I love Avebury, I’ve been there many times and the landscape as a whole, with its many ancient features, I find incredibly compelling. I’m not much of a historian, I find it hard keeping dates straight in my head and the who ruled when habits of history don’t agree with me. I’m much more interested in how regular people lived, what they thought and believed, how they organised their lives and so forth.
Nicholas Mann’s Avebury Cosmos is a fascinating book. As the title suggests, it’s very much about archaeo-astronomy, working out how the night sky would have looked at the time of building, and the different stages of development around Avebury, from its early beginnings at the Windmill Hill settlement, through to the building of Silbury, and the abandonment of the site for the overtly solar Stonehenge construction. Mann makes a compelling case for Avebury being a place of star watching.
Knowing very little about the night sky before I started reading, the star information here was hard work, but accessible to me. I learned a lot, and I can honestly say that some of what I learned staggered me, and has left me with huge questions about how we might be shaped by our environments and how, for those ancestors, the order and motion of the night sky might have influenced everything. How the making of something on the scale of Avebury would inevitably change the culture that made it, too.
Issues of geographical layout, dating of constructions and positions of stars are laid out with confidence and authority, often with reference to other authors. As a non-expert I have to take this on trust, but given that these things can be checked, and the manner of presentation, I am happy to trust.
Much of the rest of the writing is concerned with re-constructing Neolithic culture by seeing what can be inferred from the site. Some of the inferences are very logical – the scale, resources, number of hands required and duration of building tell us that there was some kind of organisation here and that Avebury was an important centre drawing workers and celebrators from across the south west. Mann considers the behaviour of other star-watching peoples who left more tangible evidence. He considers later myths and legends that might connect to the site, or to star watching ideas. Frequently he offers multiple interpretations offering an array of suggestions as to what people might have been doing here, and why. The speculation is clearly presented as such, and as there is no great case to make, no rabbit out of hat mystery to solve, it is a much more readable work for someone like me. Mann does not have any big claims or huge answers, but he opens the way to thinking about what life was like around Avebury, and how radically different cultures may have understood their existences. As someone who has a lot of issues with modern culture, these alternative views gave me hope.
Anyone looking for great goddess matriarchy won’t find any direct reference to it here. However, Mann charts the shift from the apparently gentler, less hierarchical organisation of the Neolithic to the first signs of conflict in the resource-poor Bronze age. He talks of climate change, and also the effect of the beginnings of trade in over-production and impoverishing the land. There are lessons here, too and it made me realise how hierarchy and patriarchy depend upon capitalism.
The diagrams are not easy to look at in a kindle, I couldn’t get notes and images onto the screen at the same time, which was frustrating, so I would suggest paper is probably better. If you have any interest in ancient history, stars, or Avebury itself, you want a copy of this book.