Pathways > The Pathways book > Processions
Prehistoric monuments, whether stone circles, henges, avenues or burial mounds are always enigmatic. We will never know for sure why they were built or what they were used for. But some, especially the avenues, seem certain to be processional routes of some sort.
If they are then perhaps the only way to come at all close to their original purpose is to walk them. Archaeologists are beginning to explore the ways in which aspects of the landscape open up and close down as one walks along a line of stones or between the banks of a 'cursus' monument. Could this be an integral part of the experience, perhaps as part of a 'rite of passage' ceremony?
Certainly there is something theatrical about the avenue of standing stones leading in to Avebury. The huge henge monument, with its massive stones, remains completely hidden behind a shallow ridge until almost the last moment. Coming over the ridge the monument heaves into sight, an impressive experience even now.
The Avebury walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld.
Below you can read the full chapter from the book.
Some time around 6,000 years ago the inhabitants of Britain embarked on a wholesale transformation of their environment. Using a combination of slash and burn and the swinging of heavy stone axes, Neolithic folk felled vast areas of wild wood and converted it to grassland and farmland. Along with this exercise of control over the land must have come a significant change in consciousness. Now humans were not just part of the environment but increasingly the masters of it.
The new methods of living must have been very successful, as they created surpluses of food, of labour and of time. Communities started to come together with the resources and social structure to create large-scale edifices dedicated to something beyond mere survival. Prehistoric monuments of varying kinds, constructed from stone, wood or simple earth, are found the length and breadth of the British Isles. The culture that gave rise to these structures was passed from people to people over long distances, suggesting that ideas about veneration of the dead and communal gatherings travelled along with traded goods. There’s a remarkable conformity in these hundreds of stone circles, chambered tombs, barrow mounds and stone rows, although communities almost always gave their structures a local twist.
Dating evidence is difficult to come by. Stones, of themselves, give no clue as to when they were erected, and the mounds and ditches of prehistoric enclosures have tended to yield little in the way of dateable artefacts. It does not help that many sites have been plundered. Driven by a desire to discover the truth behind these mysterious constructions, generations have dug, scraped and blasted their way through them. Even quite recent archaeological excavations have been badly recorded, if at all. This is unfortunate, as once the earth is disturbed, the really important evidence is destroyed for ever. Outside what archaeologists call their ‘context’, artefacts alone tell us very little. Without careful planning and meticulous recording, most excavation is worse than useless.
It is only within the past few decades that an appropriate degree of attention has been applied to the excavation and surveying of these important ancient monuments. At the same time a focus on the entire landscape rather than on individual structures has helped to generate some fascinating new theories.
The earliest chambered tombs, long barrows and single-chamber tombs known as dolmens date from around 3500 BC and were clearly dedicated to the veneration of the dead. Human bones have been found in many, sometimes in quite large numbers. We cannot know for sure if the dead were placed in them whole and allowed to decompose, or the bones were reburied there after a while elsewhere, or if collections of bones were moved in and out at intervals. In some cases the bones have been carefully organised, with different parts of the body piled together in separate portions of the tomb. What we can say is that the number of bodies that could be buried in these tombs does not match the headcount of the communities who made them. A tomb burial, in whatever form it took, was a sign of distinction.
The position of these tombs, in prominent locations overlooking the surrounding landscape, suggests not just an interest in the afterlife but also a desire, conscious or not, to lay claim to the land. A tomb or barrow is a clear indicator to anyone who passes that the land has been handed down to the living generation by their ancestors.
The later henges, avenues and cursuses, constructed in the latter stages of the Neolithic and early Bronze Age, are even more enigmatic. Some are built on a staggeringly large scale. A number of cursuses, consisting of long parallel banks with enclosed ends, are several miles long. The largest, the Dorset Cursus on Cranbourne Chase, is over six miles long and over 330 feet wide. Excavations on cursus monuments have revealed tantalisingly few clues as to their date or purpose; dating evidence is mainly gained from their relationship to other monuments. Some archaeologists feel they have come closest to discerning their meaning by walking them and observing the ways in which vistas open up and close down along the enclosed pathway.
