West Kennet long barrow is one of the few early multi-phased Neolithic monuments in southern England one can enter and experience how it might have been constructed and used in prehistory. Excavated in the 1850s and again in the 1950s, it is now accessible for visitors and a venue of pagan worship within the Avebury landscape. West Kennet was built in at least two phases and is over 100m long. The passage goes 13m in to an end passage, with two side chambers on each side.
The long barrow was used for centuries through the late 4th and early 3rd millennium BC to contain the bodies of the dead, initially articulated and slowly disarticulated as the chambers and passage were used over many decades and bodies were manipulated and bones added, moved around and taken away. There were also some cremation burials, presumably late in the sequence. Notably, at around 2000BC, it was closed off and a large facade placed across the entrance.
The chamber is lit by a modern roof box to assist visitors but it remains a dim and eerie experience exploring the darkness and finding candles and present-day offerings of pine cones, flowers and such like on ledges within the chambers.
Absence: again my theme is absence. West Kennet is a space created by archaeologists where we can imagine absent bones. For here the dead are not to be found any more. There are no bones, only stones. The bones are in museums and collections and the space remains.
For some, for many, archaeologists, calling this a ‘burial monument’ is limiting and functional, since it gives the impression that this is mainly about disposal. For some, for many, archaeologists, this is about making ancestors, creating spaces for veneration of ‘ancestors’.
However, regarding this as a temple or a burial facility is equally misleading for me. The dead were not there for worship and the space is not there as an ossuary. This was never about just living people or bodies and bones, it was an abode for entangling absent lives to lived ones.