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The Whimsical Flimsy

Cataloguing correspondence for the digitisation project may appear to be a dry old business, but in fact it’s often pretty interesting and every now and then it throws up a real gem of a letter.

Below is a copy of a letter which caught our attention this week (typed on ‘flimsy’ paper – thin sheets usually used for carbon copies). It was written by the highly influential OGS Crawford, in response to an article written by Alexander Keiller in The Modern Mystic issue of February 1939. Keiller’s piece in the esoteric magazine discussed the origins of sites including Stonehenge and Avebury.

Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford was – judging by the relatively small amount of his correspondence held in the Avebury archives – a dynamic, progressive, larger-than-life, no-nonsense character. He was an archaeologist and aerial photographer of great renown, and served as Archaeological Officer of the Ordnance Survey in Southampton – the perfect occupation for such a pragmatist.

Crawford’s Wikipedia page gives a flavour of the enormous breadth of his experiences and achievements, but in this archival document we see his rarely glimpsed (and biting) humour in full flow. It is at the same time both an inventive whimsy and an acerbic criticism.

Love it.

A photograph of OGS Crawford, via Wikimedia. Unknown author, copyright Keble College, Oxford.

[Ed’s note from Fran: Crawford’s letter is another example from the archive that documents lively early 20th century debates about public (pseudo)archaeology. A key question for the research team is how far our digital archive can contain writings which satirise or dismiss alternative approaches to Avebury and other neolithic sites, while also opening up space for serious, sensitive, and critical approaches to Avebury’s varied interpretations and uses. We welcome your comments!].


Transcription:

Copy of OGS Crawford’s letter to The Modern Mystic.

Nursling, Southampton,

14th February, 1939.

Dear Sir,

In your February number (p.10) Mr. Keiller, in his admirable article, quotes a statement that, when megalithic monuments like Stonehenge were built, the level of the Baltic and of the North Sea was 400 feet higher than now! (I need hardly say that Mr. Keiller himself is far too sane to attach any importance to such a statement). But it seems at first glance to raise certain difficulties about the construction of Stonehenge. the level of the ground on which Stonehenge stands is about 340 feet above the present level of the sea. A simple calculation shows that it must have then been about 60 feet below the sea!

The explanation of this remarkable fact was mystically revealed to me by no less a person than the chief architect himself, the patriarch Noah. With characteristic frankness he told me of a difficulty that has escaped the notice of all the Biblical critics, and of the ingenious method by which he solved it. The heavy precipitation which resulted in the well-known Flood, consisted, of course, entirely of fresh water; and the fishes who for generations had been born and bred, so to speak, in salt water came to him in great distress, asking his advice. Not being a water expert himself, Noah consulted the Authorities and was told that only strenuous work could save the fish from becoming fossilized. He accordingly devised a scheme by which they should swim across the drowned continent of Eurasia and construct a temple to Jehovah upon the submerged uplands that are now called Salisbury Plain. In order to increase their labour and save them from extinction they were to use only the largest stones, and were to fetch some of them from distant Wales. They were supplied with blue prints by a well-known firm of Sumerian architects, specially drawn on waterproof paper by highly skilled crabs, with ink provided free of charge by cuttle-fish or squids. (It is interesting to note that precisely similar paper is still used by the Ordnance Survey for its small-scale maps). The task was duly carried out, and shortly after 4000 B. C. the temple was formally declared open by a bottle-nosed whale.

In every community, however, there are some recalcitrant individuals who refuse to take good advice, and so there were amongst the fishes. A little group of passive resisters was formed, and they occupied their time swimming round the ark cursing the Authorities. They said they would be fossilized before they would consent to do such menial work, and fossilized they were. When at length the Flood receded, the slopes of Ararat and all the land of Armenia was strewn with huge stone fish. They remain there to this day and may be seen by any who care to visit that country. There is a photograph of one in the Museum at Erivan. They are called VISHAPS and a fully illustrated account of them was recently published (Les Vishaps, by N. Y. Marr & J. I. Smirnov, Leningrad, 1931, reviewed in ANTIQUITY XI, 1937, 122-3).

