Few regions of the world hold as many ancient mysteries as the English county of Wiltshire. Famous throughout the world for megalithic constructions including Stonehenge and the and the Avesbury stone circle, this sacred landscape boasts one particularly intriguing monument surrounded in controversy.
The West Kennet Long Barrow is widely considered to be a Neolithic burial complex dating back to around 5400 years before the present day. Prominently situated on the top of a gently inclined hillside on the edges of the town of Avesbury, the site commands a view right across to the astonishing, and giant-sized, Silbury Hill, recognised to be Europe’s most massive man-made mound.
We should keep in mind here that a mysterious and now long-lost culture was creating these strange megalithic structures across southwest England around a millennium before members of the ancient Egyptian pharaonic dynasties raised the Great Pyramid at Giza. Many of these stone construction projects were deliberately buried with a covering of soil and debris, hiding them as simple mounds. Today they are known as long barrows.
The long barrow at West Kennet is just a few miles from the enormous Avebury stone circle, which encompasses an entire village and just across the road from Silbury Hill. However, the barrow site is centuries older than both the nearby mound and the Avesbury circle, indicating it was the importance of West Kennet that led to these additional constructions. The ridge upon which it stands offers a lovely view across the stunning local countryside. The barrow itself is around 100 metres in length, running along an east-west alignment.
There has been a tendency for archaeologists to view barrows as merely ritual burial sites, based on the discovery of human bones within the internal chambers. We must keep in mind that the bones of 99.9 per cent of people who died during the Neolithic period did not end up interred in such mounds. If this were a genuine burial tradition, we would expect to see far higher numbers of such constructions, even if some would be on a smaller and more simple scale than those used for leaders. Apparently then, it was not typical to be interred in barrow chamber, making it seem incredibly unlikely they were nothing more than impressive graves.
We should also consider the fact that remains uncovered within mounds often showed clear evidence of having been skeletal before they were placed inside. In some cases, pieces of the skeleton are missing entirely, or there are signs of deliberate de-fleshing of the bodies post-mortem. Why would people only bury half the body of a loved one inside of the grave they had so skilfully engineered for the deceased person?
There is no doubt that long barrows, and the more recent round barrows, played an essential role in the spiritual beliefs of the local population and had a relationship to their understanding of the cycles of life and death. However, what is less well understood is that there is also compelling evidence for sites such as the West Kennet Long Barrow being initiation places associated with the earth mother goddess – places not only of death but also rebirth.
We don’t know very much about the people who left behind sites like West Kennet Long Barrow, but we do know they were almost entirely replaced 4500 years ago by waves of migrants originating in Anatolia. These newcomers are known today as the Beaker People, due to the many large stylised pots they left behind.
Fortunately, some elements of the replaced culture and the beliefs of its people can be inferred from the structures they created and the particulars of the sites where they located these constructions. We know that they considered waterways sacred and held natural springs in reverence as places where the waters of life flowed from the underworld or the body of the mother goddess.
Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Longbarrow are both just a short walk from the spring which gives birth to the River Kennet. The word ‘ken’ seemingly traces back to ancient English kennen or cennan and means knowing or knowledge, the older variants more accurately refer to ‘making something known’. The River Kennet was formerly known as the Cunnitt, a word suspected to be very old and have a direct relationship to the goddess and her reproductive system – the cave from which the river springs representing the entrance to the womb. It is likely not lost on readers that cunnitt is oddly similar to the, now highly offensive, English word c*nt, which traces its origins to Indo European prehistory. In India, we find the Sanskrit word kunthi refers to female genitals, and there is a Hindu nature goddess named Kunti.
Returning to the West Kennet Long Barrow, we can now better understand what it is the ancient people were trying to model in their chambered construction. We can see that the rooms are laid out to represent a woman laying on her back with legs splayed open. The chambers which serve as the figure’s arms point out to the sides, and the head chamber lies to the west. The entrance portal is a (somewhat exaggerated) representation of a vagina and labia opening to the east. The mound of earth piled above the chambers can perhaps be seen to represent the swollen belly of the pregnant mother goddess.
