‘And then a queer thought came to her there in the drooked fields, that nothing endured at all, nothing but the land’- (Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song)
In November 2017, students on the MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment (MALLE), the MA in Crime and Gothic Fictions (MACGF) and the MA in Environmental Humanities (MAEH) went on a trip to Avebury, the home of Europe’s largest Stone Circle. Originally erected over 4500 years ago, many of the stones were re-erected in the 1930s by Alexander Keiller meaning that despite its continued reputation as a pre-historic site in many ways Avebury’s ‘pre-history is a product of the 20th Century’. This field trip provided BSU students with the opportunity to consider the interrelationship between natural and cultural heritage while also presenting the chance to consider the discomforting relationship between literature, landscape, and ‘deep time’. The concept of ‘deep time’ was first described in 1788 by the Scottish Geologist James Hutton who used the term when attempting to calculate the geological age of the Earth. Gazing upon the terrifying temporal vista of Siccar Point, Hutton’s friend John Playfair exclaimed that upon encountering the rocky outpost ‘the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time’. The affective register of deep time is thus one of wonder, terror and awe and presents us with the opportunity to consider our relationship with place through an uncanny sense of displacement. The day consisted of a guided literary walk, museum visit, and a talk delivered by a member of the National Trust on Avebury’s archaeological history and world heritage status. The MALLE students, Michelle Mariott and Abbey Ballard reflect on the field trip.
Avebury’s landscape is living; it is a collage of deep time, a historic place where the past, present, and future merge. The skyline is a mosaic mottled with monoliths, barrows, hills, and ditches. Here, the strata of the Anthropocene converge, the alluring traces left by our distant ancestors gathered in one exceptional space.
Sarah Simmods, the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site Manager, emphasises the importance of preserving world heritage sites such as Avebury, but how do you conserve such a diverse history, and what counts as history? Neolithic megaliths are certainly a part of history, but what of contemporary structures? Wind turbines have not been sited at Avebury as they would spoil the aesthetics, but in thousands of years wouldn’t our descendants view a turbine as a relic of humanity’s mutable past?
Throughout history, scholars have considered the issue of aesthetics in relation to conservation. For example, William Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye, published in 1782, discusses the ruins of Tintern Abbey and their picturesque qualities. Gilpin suggests that the removal of rubble from within the ruins sadly decreased its historic authenticity, yet contradictorily applauds the practicalities of the manufactured lawn, and suggests that a mallet to the walls would increase aesthetic appeal.
Today preservation and conservation are the most influential factors in heritage management, and a mallet would be an abhorrence, yet visors are still as influenced by practicality and aesthetics as they were in 1782. In Avebury history converges, but should it stop evolving, should preservation halt progression? Deep time looks to the past, but also to the future. The question becomes, what do we want that future to look like?
As we were guided along the outer circle of Avebury’s large stone henge, in our bright coloured anoraks and heavy hiking boots, we came across a man in prayer. Quite an unexpected sight, we found him sitting on the very top of one of the sarsen monoliths, at least nine feet above the ground. Opening his eyes and looking downwards, he answered our curious enquires with a powerful description of his spiritual engagement with the Neolithic monument. For this man, the landscape of Avebury was full of an ancient energy, energy which channelled through the dense rock and rose up into his very body from the standing stone below.