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North West Quadrant, Avebury

In the midst of my love affair with Barnett Newman, that most megalithic of artists (I was later to discover), I read a book by Peter De Bolla; called ‘Art Matters’. Over five chapters, he attempted to understand the condition of being affected by a work of art, through consideration of his reactions to Newman’s ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis’, to Glenn Gould’s second recording of the ‘Goldberg Variations’ and to Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’. And he had something apposite to say, regarding the aesthetic response (2001, 18); “.., the quality of being “art” lies not, in any sense susceptible of description or analysis, in the object but in the response it elicits…Yet aesthetic value is determined by the quality of the response: if a particular object arouses the kind of response one can recognise as “strong” or “deep”, then it has claims on a high aesthetic value no matter how simple, trivial, or roughly worked up the object itself may be.”

If you happen to go to the Tate Gallery in London and wish to test this, then go to the section that contains the American Abstract Expressionists. There are usually two paintings, by Barnett Newman, there, called (appropriately for visitors to Avebury) Adam and Eve. Both canvases seem, at first glance, simple; Eve is a wide bright expanse with one thin strip at the side, and Adam has a few bold ‘zips’ splitting and cutting through a dark-hued background. Stand at a point at which you can see them both, but also the paintings that surround them; an angled position at a distance and to one side, perhaps. Look away, then look back. When I do, I find that these two paintings, and these alone, have what I would describe as a ‘presence’. To put it another way; they seem to have an existence beyond their parts – they live. The others, no matter what the intention behind them, are, at best, only representations of something else. In his own words (1992, 93); ”…it should be made clear to all those who think of primitive art in terms of Western European aesthetics, as the expression of a reaction toward the universe, 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.” This is exactly what I mean. I’m not talking about sensing energy, or spirits, although, in the case of megaliths, it could be (and often is) taken up that way and may well, as Newman suggests, have been the original intention. But of a particular type of (or a particular part of a) strong aesthetic response to the object itself. These are the dogs that I wouldn’t touch in case they growl.

What De Bolla said was that; “the quality of being “art” lies not, in any sense susceptible of description or analysis, in the object but in the response it elicits” Are megaliths, by this definition, art? My own experience of aesthetic response says – yes. But note the connection between the object and the response it elicits. Can we, consequently, attempt to gain an understanding of the past through this relationship (such as the one that I claimed for myself, earlier, in the Louvre)?

Magee (1998, 477), channelling Schopenhauer, suggests that it may be; “the specific function of the arts to convey profound and unique insights that are unamenable to conceptual communication.” In fact, you may already respond to monuments in this way – in terms of communication – and fully absorb the powerful message that you receive through them. Perhaps inclusive, even, of the senses of ’where I came from’ and ‘presence’, of which I’ve spoken (these were my impressions). But doesn’t a true ‘insight’; the form that this understanding of the ‘object’ must take, require an absolutely ‘clear’ response? Anything that doesn’t conclusively apply to its original context could have blurred its surface (I wrote part of that Louvre message, unknowing, myself, for example), or worse, directed our gaze into something else altogether. Deeper responses can often follow (what might appear to be) deeper understandings. And these will have lead many of us, ultimately, to what is referred to as the ‘intentional fallacy‘, or; “confusing an artist’s intention with his achievement” (Magee 1988, 78).

In the case of monuments only that which rests with structure; visible (what you can see – in my analysis; the ’presence’), or invisible (archaeological information), can have a ‘clear’ claim on understanding. And even that which is visible may be compromised – by the influence of landscape change on its immediate setting, for example, or by romantic expectation (the waters and the wild), or by deterioration of its form. And that which is invisible, by false interpretation.

As I’m writing, for example, on a bright Friday morning, back in Ireland, I’m half-listening to Mitsuko Uchida playing the Mozart piano sonatas. If I were to give them more attention, then everything around me would begin to feel like it was falling away. My mind would open – as if it was skimming over the ground, flying as a floating, free treble, while my body, the bass, rode its wake; attached yet still earthbound. I love these pieces, but I’ve never felt compelled to dig too deeply into the life of Mozart and I’ve no idea what intention, if any, is in the music. But it never fails to give me a strong impression of him, nonetheless. And my reaction, including placing myself mentally inside the piece, remains the same as when I first heard K-whatever on the radio. This; Kandinsky’s (trans. Sadler 1977, 19) “expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound”, is what I mean by a ‘clear‘ response.

