Night Photography by David Baldwin



Avebury 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 budget APS-C format DSLR cameras, mostly pushed to 1600 ISO to simulate film grain and to achieve a slightly reduced range of colours. The equipment I relied on most were the fast Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 on a Canon body, and more lately a Nikkor 20mm f1.8 on a Nikon body.   These incredible lenses allowed me to obtain a perspective similar to my much loved 28mm f2.8 "M" series Pentax objective on the 35mm film cameras 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 easy.

B. What Avebury Means To Me

Which 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<1>. 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 <2>, 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 <3><4>.   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 - a city of dreams, a mystical contract between the past, the present, and our collective subconscious.   This is in marked contrast to the fate of nearby Stonehenge which has become a mere dead end tourist trap <5>.

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
<6> but that seems to me to ignore the plain evidence of our senses. The main exception to this academic myopia is Professor Meaden <7>, 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 or 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. Many faces are plainly visible to the lay visitor, but apparently invisible to archaeological orthodoxy <8>.  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.

Throughout my life I have been intrigued by the idea that things can be hidden in plain sight, intrigued because I've always been sceptical that this is in fact possible.   At Avebury I have seen masterpieces of subtlety achieving this again and again, demonstrating their creators' astonishing intelligence, creativity and psychological understanding of the ways people do, and do not, see.   There is a tremendous consistency in the neolithic mind displayed here.   Just as the creators hid the Avebury faces in plain sight, they also built the bulk of the entire collosal temple in a slight hollow in the surrounding hills, so that from a distance it is very difficult to see the stone circles and avenues at all.   Silbury Hill confirms the same trend, a huge mound built on ground much lower that much of the surrounding landscape, so the entire artifact is largely hidden away from distant observers.   Art and architecture hidden in plain sight.

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 <9>. 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 <10>.   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, to my knowledge at least, 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 as far as I am aware 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

[Comparison of carved faces on Stone 37b WKA and Cove Stone II, image © David Baldwin]

There can be no real doubt about the artificiality of many of the Avebury faces, something that will rapidly become obvious to carefully observant visitors to the site.   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!).   Spotting a stone face at Avebury is like receiving an echo of emotions and thoughts broadcast to us across the abyss of time, the extreme durability of sarsen proving a partial antidote to the shocking entropy of nature.  

I hope that my photographs on this site will not be seen as a catalogue of stones.   Rather they constitute 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 <11>.


<1>   I've written elsewhere on this site that for me a promising night photography location is like a theatre set when everyone has gone, the location and atmosphere draws extra power precisely because people are absent, either "safe" locked up in well lit homes and cities, or lost in the past.   Avebury, of course, represents a backdrop to people who don't exist anymore, lost in prehistory.

<2>   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.

<3>  According to Burl (p276) "Then, almost abruptly, Avebury was adandoned as though the power of the Marlborough Downs had been overwhelmed by that of the Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge.   Of Middle and Late Bronze Age material, or of the Iron Age very little has been found inside the earthwork .... (no broken Iron Age pottery) has been found at Avebury and it seems that the stones and earthwork were deserted, the bank overgrown, the ditch thick with trees".

<4>    An abandonment made even more poignant by recent DNA research which suggests that the neolithic race that initiated 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 original neolithic farmers 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.”

Furthermore the New Scientist (dated 30 March 2019, pages 29-33) states that pollen levels began to decline around 5300 years ago, demonstrating that agricultural activity and populations in northern and central Europe had begun shrinking.  It is also suggested there that the population decline may also be linked to disease, for example the remains of people who lived in what we now call Sweden have been found to contain plague bacteria.   These factors indicate that the Neolithic populations of Europe were somewhat weakened physically, and new DNA evidence suggests large scale immigration/invasion by aggressive warrior peoples from the east.
The New Scientist calls these invaders Yamnaya, people whose existence was initially posited by Marija Gimbutas - she called them Kurgans.  According to Volker Heyd " ... the geneticists are now coming quite close to what Gimbutas was writing about in the 1960s". 