This explanation is a Revelation in the strict sense of the word. It entirely supersedes the old theory that Stonehenge was built by the Apalachian Indians of North America and dedicated to Apollo*; and of course puts out of court the fantastic conclusions of archaeologists which are invariably built upon the insecure basis of ascertained fact. I might add that Noah informed me that he was always at the disposal of genuine seekers after knowledge, and that his best inspiration came from Chambery No. 5 served with pigs’ trotters, preferably at the Escargot d’Or.

Yours faithfully,

(signed) OGSC

The Editor Modern Mystic 6 Bear Street, Leicester Square, W.C.2

*

W. S. Blacket, Researches into the Lost Histories. of America, 1883, p. 193.

*

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An Avebury Story

By Dushyant Naresh (MSc Digital Archaeology, University of York)

I’ve never really believed in magic, or the supernatural, or a higher power. But I have to admit that there is something undoubtedly magical about Avebury and the prehistoric landscape it is nestled in.

Maybe it’s the size of the stones, or how large the circles are, or the fact that you can walk right up to them and touch them knowing that thousands of years ago, another human being was probably doing the exact same thing, thinking the same thoughts, and feeling this same sense of wonderment. It’s this blurred line between archaeology and emotion that gets the hairs on the back of my neck tingling.

Coincidentally, one core exercise of The Avebury Papers project is to translate some of these emotions into another medium – a “creative intervention” – be it poetry, prose, or something else. I guess you’d call that “art”.

I am the worst artist of all time.

However, I know how to make videos, and I like experimentation. So, for my Master’s dissertation, I went to Avebury with a dodgy microphone and a 360° camera to try and capture a mixture of both archaeology and emotion. I then created a “choose your own adventure” style immersive story using the videos I shot, allowing viewers to pick what kind of anecdote or theme they were interested in experiencing. This was all programmed and downloaded onto a VR headset for a full immersive experience, and tested with dozens of participants.

Some people liked the project, and many others didn’t. That’s the nature of any creative endeavour, and is what makes the whole process exciting. I hope to go back to Avebury soon to reignite that sense of curiosity and create something new, and hopefully, divisive.

If you haven’t visited Avebury, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, if you’d like to experience it virtually, you can watch/play An Avebury Story on YouTube.

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The Avebury Papers: Artist brief

[First posted 18 September 2023; edited 21 November 2023]

Our call for submissions closed at midnight, end of day Monday 20 November.

You can find an archive version of the artist brief via this Google doc. But please note that we will not be accepting further submissions.

To sign up to notifications regarding more Archaeology and Heritage Creative opportunities, fill out the form here: https://forms.gle/goFr4yNpFG7uYz487 The email volume is low, maximum 5-10 emails every six months.

Colleen and Fran


Creative Process Timescale

September 2023: Artist Brief Circulated

30 October 2023, 09:00-10:00 GMT: Online information session for interested applicants: a brief introduction to the Avebury archive and an opportunity to ask questions to the team. Please email Dr Colleen Morgan for the Zoom link.

20 November 2023: Deadline for artist proposals. Submissions due by midnight GMT, no late submissions may be accepted.

8 December 2023: Shortlist of artists will be contacted for interviews [UPDATE 23 November: due to a high volume of submissions, we anticipate contacting a shortlist later in December. Thank you for your patience, we cannot give a more certain date at present].

8 – 16 January 2024: Artists will be interviewed (online, via Zoom)

19 January 2024: Commissioned artists will be notified and briefing sessions will be arranged

January 2024 – October 2024: Commissioned artists work with the archive

October 2024 – April 2025: Commissioned artists share work with the Avebury Papers team, and discuss steps for archiving and exhibition

June 2025: Exhibition at Avebury

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The curious case of Mrs St. George Gray and the West Kennet Avenue Axe (Part 1)

The inspiration for writing this blog came from finding an axe whilst trawling through the archive of weird and wonderful objects held in the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury.

Most of the objects in the museum were found during archaeological excavations and are boxed along with crucial information on which excavation they were uncovered by, and the cutting (excavation trench) and context (e.g. stone-hole, ditch, pit etc.) in which they were found. A smaller number are what we often call ‘stray finds’. These are finds that were found by chance, for example in a molehill or on the surface of a ploughed field, and therefore have little contextual information to go with them.