Now, think of the word; ‘shock’. It’s one of those words that can convey a message in its sound, as well as in its meaning. Both are part of its effect. And, in a similar fashion, music, such as my Mozart sonata, would need only the ’sound’, where painting would use the ‘sound‘ and, often, some of the ‘meaning‘. And monuments may be closer to evenly balanced. Their (often potent) ‘presence’ is delivered by the fact that they are made, by their form, by their setting and material. This is the ’sound’; the deep ‘growl’. But that effect can be magnified (and your response altered) by their ’meaning’; by an understanding of them, whether it be right or wrong.

If I apply this to Stonehenge, you’ll probably see what I mean. It was built, for instance, in a wide, expansive setting and it was made by the hands of people, like us. It is mostly made of stone. It has verticality, like those tilted portal tombs and monoliths, to enable it to “soar” (De Bolla 2001, 51), and it has circularity to tense it. Or, as Bradley theorises, to extend it; “outwards from the individual and upwards into the sky” (1998, 109). These are features that may be valid, ‘clear‘, even powerful, as communicators of ‘insight‘, or understanding. But what if that ’sound’ is coupled with ’meaning’? With experience of other sites (and your heightened expectation of this one), with interpretation of the monument and with archaeological information about it? How it was made, in other words, what can be imagined of the people that made it, what influenced it and what magic it may have been used for (even as my response, in the Louvre, to Naram-Sin had been animated by the non-applicable myths that I had read, by the information in the guide book and by my own previous experiences of art). Does it not go deeper?

As De Bolla suggested, the quality lies not “in the object but in the response it elicits”. But the greater your inclusion of personal experience and interpretation, the harder it will be to separate your own construction of what you’re looking at, from what you’re looking at, and the less likely a ‘clear’ response, or ’insight’ will be. And if it is ‘clear‘ – Kandinsky‘s “expression of the artist’s soul” – then what is it? All you can assert, without detailed accompanying qualification, is that these monuments make you feel like this. And that the deepest of those reactions, so rare, are unforgettable.

“At its fullest”; according to Cézanne (ed. Doran 2001, 112), the sensation; “is in harmony with all existence.” Stendhal syndrome. Isolde’s words (in another context) describe it well;

“…Friends! Look!
Do you not feel and see it?
Do I alone hear
This melody
So wondrously
And gently
Sounding from within him,
In bliss lamenting,
All-expressing,
Gently reconciling,
Piercing me,
Soaring aloft,
Its sweet echoes
Resounding about me?
Are they gentle
Aerial waves
Ringing out clearly,
Surging around me?
Are they billows
Of blissful fragrance?
As they seethe
And roar around me,
Shall I breathe
Shall I give ear?
Shall I drink of them,
Plunge beneath them?
Breathe my life away
In sweet scents?
In the heaving swell,
In the resounding echoes,
In the universal stream
Of the world-breath –
To drown,
To founder –
Unconscious –
Utmost Rapture!”
(from Isolde’s Liebestod; EMI 1994)

On the liner of Scott Walker’s ‘Scott 4’ are the following words, from Albert Camus; “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”

De Bolla notes (2001, 3) that, what he calls, “mutism” has been singled out by some writers; “as the distinctive aspect of aesthetic experience.”

Stonehenge

Part 1. Part 3.

by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action

West Kennet Longbarrow, Looking towards Silbury Hill

It was my first time in the Avebury area. But it was also my homecoming, I guess. Four hundreds years ago, an ancestor, a young English soldier, was given a land grant in Ireland; planted, as it was then termed, on ground that had been confiscated by Oliver Cromwell’s regime. Years later he fought again, as a colonel, in King William‘s army at the Boyne (Kingston 1981). It feels, sometimes (and I know that I’m not alone in this), as if a large part of ‘what I am’ is taken up by a void that I’ve made myself – one that’s called ‘where I came from’.

