It seems that nature will always prevail. Human civilizations come and go, sometimes leaving their marks on the planet's surface, but eventually the elements cover the scars and plants smother the echoes of dead men.
The massive neolithic works around Avebury seem to exemplify this far better than many of the great ancient sites around Europe. Taking their scale and age into consideration, one has to wonder at how relatively advanced their builders' technological, organizational and communication skills were for the period, and at the same time how they managed so much with so little.
Construction is said to have begun over 5,000 years ago (when the Greeks were still in their nappies) and continued over several hundred years. This suggests considerable cultural continuity, although we know little of the religion or customs practised by their builders.
Their scale is staggering, stretching for miles around Avebury, utilizing sarsen stones weighing upto 60 tons or more, which marked a henge 427 metres in diameter encircling three circles and two adjoining avenues 1 Km and 2 Km long. There are also the barrows (massive rock-built tombs), various settlements and the enigmatic Silberry Hill, which at 40 metres high is said to be the largest man-made mound in Europe (the Motte in Brampton, Cumbria, however, is said to be 42 metres high).
This place must have been a very important centre of religious, political, commercial and cultural activity for over a thousand years. But at some point in the Bronze Age its influence declined and the action moved elsewhere, and for another couple of millenia these great works seem to have been all but forgotten.
Nature and later inhabitants rolled their sleeves up and got to work on the place. Many great works of man have been vandalized, desecrated, carted away bit by bit for building material, eroded by weather and shattered by earthquakes, until there's precious little left. The neolithic builders' use of such huge hard sarsen stones made all this much more difficult, and their masterpieces seem to have blended with their surroundings rather than being destroyed by them. The rows of standing stones seem like the worn out teeth of ancient earth gods, with delicate lichens decorating the crowns and grass and wildflowers as their gums.
Somehow, man has triumphed over nature to achieve what by our scale of reckoning suffices for immortality. Scarred but unbowed, the surviving stones stand as testament to man's ingenuity. To our 21st century eyes, this blend of decay and endurance is very attractive, and our ignorance of the lives and thoughts of the people of such long gone times allows us a considerable degree of romantic fantasy.
There is a modern presumption that such ancient people were somehow more in tune with nature than we are today, and that of itself is a "good thing". There is no doubt that they had to figure out as much as they could about their environment in order to survive in it with far fewer facilities apart from their wits, and that they learned to treat various aspects of nature with respect. But in many cultures, this respect led to deification, which led to the institutionalizing of religion, knowledge and power. Whether these were used for the common good, and how much those at the bottom of the pile benefited from such a system remains questionable.
It is certain that they used enormous amounts of wealth, i.e. their know-how, assets, natural resources and manpower (or those of others?), to build their monuments. What was the cost in lives of trees, plants, animals and humans? Did the end justify the means? Is this too different (in essence if not in scale) from today? Humans make their marks on the environment by hacking huge chunks of it out of one place (where nature put it) and hauling it off at great expense and placing them in another place (where nature didn't put it) according to some scheme that satisfies their imagination and ambitions.
This may make great art: it is as true of Avebury as it is of the Acropolis, Mayan temples or the Empire State Building. But it does not necessarily have anything to do with being one with nature? If the builders of Britain's henges could figure out how to move enormous chunks of stone across hundreds of kilometres from Wales to southwest England and erect them in accurate patterns, it should not astound us that they had also also figured out where the sun rises on a certain date or which plants kill you and which help with toothache.
As in any society, there must have been those who were dedicated to solving the mysteries of the universe, those who figured out how to put any resulting solutions to a practical purpose, and those who said "That's sounds great! Can you build me a really cool tomb by next full moon? Just to honour the moon goddess, you understand."
Have you read this far? Or maybe you've just scrolled down the page to see how all this ends?
Avebury is beautiful, stunning and thought-provoking. In many ways a more satisfactory experience than Stonehenge (also great), not least because the whole area is so open and easy to explore.
Highly recommended. Go there.
Many thanks to my host and guide Mark Mallett.