Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The past and the recent past

A few of us have been talking about ancient earth-works, etc. and - for me - there is a connection between all the stuff that I am so fascinated with, and the period around the late 17th and mid 18th century when antiquaries like William Stukeley were making the first detailed surveys of places like Avebury Stone Circle (see picture above), which were ancient when they looked at them wish fresh eyes, about 300 years ago.

This was the period when all the science and reason which we take for granted now was displacing the superstition of the Dark Ages, but there was a wonderful period when the two overlapped, and it was quite understandable if Issac Newton was an alchemist and astrologer as well as a modern astronomer, because philosophy was also one of the sciences under revision.

My favourite antiquary of them all was John Aubrey - he of Brief Lives. In his book, he mentions that one of my ancestors was personal secretary to Sir Frances Bacon, who died as a result of an experiment into the refrigeration of food as an alternative to drying or salting as a preservative. Bacon buried an uncooked chicken in snow for a few days before eating it, but died of what must have been salmonella poisoning as a result. He was on the right track, though.

During the late medieval period, the Christian villagers who lived in the centre of Avebury decided that the stones were a pagan abomination, and began to try to lever them out of the ground to destroy the whole circle. Those stones are BIG. The very first stone they dislodged fell over and crushed a barber-surgeon (yes, the people that cut your hair in those days also performed crude operations and blood-letting) and his simple bronze tools and skeleton can be seen in the museum today. The 'Age of Reason' had yet to arrive.


  1. When I visited Avebury back in the late 60's, someone explained that they used to light huge fires around the stones, then throw buckets of water on them to make them split. That way it was easier to get rid of them.

  2. And where did they get that technology from? The pre-historic 'pot-boiler' when - before the manufacture of fire-proof pots - they would heat up large stones, then drop them in a pot of water, boiling it immediately. You can find the fragments of broken stone all around the old pit-villages of 3000 BC.

  3. Hi Tom. Have just got round to reading your post. All this history beneath our feet! I can imagine your reaction to find out that Frances Bacon PA was an ancestor of yours. The things these PA's had to do! There is a sort of plaque on the wall of our house which says it was built in 1764 although when a surveyor came round about 5 years ago he maintained that the other half - the older end was built during the 14th century. I love these old houses, even though they're a bit of a nightmare to maintain even. You often wonder about the lives of people who have gone on before you. When its our turn to hand the relay batton over to somebody else, my dream would be that it would be someone with enough cash to restore it to its former glory. Heck, I'm rabbiting on a bit, but you've given me an idea for a future blog. Hope you're having a good day, Molly

  4. I just assume that F.B.'s PA was a relation, as he has the same (relatively unusual) name as me (if you are feeling a bit Sherlockish, then here is a clue to my real name...). The other indicator is that the PA was a complete fraudster who went bankrupt many times and was obviously utterly inept with money - another family trait.

    Your house sounds good Molly. Some of the best, old places are saved purely because people didn't have the money to 'improve' them, so you are a good custodian by default. Have a good day too!

  5. I remember reading about Avebury in a guide book. I had always intended to go visit the henge and just never got around to it. How interesting to learn a little more about it. I could get sucked up reading stuff like this all day.

  6. That's what happens to me, Carolina - that's why I am such a failure in life. Sob......