Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The oldest road -- 1

The antiquarian John Aubrey first recognized the significance of the Avebury complex of tombs and temples in the mid-17th century, as the Scientific Revolution in England was beginning. Until that time the place belonged to fable and fairies. Aubrey wrote that the Avebury stone circles, with their great enclosing moat and linear avenues of standing stones, "does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge, as a cathedral doeth a parish Church."

The primary stone circle is one of the largest in the world, big enough to have the village of Avebury sitting inside it. Unfortunately, many of the defining megaliths were broken up by locals for building stone. This desecration seems to have mostly occurred between the time the presiding fairies and pagan spirits began their retreat in the face of a newly emerging empiricism and the advent of an incipient preservationist consciousness in the 17th and 18th centuries. That is to say, the Avebury "cathedral" presumably survived for millennia after its builders vanished because it was considered a sacred or haunted place in the popular imagination, just as many of the ring forts of Ireland survived into the protectionist 20th century because of their association with "the fairies."

No one knows with certainty the purpose of the Avebury structure. Most archeologists believe it did indeed serve as a kind of cathedral, or holy gathering place, for the Neolithic farmers of the Wiltshire Downs, perhaps a place to celebrate the arrival of spring and the fall harvest. (Tomorrow I will suggest a darker purpose.) As Carmen suggested yesterday, the celebration of life assumed a continuation into an afterlife; the "cathedral" is surrounded by a vast "churchyard" of burial structures -- barrows of earth and stone, including the famed West Kennett Long Barrow and Silbury Hill, the largest manmade earthen mound in Europe. As we walked from site to site we felt the sense of otherworldly enchantment that must have been integral to the lives of Neolithic peoples. We were in the presence of what is assuredly among the most ancient, universal and enduring of human characteristics -- the desire to live forever.


But there we were, three modern adults who do not believe in a personal afterlife, or fairies, or pagan spirits. We accept the scientific consensus that the death of the soma is the death of self. Why then, if we are so soon to be gone, should we care that a place like Avebury be preserved, or that we should embrace a conservationist ethic of any sort? One only saves what has an intrinsic value -- that is to say, that which is sacred or holy. Can words like sacred or holy have meaning in the absence of personal immortality or a transcendent plan for the world? I believe the answer to that question is not only "yes," but that -- as the title of my most recent book suggests -- foregoing the transcendent requires us to assume responsibility for re-enchanting the world. How that re-enchantment might work in a secular context I propose to explore now and again over the coming weeks as I reflect on our Ridgeway walk.