Altogether the linear monuments of the Neolithic speak to us of organised processions, whether from one monument to another – as may well have taken place at Stonehenge – or along the length of an individual processional route. What these ceremonies consisted of we can only speculate. They may have involved rites of passage or veneration of the dead or, as some have suggested, a tribute to the alternately life-giving and destructive power of the river. The presence of water is a recurring theme in prehistoric ritual landscapes.
From around 2200 BC onwards, we see the emergence of a new burial tradition among the elite of the communities living in Britain. Bronze Age mounds, of which there are more than 6,000 in the west country alone, appear to be once-only burials of important personages, not the site of continual revisiting witnessed with the chamber tombs many centuries earlier. Mound burials continued into the Iron Age and even into the post-Roman period. The large-scale linear monuments of earlier centuries were no longer constructed. However, this does not mean that gathering together and processing ceased to take place. Processions may have been shorter and not required a line of stones, banks or ditches to define their route.
The act of procession has continued to this day. It is an integral part of many religious ceremonies, both inside buildings such as churches and through towns and across the landscape. It is also survives as a secular expression of togetherness and resolution. Few political rallies take place without a preceding march through the streets. The notion of walking together with a common aim is clearly deeply rooted in our psyche.
The ritual landscape around Avebury
David Stewart, accompanied by his wife Chris and their Jack Russell Brough, undertake their own procession through the ritual landscape of Avebury.
Avebury sits in a wide valley that is the catchment area for the River Kennet. The village and its famous henge sit on a slight rise at the northern end of a lozenge-shaped lump called Waden Hill, with a stream running close by that flows into the nascent river. Archaeological evidence from soil samples – essentially involving counting the number and type of snails through the ages – suggests that the woodland of the valley and the surrounding hills was cut down around 4000 BC, creating an open grassland landscape suitable for herding animals and farming. Significantly too perhaps, Avebury sits at one end of the ancient Ridgeway track, discussed in the preceding chapter.
Packed into a relatively confined area around Avebury, in its valleys and on its hills and ridges, we find prehistoric structures spanning more than two millennia. A mile or so to the north-west stands the early causewayed camp at Windmill Hill, and to the south is the magnificent chambered tomb at West Kennet, both constructed around 3500 BC. In the succeeding years the entire landscape must have attained a lasting ritual significance.
It is almost impossible to tell which monument preceded which, when and why they were altered and adapted, and whether they were in use at the same time. But during this period some of the most impressive and mysterious monuments in Britain were constructed: the Avebury henge and its standing stones; the wooden and subsequent stone henge at the Sanctuary; two long avenues leading from the Avebury henge; and Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe.
Over such a long timescale it is quite possible that the meaning of the monuments mutated. In an oral tradition it would be hard to maintain a rigid ritual doctrine. Purposes may have evolved and sites may have fallen in and out of use. There is plentiful evidence that the people felt the need to regenerate sites, building new structures alongside old ones or replacing them, and no doubt investing them with their own interpretations and ideas. Indeed, the act of rebuilding may have been as important as the finished artefact – a way of thinking that is somewhat alien to our modern culture.
Coming from the National Trust car park at Avebury, we set off south towards Silbury Hill. As we follow a small stream through the meadows, the hill looms like a strange bulb before us. Archaeologists have speculated that in its original prehistoric form it was a bright white upside-down bowl of chalk; it must have looked fantastic. Having been taken to see Silbury Hill as a young boy by my father, who was keen on all things archaeological, I have been lucky enough to stand on its oddly flattened summit and look across to the henge at Avebury. My small feet will have added to the erosion that has dogged it.
Inquisitive humans have been particularly unkind to Silbury Hill. It is likely that its originally rounded summit was sliced off in Anglo-Saxon or medieval times, perhaps so that a wooden lookout post could be planted on top to oversee the roadway passing nearby. In 1776 a first attempt was made by the Duke of Northumberland and Colonel Edward Drax, aided by a team of Cornish miners, to get at the treasures presumed to be inside. They found nothing but neglected to fill in the shaft. Further tunnels were made in the 19th century and as recently as 1968-70, with BBC sponsorship, one was reopened and expanded. On each occasion huge quantities of chalk and soil were excavated but not put back.
