Avebury Project - Photographer's Statement
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 an 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, 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.
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.
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. This large and freely accessible site was built in Neolithic times by 30 generations of people whose outlook, religion and concept of art are so very different to our own. 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 ancestors who stamped their personality on this landscape, and also having a sense of being accompanied by the magical characters so subtly carved into the stones all around. Indeed while photographing at night at Avebury it is very difficult to feel that you are ever completely alone.
Avebury was abandoned for huge swathes of time after the Neolithic ended. 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 time 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 ancestors, 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. 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. Any sense of a real connection with our ancestors there gone. While Stonehenge has become a dead end, Avebury remains a city of dreams).
Avebury seems to me to be a unique night photography site. 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 the ancestors would have been very familiar with the night landscape, 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.
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 the ancestors 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 man made images at all but that seems to me to ignore the plain evidence of our senses. The main exception to this academic myopia is Professor Meaden†, who has considered the stones most deeply. When I visit and photograph the monuments it is his Avebury that I see. If I understand him correctly, his vision is something like a scale or spectrum of artistic intervention:
a. At one end of the spectrum are the stones that have not been dressed in any way. Many of these happened to remind the ancestors 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. The art here is merely one of the selection of found objects, not their creation.
b. At the other end of the scale are stones which were extensively carved as statues.
c. In the middle of the spectrum are stones which originally looked similar to characters in the rough, but which the ancestors then edited/carved to a greater or lessor degree, refining their designs with the intention that their art would emerge and recede depending on the time of day and indeed the 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 our ancesters 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. They represent a high artform, and effectively elevate Avebury to the first rank of art resources anywhere.
In the final analysis 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 ancestors 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 created 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. The ancestors 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 performic shamanistic rituals like dancing to exhaustion, fasting or drumming).
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).
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 our ancestors - 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 them at night is especially fruitful, perhaps because the restraining "reason" of the day is no longer a fetter on our minds, and the ancestors and their pantheon of characters seem ever present.
I 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 ancestors' mythological heritage - a heritage presided over by the feminine creative force that they so clearly worshipped*.
* (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)
† See also Dr Prendergast on my Links page