Thursday, 1 January 2009
The West Kennet Long Barrow is situated on a ridge opposite Silbury Hill, just off the A4 between Beckhampton and Marlborough and about 1.2 miles from Avebury. It dates back to around 3700-3600BC, predating Silbury Hill and Avebury.
The barrow is 104m (341ft) long by 2.4m (8ft) high, making it one of the longest barrows of its kind in Britain. It was originally flanked on three sides by a ditch approximately 3m (10ft) deep by 6m (20ft) wide. Dug from solid chalk, this impressive mound would have, on completion, stood out stark white on the hillside. At some point a semi-circular forecourt was added to the entrance which faces east/west, an alignment that at first light would catch the rising sun illuminating the barrows interior. Around 2500-2200BC for reasons unknown, the tomb was filled with chalk and soil and its entrance sealed with giant sarsen stones. This would seem a final gesture; a transformation, possible from one belief to another. The sealing of the tomb was also at a time when work began erecting the stone at Avebury.
As early as the 17th century the barrow was under threat from hill diggers (opportunists searching for treasure and the like). One such hill digger was a Dr Troope of Marlborough, who plundered the barrow to retrieve human bones which he ground up to make his ‘noble medicine that relieved my distressed neighbours’. I think it not surprising his neighbours were ‘distressed’, especially if they happened to discover the ingredients of Dr. Troope’s medication, or maybe they already knew. His indiscriminate digging consequently damaged several sections of the barrow which thankfully were later restored.
In 1859 John Thurman, a local archaeologist, was granted permission by the land owner to excavate the site with the understanding that no sarsen should be disturbed. As a result Thurman entered the barrow from the top where he located and cleared the far western chamber discovering six incomplete human skeletons, one of which was an infant. Other discoveries included pottery and worked flint. However, Thurman stopped at the one chamber and missed out on the golden egg.
It was much later, in the mid 1950s that Stuart Piggott and Richard Atkinson cleared four more chambers that Thurman had missed and in so doing discovered the scattered remains of another 46 individuals - adult and infant. Careful examination of the bones identified many of the occupants to be long term suffers of severe arthritis, spina bifida, twisted limbs and polydactyl (extra digits to hands and feet). Some remains showed bone fractures probably as a result of a brawl or fall. Abbesses and impacted wisdom teeth were also discovered but few cavities. It is thought the children may have succumbed to influenza or pneumonia. Such diseases leave no trace on bone, as was the case here. One individual in particular, an adult male, was found in the left chamber as you enter the tomb, fully articulated and squatting in a corner with a leaf arrowhead embedded in his neck. It was a hard life back then where you were lucky to reach 35.
What you see today following Piggott and Atkinson’s restoration, are the five burial chambers set laterally either side of a 10m meter corridor with the largest chamber situated at the far western end. The interior is of sarsen stone corbelled with huge sarsen capstones. One stone in particular is extremely smooth to the touch. This stone is a Polissoir or polisher stone, used to sharpen stone axes. What is unusual about this stone is that it stands upright. Polissoir stones were always horizontal so water could be used as a lubricant. This means that the stone inside the barrow is much older than the barrow itself. Only about a sixth of the barrow has been excavated, the remained awaits further examination.
The purpose of long barrows were foremost as places of burial but also as focal points for rituals. Rituals are still enacted today amongst followers of earth religions. There is also evidence of occult rituals but the two bare no relation. Many see barrows as a door to another world - a liminal, a place of intense spiritual awareness. The remains of offerings are frequently found within: fruit, flowers, corn, candles and incense are a reminder of how important the barrow is to some.
The barrow, which is now part of the Neolithic Avebury complex, is one of the most visited and best preserved burial mounds in Britain. It may also claim to having one of the oldest hauntings in the country, possibly the world.
One Man and His Dog
It is said that at dawn on the longest day, the figure of a man dressed in white robes, possibly the ghost of one of those who were buried within the tomb, has been seen standing on top of the mound accompanied by a large powerful hound with starling red ears. The pair are said to stand silently and quite motionless at the barrows eastern end, presumably waiting for sunrise. At first light, they turn in unison and enter the tomb below. Several local farmers, who’s profession ensures an early start, have witnessing this strange eerie spectacle.
There have been occasions where people have reported intense feelings of dread when inside the tomb. Some even claim to have seen figures moving therein and the faint sound of whispered voices.
Early one morning in 1992, a holidaying couple had a terrifying experience whilst inside the barrow; well one did, her partner was actually outside during her ordeal. She had been exploring the interior, when all of sudden she was grabbed by unseen hands which attempted to pull her towards the deepest part of the chamber. Later, when she had regained some composure, she told her partner of the terror that took hold of her as she tried desperately to break free from the invisible clutches that held her fast. She described how her whole body had become inexplicably ‘weighed down‘, like she was walking through deep mud making any movement a huge effort. It transpired she had only been in the chamber minutes but the whole sorry episode felt to her like an eternity.
So Easy to Fake
This is an example of just how easy it is to be taken in by, or engineer, hoax ghost pictures. These photographs were taken inside the burial chamber. What appears to be a ghostly mist, is in actual fact smoke from incense burners which had been left inside the tomb. The interesting thing is, the smoke was not visible during the shoot and only came to light when transferring the pictures to my PC. Once again, flash photography is the culprit (see section entitled "Orbs" in sidebar for more examples of camera deception) making visible and enhancing perfectly explainable atmospherics - blast!