Silbury Hill

Is it Camus’ “slow trek” that brings me to Avebury, then (as well as meeting my friends here)? Without wishing to overanalyse (too late, perhaps), and as I suggested in the very first paragraph, part of it may also be a desire to belong; to surround myself with the obvious evidence of a time that none of us can exclusively lay claim to, or rather, that all of us possibly can. But this cannot be a widespread motivation – some people will think the way that I do, but many won’t – and, in any case, it could easily be satisfied closer to home. In fact, from my experience, I’d argue that the range of active stimuli can be neatly split across four distinct, yet deeply overlapping sections;

(1) Itinerary – gathering Experience, visiting the guide book (this can be driven by the desire for information and impact, and feeds interpretation) 
(2) Information – finding out about what interests you, learning (this can feed interpretation, impact and experience)
(3) Interpretation – the messianic urge (forming theories using experience, information and impact)
(4) Impact – the ‘hit’; religious, appreciative or personal (this can be magnified by experience, information and interpretation)

Edward Thomas (ed. Gant 1977, 22), for example, describes Avebury thus; “…most pleasant is the descent among the sarsens that rest on turf blue with sheep’s bit or rosy with rest-harrow. Jefferies knew Avebury, through love of the Down ways and through his early archaeological curiosity. What they worshipped at Avebury Temple no one knows, but the human mind is still fertile in fantasy and ferocity – if it no longer draws blood – when it worships within walls. To me the sycamores that gloom at the entrance to the temple are more divine.”

Yes. Impact has been my main motivation, but a little bit of everything was and still is, involved. Likewise, Thomas’ response to the site is fairly mild, but he still finds sensation where Avebury interacts with the natural world. And, with very little effort, it’s also possible to identify each of the other three stimuli in his passage; visiting, noticing details and thinking about what went on there.

On the Sunday of my visit, I took the river path from Avebury Trusloe to Silbury Hill. The way, on that day at least, was overgrown with nettles and stalks – an appropriate advance, perhaps, of Edward Thomas‘ ‘divine‘? This constant reaching and spreading of plants, or trees, seems a lot like our own similar urge. They are as alive as we are and act in much the same way. I wonder if this is what distinguished the sycamores, in Thomas’ mind? Although our ancestors’ monuments may have been an integral part of their urge to live, or may have celebrated it, they are still human creations; ‘art‘, rather than, in the sense of sycamores; alive (or ‘divine‘?).

What, actually, gives us this impression of life? Look very closely (in your mind’s eye, maybe) at a nettle. You know that it’s alive because your knowledge of its expected appearance says that it is. But, apart from that, it could be a human creation; well-crafted plastic, for instance. If it sways in the breeze, the only movement is of the air. So, how does our response (or that of Thomas) make this vital, visual distinction between art and life? Nietzsche (trans. Faber 1994, 247) wrote that “love, springtime, every beautiful melody, mountains, the moon, the sea – all these speak completely to the heart but once,..“ In his opinion, each has the capacity to give us one unforgettable reaction – like the one that I quoted earlier from Isolde’s Liebestod (or so it would have been, for me). But they are a mixture. What might make us react to them all in a similar way? If (following Thomas‘ sycamore) it is life, itself, that we react to, or rather, the way that life is; could it be that we can recognise a signifier of it, and that its equivalent may be present in all of these?

Kandinsky (trans. Sadler 1977, 20) points out that music; “has at its disposal duration of time;..” So, try this; imagine, perhaps, if you could stretch time out and watch your nettle grow, perceptibly, in front of you, spreading towards the light. If you could see that ‘urge to live’, that spirit of life, in action, just as (you’ll recall) my mind tripped along with the lines of the Mozart sonata. Just as the moon nightly circles the sky, ever-changing, sometimes vast. Sometimes red. Sometimes black. How would you feel? Knocked out, I expect. And movement may be the secret; or, more specifically, the quality, in the object itself, of movement. The quality of reaching and spreading, of animate life. And is this not also part of what I’ve responded to in certain paintings and monuments; part of that which I called ’presence’, or ‘living art‘?

It’s a mesmerising, or unsettling, phenomenon, when you find it where you did not expect it to be. Or, like your nettle, in a way that you had not experienced it before. Do you remember, for example, the tension and extension, that I mentioned in connection with circularity? Or, of how the verticality in some monuments, just as in mountains, just as in Newman’s paintings, enables them to “soar”. Or how Cézanne’s fruit rolls at you out of the canvas, perhaps, or the way that Raphael’s Donna looks back to you with love (and love alone) in her twinkling eyes and flushed face?

Schopenhauer has trodden this ground before, or at least, a variation of it. He wrote, for example, (trans. Hollingdale 2004, 161) that “in vegetation the law of gravity seems to have been overcome, in that the plant world raises itself in precisely the opposite direction from the one dictated by this law and thus directly proclaims the phenomenon of life as a new and higher order of things. We ourselves are part of this order: it is that in nature which is related to us, the element of our existence. Our heart is uplifted in the presence of it. What pleases us first and foremost at the sight of the plant world, therefore, is this vertical upward direction,.. The melancholy effect of the inorganic nature of water is in large part abolished by its great mobility, which produces an impression of life, and by its constant play with light:..” But Thomas’ statement, about Avebury, was the key to the last door for me.

You might have noticed that I used the first third of this feature to bring me to the question; ‘are megaliths, by this definition, art?’. And to, hopefully, demonstrate that I had enough ‘art-miles’ in me to be able to answer; ‘my own experience of aesthetic response says – yes.’ In a similar fashion, I’ve used the remainder of this feature to work around the answer to another. I stated earlier that; ‘all you can assert, without detailed accompanying qualification, is that these monuments make you feel like this.’ but I also asked what, assuming a ‘clear’ response, is; this, that you feel? What might this “profound and unique” insight be? When I have confronted a monument, for example, and felt (as I did in the Mesopotamian section of the Louvre) that I was ‘looking at a deeper part of myself; the ‘where I came from’’, was this actually the case?