There are so many different people here besides me, though; wandering amongst the massive megaliths of Avebury and Stonehenge, and amid the surrounding long barrows, barrows and hills. What compulsion could possibly bring them all? The couples strolling as if in the gardens of a stately home, for example, or the young kids climbing the banks and running around, the enthusiasts either obsessively photographing, or touching and hugging, or squatting, frowning with book and compass (and often all three), or the energy-believers praying, speaking or just sitting? Perhaps I would be better off if I began by reducing the question to something that I can answer. What, outside my curiosity about ancestors, brings me?

I came to megaliths from books, although I’d primed myself, without realising it, a few years previously. Some time in the late ’90’s, I’d read John Banville’s ‘The Untouchable’; a fictionalisation of the life of Cambridge spy and art historian, Anthony Blunt. I’d never really been that gripped by ‘Art‘, or specifically paintings, before then – I was in my 20’s and had, not unusually I suppose, a lot of other things on my mind. Besides, there‘s also the possibility, sketched with clarity by Bryan Magee (1998, 453), that; “.., I was not yet ready” That; “This kind of unreadiness is more familiar to us on our relationship to artistic than intellectual work.”; in other words, that you may first have to attain the capacity to receive artistic work before you can ever hope to ‘get’ it (and then, it might just hit you unexpectedly and as hard as a punch in the stomach). And certainly, in my case, I had struggled with a fair amount of books, sights, sounds and so on, before my late 20’s and gained very little; no real insight, joy, or understanding. Only to read, see or hear them, after that point, and have them push me, like a heretofore nervous fledgling, to soar. To finally use the restlessness that had been thumping away inside me, all the time; “if you like that, try these“.

I read Banville’s book and then, interested, I turned and read about Anthony Blunt. The greater part of his life seemed to pass in a devotion to, or perhaps an obsession with, the artist, Poussin; what was that all about? I investigated the paintings and, as I’ve just implied, I was suddenly, unexpectedly and completely, captivated. I was experiencing the singular thrill of an ‘aesthetic response‘. And better. I knew how to continue it. I bought Blunt’s book on the artist and read Seneca, because Poussin rated him. Then Tacitus, because he wrote about Seneca. And I began, gradually, to tip from one to the next, now exulting in the power of the d’Orsay Cezanne, then in the shock of Barnett Newman. To visit galleries and to visit cities so that I could visit the galleries there. I discovered Rembrandt and then Raphael (effectively and wonderfully, Poussin without the lockjaw); and the latter carried me to Rome and Michelangelo, to Caravaggio and Bernini. I read and I read; and London was close. But Paris was the prize, because of Cezanne; and in the Louvre, because all eras of art are gathered there, I saw the Mesopotamian section, was awestruck, and learnt of the hero, Gilgamesh.

Meanwhile, roughly parallel to this (although with rather less interpretive and more informational, reading), I was working my way through an itinerary of musical styles and types. Hunting – I’m aware, when I look back at it, now – for more of the ‘hit’ that I was getting from the greatest paintings. In the manner of Magee’s ‘unreadiness‘, for example and after years of being unable to handle him, I suddenly got Dylan; I got the poetry and could begin to crack the references. I began to listen attentively to what I would previously have found uninteresting, or un-listenable. Searching through Beethoven brought me, skin tingling, to Newman’s phrase (1992, 173); “the exalted“, in the late piano sonatas and in the late string quartets. I found it again and again; in the vocal music of Mahler, in ‘Astral Weeks’, and raging like a forest fire; in the post ‘Ascension’ output of John Coltrane. Obsessively, I combed my way through the tangle. I read and I listened; both within and across type – massive Penguin guides, ‘The Wire’ magazine, Delacroix and Goethe, Toop and Bangs, Feldman and Mondrian. Reading about Abstract Expressionism pushed me towards ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ and through Nietzsche I came, eventually, to Wagner; to ‘Tristan Und Isolde’ and to ‘The Ring’.

