality so intensely on this landscape. Indeed while photographing at night at Avebury the echos of their intense spirituality makes it very difficult to feel that you are ever completely alone. Its not usually creepy <1>, on the contrary there is usually a sense of goodwill here. Its a gentle and strange feeling, and its definitely stronger at night.
Avebury was abandoned for huge swathes of time after the Neolithic ended <2>. Time that has erased nearly all of the folklore its builders sought to represent in their works of earth and stone, much of their purpose forgotten forever. While time has robbed us of Avebury's mythology it has also washed away memories of the fear and darkness that once co-existed with the beauty of the Neolithic, a fear of death and starvation, fear of the cycles of nature stalling, and the fear of the supernatural. Its not helpful to sugarcoat the Neolithic which was a harsh period in many ways, but ironically the amnesia wrought by the passage of time has amplified many of Avebury's more positive attributes. Today, amazingly, Avebury survives as a living monument, people come here to feel in touch with their predecessors, mother nature, the seasons and the skies. The stones tell us of an alien but wonderful humanity, they speak to us now largely of awe and beauty. I am sure that countless visitors have a favourite stone that in some way they build into their lives. I have seen people touching the stones, even lifting their children high into them. Others tie ribbons onto local trees, seeking help from the forces of nature. Surely these acts show that some of the original meaning of Avebury survives, it has come to life again. (This is in sad contrast to nearby Stonehenge, which has been reduced to a consumer tourist hotspot, a corralled charging opportunity which can only be seen by fettered visitors who must tramp dismally round the central monuments on a circular track, like inmates at a prison, watched over by guards. Any sense of a real connection with the past there gone. While Stonehenge has become a dead end tourist trap, Avebury remains a city of dreams, a mystical contract between the past, the present, and our collective subconscious).
Avebury seems to me to be a unique night photography place. Aubrey Burl wrote that understanding the site is like "trying to touch shadows, to see in the dark the people who have gone and left no word or sound behind them". Here I literally go into the dark to see their works and try to imagine what they might have said to me. Unlike us moderns, with our addiction to the television screen, Avebury's creators would have been very familiar with the landscape here at night, its moods and magic, and I am convinced that an emotional understanding of Avebury must also include an appreciation of its nocturnal aspect. The night can reveal truths and feelings that the day cannot.
C. The Faces and Signs In The Stones
The Importance Of Professor Meaden's Vision In "The Secrets Of The Avebury Stones", Souvenir Press, 1999
Part of Avebury's living legacy left to us by its creators are of course the dramatic effects produced by the sculptures. The very existence of sculpture at Avebury is controversial. Some archaeologists deny that the stones incorporate any images at all <3> but that seems to me to ignore the plain evidence of our senses. The main exception to this academic myopia is Professor Meaden <4>, who has considered the stones most deeply. When I visit and photograph the monuments it is in many ways his Avebury that I see. If I understand him correctly, his vision is something like a scale or spectrum of artistic intervention:
i). At one end of the spectrum are the stones that have not been dressed in any way. Many of these happened to remind the creators of recognisable forms, in the same way that if you or I lay on a hillside and watched the clouds we would soon "see" faces and characters in the sky (Pareidolia). The art here is merely one of the selection of found objects, not their creation.
ii). At the other end of the scale are stones which were extensively carved as statues, often carefully shaped so as to become most visible when lit by the sun or moon at specific times and seasons.
iii). In the middle of the spectrum are stones which originally looked similar to characters in the rough, but which the creators then edited/carved to a greater or lessor degree, again refining their designs with the intention that their art would emerge and recede depending on the time of day and season of the year they were viewed at.
Avebury is a delightful paradox, a temple intended to honour the spirits and the natural order by creating static art works that "move" as the light around them changed. Clearly the neolithic people saw the curves, masses and root holes of raw sarsen as inherently suggestive of bodies, faces and eyes. Sometimes, perhaps very often, these natural impressions in erected stones were enough to represent some spiritual/mythological character, but in a significant minority of cases the naturally occurring suggestive elements (simulacra) were not enough, and the stones were carved and thereby completed by skilled neolithic artists. Claims by some archaeologists that none of the stones were manipulated are bizzare and will not do. This is frustatingly like "The Emperor's New Clothes" but in reverse. Many faces are plainly visible to the lay visitor, but apparently invisible to archaeological orthodoxy. I assert that the camera does not lie, and even in my limited photo essay on this site there is ample evidence that some of the stones were labouriously and skillfully crafted.
