Magically standing on a ridge just south of Avebury, West Kennet Long Barrow is one of the most magnificent and oldest of Wiltshire’s ancient monuments. Archaeologist Aubrey Burl described the site as, ‘… the finest megalithic tomb in England and Wales…’ and as such it is included in the Avebury World Heritage Site.
It is the best preserved, and almost the longest, of all long barrows, comprising hundreds of tons of chalk and earth in a 100m long mound, plus a passage and five atmospheric chambers at the east end, guarded by large sarsen stones. The whole monument was designed to impress from the outside, and to transform once within.
The builders and shamanic users of West Kennet Long Barrow (WKLB) had a profound knowledge of astronomy, sacred geometry, earth energies, as well as acoustics and sacred sound. They had a shamanic-based cosmology, a belief system whereby the departed ancestors survived physical death, and could in fact be contacted. WKLB was never just a tomb, but rather a liminal crossing place, where shamans journeyed to ancestral realms for knowledge and healing. It was a womb, into which one could go into its dark chambers for initiation and ceremony, to be rebirthed as one came back out into the light.
Excavations in 1859 and 1955-6 yielded surprising results. After the original 35-40 burials in the early Neolithic, around 3,600 BC, the chambers and passage were gradually filled to the roof with ritual objects and more human bones over many centuries. The primary burials were lined up against the back walls, implying that the remaining space was for the living, not the dead – the shamans were going inside the dark recesses of WKLB to commune with their ancestors. Ritual deposits of animal bone, antlers, pottery, chalk and flint simulacra, and missing skulls, all suggest ceremonies were being carried out by the shamans of this Neolithic farming clan. Alignments built into the design let the sun and moon into the dark chambers at certain times of the year; these people were as much part of the heavens as the land. I have witness some of these astronomical events today – magical moments as I stood in the chambers receiving the light of the sun into my being.
The Shamanic Experience
Shamans were, and still are, intermediaries between this three dimensional world, with its cycles of birth, life, and death, and some kind of ‘Otherworld’, the realm of nature spirits, totem animals, and the ancestors. For thousands of years shamans have been entering trance states and ‘journeying’ to these other dimensions to bring back information of use to their tribe. This stems from a primeval belief that part of us survives physical death.
Walking into the dark passage of WKLB is a liminal experience – we walk from the light into the dark, from the known into the unknown. This has always been the case here. Inside WKLB the shamans would sit, dance, drum and meditate to contact the ancestors. I have found acoustic ‘hot spots’ inside the chambers where the sounds of the drum or human voice noticeably change in tone and volume. Participants of my shamanic drumming/meditation evenings often get ‘heady’ and even giddy at times as the energy builds up, and standing waves formed by drumming and overtoning kick in. The west chamber is corbelled, and it is like being in a huge bell as sound reverberates around; for WKLB as always been about interaction and participation. In the flickering lights the large stones themselves reveal faces, the eyes of which flicker in and out shadow – all part of the experience. Perhaps the stones were seen to be imbued with spirits, which could be ‘brought to life’ when requested, or if enough psychoactive plants had been taken! The large blocking stone in front of the entrance has on the front of it a 1m long vulva gash and a huge left-facing head.
Chambered barrows like WKLB held some special place in the hearts and minds of the clan members. The passages and chambers were very distinct places, detached from the mundane world, and associated with the spirits of the dead. They resemble caves, to a certain degree, and this may have been intentional. At West Kennet, our Neolithic ancestors sought to create their own cave (their own subterranean Earth-Mother ‘womb’), in a chalk landscape that had no natural ones.
I have never regarded WKLB as just a ‘tomb’. Is a church a tomb because it houses monuments of the dead inside and in the churchyard? Of course not. With so few people interred here, burial was not its primary purpose; long barrows were gathering places, before the time of stone circles and henges. Not all mounds were used as tombs, even when resembling ones that clearly did, and even tombs served other purposes than burial alone. The whole design is like a ‘womb’, into which one would go for ceremony and journeying, to be rebirthed out into the outside world when completed.
Perhaps only when corpses had defleshed would they have become a ‘collective ancestor’, having lost any individual identity and made their journey to the Otherworld. It is possible that the interior of WKLB would have been taboo to ordinary folk, not that most people would have ventured into such a dark and highly charged place littered with skeletons anyhow! Inside was the domain of the shaman – and the ancestors.
Shamans would also have facilitated rites of passage and initiations, aiding adolescents during their transition to adulthood. Today we still have ‘rites of passage’, such as taking one’s driving test or an exam, etc. These are often solitary challenges, involving separation, a test of some kind, and then a return. Tribal cultures today often demonstrate these aspects, including incarceration and exclusion from the rest of community. These rites frequently take place at a special or sacred place – like WKLB was to our Neolithic clan. A person must show their resolve, to pass through a physical or psychological barrier, to be ‘reborn’. I have personally experienced this inside the chambers of WKLB, when my shaman teacher, Heather, guided me through a ceremony and into meditation to meet my ancestor, my late father, face to face; his ashes were scattered at WKLB.