There’s, obviously, nothing unusual in what I’ve described so far. Many people have filled themselves with books, with art and music. So what? Many have stalked their responses instead, with, I’d guess, as much of a sense of fulfilment; hunting in the detail of what‘s close around them. Or began to sate their appetite on layers, rather than variety. Perhaps we move from one mode to the next. It certainly feels that way sometimes. My reason for detailing it is to show that if it were not these restless habits, I would never have passed the boundaries of what was making me (and still makes me) happy, to find something else. And to show that if I had stumbled on it differently – other than as an artistic relationship and via books – then it wouldn’t have had the same intense and lasting impact on me. That‘s the way it was. My heart had swelled with the Rhine Journey and started and stopped, with the Funeral March, and it was inevitable that doomed, brave Siegfried would carry me away to the past; to the world of European mythology, to the same sources that underpinned Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.

It’s a simple thing to lose yourself in myth isn‘t it? In the straight choices, the nobility and heroism, in the fatalistic, Peckinpah-esque acceptance of destruction. I did. It was like fantasy, but more powerful by far, because it felt real, both in the straightforward prose and in the conviction of the telling. And I mentally went back further and further, to live in each tale as its impression of one of our common ancestors, as one of those people who were, in John Michell’s evocative description (1974, 109); “no different from ourselves, only placed in a situation where the laws of nature were more pressing and apparent than they are for most people today.” I submerged myself. This time in the Volsungs, in the Kalevala, in the Iliad and the Odyssey. I was both Achilles and Hector, Cuchulainn and Ferdia, Nuadu and Lugh. I was Fionn agus Diarmuid. I was the Dagda at the riverside and Beowulf, full of foreboding. I was Anna, cradling Dido’s body on the pyre.

How inevitable it also seems now that, wandering through the Louvre, I would come face to face, for the first time, with the living work of this “pressing” world. It was similar in form, yet radically different somehow; less ‘art’ and more ‘to the bone‘ – rather than looking at something created by someone, I felt as if I was looking at a deeper part of myself; the ‘where I came from’, that I mentioned in the first paragraph. I didn’t have to try to sense the way back; it was there in all its terrifying glory, right in front of me. The first part of Michell’s definition looked forwards in time, a message in the eyes of Gudea and serene Ebih-II. But the second, more powerful – us stripped bare – stood bodily, awesome and alive. In twinned, man-faced Assyrian bulls and in the dust-pink sandstone of the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin.

I remember reading the guide then (1999, 34) and the words were matter-of-fact, but they caught my head and ripped away the four thousand years as if they were only packaging; “Originally this stele was erected in the town of Sippar, centre of the cult of the Sun god, to the north of Babylon… It illustrates the victory over the mountain people of western Iran by Naram-Sin, 4th king of the Semite dynasty of Akkad, who claimed to be the universal monarch and was deified during his lifetime. He had himself depicted climbing the mountain at the head of his troops. His helmet bears the horns emblematic of divine power. Although the stone is worn, his face is expressive of the ideal human conqueror, a convention imposed on artists by the monarchy. The king tramples on the bodies of his enemies at the foot of a peak; above it the solar disk figures several times, and the king pays homage to it for his victory.” And why not depict it several times, if it’s your god? In Newman’s opinion (1992, 93); “It is the man who is terrorised by his sense of personal weakness who becomes concerned with divinity.”

The bible stories that I read as a boy came flooding (what an appropriate word) back to me and I went straight from there to an English language bookshop and bought ‘The epic of Gilgamesh’. It was all that I could think about. I read it, dreamed of what I read and of how it affected what I saw, and now I ached for this ‘living work’. But I didn’t know how I would ever find it, or rather, this sensation, again. Did I look closer to home? It never occurred to me, although, looking back, it seems obvious now. The reluctant answer would only come crab-like, and eventually, from a reference in a book of sagas; to another book, about Stonehenge. I’d heard of the monument, but not a lot more (that‘s not unusual here). So I bought, almost at random, Colin Burgess’ ’The Age of Stonehenge’, to find out. And there, amongst the sites mentioned, was one (of several) that was only about twenty minutes drive from where I lived. I never even knew that it existed; Drombeg, probably the most famous stone circle in Ireland.