In a way, yes, and I did feel that. But I am beginning to realise that this was only the context that I had built around my response, and what I may have been looking at inside it, or truly feeling – the ’insight’, if you like – was ‘what I am’, or, more specifically, the ‘way that I am’. And not what my ancestors were, or where I came from.

I’m suggesting, therefore, that the reason that my; “heart is uplifted in the presence of “ many megaliths, or paintings, or pieces of music, is because I am reacting to a sense of ’presence’, in them – a ’presence’ of life, or rather; the way that life is. And a signifier of this, for me, is the quality – in the object itself – of movement. My ‘heart’ may also have been affected by my own context, of course; by factors such as my previous experience, by the information that I have and by my interpretation of these and of the impact itself – I can respond, for instance, to the movement contained in the circularity of a ring fort, and have that feeling dampened by the knowledge that the building was most likely functional. Or, I can respond to the circularity and verticality, of Stonehenge and have that feeling intensified by the knowledge that its principal axis is to the solstice. But, by then, my focus will have moved from what the object is – an aesthetic response to structure – to include what the object did. That is, from pure ‘sound’, to include ‘meaning’. The first response is the one that is elicited by factors that are more likely to have been originally present. But its nature is material, rather than conceptual. It is one that makes me feel as if I am placed mentally inside the object (effectively, for the duration of it, we are one). 

What I am also proposing, albeit with less vehemence (I’m conscious of that messianic urge) and without excluding the significance of their original context, is that a consideration of this ‘aesthetic response to structure’ may have figured in the construction of these monuments. Do you recall Newman’s statement, that; “the artist among primitive peoples was anything but a commentator. He was a maker of gods that had animate life, that had intrinsic meaning“? Even at that level; if megaliths were believed to contain energy, or animate life (or the spirit of some poor bugger that was popped beneath them), then how much more effective would they have been if their form encouraged that exact conclusion in the observer?

Thus round, mound-like Silbury seems to throb – as me – permanently, in the centre of an issuing ripple (see my photo above). Convex and green, where once it was a rising stack of drums and white (and how it must have shone when it was young) – Anaximander, the Milesian, theorised that the earth was “rounded, like the drum of a column; we stand on one of its surfaces,..” (Wright 1995, 39). What would this idea have looked like if it was applied to a multi-partite cosmos? Burl (2002, 182) sensibly mentions that the method, not unusual in Brittany, would have ensured stability. While I was there it ‘followed’ me and, like a child, I constantly checked back to see if it was watching.

And thus, also, West Kennet becomes my long, creased mantle, with tentacles reaching towards a point on the eastern horizon. Someone has said (thanks George) that its building may have coincided with the rising of a full, red moon there – a Brigadoon moon. And it was nice to stand on top and see that happen in my mind’s eye, then look at its insides glisten and shimmer. As off in another place, buried East Kennet gives its own hint of a rumble, or a shake of its trees in the wind, as I look back to the west.

And thus the Sanctuary and then later, Avebury, sporadic within an encircling Oceanus, are too invisible, or diffuse, for me to get any strong sense of them. But gapped Avebury’s cove, even incomplete, is a masterpiece of concentrated verticality. I wonder what its effect would have been like, in a time before the circle was built? When the sun and the moon moved above it, or sank behind it, and people and music may have moved, in time, towards it, or around it (as they may also have done around Silbury). Because it, itself, seems to move. Its form causes it to “soar“. Just like the description of its companion at Stonehenge; “For a time the great horseshoe stood on Salisbury Plain, solitary, awesome and alien.” (Burl 1997, 5) Because it is also what we, briefly, are.

“All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.”

The Cove, Avebury. Looking towards what (before the Red Lion)?

This was for Megan, who needed to know why I visit stones. And for LS, who encouraged me to write about them.


Bradley, R. The Significance of Monuments Routledge 1998 (paperback)
Burl, A. The Sarsen Horseshoe inside Stonehenge: A Rider WANHM 1997
Burl, A. Prehistoric Avebury Yale 2002 (paperback)
Doran, M. ed. Conversations with Cézanne California 2001 (paperback)
De Bolla, P. Art Matters Harvard 2001
Kandinsky, W. trans. Sadler, M.T.H. Concerning the Spiritual in Art Dover 1977 (paperback)
Kingston, A.R. The Origins of Co. Cork Kingstons JCHAS 1981
Magee, B. Aspects of Wagner Oxford 1988 (paperback)
Magee, B. Confessions of a Philosopher Phoenix 1998 (paperback)
Michell, J. The Old Stones of Land’s End Garnstone 1974
Newman, B. Selected Writings and Interviews California 1992 (paperback)
Nietzsche, F. trans. Faber, M. Human, All Too Human Penguin 1994 (paperback)
Schopenhauer, A. trans. Hollingdale, R.J. Essays and Aphorisms Penguin 2004 (paperback)
Wright, M.R. Cosmology in Antiquity Routledge 1995 (paperbck)
The Louvre Collections Réunion des Musées Nationaux 1999

This may have an explanation - metal detecting a couple of fields south of West Kennet Longbarrow and west of East Kennet - but if it's only 'cos I can' then, for God's sake, where next?

And what's this? Some neatly rolled-back wire and a path right up to the hill. I'm not even convinced that the original purpose was to go on top.

 Part 1. Part 2.