4.1 Conclusion: the later Neolithic of the Avebury area

In this article it is suggested that by the late Neolithic the area was viewed as a full ceremonial complex, revolving around the notion of places of the living, places of the ancestors and the transitions between them. People travelled great distances to visit, as evidenced by resemblances in monument design to other locations (Whittle 1997, 150) and the abundance of non-local material deposited there (Smith 1965, 19). However, unlike Parker Pearson and Ramilisonina (1998) this article suggests that the Avebury landscape actually represented three zones. The area of the palisade enclosures and the Sanctuary appears to have been a place of the living as Parker Pearson and Ramilisonina (1998) suggest, but after that there appear to have been two depths to the land of the ancestors. The first, represented by the avenue and Avebury henge, was certainly in the land of the ancestors as the overlooking monuments show; however, here there was no approach to these, the oldest features of the landscape. The only places where this third area of deep time could be accessed were in the Avebury and Beckhampton Coves, which symbolised open long barrows. But both Coves represented areas of limited access: the Avebury Cove was separated from the bulk of the henge by the inner circle and the Beckhampton Cove by its avenue. Furthermore, their size also limited the number of people who could access them. Thus, it is suggested that Avebury henge represented a place of communion with the ancestors for the people, whereas the Coves represented a place of communion for a small and select group.

Who were the 'small select group'? It is difficult to say. They may have been some kind of elite group, possibly shamans who presided over ceremonies at Avebury; it can be argued that the presence of an elite group is supported by the scale of work and organisation needed to build some of the larger monuments of the area (but see Bayliss et al. 2007, 43-44, for discussion of ruling dynasties, charismatic individuals and communal action and the building of Avebury's monuments). In controlling access to certain parts of the complex they would have appropriated ancestral power to underline their own status.

Alternatively, it might be that the group contained those who were the focus of the ceremony. This might have included those undergoing rites of passage such as coming of age, marriage, or bearing the remains of their dead, or it might have consisted of visitors making pilgrimage to the site. The interpretation of the Avebury landscape given in this article suggests that transformation was an underlying theme: transformation from the places of the living to the places of the dead. Thus, just as the landscape represented a journey of transformation, so those visiting could have been seeking to undergo a process of transformation in the eyes of their contemporaries and of the ancestors.

The landscape itself might only have held power during times of ceremony. The environmental evidence (Whittle 1994, 46; Smith 1984, 110) shows that the area was grazed; thus people must have had access to tend their animals. If the ancestral monuments held year-round power over the area this might not have been possible. Therefore the meaning in the monumentation was only enacted during times of ceremony, possibly at the solstices or when the livestock of the area was brought in for butchery. Again, this represents another transformation in the landscape: from the time when it could be freely accessed to the time when access was more formalised.

It should also be emphasised that this interpretation represents a snapshot in time. It seeks to interpret how someone walking the avenues in the later part of the third millennium BC might have understood what was around them based upon what they could see and upon the myths and histories passed down from their ancestors. Some of the later monuments may have been constructed with this world view in mind but the article does not suggest that the complex as a whole was built to some long-standing master plan: understandings would have been constantly changing and evolving.


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