Do you remember Magee’s ‘unreadiness’? How a minor stream can suddenly become a raging torrent? (Think, perhaps, of the narrator’s despair in ‘The Little Prince’, when it doesn‘t). The water remained the same, but my own size, in comparison to it, had changed completely.

West Kennet Longbarrow, Interior

Part 2 (Tuesday 28 September). Part 3 (Thursday 30 September).

By Alan S>
 
A team consisting of several English Heritage archaeologists and archaeological scientists led by Nicola Hembrey (Project Manager) and Vicky Crosby (Excavation Director) plus their Project Executive (Michael Russell) along with other team members from archives, conservation, graphics, geoarchaeology, geophysics, logistics and zooarchaeology, have started conducting, “…five weeks of digging eight evaluation trenches to focus our attention on a poorly-understood phase in Silbury’s history – the Romans. How did the Romans understand this place?”
 
More here – http://latersilbury.wordpress.com/ and here –
Field trip to the English Heritage archaeological excavation near Silbury Hill, Wiltshire and the Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury.
 
Wednesday 1 September 2010.
10.30am – 4pm.
 

“The Icon Archaeological Group field trip will be visiting a research excavation being undertaken by the Archaeological Projects team at English Heritage.  The excavation is evaluation the recently revealed Romano-British settlement located in the fields surrounding Silbury Hill.  The day will include a guided tour of the excavation by the project manager as well as the opportunity to hear about the recent Silbury Hill conservation project.

“In the afternoon the field trip will move on to the site of Avebury and a guided tour of the Alexander Keiller Museum.

“A buffet lunch will be provided at the Red Lion Pub, Avebury.”

More here – http://www.icon.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1284&Itemid=16

English Heritage’s 2008 ‘conservation’ project at Silbury. Image credit Heritage Action

“Clumsy treasure hunting,” Sir Richmond said. “They bore into Silbury Hill and expect to find a mummified chief or something sensational of that sort, and they don’t, and they report nothing. They haven’t sifted finely enough; they haven’t thought subtly enough. These walls of earth ought to tell what these people ate, what clothes they wore, what woods they used. Was this a sheep land then as it is now, or a cattle land? Were these hills covered by forests? I don’t know. These archaeologists don’t know. Or if they do they haven’t told me, which is just as bad. I don’t believe they know.”

From The Secret Places of the Heart (1922) by H G Wells.

Silbury at the start of English Heritage’s project at the Monument. Image credit Heritage Action

 

English Heritage has released four films (the first three produced in 2007) on Silbury under its Conservation Projects banner. Some footage, but not all, has previously been shown.*
 
The first film, entitled Silbury Hill: The Conservation Project Begins, is narrated by Julian Richards and shows the temporary capping, with polystyrene blocks, of the shaft dug by the Duke of Northumberland in 1776. Fachtna McAvoy, who managed the archaeological element of the English Heritage Silbury Conservation Project between 2000 and  September 2007, shows core samples from the ground level of the Monument when it was first built some 4,400 years ago. Also shown is the Atkinson/BBC tunnel door being opened for the first time since it was sealed in 1969. Strangely, the spoil that was seen spilling out of the tunnel in an earlier version of the film, is not visible in this version.**
 
The second film, A Walk through the Tunnel, shows Jim Leary, Fieldwork Director of the project for English Heritage, talking about, “…a few of the discoveries made inside the tunnel.” The film concludes with a, “…walk along the main tunnel from its start at the surface of Silbury three to its end at the central core of Silbury one”. Note how the number of small boulders on the tunnel floor increase towards the central core.
 
The third film, Collapse and Discoveries, shows engineers led by Mark Kirkbride (Project Manager from Skanska) discussing problems, and some of the archaeology revealed by a collapse inside Silbury, with Amanda Chadburn from English Heritage. Chadburn’s statement with regard to a collapse that, “If we just leave this it will eventually migrate up to the surface we’ll end up with Silbury with a kind of little valley or something [gestures]… which is not good…” is a little understated to say the least.
 
