This picks up from yesterday’s post, in which I begin a look at Avebury and other prehistoric sites as the third of ten reasons why every gamer should spend some serious time in the UK.

Avebury rocks.

Avebury rocks. As in, these are rocks at Avebury. Not as in Avebury is a really rockin' town. Erm, village. It might be, I suppose, but if so they've hidden it well under a thick veneer of bucolicness. . . .

The Avebury complex of sites is cool, but it’s just the tip of the prehistoric iceberg. We’ve already mentioned Stonehenge, which is only 30 miles or so away. Go another 15 miles and you come to Old Sarum, an iron-age hill fort overlooking the town of Salisbury. The hill forts were, well, forts. On hills. The defenses were rings of ditches and mounds built around the hills’ summits, in an era about a thousand years before Christ. In the case of Old Sarum, the Normans decided it was a pretty cool defensive spot and built a castle on the hill, with the hill fort ditches creating a series of majorly impressive dry moats. It was big enough that the original Salisbury cathedral was built in the outer ring of earthworks, along with a small town—all of which was moved down to Salisbury’s present location a couple of hundred years later.

Yeah, you can see why the Evil Norman Overlords thought this might be a good starting point for a castle. Imagine charging up that slope in 80 pounds of armor.

Old Sarum

Tam explores the castle. It's pretty much just ruins. But COOL ruins!

The cathedral footers at Old Sarum

Here's where Salisbury's cathedral used to be—inside the outer walls of Old Sarum. Seems crazy to tear down a perfectly good cathedral after only 200 years, but then, how many buildings see 200 years of use in the US?

Or you could go in the other direction about 20 miles and hit the Uffington White Horse. This is a huge figure set in the side of a hill, made by cutting away the turf to expose the bare chalk underneath. (Heard of the white cliffs of Dover? Well, pretty much the entire south of England is chalk two feet under the grass, so any cliff, quarry, or even highway cut is brilliant white in color.) There are many such figures in the south of England, including some spectacular ones with mysterious origins. But Uffington’s white horse is the only one that dates, almost indisputably, from antiquity. There are pictures of it on iron-age coins.

The White Horse

Another photo stolen off the intarwebs. (I'm pretty sure I have some close-ups at ground level, with me standing by one of the horse's ears, but I can't find it.) Just off-picture to the right: Another hill fort.

What’s Cool about It?

Well, what isn’t cool about Avebury? It’s a giant circle of standing stones, for Pete’s sake. Did I mention there’s a village in it?

The Avebury ditch

And did I mention that Avebury henge is BIG? Way bigger than that upstart Stonehenge. Here are my kids playing on the slope of the ring ditch, just to give you a sense of scale.

I think what’s coolest about it to me, though, is the depth it gives to the history of the region. You can visit almost any spot in the UK and find buildings from the Victorian era lining streets that existed in the Middle Ages—that describes the town I worked in and almost every settlement in Great Britain other than Milton Keynes. (And Basingstoke. And Slough, the setting of the original, UK version of The Office. Towns that don’t feature this sort of historical character are viewed so contemptuously by Britons that one friend of mine always referred to his hometown as Basinggrad.) Anyway, these roads in turn might run past churches from the Saxon era, and there are probably Roman ruins somewhere in the vicinity. But the hill forts and the White Horse were mysterious artifacts even to the Roman-age Britons—and when they were built, Avebury and Stonehenge, along with their complexes of mounds and avenues, were already 2,000 years old or older. Think about that: When the iron-age Britons, a thousand years before the Romans, were building their hill forts, Stonehenge was as ancient to them as the time of Christ is to us. Or more so.

Something You Didn’t Know

5,000 years is a long time for a bunch of rocks to stand around, especially when they’re basically just planted in the dirt. And in truth, they mostly haven’t. Many of Avebury’s stones are missing, and those standing have largely been put back into standing position in the past hundred years or so. Weather has its effects, but so does mankind. Stonehenge is pocked with damage caused by souvenir-hunting Victorians—you could rent a hammer from the local village blacksmith to chip off a piece of the stone. In Avebury in the 1300s the locals decided to pull down the stones (presumably because of pagan associations), but stopped when a man was crushed in the process. His skeleton was found under the toppled stone by 20th-Century archeologists.

Avebury skeleton

This guy was found in 1938 under a buried Avebury stone. He had coins in his purse from around 1320. Guess that's devil's payback for tearing down the devil's stones! (I didn't take this picture.)

Speaking of skeletons, it appears that the barrows—at least the long barrows, like West Kennet—were some sort of ossuary, possibly for an important or royal dynasty. But though the galleries and chambers are so easy to see as dungeon-like constructs, tunnels and rooms begging to be opened and explored, it appears that they were not left in the state we now see them in. When the bones were placed within, the spaces were then infilled with earth. Every few years or decades the earth would be excavated and the bones removed, possibly for viewing or use in some sort of ceremony. Dozens of skeletons were unearthed by archaeologists at West Kennet, but they were jumbled and often incomplete. (Also interesting: The chambers only occupy one end of the long mound; most of it is just dirt.)

On a related topic, you know the classic image of the dolmen: The coarse stone slab held up by three or four legs, forming a table or altar (or maybe some sort of crude building)? Turns out you’re looking at the skeleton of a burial mound. The slab was basically the ceiling of a chamber (probably infilled, like West Kennet) within the mound. Over the millennia, the earth of the mound washed away, leaving just the heavy stonework at its center. (There are tons of burial mounds throughout southern England—heck, I’ve seen a survey map that marked a small one just off the corner of our property, though I could never find it—but I don’t think they’re the sort that have dolmens inside them. Saw a few up in Angelsey, though.)

Burial mound on Angelsey

A burial mound on Angelsey, north Wales. Imagine washing away all the dirt, and you'd be left with a pretty classic dolmen. Say "hi" to Zeppo! (That's the dog, not the sword-wielding boy.)

So What’s This Mean to the Gamer?

The word “dolmen” comes from the Breton (a form of Celtic) words for “stone table”; the equivalent word in German implies a table built by giants. So it’s not just modern eyes that draw the wrong conclusions from seeing these things.

Which brings me to how Avebury and Stonehenge and Old Sarum and Uffington have shaped my own gamer’s mind: In most fantasy settings, the elves of Varnar (or whatever) built their shining city ten thousand years ago and blah blah blah. We get our sense of historic grandeur by preceding our events with backstories that contain really large numbers of years. Or maybe we go with something like “it’s the Third Age of Blabityblook,” implying that there were a couple of Ages beforehand—but not really implying much else. It’s lazy history-building, and you know what: You get what you pay for.

But at Avebury, you’re peaking through layered curtains of ages, through mysterious times to times even more mysterious. And the presence of the village, which dates from the Middle Ages, and the modern sheep grazing on the embankments, reminds you to think not just about the lives of the people who built and lived around Avebury Henge, but about all the people who have lived around it since—what they thought of it, what they wondered, and how they made it part of their lives. Sometimes there’s a practical connection (the Normans building a castle on Old Sarum), sometimes a mystical one (the superstitious villagers of Avebury pulling down the stones), and sometimes there’s just a sense of wonder (the Victorian tourists trudging through brush and sheep pasture, hammers in hand, to view Stonehenge).

Regardless, these layers and interactions give a much more profound sense of depth and history than throwing a few more zeroes onto a fantasy world’s dates.

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