Britain has many fine churches central to the identity of our villages, towns and cities. They are still spiritual centres that are also, until recently, gathering places for the whole community. A place where people came together to praise God, but also a space that has cemented community relations and support networks since Anglo-Saxon times. But it should not be forgotten that the Christian era has only been a very small period of time in relation to the human story. Structures of stone and earth still stand, from the deeper past, testament to the spiritual needs and beliefs of that vast period of time before Christianity, and monotheism generally.
One such structure is the Hellstones, situated on Portesham Hill 600ft above sea level, on the summit of the south facing limestone escarpment of a flat-topped ridge running NW-SE.
One explanation of the name is that it is from the Saxon word 'helian', meaning to cover or conceal. The existing stones formed an entrance to a chambered Neolithic long barrow and were originally covered by a mound of earth, over 4,500 years ago, and is now 24m long by 12m wide.
The chamber we see today was re-erected in 1886 and consists of 9 'orthostats', or upright sarsen stones, supporting an oval capstone that was used by shepherds as a shelter.
Many of these long tapering mounds were built during the Neolithic and are our most ancient religious burial structures. The burials are all at the chambered end in single or multiple 'rooms'. The bodies are un-articulated and it is probable that they practised 'excarnation' (lying out of the body to rot) and the main bones then deposited in the tombs.
|West Kennet stone chambers (curved forecourt behind capping stones)|
Many of the long barrows have crescent-shaped 'forecourts' (moon connection?) where it is probable that rituals took place to honour ancestors, as the tombs remained open for long term access to the remains. It is possible to see people gathering at these centres to worship and feast in the presence of the revered ancestors, as we are surrounded today by the tombs of graves of family and community when attending church services.
|Malta figurine with spine & ribs accentuated|
However, when reading the books about this period the rest of the structure, the mound, is generally ignored. Why build a mound of earth and put a wooden or stone structure at one end? I believe that the shape of the mound is as important as the specific burial area. The overwhelming evidence supports a female deity(s), originating in the Palaeolithic, one based on using abstract sculptures (the so called 'Venus' figurines).
|Three early 'Venus' figurines|
This abstraction is translated into the landscape in the shape of the chamber and the mound. In a nutshell, the chamber is the deity as rebirth and the mound is the deity as death. Discuss! Our churches are in the shape of the cross and in 7,000 years time, if Christianity could be forgotten, future archaeologists would be right to suggest that this shape means something. Images spring, and persist, from the human mind, past and present.
On the day we visited, with a deaf spaniel, the little boy who owned the dog found a £1 coin and a 2p coin in the chamber. So someone had made a little sacrifice in this still sacred place. There will never be a definitive answer as to how and to what past people made worship, but we are still human and we still have human minds, and that little sacrifice made contact through time, in this space, with the barrow builders.