Apart from the telling layout of the chambers within the mound pointing us towards use as a goddess temple site, there is another crucially important detail we need to know in our attempt to reconstruct the precise mode of usage for this impressive site. Incredibly, the sarsen stone chambers are all built to have specific acoustic properties. Specifically, the central and upper rooms are all attuned to 110hz. The first two lower chambers are adjusted to resonate at 84hz. There is little doubt that sound was intended to play an essential part in the usage of the structure.
So, let me take you for a moment into the world of the first inhabitants of the British Isles, a lost population of dark-skinned, dark-haired, people who had dominated the land for thousands of years. This culture that had existed from at least 11,500 years ago right up until the arrival of the light-skinned and light-haired Beaker People of the Eurasian Steppe. With all of the accrued information now in hand, we can reconstruct the likely activities that occurred at this extraordinary place.
An adolescent would be tasked with several days of preparation for his initiation into adulthood. On the allotted evening, perhaps chosen for a full or new moon, the youngster would travel in the company of a tribal elder assigned to be his shamanic guide for the process at hand. After several days of ritual fasting and abstinence from intimate contact, a ritual cleansing would be performed in the icy waters of the Swallowhead Spring, the source of the River Kennet.
Ritual bathing is one of the most ancient spiritual processes known, in the ancient world, this was understood to allow the mother goddess to remove all contamination from both the physical and spiritual bodies. Wrapped in furs once again, the person would follow their guide as he slowly climbed towards the top of the nearby rise. On route, perhaps there would be a sharing of essential stories offering metaphors for how to live a good and long life in the tribe.
The walk would be timed to reach the great sarsen stones at the entrance to the long barrow just as the sun dipped below the horizon, and as dusk turned the landscape to shadows. In the animist worldview, this is the time of the powerful spirits which reside in rocks, trees, wild animals and the elements. The sun sinking beneath the horizon at the western end of the barrow would signify the death of this light-giving deity, it has died, and darkness consumes the world. The god of death stalks nocturnal landscape seeking victims.
The shamanic guide would usher his young charge forwards, reminding him that where he goes now, he must go alone. If the spirits of the tribal ancestors, and the goddess herself, are satisfied with how he performs, then the two of them will meet again in this life. A warning is added, that if the performance is unsatisfactory, then the next time they see each other will be in the world of spirits after the elders own death. This is a matter of life or death journey and not all who have embarked on it survived.
Entrance into the long barrow would require stooping down and crawling into the low entrance tunnel, passing through into pitch blackness. Moving slowly forwards would bring a growing awareness of hard misshapen objects scattered about the ground – searching hands might encounter the familiar feel of limb bones and a human skull. This is no longer the world of the living but a part of the realm of the dead.
After a short period of silence in the deep darkness, a strange throbbing sound would begin, echoing through the night. Unseen just beyond the doorway the shamanic guide begins to twirl his bullroarer (an ancient musical instrument) through the air, the throbbing waves of sound cascade into the tunnel and reverberate around the small stone chambers producing a perturbing and strangely hypnotic effect. This sonic resonance produces infrasound, known to affect human perceptions.
The combination of sensory deprivation through lack of light and the rhythmic rising and falling resonant frequencies takes its toll on the mind of the participant, trapped in a small space filled with skeletons. The sense of a presence in the darkness builds, and strange whispers seem to be hidden in the pulsating rhythm. There is no doubt that the spirits of the ancestors are there, acting as forebears for a meeting with the great lady herself, the earth mother. Psychedelic multi-coloured, and three-dimensional, visions break through the inner darkness, the young participant enters into a full-blown journey through an altered state of consciousness.
Hours have passed and now, sounding strangely distant, a sweet women’s voice breaks through the failing darkness, “come, join us on earth, my child, it’s your time to be born.”
Weary, transformed, the now fully initiated tribesperson crawls on hands and knees through the short tunnel, the birth canal of the mother, and passes out through the two stones that represent the female genitalia and exits the world of the dead reborn to the land of the living. Two lines of elders holding burning torches welcome them back to the domain of man, between them the sun can be seen breaching the horizon directly to the east. The cycle of the initiate’s life is now brought into rhythm with the higher cycles of nature and the deities that rule the cosmos. The child that entered the womb of the earth has died, the reborn adult is given a new name and gains their upgraded position in the tribe.
There can be no doubt that West Kennet is no mere gravesite, but instead, one of the most significant ancient temples still surviving anywhere in the western world.