The forest clings closely as you walk. A heavy canopy of hazel, hawthorn, oak and ash blanket the woodland path that you and your party are walking. It is summer's end and you have been walking this direction for a week. On your way, you have seen other families making their way along the circuitous trails that lead to the great hill.
Hearing voices nearby you notice the underbrush is thinning. You pause with your companions, shifting loads as you approach a forest clearing. Reaching the clearing your group stops, amazed once again at the sight before you.
The camp you have entered covers fully 8.5 hectares, the turf is velvety and the air is sweet. Children and dogs run before you and the smell of many cooking fires is pleasing to your hungry stomach. Locating an empty spot, two of your companions go about setting up your campsite for your two-week stay as you and the others begin the enjoyable task of walking the camp, seeking out old friends, making new acquaintances and hearing the news.
Beyond the edge of the camp the great hill falls away to an expansive view northward. Seeing the panorama is like nothing you experience anywhere else. The view seems to stretch beyond where you will ever step, it must be the whole of existence. Life in the cloistered forest does not afford such views.
Three concentric rings of bank and ditch nest within each other to form the camp itself. The banks and ditches are discontinuous so that people and animals can easily walk here and there. Those assembled are peaceful farmers and forest dwellers, there is no need for defensive structures here.
You have gathered here, these tribes and family groups, to celebrate the harvest festival. You have brought pottery shards and a carved chalk figure to deposit in the ditch later during the ceremonies. Others have brought tools of flint, bone, worked stone and rich soil from their settlements to lay within the ditches as offerings to the Great Mother.
With sorrow, you remember your good friend who has brought the skull and long bones of his infant daughter who passed away during the winter. It will be a great comfort to her parents to lay her beside the sacred cattle skull in the ditch that borders on the wilderness. She will return to her Earth Mother there.
A friend of yours hails you from outside the southeast section of the ditch. Upon reaching the area, you both fall silent in reverence. This is the old place, where people generations before worshipped and left their traces in clusters of pits, some of which have items deposited in them just like the ones you are going to leave during the ceremonies. There is an ancient burial site and what looks like the remains of a small structure - that is all. No one remembers these people, but their activity on the hill, and the memories of all those who came after them have made the great hill the sacred place that it is today...
One thousand years later, the distant relatives of our traveler are finishing the construction of a monument that will one day be known as "The Sanctuary." It is about 2500 BC and a time of great activity in the Avebury region.
An elderly man stops working for a moment and gazes up toward Windmill Hill. Some of the pottery that he is burying within the Sanctuary came from that great old hill and the people who gathered there for many seasons before his time. As he reflects, he realizes that this monument he and others are working on will be like Windmill Hill. Pilgrims will gather there just as they did at Windmill Hill, to perform their seasonal ceremonies, to feast and share the joys and sorrows of life.
Behind the elderly man is a group of younger people erecting oak timbers in sets of post holes. The timbers they are erecting will create a beautiful open-air pavilion. Plans are underway to build two stone circles beyond the timber pavilion as well.
From his spot at the Sanctuary, the old man can see West and East Kennet long barrows, Silbury Hill and the ancient great hill, Windmill Hill. Two great sarsen stone avenues connect the sites and the region has finally become a unified landscape - a sacred geography of places that holds the memories and spirits of generations of his people...
Over five thousand years later, the great forests of Avebury are gone. The wind sweeps over a predominantly agricultural area, the great monuments of the early and late Neolithic have fallen. Some have disappeared to ground, others destroyed and still others reconstructed and poured over to tell us what they can of their now silent builders.
Dating from approximately 3700 BC, Windmill Hill was one of the earliest monuments of the Avebury complex. Initial traces included a human burial, clusters of pits and post holes and a square earthwork. Windmill Hill is thought to have been the site of regional seasonal gatherings, where the community could propitiate the Goddess and celebrate life and death.
Windmill Hill is known as a "causewayed"camp because of the breaks in the bank and ditches that allowed for people and animals to enter and leave the area. The outer, middle and inner ditch are about 2.1 metres, 1.4 metres and .95 metre in depth, respectively.
Quantities of material excavated from the banks and ditches of Windmill Hill give us a microcosmic picture of life in the Neolithic. An infant skull was excavated from the outer bank of the camp, where it had lain nestled by the skull of a cow. The ox-goddess figured prominently in European Neolithic imagery. The sacred nature of the ox lived on after the Neolithic age and sacred cows, white heifers and cattle with animistic qualities survive in Celtic mythology and other world traditions.
The Sanctuary, located south-east of the Avebury henge on Overton Hill echoes the existence of its monumental neighbors. Material from Windmill Hill was deliberately interred at the Sanctuary. The overall diameter of 40 metres of the Sanctuary is approximately the same as the diameter of both the primary mound and the finished plateau atop Silbury Hill. Looking beyond Avebury, the Sanctuary has the same approximate diameter of Woodhenge and the Southern Circle at Durrington Walls, two contemporary, but not local timber circles.
The Sanctuary is considered a "monument in motion." Sections of the six concentric timber rings were occasionally replaced - some almost as soon as they were erected. The dynamic nature of the wooden shrine marks it as a place of important seasonal or annual ritual, possibly marking the harvest festival just as was done a thousand years earlier at Windmill Hill.
Two additional concentric rings of stone were added to the Sanctuary grounds just after the timber structure were completed, the stones served to connect the site to West Kennet avenue, a stone palisade that led to the Avebury henge.
The form of nested concentric rings found at the Sanctuary repeats itself in the Avebury henge, Windmill Hill and in the diameters of the two mounds that lie within the final third mound at Silbury. One can only speculate on the clear importance of this design - perhaps intended as a regenerative pattern, the connection of this world with the Other, or the Neolithic eye through which one views, and is viewed by one's deity. Farmers pulled down the last great sarsen stones of the outer two circles of the Sanctuary in the 1700's. Today, low concrete slabs mark the position of the six inner timber circles and the two outer stone circles. It is admittedly not easy to envisage the grandeur that once stood on the site.
Though there are more wonders to explore, it is here that our travels through the rich tapestry of Avebury conclude. Perhaps our journey into the past might rekindle an interest in shaping a future that is less fragmented, less hurried and more connected.
I finished this article on the summer solstice as the sun reached its apogee and my sundial turned toward Lugnasadh. Enjoy your days reader, relish the coming harvest as so many have before you. Thank you for joining me, a joyous Lugnasadh to you.