In 2000, after a period of heavy rainfall, the Duke’s shaft collapsed. In 2007 a major project was started to refill the tunnels and shafts and stabilise the site. It took many hundreds of tonnes of material to repair the damage. This project did offer one final opportunity to sample the materials used in the mound’s construction and to attempt some more accurate dating, a difficult task as its original builders left their site almost surgically clean (a fact that may in itself be significant).
It would appear that Silbury Hill was constructed in at least three stages, though whether this was in quick succession or over a period of several hundred years is unclear. In total Silbury Hill would have been a massive undertaking, involving some 4 million man hours of work and 500,000 tonnes of material. The final date of completion may have been around 2400 BC. If on the longer scale it is indicative of the way such sites could remain sacred, even if the exact use may have changed.
Passing around Silbury Hill, with the stream as a constant barrier, we cross the main road and climb up to West Kennet Long Barrow, a journey back from Silbury Hill of maybe 1,000 years. We navigate around a herd of frisky young cows, dog barking madly, and head up a gentle slope to the barrow, just visible on the horizon.
Chambered tombs are found across Britain, though most are clustered in the upland areas of Wales and Scotland. They date from around 3500 BC. We have clambered into several on the Orkney Isles, sometimes crawling on our tummies, at one point wheeling ourselves in on a skateboard contraption. Such tombs were clearly not designed for regular visiting; entering them may have only been for the privileged few. West Kennet Long Barrow is one of the most impressive, with great standing stones guarding the entrance and a tapering barrow extending way beyond the chamber within.
One thing that strikes us is that the view from a chambered tomb is always notable. In Orkney one tomb, that of Isbister, sits on the spectacular cliffs looking out to sea. Another is on a small promontory jutting into the lake on whose shores are found the huge standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar. Others again are on hillsides with long views over the surrounding countryside or across to other Orkney islands. Likewise, the barrow at West Kennet dominates its surroundings. Later, visiting the Wansdyke earthwork several miles to the south, we could still pick it out in the distance, sitting proudly on the apex of its ridge.
West Kennet Long Barrow is near enough to the busy A4 to attract a steady stream of visitors. For its builders it must have been a place of deep significance and power. Now children clamber over it, hide in the chambers and jump out from the dark at their parents; the once sacred site has become a playground. We dig out a torch and try to take photographs, while the dog looks on with a bemused expression. Surely this hole is too big for rabbits?
Retracing our steps towards the A4, we turn right onto a path running along the Kennet valley, now part of the White Horse Way. We work our way through the meadows and the outskirts of a small village, over the Kennet, and finally up a track towards the A4 again and the site of the Sanctuary.
The Sanctuary will be missed by the drivers as they shoot by, though they’ll find it harder to ignore the great lump of Silbury Hill just a mile further on. There’s nothing left of the wooden posts that formed a series of circles within the henge, either as a succession of separate structures or as part of a single, possibly roofed, building. The later stone circle is known to have been dug up in the 1800s. The positions of the post-holes found by the excavators are marked on the ground. Apart from that there’s nothing to see.
The intriguing possibility exists that the Sanctuary and the Avebury henge were linked elements in a ritual complex. Not far away, in the lush river valley through which we have just passed, evidence has been found of an unusual grouping of wooden palisades. Pits within them had been filled with bones and pots, the detritus of human feasting. In that other famous ritual complex around Stonehenge a similar link between the wooden henges at Durrington Walls and the stone edifice at Stonehenge has been suggested. If the monuments are indeed contemporary, the passage between them may have been of considerable significance.