D. Conditioning The Subconscious
It doesn't much matter which specific stones are identified as simulacra and which as sculptures. The key point is that by creating some artificial faces the neolithic builders effectively primed visitors to subconciously expect more and more characters in the apparently organically shaped sarsens, multiplying the power of the monuments many times over. The creative result is that visitors/worshippers saw faces absolutely everywhere, both artificial and natural! The Avebury sculptural style was cleverly designed to express the roiling animism of the neolithic worldview - one swarming with spirits bursting out of the basic fabric of matter.
In short, Avebury's creators took massive advantage of the way human brains look for patterns in the environment - not bad for stone age farmers. This process of amplification may well have been ramped up further by encouraging worshippers to take hallucinogenics and perform shamanistic rituals like dancing to exhaustion, fasting or drumming. There is something distinctly trippy about Avebury.
E. The Carvers' Ability To Convey Multiple Meanings On Each Stone
Many of the stones show different characters and signs as you walk around them, and as you adjust your attention from the small scale to the larger, and back again. Some constructed features are only inches across, whilst others occupy the silhouette of the entire stone. Instead of sculpture transmitting just one meaning, at Avebury there is an almost quantum superposition of states/images. The ability built into some stones to adopt differing identities depends here on the position of the viewer and the direction of light falling on the carvings at any one time. This is a very sophisticated form of art, not seen in other ancient cultures whose more rectilinear and dressed stone techniques often give a superficial sense of being more advanced than the rough stones of Wiltshire. At Avebury the commitment to deep and varied symbolism is exhilarating and unparalleled anywhere in the world.
F. Aesthetics From West Kennet Long Barrow
I believe that the key to understanding Avebury is to understand its "founding chapel", West Kennet Long Barrow. There you can see many sculptures incorportated into the design, some of which were possibly originally stand-alone pieces later dragged to the barrow and walled in, or added to the facade. We have among other things, animals (eg snakes, a calf/deer head and something else like a mule's head resting on its side just inside the entrance), human heads looking to one side in profile (almost an Avebury trademark it apears so often all over the greater henge site), a skull, a stargazer and abstract symbols (for example the M shaped stone 47 in the facade) and eyeholes peeking out of stones. This aesthetic and system was clearly replicated and referenced in the later stone constructions at Avebury Henge and West Kennet Avenue. The aesthetics of the stones at Avebury Henge and Kennet Avenue are a recapitulation and amplification of the barrow's forms (which themselves almost certainly refer to an older aesthetic/belief system).
G. Final Word
There can be no real doubt about the artificiality of many of the Avebury faces. This is an understanding based on the sheer quantity of repeated imagery to be seen all over Avebury, faces and characters forced out of the ancient raw sarsen by skilled artists - artists who have been dead (depending on which part of Avebury you are thinking of) for somewhere between 45 and 56 centuries! They ensured that we are surrounded here by
neolithic gods, spirits, icons, heroes, fertility symbols, animals, star-gazers and constellation
figures. Viewing/photographing these at night is especially fruitful, perhaps because the restraining "reason" of the day is no longer a fetter on our minds (also the ability to place artificial lights just so allows easy access to carvings otherwise only visible at particular times of day and at particular seasons of the year!).
hope that my photographs contain some echoes at least of this mystical company, but I should state that my work is not a catalogue of stones. Rather it is a personal attempt to explore and celebrate the
intimacy, scale and diversity of the monuments, their congruity with
nature and what remains of the neolithic creators' mythological heritage - a heritage presided over by the feminine creative force that they so clearly worshipped <5>.
<1> The most frightening character at Avebury is the west looking face on West Kennet Avenue's Stone 36a. I admit to quickening my pace when walking past her in the dark! Also the dead/alive visage on Stone 5 of the Henge's south-west quadrant can be fairly worrying at night.