The axe in question was one such find. It was stored by itself in a small cardboard box, and all the contextual information we know about it is written on the object itself. The writing on it simply says:

“FLINT CELT FOUND BY MRS. ST. G. GRAY IN THE KENNETT AVENUE AVEBURY 1911”.

The axe found by Mrs St. George Gray in the West Kennet Avenue

Part of my job on the Avebury Papers Project is to catalogue all of the finds from Avebury that are held by the Keiller Museum. As a result, finding the axe hidden away on a shelf raised a few crucial questions for me. Some were basic ones, such as: what is the object, how old is it, and exactly where was it found. The latter question is essential. To archaeologists context is everything. Individual objects can tell us lots about past societies, but they hold a lot more value when considered as assemblages of objects, particularly if we also know what type of context they came from. An axe found in a midden might mean something quite different to one formally deposited into a pit. Beyond these relatively prosaic questions, there are other interesting questions that we can pose of this particular object, namely, who was Mrs St. George Gray, and how did she come to find the axe. I am going to attempt to answer as many of these questions as I can in the course of this blog.

The easiest of these questions to answer relate to the type and broad age of the artefact. The object is a ground and partly polished flint axe dating to the Neolithic period. This means that the axe was first flaked into a rough shape, and then finished by a combination of grinding and polishing of its surfaces. Sometimes the grinding of an axe’s surface covers the whole of the axe, sometimes it is patchy, covering the ridges between flake scars that stick out the most. Almost always, the grinding and polishing covers the cutting edge where it is used to create a sharp and durable edge suitable for working wood. Along with first appearance of pottery, and the construction of monuments, axes of this type are one of the defining features of the Neolithic in Britain (c. 4000 to 2400BC). Actually, all of these things occur in different parts of Europe in the preceding Mesolithic period (albeit not commonly), but that is a subject for another blog!

Polished flint and stone axes are regular finds on Neolithic sites, occurring from the start of the Neolithic up until the earlier part of the Late Neolithic. They occur most frequently on Early Neolithic sites, such as the Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure located 2km to the northwest of Avebury. Much closer to Avebury, flint axes also occur, albeit in smaller numbers, amongst the predominantly Middle Neolithic (c. 3500-2900 BC) artefact scatter known as the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site. The occupation site lies on the line of the West Kennet Avenue and was first excavated in 1934 by Keiller and his team (see this blog post for details). The 1934 excavations yielded roughly 15 axes and adzes, with Isobel Smith noting in the excavation’s publication that partly polished and unpolished axes and adzes were the characteristic form of the assemblage (as in the photograph below).

Three axes/adzes found by Keiller’s excavation of the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site in 1934. From left to right: The butt end of a flaked axe with ground margins; the cutting edge of an adze; a small complete flaked and partly ground adze or chisel.

So, the axe found by Mrs St. George Gray could certainly fit within the assemblage from the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site. This is significant given that all we know of its find spot is that it was “in the Kennett [sic] Avenue”. It may, therefore, seem likely that it came from the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site, but given that the Avenue itself is just short of 2.5km long it is worth considering whether it came from somewhere else along its length.

We can safely assume that Mrs St. George Gray is the wife of Harold St. George Gray, who excavated Avebury from 1908-1922. Given that the axe was found in 1911, the axe was most probably found by Mrs St. George Gray whilst her husband was excavating. But that doesn’t make deducing a more exact location of the find any easier.

We know that during the Gray’s excavations at Avebury only 19 of the West Kennet Avenue stones remained visible. The antiquarian William Stukeley had recorded 72 stones in 1722, and the Grays were clearly aware of his description of the course of the West Kennet Avenue. In Mrs St. George Gray’s time, as today, the most visible part of the Avenue was its northernmost third where it reaches Avebury. In 1911, however, even in this stretch, many of the stones were buried, awaiting their re-erection by Keiller’s team in 1934 and 1935.

What we also know, thanks to the recent excavations of Josh Pollard and Mark Gillings, is that this stretch of the West Kennet Avenue was rarely ploughed, with the artefact scatter that makes up the West Kennet Avenue Occupation site lying a good depth under the topsoil. This means that it is unlikely that Mrs Gray would have come across the axe kicking around on the surface, unless it had been fortuitously brought up in a molehill, something that does happen on occasion.