The fourth film, Filling the Silbury Hill Tunnel, begins with the somewhat premature claim that, “…the Hill has been stabilised and the future of this important monument assured.” Note there is no mention of the sensors still monitoring the interior, nor the possible deleterious effect foreign bodies in the form of iron arches and plastic sacking within the Monument might have on it. In the film English Heritage also glosses over their idea for a time capsule by saying, “During the project English Heritage involved local schools in a number of projects…” One such project was, in fact, for a time capsule containing, among other things, items made by local schoolchildren which would have then been placed within the Monument. The idea was opposed by Lord Avebury (owner of Silbury), by Heritage Action and by others and was eventually abandoned. The film opens with a pagan ceremony followed by Mark Kirkbride and Jim Leary describing the final days of engineering and archeological work at Silbury. The film concludes with an advertisement for Jim Leary and David Field’s forthcoming book (foreword by David Attenborough***) The Story of Silbury Hill.
 
Putting aside the slow release of the films, together and in this format, the lack of detail contained within them, and what looks like a sleight of hand re: the editing out of the opening of the Atkinson/BBC tunnel door; not to mention the somewhat premature claim that, “…the Hill has been stabilised and the future of this important monument assured.” there is much food for thought contained within all four films and especially the last one where it is revealed that various stages of the construction of Silbury are far more complex than hitherto thought.
 
After watching the films I am yet again struck by the beauty and sheer complexity of Silbury, both as a structure and as a monument (I wish English Heritage would stop calling it a hill) and deeply saddened by all it has suffered in recent times. Let’s hope that English Heritage’s claim that, “…the Hill has been stabilised…” holds true.
 
Littlestone. Heritage Action Site Inspector.

 

* Films here – http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/multimedia-library/conservation-projects/

** Seen here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxkXdK2hcs4 (04:40 minutes in). It’s difficult to reconcile that footage with what seems to be a ‘cleaned up’ version of the opening here – http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/multimedia-library/conservation-projects/ (Holes in The Hill: The Conservation Project Begins. 03:00 minutes in). Perhaps English Heritage would like to explain the difference?

*** David Attenborough was Controller of BBC2 when the Silbury Dig programme was filmed for the channel in 1968 and 1969. Silbury Dig was one of several programmes in BBC2′s Chronicle series. It seems the young, and perhaps overly enthusiastic, controller invited Richard Atkinson to tunnel into Silbury and ‘reveal its mysteries’ to the nation on television. Let’s hope that David Attenborough uses the forward to this book to state clearly that the Silbury Dig programme should never have been made, that it was a shambles from beginning to end (the tunnel was not even backfilled after Atkinson and the television crews left) and that it went against the accepted conservation (and probably archaeological) standards of the time.

A guest feature by Littlestone
 
 
The Silbury spoil showing (left) one of the more recent tunnel timbers
 
Above and following, some of the detritus removed from Silbury during English Heritage’s ‘conservation project’ of the monument between 2007-2008. Detritus, more of which sadly still lies within the monument along with other 20th and 21st century ‘additions’. Will it ever be possible to look upon this ancient site with impartial eyes, knowing what modern rubbish now lies within – rubbish in the form of thousands of plastic sacks, metal tunnel struts and sensors? Well, perhaps not, but thanks to Heritage Action and concerned individuals elsewhere, the monument does not, at least, now harbour a time capsule (an idea promoted by English Heritage and supported by others who should have known better) and an idea which, by extension would have lead to the monument being re-opened at some time in the future thereby contradicting English Heritage’s assertion that the monument would never again be opened!
 
