300 years before Stonehenge at Avebury.
I first took an interest in what was going on in prehistoric Wiltshire when surfing the Internet, and was amazed to discover that people of about 4,400 years ago had built a pyramid-size hill with little more than their bare hands. One of my colleagues had been to this mini-mountain while on a day’s outing from London - when he also climbed up it. He also visited the henge at Avebury one kilometre to the north. I just had to see this mystery hill and henge, the purpose or purposes of which, no one could seem to solve.
And so it was on a fine August summers day that I set out with my dad - who moaned all the way of why anyone should want to visit such old relics - to see exactly what the mystery was all about.
So there we were, dad and I, looking up at the largest man-made mound in Europe, not believing that it could possibly have been built for no reason whatsoever. I felt very much challenged, to say the least: no bunch of half-shod barbarians was going to get the better of me. I wasn't brought up to give in so easily.
After spending 20 minutes or so viewing Silbury Hill and taking several photographs of it, we returned to our car and drove the short distance around the corner to take a look at the henge that I had heard so much about.
I soon became stunned by the enormity of it all: this so-called “Super-henge” a quarter of a mile across, contains standing stones equal in size; and some are even larger than those at Stonehenge itself. To say that something big had been going on here was an understatement. At 450 metres diameter, with stone monoliths weighing several tonnes, this henge is enormous, and I was absolutely determined to find out exactly what it was meant to be.
Although dad was normally tee-total, he waited with half of shandy in the car park of the Red Lion public house while I investigated the henge. When at last I returned to the pub, I said to dad that I reckoned some over-ambitious Stone Age people had been trying to catch the sun. Literally that is!
And so started my quest to try to prove it.
Dad and I next paid a visit to Avebury’s Alexander Keiller museum to see the exhibits and to purchase some books so I could study these things later and in the quiet of my own home. From those books I learned that the oval monument on top of Windmill Hill was the first to be built; and because it overlooks both Silbury and Avebury; it seemed like a good place for me to start.
The 350-metre causewayed-enclosure on top of Windmill Hill poses archaeologists as much of a mystery as does any other Stone Age monument; because although it appears to have been an encampment of some kind, early men and women are known to have never lived permanently upon it. It is thought that Neolithic people occupied this hill during the summer months only, so all sorts of theories have been advanced for its possible use - none of which seemed to me to be very convincing.
Neolithic causewayed enclosures are among the earliest monuments of all, their perimeters marked out by several rings of discontinuous ditches and banks that someone once described as being like a string of badly-made sausages. Well, Windmill Hill is not a badly-made sausage but could be considered to be a badly made egg. It is, however, very unfortunate that other causewayed enclosures are not egg-shaped at all - although some of them are - but such a variety of individual shapes has hampered the search for a common denominator that links them all together, and this has allowed for any number of disagreements about their true purpose.
What we do know about Windmill Hill is that many things were placed on the bottom of its two-metre-deep ditches. These “things” ranged from stones obtained from a quarry near to the town of Bath, and other stones coming from as far away as Cornwall and the Lake district - as well as small chips of - surprise, surprise - the famous Stonehenge bluestones having come all the way from Wales. They might even have brought the honey-coloured Grand Pressigny flint from France.
Besides this collection of exotic stones, animal and human body-parts were also found at the bottom of its ditches, together with what might have been the sacrifice of a child. This child was found on a plinth that raised its tiny body off the bottom of the ditch, and he or she was buried for the same purpose or reason as the single burials found at Woodhenge and the Sanctuary. And as we now know, this menagerie of creature and human remains, along with exotic stones, flint arrow-heads, axes and broken pottery sherds was clearly trying to bring this massive prehistoric egg to life. For myself though, and before learning the meaning of all of this, I wanted to look south from this enclosure as people of the Neolithic did, to see just what it was that they saw in the place.
And so it was that a couple of weeks later, and after purchasing a second-hand single-lens-reflex-camera, that I could be seen heading back to Avebury in the middle of the night to see what all the fuss was about. I was so utterly convinced that I could solve these age-old mysteries.
Never having been to Windmill Hill before, and without knowing exactly how to get there - and in the middle of the night, to-boot - I duly set out from home. I knew that I would have to go up a dark country lane leading onto a country track that would eventually peter out, and at the end of the lane is where I parked my car.
It was pitch black when I arrived and I was in the middle of no-where. I thought perhaps that I should wait for the sky to lighten up a tad before leaving my car to walk the rest of the way, but that would only defeat the object. I somehow plucked up enough courage to set off up that very spooky track; after all, should anyone or anything jump out at me, I could always give them a hefty whack with my torch.
I had parked my car on what clearly seemed to be someone's prohibited land, so did not dare flash my torch for any longer than was necessary to ensure my safe footing. All of a sudden, and by complete surprise, I saw a flash of light coming from some distance up ahead - did I imagine it - surely not. Am I heading into danger of some kind? I walked on. There it was again. This time I was sure the light was coming from another torch. Too late to turn back now, I had no choice but to see just what it was that I was walking into.
