Avebury henge is not as well known as Stonehenge, but it is older, larger, and much more complex. Nicholas Mann explains the phases of construction of Avebury. The site was in development from roughly 4,000 to 2,000 BCE. Archeo-astronomy techniques give deep insights into the celestial phenomena at the time the henge was in use and how the visual cosmos was the inspiration for the placement of the hundreds of standing stones arranged into circles, avenues, groves and long barrow.
Though many stones are missing, excavations have yielded significant clues to the arrangement of the stones and the timbers that preceded them. Carbon-dating indicates that the site was in use for many thousands of years. The site is also distinctive for the complete lack of Neolithic garbage and rubble that long-inhabited sites often reveal. The people who used this place kept it very, very clean. This underscores the highly sacred nature of this place.
The sky's apparent precessional movements change over a 26,000 year period. One quarter of that cycle has passed since Avebury was actively used. The view of stars and the Milky Way galaxy was unbelievably different than it is now. The Southern Cross and stars of Kentaurus were visible at Avebury at a latitude of 51 degrees North. The movement of the Southern Cross made a visible contrast to the Northern Cross, the constellation Cygnus (Swan).
Three factors are always at play: the Milky Way/galactic equator is set at an angle to the ecliptic (the path of the Sun, Moon and planets). Over thousands of years the rotational wobble of the Earth's axis causes the view of the sky to appear to rotate along this axis. In myth and legends, this is called the Tree of Life or Spindle of Necessity.
Mann discusses the mythic and legendary implications of the arrangements at Avebury. Even though the peoples who built the henge left no written records, local stories about it persist. Some of the tales are documented in Welsh legends, too; some of the stones used in henges came from Wales, so the information was surely shared between the stone hewers and the builders. The creatures and images in the moving sky have produced several evocative myths. These myths are shared in variant forms through many ancient cultures throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Some even share a striking resemblance to Mayan and Native American stories. Ancient peoples had an excellent grasp of solar, lunar, and stellar cycles, and their story-telling conveyed much of this information in a colorful way.
Mann's book links many different disciplines: archeology, astronomy, comparative mythology, and ancient cultural studies. The multi-layered analysis offers a 360 degree understanding of Avebury. The final chapter explains why diminishing use of the Avebury complex coincided with the construction of Stonehenge. The great differences between Avebury and Stonehenge reflect a significant change in the local culture. The Neolithic Age was giving way to the Bronze Age focus on solar-sky gods, masculine dominance, power and conquest. The holistic world-view of the Avebury builders disappeared as the spectacular celestial phenomenon of the times shifted and was lost.
Chapters are heavily illustrated with black and white photographs, sky maps, diagrams of the henge and its various features. There are 11 chapters followed by endnotes, three appendices, a bibliography, and an index. The appendices provide illustrated descriptions of precession, the rotations of the galaxy, and lunar cycles and eclipses. If the reader truly wants to understand the core purpose of Avebury, the author provides all the necessary tools.
“Avebury Cosmos” is an important and significant contribution to the growing interest in archeo-astronomy. The information is complex as it is loaded with technical details about stellar movement. It is, however, accessible. The author explains the technical material in a sensible way. This book fills a gap by giving an exclusive focus on one extremely important Neolithic site. Well done!
Highly recommended to those with an interest in gaining comprehensive insights into Avebury and to those who would like to experience the breadth and depth that can be achieved by a skillful archeo-astronomical analysis.
~review by Elizabeth Hazel
Author: Nicholas Mann
O Books 2011
360 pg, $24.95 pb