Reviewed by Geraldine Charles
Avebury Cosmos: The Neolithic World of Avebury henge, Silbury Hill, West Kennet long barrow, the Sanctuary and the Longstones Cove, by Nicolas R Mann
We’re now pretty used to the idea that many stone circles appear to have been built to align with sun and moon, even that they may have functioned as giant Neolithic calendars. Nicholas Mann takes these theories to an entirely new level in Avebury Cosmos, combining astroarcheology and anthropology in a fascinating and, in parts, stunning view of the meaning of this extraordinary site.
I found the book a little hard to follow in places, but that’s my own fear of mathematics and it’s written and explained well enough for that not to matter. There’s certainly no shortage of facts ... no vague generalities here but real hard data, detailed plans and orientations too.
I'm lucky enough to live close to Avebury, and to be able to visit on a regular basis. If you aren't so fortunate, let me describe the place briefly. Unlike Stonehenge, where English Heritage has enclosed the stones in wire and doesn't allow regular visitors proper access (thus breaking the terms of the will leaving the site to the nation, but of course that’s another story), Avebury is looked after by the National Trust and it would be impossible to enclose the stones as the village of Avebury, including the pub, is right in the middle of it all. This is a massive site, taken as a whole, encompassing not only the henge and no less than three stone circles but also Silbury Hill, West Kennet Long Barrow and much more (as suggested in the book's title).
But why was it all built? To me, the author’s really breathtaking idea is the understanding that at that time of building Avebury Henge, the view of the stars from the area was, due to the precession of the equinoxes (the approximately 26,000 year rotation of the Earth’s axis) very different to the sky we see today.
Imagine, if you will, that you’re standing in the middle of the henge around 3,300 BCE. At that date, the Milky Way would have been visible around the entire horizon you saw, every winter. The place may have seemed like the centre of the universe, with the Southern Cross and Cygnus constellations indicating north and south, and stones in the circle were aligned to these and other stars, and also to the sun and moon.
Not only that, but the shining white chalk of the henge itself, the earthwork surrounding the Avebury stones, would have mirrored the look of the Milky Way. Later, as the stars appeared to be shifting away from this alignment, this place of balance, Silbury Hill was constructed ... and that lay at the centre of a new set of alignments. Finally, the stars would have shifted further and maybe that is when the complex became disused. All of these shifts are part of the precession of the equinoxes, mentioned above. Avebury IS the Milky Way, perhaps seen as the Milk of the Great Mother.
I would have loved the book for the vision of the Chalk Henge as a mirror of the Milky Way alone, but there is a great deal more to it than that. What I feel we don't know from the book is WHY - and if course it is unfair to expect an explanation from any one book or piece of research. Why did our ancestors wish to mirror the sky in this way? What did the Milky Way signify to them? And of course, these ideas will have changed over time. The time period separating the building of West Kennet, to the completion of Silbury Hill is over a thousand years - think how our ideas have changed in the last thousand years.
However, the book affords a new, and I think profound, way of looking at the treasure of ancient monuments in Britain and elsewhere, and Nick's approach may well work for other sites. It's exciting!
Avebury Cosmos is published by O Books and available on Amazon.
A web designer and all-round computer person, Geraldine is responsible for a number of websites. In her spare time she writes articles and poems, loves researching Goddess in mythology and also produces artwork on her beloved computer. She also runs an online correspondence course called "Getting to know the Goddess".