Stone Age Trippin’
All around the world today, one of the elements used by shamans to attain an altered state is through the ingestion of mind-altering substances. There is evidence that altered states were a component of some ceremonies at WKLB. There are around a dozen ‘magic mushrooms’ in the UK today, including the Fly Agaric, the Liberty Cap (popular with hippies in the 1960’s), Panther Cap, Ergot, and Chicken of the Woods. Fungi expert Dave Shorten has informed me that all these were growing in Southern England in the Neolithic.
It is possible that only a few people from any one group would have had access to the interior chambers, ‘… it is clear that much was potentially gained from the mystification of the relationship between the living and the dead’. The mystique of the site gave the shaman power and high standing. The users of WKLB were closely bound by kinship, perhaps comprising just a few biological families. Burial served as a community bonding activity, in a similar way that a funeral today ‘bonds’ people in their shared grief. Probably only shamans and others high in the social hierarchy would have access to the interior, borne out by careful arranging of remains by sex and age in the different chambers. The continuance of these practices over many generations was easier to achieve if carried out by a select few. I believe that most of these ‘few’ were likely to have been the shamans of the clan, rather than the chieftains or the hierarchical ‘upper crust’.
The shamans were going into the dark chambers of WKLB not just to deposit the dead, but also to contact the ancestors – their ancestors. This was achieved by trance drumming, hallucinogens, or dream sleep. The chambers were then more foreboding and claustrophobic than we can even begin to imagine. Part of the experience and the effect of this place was that the senses, smells and familiar things associated with the outside world would be absent. You were on your own! Try sitting inside WKLB in the dead of night, with no candles – the imagination goes wild, which is exactly the point!
The elongated lengths of the long barrows (WKLB 100m, East Kennet Long Barrow 105m, Devil’s Den 70m, and so on) were not merely a means to house the dead, but were a way of making an impression. And WKLB did, its elongated, white mound stretching across the top of the ridge. It was no shrinking violet - it was designed to impress!
There is the possibility that ‘token’ burials were made, representing the whole community, to continue the connection with the ancestors, as well as to legitimise rights of access to the territory and its resources. WKLB enabled a clan to ‘lay claim’ to the immediate landscape; In other words, local clan members could say to outsiders, ‘Hey, our ancestors are up there on that ridge, not yours!’ I am not suggesting this was purely for selfish reasons, although a clan’s survival would have been of paramount concern. Rather, this ancestral veneration was born out of a sense of indebtedness, an appreciation that the clan owed much to their forebears, who had perpetuated the lineage, and had passed down to them all that they knew.
Within WKLB, in the early Neolithic, people may have sat surrounded by the skulls and other bones of their ancestors. This must have tested their resolve.
There is no doubting that WKLB is situated on a powerful place on the sacred landscape. The Mary current of the St Michael Line passes through its chambers, and other energy lines flow through the site. Several orbs and moving light phenomena have been captured in recent years inside the chambers and passage, and these occurred when our drumming or meditation has taken place – we had attracted the attention of something. Would the Neolithic shamans have seen these phenomena as the presence of ancestors?
During our drumming evenings at WKLB, I guide groups into the chambers to get a brief, if much diluted, version of what went on thousands of years ago. Even without psychoactive substances, the participants co-create an atmosphere, a group energy, a bonding; and they are also partaking in theatre, they are performers, just as the shamans once were. This can often be powerfully felt and can initiate visions, cause upwellings of emotion, and connections with other realms. We call to the ancestors once more, and in doing so may glimpse the dark regions of our own inner being.
Respectful Use of WKLB Today
One section in my book deals with the use of WKLB today, and how we must strike a balance between preserving the archaeology and accommodating ritual. It is ironic that most damage to the stones, and most ‘ritual litter’, is left behind by fellow Pagans and the like, people who come with good intentions, but do not think about the repercussions of their actions. I regularly clear the site of such debris. I have produced a Code of Practice in the book, on how people can use the site without damage to the monument, so that this prehistoric wonder can stay open for all time. WKLB needs our love, not our litter. In these times of great challenges, as 2012 approaches, we need places such as WKLB more than ever. It is ‘open for business’, and we would do well to listen to what it has to tell us.
West Kennet Long Barrow: Landscape, Shamans and the Cosmos, by Peter Knight. £12.99. 233pp, and well-illustrated. Available from Peter direct or via Amazon. For details of Peter’s talks and walks based on his work, visit his website: www.stoneseeker.net. Some images from the book are on www.facebook.com/stoneseeker