<2> An abandonment made even more poignant by DNA research which suggests that the neolithic race that built Avebury practically died out in ancient times, to be replaced by the Beaker People coming to Britain from the east [Nature volume 555, pages 190–196 (08 March 2018)]. According to archaeologist Ian Armit (quoted in the Guardian dated 22/2/2018) the extinction of the neolithic/Avebury people was "not necessarily a story of violent conquest .... There
is some evidence of a declining population and increased growth of
forests, suggesting that agriculture was in decline. We could be looking
at climate change, or even an epidemic of imported disease to which
they had no resistance. But we certainly now have the evidence that they
were replaced – and they never came back.”
The pathos of this is overwhelming, the creators of Avebury represented a race that was soon to be erased from the human story, and therefore are not the ancestors of modern Britons. Avebury is not really part of our heritage in the way we envisaged, but that of a perished race. Just as worthy of study and veneration, but more alien and lost than we realised before.
the almost intractable nature of sarsen and the fact that the majority of large blocks had been at least half-buried when men came for them it is difficult to believe that the boulders were specifically chosen for their human likenesses. The features
were very probably fortuitous. Even the writer has observed some similarities, often after a glass or two of Wadworth's 6X ." (Aubrey Burl ~ "Prehistoric Avebury" 2nd Ed, Yale University Press
As you might expect I am not convinced by these arguments:
a) Burl's contention that sarsen is too intractable basically boils down to his belief that carving it would be too hard work! It's worth pointing out that the culture that created Avebury was quite willing to drag 25 ton megaliths 25 miles from the Marlborough Downs to Stonehenge (and then pound them into regular shapes with sophisticated joints like giant chunks of wood), or to pile up 35 million basket loads of rubble to create Silbury Hill. Whatever else we might criticise the Neolithic farmers for being, we cannot claim that they were workshy. Compared to the unimaginable physical effort Stonehenge and Silbury required, the labour needed to carve statues in situ at Avebury would seem relatively trivial, frankly.
b) The fact that the stones were originally found half hidden in the ground of course does not prevent the visible, upper sides being checked for simulacra or suitability for carving. Once a stone was so selected it was dragged into final position at Avebury, and erected. From that point on its previously invisible side became easily available for inspection and carving.
If you visit Avebury yourself you can see clear evidence for this process on Stone 29a, West Kennet Avenue, where the previously hidden, earth bound side of the monolith can be identified by clear linear drag marks (you don't flip a heavy stone before you drag it). This hitherto concealed underside was subsequently carved (after the stone's erection) with a crude left looking face. The juxtaposition of the carved animal face next to the drag marks prove that the neolithic artists had no difficulty in working on freshly revealed areas of sarsen. Areas that could have played no part in the initial decision to harvest this particular sarsen over others.
c) His joke that you need alcoholic assistance to see the faces in the stones is unhelpful. This matters a good deal, because if Avebury were to be widely recognised as a repository of art then archaeology would be greatly advanced. Accordingly this issue needs to be addressed seriously even by its critics. This is especially true after the publication of Meaden's Secrets book, with its detailed analysis and exhaustive photography documenting Avebury face after face after face.
<4> See also Dr Prendergast on my Links page.
<5> (witness inter alia the enormous vulvas displayed on West Kennet Barrow's Stone 45 and Avebury Henge's Stone 106 - see Prof Meaden's book on the Avebury stones.
See also J D Wakefield's remarkable book "Legendary Landscapes - Secrets Of Ancient Wiltshire Revealed" in which he posits the existence of a massive neolithic representation of a reclining woman fashioned out of the Pewsey Hills - a figure that I often pick out myself driving through the Vale of Pewsey. This Alton Barnes Goddess has breasts made from Tan and Milk (!) Hills, with nipples marked by Adam's Grave Long Barrow and Milk Hill Barrow, with a pregnant belly represented by Knap Hill (with a navel marked by a bowl barrow). From Knap a track representing an umbilical arcs down into the fields, fields representing the crops and natural bounty that the Goddess has just given birth to - appropriate imagery for the farmers that placed her here, people whose very lives depended on the harvest. The Alton Barnes Goddess nestles close to the south of the West Kennet Long Barrow region, and must be considered a key if surprisingly little known component of the Avebury complex).