Just before the UK went into lock-down, amid all the worries for what the future held, the sun came up on another day. Because of the terrible Covid-19 virus hundreds of people were dying in Italy and Spain and across the globe; doctors and nurses were frantically, desperately, trying to save lives in stifling hospitals through a fog of physical and emotional exhaustion. We are kept up to date with the alarming numbers of daily dead and see every day the awful reality of stress and fatigue in the medics’ home videos uploaded to news channels.
And yet, just ten days ago, as I witnessed the sun rise I couldn’t have felt more remote from it all. The air was cold and clear where I stood, still and watchful; peace and calm and a soft breeze were my environment. Watching the pre-dawn colours develop it felt like time was irrelevant; there was no rush, no haste, no end game, no fear, there were no statistics, it was just another day.
Ironically, however, I too was at a place associated with death.
I was at West Kennet Long Barrow, an ancient burial mound in the county of Wiltshire, UK. The 110 metre (360 ft) long mound lies on a low rise above the nascent river Kennet within sight of man-made Silbury Hill and near the famous stone circles of Avebury, just a few short miles from my home. When it was first constructed some 5,700 years ago the stone chambers inside the mound were used for burials. For the duration of little more than a generation men, women and children were laid to rest here. There was some segregation it seems but all ages and sexes are represented in the remains recovered.
Perhaps they were all members of important local families, maybe even pioneers, ground-breakers, as this was the beginning of a new age. These people date from the early years, the dawn, of the Neolithic, the final era of the stone age when farming first came to these islands. We know very little about the people themselves but they were among the first farmers in Britain, and science tells us that their diet was strongly reliant on dairy products.
So, can we assume they were cattle farmers settling down near good pastures, a reliable spring providing the essential water for all? Their great-grandparents had perhaps still hung on to the old ways of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ but this generation was carving out a more permanent place for itself. Part of their claim on the land entailed creating somewhere to bury their dead and they chose a highly visible place to do so. The mound is now grassed over but when first constructed it was bare chalk, lying along the ridge like a huge white bone held aloft.
The long barrow was visible for miles around, a clear indication to itinerant strangers that this part of the land was already occupied. Most importantly though it meant the past was constantly in the present, the burial mound a constant reference point, the living always conscious of the dead. They didn’t bury their dead and forget about them, these pastoral farmers physically looked up to their predecessors on the ridge and everything they did was within view of them. The ancestors were omnipresent. Evidence from the barrow suggests that, although more individuals were not added to the early burials within the mound, West Kennet Long Barrow was the focus of ceremonies for hundreds of years.
Although this is the most impressive of these Early Neolithic Long Barrows there are a surprising number of them distributed widely throughout this part of southern England. Each family group or tribe needed one on their territory it would appear. There are many differences between the mounds but what they mostly have in common is that they are aligned to the east, to the rising sun.
This is why I was there that morning, it was the Vernal Equinox. West Kennet Long Barrow is aligned due East. On the Spring and Autumn Equinox the sun rises over the horizon directly ahead of the entrance to the mound, meaning at dawn the rising sun would have penetrated the length of the burial chamber at these times of the year. These must have been very special days here. Perhaps it was when the spirits of the dead were reborn, the departed souls re-energised. We don’t know what ceremonies took place but back then I doubt I would have witnessed the spectacle of sunrise alone. Once the burial mound had gone out of use in the early Bronze Age, the entrance was blocked up so I couldn’t experience the sun streaming in but I could watch it rise from the top.
During pre-dawn the, normally grey, stones had shone a rosy pink, the quartz crystals in these sarsen stones reflecting the day’s first colour. Even the ploughed earth, usually a grey-brown spattered with the shaded white of chalk lumps, took on more colour than it should. The colours intensified and morphed, spread across the sky in a bewildering vastness, and then she rose, the star of the show, exactly on cue at 06:05.
It can’t always have been like this here (after all it was where bodies were laid to turn to bone) but as I stood facing east I was breathing in the purest, freshest air imaginable, I was both happy and awestruck. The happiness stemmed from the beauty of my surroundings and the perfect sunrise I was witnessing. And I was awestruck on two accounts: by the conviction and determination of our ancient ancestors in constructing such a magnificent monument to their ancestors and also, and maybe more, by the immutability and indifference of Nature. The sun rose in pretty much the same place when the long barrow was built; everything that has happened in the meantime, everything that has affected mankind and the planet we call home, has done nothing to change that.
Whenever I watch a sunrise, as I have on many equinoxes and solstices in and around Stonehenge and Avebury with and without clients, I am always surprised at how fast the sun comes up once its orb first appears as a burning speck on the horizon. The pre-dawn is when time appears to stand still but once the sun arrives it grows and brightens quickly on the start of its journey across the sky, the span of just another day.
If you get a chance do come and visit this very special place set in the extraordinary World Heritage Site of Avebury and Stonehenge.
My photos include an aerial one of West Kennet Long Barrow to show the scale and two inside the tomb taken on other occasions. All the other photographs were taken on the day described and include shots of the long barrow, Silbury Hill and the river Kennet (which has its spring just a few hundred metres away also flows towards the east).