I generally meditate in a Druid circle sitting in the northern quarter, facing south. It is early morning and my eyes are open, ideally with a soft and panoramic gaze. There is a curtained window in the south east, so I am alerted to the coming of the light. At one level, subtle shifts in the quality of light are just passing phenomena. At another level I experience myself in a liminal, numinous space, not entirely of this world, as I slowly re-engage with daily life.
According to the archaeologist Francis Pryor my positioning, and to an extent perhaps its meaning, is deeply traditional. In the long transition from ‘neolithic’ to ‘bronze age’ culture, north was the direction of the dead and the ancestral realm, and materially marked by stone; south was the domain of the living and the everyday world, and materially marked by wood. So I’m working with a spiritual sense of direction which in some ways echoes theirs, without being the same. It would make sense to me if this were true, for I am here on the same part of the earth, with the same relationship to the sun, as my ancestors of this period.
Talking in more detail about Avebury and Stonehenge specifically, Pryor proposes (1) that the great stone complexes, when fully developed in stone, were a place of the ancestors, of the dead. The place of the living, the place of wood, was to their south. Here is how he describes it:
“The second main period of ritual landscape development at Avebury recalls that at contemporary Stonehenge. Again we see the henge suddenly ‘harden’, with the construction of the great outer circle of massive stones, spaced around the inside of the henge ditch and two (actually three) inner circles of stones. This marks Avebury’s change into a new monument. The domain of the living would have been south of the Kennet, and access to the no man’s land between it and the realm of the ancestors would have been via the river and the great complex of great timber circles and enclosures recently excavated by a team directed by Alasdair Whittle. From this ‘reception’ area funeral parties would move to the West Kennet Avenue. Turning right, to the south, would bring them to the Sanctuary, which had also ‘hardened’ from a timber to a stone circle by this time. … Most parties visiting the ritual landscape in ancient times would have taken the processional route northwards, leaving the vast bulk of Silbury Hill on the left, a silent outpost on the edge of the next world. Eventually they would pass through the enormous portal stones that still guard Avebury’s southern entrance into the West Kennet Avenue. They were then within the circle of the ancestors.
“If travel, or some form of symbolic progression from one state to another, did play a significant part in the way ritual landscapes were experienced, it may also have been important to look backwards and forwards at the same time: backwards towards previous or existing states of being, and ahead towards worlds that were yet to come. Maybe that was why certain key transitional places, such as the Sanctuary or the King’s Barrow ridge at Stonehenge, were so important. To be able to look both ways can be a humbling experience, but it can also sharpen one’s sense of self and appreciation of the here and now. Archaeologists, in their natural enthusiasm to explain the workings of prehistoric minds and the landscapes they inhabited, should be aware that we will never explain all aspects of past spiritual experiences. There will always be lost dimensions of meaning and mystery – which is one of the things that make the subject so addictive.”
I don’t have the knowledge or standing to say whether Francis Pryor is right in his hypothesis, which as he says himself can only be tentative and provisional. I do deeply appreciate him for being willing to risk using his imagination, whilst informing that imagination with the best evidence that he can muster. He looks back to ancestors who in their turn show a high level of imaginative engagement with their own. We can read what he writes in our here and now and thus, within that here and now, are able to anchor a sense of continuity and connection, through our own imaginative openness. The people who built those monuments were essentially like us. They were mortal like us, and they knew it like us. They had a relationship with the earth, sun and stars like us. They had imagination like us. And they had a relationship with death and the unknown like us. Something to do with these characteristics that we share moved them to change their physical landscape. Those are the things that connect us, more importantly than details of custom or belief – rightfully fascinating though they are.
- Pryor, Francis Britain BC: life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans HarperCollins e-books (Hardback first published 2003)
Very interesting James! So many similarities to church and other religious buildings, with orientation to various directions. So it appears on the surface of it, that we…mortal man..have changed little. I dare say, that if we were stripped of our technologies, that ancient man would recognise us as being related in some ways to him, but would also see that we had broken our connectedness with our envirionment and had become strangers within it!
Nowadays, many go through the motions of ritual and attendance at various edifices, but I wonder, how many of these attendees are actually ‘connected’ to what they are doing?
I agree – and I continue to find that the work of connection can still feel a bit stilted and self-conscious at times, rather than just flowing naturally. Practice helps, though the habit of practice is double-edged!
Yes…the habit of practice can become a ritual in itself, which can and does prevent further growth, if not carefully managed.
I do agree that known archaeology can aid in creating a certain ambiance when performing rituals, lending a sense of continuity to the occasion.
A really nice post! I like Francis Pryor’s work and it’s great that he does use his imagination as well as the academic archaeology.
Thanks Julie. I do find this way of approaching the past very nourishing.