One of the lead archaeologists on a recent major excavation within the Stonehenge complex, Michael Parker Pearson, has theorised that the wooden structures represented the place of the living, while stone ones were the place of the dead. Ceremonies in or near the wooden henge may have been joyous occasions of feasting, laughter and song, followed at the appropriate moment by a procession along the riverside and then up a stone avenue to venerate the dead in the place of hard stone. If the theory has any merit at all, then surely we can see the same configuration here at Avebury – and we are about to follow the very same route ourselves.
Vehicles thunder down the A4, making it difficult to cross, especially when accompanied by a tyre-biting Jack Russell. We join the Ridgeway path as it sweeps away from its end-point at the Sanctuary. On the right a group of bare Bronze Age barrows stand just off the path, complete with explanatory panel. We are only on the Ridgeway for a short while and then we turn left to join another track contouring round the side of the hill. On the way we pass a cluster of ‘hedgehogs’. These Bronze Age barrows, of around the same age as those we have just passed, have resisted being ploughed out, perhaps because of the stands of trees that have sprouted from them. Looking out across the valley we can easily pick out Silbury Hill just behind the falling ridgeline of Waden Hill.
Turning off the track, we take the path leading directly downhill to the Falkener Stone, the sole survivor of yet another small stone circle. Rather stunted and standing all alone beside a ploughed field, it looks quite forlorn, despite sitting in a patch of beautifully mown grass carefully tended by its National Trust guardians. We continue on downwards towards the remaining stones of the West Kennet avenue.
We cross a minor road and start to make our way along the West Kennet stone avenue leading towards Avebury. This is one of two avenues linked to the henge, the other running in a more westerly direction towards Beckhampton. The Beckhampton avenue has almost completely disappeared, while the West Kennet one we are on is sadly depleted, the missing stones marked by concrete blocks. It is commonly assumed that the avenue stretched all the way back to the Sanctuary. But the stones behind us have been removed, so our own route to the end of the existing avenue has been something of a detour from the original line.
The avenue is by no means straight. In fact it follows a sinuous serpentine track, at one point veering out over the modern road and then back again. Avebury generally defies attempts to reveal the kind of astronomical alignments found at Stonehenge, and this is certainly no alignment. The avenue winds like a lazy river on its path along one flank of Waden Hill. One can’t help feeling that the avenue deliberately mirrors the sinuous flow of the small stream we followed earlier on the other side of the hill. The notion is strangely satisfying, although the idea is somewhat undermined by recent archaeological evidence suggesting that the Winterbourne was not so much a stream in Neolithic times as damp boggy ground. Even so, it’s difficult to avoid the supposition that this is a route for walking along, either as a way of approaching the Avebury monument or of leaving it, and that its shape is somehow related to movement through nature.
We arrive back at Avebury, and spend some time walking the circumference of the henge. The stones come in all shapes and sizes, some of them estimated to weigh over 40 tonnes. Some people have posited that there is a distinction between the tall thinner ones and the rounder or more diamond-shaped ones, as they are often found in pairs. They could be representations of male and female – or they could just be positioned thus by chance. Walking along the top of the earthwork, one becomes very aware of its size and the depth of the ditches, even more so when you consider that they have, over time, become partly filled with silt.
Avebury is rightly considered to be one of the most important prehistoric sites in Britain. The great stone and earth-bank henge was constructed, possibly in a series of stages, some time around 2500 BC. The scale of the surrounding bank and ditch is obvious as soon as you arrive in the village. It is also immediately clear that these are not defensive earthworks, as the ditch is on the inside, a characteristic feature of the circular henge (though not, interestingly, at Stonehenge, where the ditch is on the outside). Just inside the ditch a few upright stones, varying from a few feet in height to others towering 20 feet or so above us, can be seen in an arc. Only around a third of the original stones remain. More than 70 have been lost through centuries of neglect and wilful destruction.
The damage started in medieval times when the Church encouraged the pulling down and breaking up of the stones. Perhaps the place remained a focus for pagan rites that it was determined to suppress. Other stones were removed to build houses and walls. When the antiquarian John Aubrey visited the site in the 1640s, almost all the stones were still standing. When William Stukeley arrived in the 1720s, he was horrified to discover such a significant ancient site rapidly disappearing. In one of his illustrations he shows the process of breaking up one of the great stones using fire and runnels of water.