 
An older timber, perhaps from one of the earlier tunnels into Silbury
 

The poem in the Urn

Suggested by the opening
made in Silbury Hill,
Aug 3rd 1849

Bones of our wild forefathers, O forgive,

If now we pierce the chambers of your rest,
And open your dark pillows to the eye
Of the irreverent Day! Hark, as we move,
Runs no stern whisper through the narrow vault?
Flickers no shape across our torch-light pale,
With backward beckoning arm? No, all is still.
O that it were not! O that sound or sign,
Vision, or legend, or the eagle glance
Of science, could call back thy history lost,
Green Pyramid of the plains, from far-ebbed Time!
O that the winds which kiss thy flowery turf
Could utter how they first beheld thee rise;
When in his toil the jealous Savage paused,
Drew deep his chest, pushed back his yellow hair,
And scanned the growing hill with reverent gaze, –
Or haply, how they gave their fitful pipe
To join the chant prolonged o’er warriors cold. –
Or how the Druid’s mystic robe they swelled;
Or from thy blackened brow on wailing wing
The solemn sacrificial ashes bore,
To strew them where now smiles the yellow corn,
Or where the peasant treads the Churchward path.
 

Emmeline Fisher (1825-1864)

Emmeline Fisher published a book of verse in 1856 but she is perhaps best remembered today for the poem she wrote on the opening of Dean Merewether’s 1849 tunnel into Silbury. The poem, along with other items, was placed in a ceramic urn and left at the end of the Merewether tunnel where it lay undisturbed for some 160 years. The urn was finally unearthed by Richard Atkinson during his and the BBC’s ‘activities’ at Silbury at the end of the 1960s. Emmie’s poem (above) was placed in an envelope with the following inscription, on the obverse, in the same hand (hers?) as the poem itself –

 
Lines on the Opening of
Silbury Hill, written by
Miss Emmeline Fisher,
Daughter of The Reverend William
Fisher, Canon of Salisbury and
Rector of Poulshot in Wiltshire
August 1849.
 
 

After some 160 years Emmeline Fisher’s poem, with its apology to our forefathers who built Silbury, stands as the only half-decent thing ever to have been placed within the structure by modern hands. Thankfully, even Emmie’s poem is no longer there, though sadly many of the Atkinson/BBC’s corroding iron tunnel work struts of the late 1960s (not to mention English Heritage’s thousands of plastic sacks of the early 21st century) still are.

 
 
Metal struts from the Atkinson/BBC 1960s tunnel
A guest feature by Littlestone
 
In a last ditch attempt to save Silbury from collapse, English Heritage undertook a ‘conservation’ project during 2007-2008 to stabilise the structure and remove the detritus of previous tunnelling. Sadly, not only has much of this detritus been left within the structure, but parts of the original monument (eg the sarsen stones pictured below) seem not to have been returned to their original position within Silbury Hill. The present location of these stones, the meaning of which has attracted some speculation, remains unknown.
 
 
 
Sarsen stones from the interior of Silbury
 
If that were not bad enough, English Heritage has introduced even more detritus into the monument in the form of thousands of plastic sacks filled with chalk rubble; these sacks were used to form partitions within the Atikinson/BBC tunnel so that the area behind each partition could be backfilled with a chalk slurry. One is force to ask why plastic sacking was used instead of blocks of chalk closer in composition to the mound itself. We have no idea at present how long the life span of these sacks is nor whether they pose any long-term hazard to the monument as they break down.
 
Perhaps English Heritage would care to comment here on their decision to use plastic sacking rather than chalk blocks – a decision which seems so at odds with accepted conservation principles.
 
 
 
Plastic sacking used for partitioning within the Atkinson/BBC tunnel

 

It seems as if the concept of a bus linking the main Wiltshire megalithic sites and museums …… is really taking off

So it should, it seems obvious that the main museums at Avebury and Devizes should be an integral part of any visit to the main megalithic sites at Stonehenge, Silbury, Avebury or points in between. If it goes as well as it promises to, and there is the interest that it seems to be generating then it ought to be seen as a mighty significant factor to be considered in any discussion of new interpretation facilities for Stonehenge. Could it be that all those millions can be saved by simply investing in a fleet of buses to take visitors to the existing world-famous collections nearby rather than trying to compete with them to the detriment of each?

One thing though. Suggestions are still being invited from the public for what to call the service. One of them was The Druid Express! No, no, no, no! That’s not right at all. You could just as validly call it the Roman Runabout or the Victorian Excursion!

Our own suggestion is in our title: Megalithabus!  You know it makes sense!

        

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