The pathos of the history revealed by these researches is overwhelming, the originators 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 wholly part of our heritage in the way we envisaged, but a series of monuments initiated by a doomed race, their work to be completed and developed by the later Beaker people who eventually became our ancestors.   All this makes Avebury just as worthy of study and veneration, but more alien and lost than we realised before.

(BTW it is interesting to me that this latest Yamnaya/Kurgan research is confirming key points of Gimbutas' work, I wonder if the archaeological community in general is now better able to reconsider the other main plank of her arguments, that the European Neolithic mainly worshipped the Great Goddess - the main deity on display here at Avebury.   She was right about the Kurgans, so Gimbutas' credibility about the Goddess must be enhanced.)

<5>   Sad to say that Stonehenge has been completely assimilated by the tourist industry, its mystery and majesty packaged up as a corralled charging opportunity which can only be seen by fettered visitors who must tramp dismally round the monument on a track, like inmates at a prison, watched over by guards. Any sense of a real connection with the past there gone.

As well as the experience of a visit itself being degraded, it is ruinously expensive too.  According to English Heritage's website (as at 06/09/2018) an adult ticket to visit Stonehenge costs £19.50.   A family ticket costs a whopping £50.70 ("Come and play by the most famous stones in the world").   Still you may rest assured, during peak times a £5 refundable parking charge is collected on arrival.

<6>   For a detailed analysis of one such archaologist's views please click here.

<7>  See also Dr Prendergast on my Links page.

<8>  Real world opinions on this topic vary enormously.   I once encountered a guide at night on the Avenue, and he admonished me with great emphasis and unshakeable certainty, proclaiming that there were no artworks at Avebury, merely pareidolia.   A few  days later I was in the Avenue again and I saw a painter setting up his easel, and I asked him about the faces in the stones.  His reply was "Well, they're rather obvious, aren't they".

<9>  This conditioning depends on the existence of a relatively small but clearly crafted group of actual sculptures priming visitors to interpret other natural features on the stones as additional faces, because once you have seen some clear Avebury faces you will see more and more with every fold of the rocks, and every pair of fossilised rootholes as eyes.   The simulacra necessarily outnumber the actual carvings.  This inevitable imbalance apparently allows archaeological orthodoxy to ignore the issue entirely.   The  assumption appears to be that all, not just most, of the faces are accidental and the belief that there are sculptures at Avebury isn't worth serious rebuttal.  Of course it is easy for archaeological orthodoxy to overlook the existence of the faces when the most famous textbook links a belief in them with drunkeness as described in note 6 above. 

Future generations, applying advanced digital surveying and AI technologies, will not be so easily deceived.   The carved faces at Avebiry show repeated artistic styles/characters and designs, together with the tool marks left by their creators. These all need to be read and correlated, of course we will never get the original stories they encoded back, their mythology lost irretrievably in time, but there is still symbolism to be read, and conjectured over. Avebury is not a tabula rasa, very, very far from it.   These are not just arbitrarily selected lumps of stone, dumped here like neolithic traffic cones.   There was instead, artistry and deep intelligence at work.   The stones meant something, and in fact encoded multiple religious meanings in the markings on their surfaces.

<10> I came up with this point of view myself being tutored by the multifaceted stones themselves, but recently reading Michael Dames "The Avebury Cycle" I was gratified to read on page 13: "Symbol derives from the Greek 'to throw together, to unite'. Unlike a good visual sign (which conveys a narrowly defined message with the utmost clarity) a symbol had a much more complex and important job to do, namely to transmit an entire constellation of meanings through a specially selected (or constructed) physical form. A true symbol was able to tolerate variety and even contradiction in the messages it received and radiated because, before the Age of Logic (which attempted unsuccessfully to drive away contradiction ad to separate opposites), contradiction and paradox were accepted, and acknowledged to be embedded in the nature of things."

<11>  (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).