Another possibility is that she found it whilst tracing the route of the Avenue in the field immediately south of the currently reconstructed part of the Avenue, a field which we know has been regularly ploughed in the past. It is also possible that the axe was found further from Avebury as the Avenue winds its way towards the Sanctuary, but this is perhaps less likely given how interrupted the remaining stones of the Avenue are in this part of its route, and therefore how less certain it would be that it was found “in” the Avenue.

Hopefully it is not too anti-climactic, but that is all we can deduce about the find spot of the axe. It is a significant find, but it would be a lot more so if we could be certain about exactly where it was found, and particularly whether it was part of the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site, or potentially some other concentration of features or artefacts along the route of the Avenue.

We are left with two possibilities. Either it was found, most likely in a molehill, in the extant northern third of the Avenue, or it was found further to the south, probably in a ploughed field in a location where it was still possible to confidently establish where the line of the Avenue was. Either is possible, although I am somewhat in favour of the idea that the axe was part of the West Kennet Avenue Occupation, found by Mrs Gray some 23 years before Keiller’s discovery of the site. Unfortunately we will never know the truth. If nothing else, the story highlights the importance of accurately recording the find spots of stray finds!

Having dealt with the archaeological significance of the find, we can now turn to the finder herself. Up until now she has only be referred to as ‘Mrs St. George Gray’. This has not been to diminish her individuality or personhood, rather it is a simple reflection of the fact that when I started writing this blog that was all that I knew of her. Indeed, that was all that any of the current crop of Avebury archaeologists knew of her. In the literature, she is very much in her husband’s shadow. Even in her husband’s obituary published in the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society in 1963 she is only referred to as Mrs Gray. Uncovering the hidden histories of people involved in the Avebury excavations is very much at the heart of the Avebury Papers Project, and so along with investigating the possible find spot of the axe, its discovery in the archive prompted me to find out all that I could of Mrs St. George Gray. For now, though, this blog is getting rather long, so the identity of Mrs St. George Gray will have to wait for the next post

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A witch visits Avebury?

One of the reasons I got involved with the Avebury project was because I am a Wiccan/Pagan, and the stones are an important spiritual site for those people following a similar spiritual path. I am particularly interested to learn when the site became a popular place for like-minded “Witchy folk” to visit.

Journal of my visit to Avebury, Book Two, 1939, AKM item reference, 1732623-002.

I am currently transcribing Denis Grant King’s journals, and it was with great delight that I came across the first reference to someone visiting Avebury for spiritual reasons.

The journal entry is for 21st January 1939 and reads as follows:

Saturday, January 21st 1939

“Went to the work-in-progress room in afternoon to write some letters, but interrupted by two groups of visitors who came thinking the museum would be open. I allowed them in. One gentleman was a Rowntree whom I remembered seeing in August. Also, with the other group, a dark-haired young lady, Mrs [here a space is left to insert her surname] dressed in a vermillion jersey, whom I had met before at Perry’s:- the lady, I fancy, comes to Avebury periodically to commune with the spirits of the stones. I almost thought she was going to fall into my arms, her greeting was so familiar. On leaving she said she did not suppose it would be long before she came again, and she asked for my name!”

Denis Grant King’s ‘Journal of my visit to Avebury’, 1939, Alexander Keiller Museum item reference, 1732623-002, p. 58.
Journal of my visit to Avebury, Book Two. This spread shows the entry for January 21st 1939. AKM item reference, 1732623-002, p. 58.

1939 is the year Gerald Gardner, the man widely credited with beginning the modern Wicca religion (this early phase is now commonly known as the Gardnerian tradition), was initiated into the New Forest Coven. However, Gardner did not introduce his Wicca religion to the public until 1954. This makes me wonder if the lady donning the vermillion jersey was from the New Forest coven?

I shall be keep my eyes peeled for any mention of a return visit from this lady and keep you posted.

Michael Boyton

Journal of my visit to Avebury, Book Two. Here, Grant King’s describes a visit to Silbury Hill, with a drawing of the same. AKM item reference, 1732623-002, p. 60.