As I approached still closer, I could see that several vehicles had driven further along and to where the track ended, and I was rapidly entering a “New Age” traveller’s camp who thought me to be a colleague who had come to join them. Why on earth they were still awake at four o'clock in the morning I shall never know, but I bade them good morning and asked for directions. They told me that I did not have much farther to go, and pointed the way.
Ave2: Windmill Hill and its round-barrow burial mounds, seen behind the incorrectly named ‘Longstone’ known as Adam that actually should have been called ‘Eve.’ Also note the Christian influence on pagan stones!
Dawn was breaking by the time I arrived at the top, and that gave me enough time to spend a couple of minutes to look around. I have to say that it didn’t look much like the photographs that Cambridge University had taken of it from the air, and the Bronze Age burial mounds, known as ‘round barrows’ came as a complete surprise; for with my being new to the area, I hadn't expected them to be there. Even more surprising was a tent pitched, hidden from view between the barrows by someone who advertised with a banner to have travelled all the way from somewhere inside Europe to get there. Bavaria, I think; if my memory serves me correctly.
Although the solstice had passed by some weeks ago, I had come to Windmill Hill to watch the sunrise in the hope that I too might see what Stone Age people had seen in the place. I stood irreverently on top of the largest barrow and looked towards the south. I hadn't chosen a very good day - but suddenly, there she was - the ‘Lady Silhouette.’
So this, I thought, was it: this was the way in which Stone Age men and women had hoped to attract the sun; a giant image of a woman lying down formed by the combination of Waden and Silbury Hill together. Obviously - or so I thought - those early guys and gals had built a female breast to go with what they considered to be the Waden Hill belly. I was sure that I had cracked the mystery: so sure in fact that I simply had to start writing a story about it. I didn't know it at the time, but this beautiful idea was to become just one further theory that I would eventually come to drop.
Ave3: The “Lady Silhouette”
I was also looking in the wrong direction. Because the causewayed enclosure on top of Windmill Hill that I have just described, points at Cherhill Hill some 4.5 kilometres away.
Long before Avebury and Stonehenge: The Causewayed Enclosure on top of Windmill Hill.
Ave4: built to give birth to a baby sun or moon.
The outer ring, Ring A, points to the southern end of Cherhill Hill where the sun sets at winter solstice, whilst Ring B points to Cherhill’s northern horizon, seemingly to track the suns approach. However, the innermost ring, Ring C, “The yolk” was designed to complement our real luminaries by aiming to light up the dark area of northern sky that neither of them ever gets to visit.
No one can claim utter accuracy when all we have to go on is a rough-cut bank and ditch. Nevertheless, a start does have to be made, as I have here; and as always I began by making folded tracings to ascertain all three major axes. I then proceeded to evaluate their underlying geometry working in megalithic yards as we know early people did when laying out their many and varied monuments.
Having proved the hypothesis of Woodhenge by GPS survey, we can now assume Ring A to represent a womb, which at 447Megalithic yards is almost as big as Avebury itself. I favour its azimuth to aim it quite nicely at the setting winter sun as it disappears beneath the horizon at the southern end of Cherhill Hill.
The official plan of the monument, seen in Ave4, and from which I worked, was found to need a small correction to make it respect north. That is what the four small red circles seen in the image were introduced for. They were positioned over real round barrows seen on aerial photographs from Multimap that correctly pinpoints them, and the plan was rotated to suit.
The metric scale of the original plan was then converted into Professor Alexander Thom’s megalithic yards before producing the monuments profiles in CAD.
Ave6. Ring B: Based on an arrow-head. I make the length of its major axis 264 My.
Ave7: Closer detail of the founding triangles of Ring B. Once again, all measurements are in megalithic yards.
Ave8: Ring C. What did people think might emerge from this yolk? Would it be a boy or a girl? I.e. - a baby sun or a baby moon?
The three views that follow were taken around the largest round-barrow that stands on top and in the middle of the monument. Whilst these pictures show the enclosures primary alignments, it soon becomes clear to any visitor looking around a full 360-degree of this landscape that the monument had a plethora of horizontal horizons to choose from.
Ave9: Cherhill Hill, with its uninterrupted view going deep into South Wales, Cherhill is and always was a superb look-out point. It was from the top of Cherhill that people would watch their cherished Welsh Bluestones arrive home.
It seems to me that the enclosure was designed to place - not simply observe - the sun as it approached the winter solstice on a day to day basis. From the top of W/Hill the sun could be seen before, during, and after the solstice had passed. However, we should never forget that the moon would also, and at times, disappear or appear, from beneath these same horizons.
Ave10 This view looks in the exactly the opposite direction and gave a day to day, or rather, a morning by morning visual as the sun approached the summer solstice and back again.
Many causewayed enclosures were built during the Neolithic, but Windmill Hill had a twin called “Robin Hoods Ball” situated near Stonehenge that almost certainly operated in a similar way.
Ave12. Intimately bonded to the ground, and looking like some great long slug - the West Kennet long barrow. Five or six times longer than necessary, this over-the-top monument was built for something more than simply burying the dead. It also has an equally long twin some two kilometres away, known as the East Kennet long barrow.
Copyright © T W Flowers 2013