Most of the remaining fallen stones were re-erected by Alexander Keiller in the 1930s, after he bought the whole village and its surrounding land. It may seem extraordinary to us now that a monument of such national importance should be in private hands – and subject to the whims of its proprietor. But we have to remember that Stonehenge was also privately owned until the early 19th century, when it was bought by a local gentleman for £6,000 and donated to the nation.
Our five-mile walk has set us up nicely for expensive tea and cakes in the National Trust cafe, and a visit to the small museum.
Below is a list of other walks visiting ancient monuments:
This walk is short but full of interest. As well as the obvious ancient monument, the area is the lower end of Artist's Valley and is rich in mosses and other wildlife. ... More info
A pleasant, enjoyable and historic short walk on a commonland, visiting three ancient monuments and offering views to both the north and south coast of the Penwith Peninsula.... More info
This is a varied walk which will take you (not too steeply) up hill and down dale. There are ancient monuments to see, rocks to climb up (and through) and pleasant views of the Peak District. There are flowers along your way and an inn in Birchover... More info
A popular walk on good paths with varied coastal scenery. The route takes in Hengistbury Head Ancient Monument, the Local Nature Reserve and the beach at Sandspit. On clear days, there are outstanding views from Warren Hill towards Christchurch... More info
An easy walk, with only gentle ascents and descents, yet offering splendid views over Weymouth Bay and the Isle of Portland, some spectacular inland panoramas, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and ancient monument, a beautiful hidden valley and... More info
Dumfries and Galloway
Get hooked on Galloway with these easy walks from the bustling, friendly little market town of Newton Stewart with its many amenities.
The full circuit, much of it within the delightful sight and sound of tumbling water, offers a taste of... More info
Explore Durham's largest ancient monument site, pitted with the remains of Roman and pre-Roman settlements and later mineworkings. Return on the route of a disused railway, past an impressive dismantled viaduct.... More info
A walk along the north shore of the Firth of Forth, passing beaches, with stunning views and ancient monuments thrown in. Watch for wildlife, enjoy the woodlands and finish off with a train journey. You can't get better than that.... More info
Greenfield Heritage Park has in a very concentrated area, woodlands, reservoirs, ancient monuments and industrial heritage. There are also on site a visitor centre, a farm museum with special features for children and a woodland trail, as well as a... More info
Isle of Wight
An exhilarating circular walk along high clifftops with fantastic views, fascinating geography and interesting history, followed by high downland with panoramic views over much of the island to the mainland beyond. Follow ancient paths past... More info
An exciting walk with widely varied terrain and interest for all: history, ancient monument, a birdwatcher's delight and enough demanding country to keep the walker alert.... More info
This is a walk that completes a full circle of Ludham and explores its beautiful surroundings, including its riverbanks and ancient monuments, its shops and picturesque church. There are numerous perfect lunch spots throughout the walk, with stunning... More info
This is a mixed terrain circular walk starting at and returning to, Tasburgh, south of Norwich. There are ancient monuments, churches, field tracks, a Roman road and riverside meadows, together with opportunities for a variety of refreshments in Long... More info
The best way to visit the evocative ancient monuments in the heart of mainland Orkney is on foot.... More info
A scenic walk in the Vale of the White Horse (Oxfordshire) taking in the famous Ridgeway National Trail, a number of ancient monuments including the White Horse, plus a selection of picturesque villages.... More info
The walk starts at the Cornalees Bridge Visitor Centre and is almost all along good paths across moorland and alongside water – whether reservoir, loch or Greenock Cut, a designated ancient monument.... More info
This walk encompasses the ancient monuments of Cissbury and Chanctonbury Rings and includes spectacular views of the South Downs.... More info
This easy walk takes in most of the ancient monuments that surround the village of Avebury. It gives visitors to Avebury an excellent opportunity to see the village and stone circle in the wider context of the surrounding countryside and monuments.... More info