Avebury’s restoration and the Stukeley Line.

Conservator, conservationist, restorer – do they mean the same? Do they do the same work? The answer is no, and the differences can have a profound effect on how we protect and preserve our heritage. The conservationist (perhaps best defined as one concerned with the preservation of the environment and its natural resources) falls somewhat outside the scope of The Heritage Trust’s remit. But what of the conservator and the restorer – how best to define their role and their approach to preserving our cultural heritage?

If we drop a T’ang Period vase and it shatters into a thousand pieces we’re more than likely to take it to a ceramics restorer to restore to, as near as possible, its appearance before we dropped it. If we found a crushed T’ang vase six metres down in a collapsed tomb we’re more than likely to call in a ceramics conservator to piece it together. Why a conservator and not a restorer? Well, in the first scenario (dropping the vase) we have an object that was in one state one second and in a totally different state less than a second afterwards, and if nothing else we’d at least have some recollection of how it looked before being dropped. This time factor is important. If we’re talking about the T’ang vase in scenario II (the crushed vase in the tomb) we’d not only be calling in a ceramics conservator we’d also be consulting with archaeologists, historians and perhaps other specialists. Why? Because there’s a time factor involved here as well (a much longer one relating to the length of time the vase lay in the tomb compared to the length of time the other vase took to hit the floor and shatter). This time factor is at the core of our argument for the conservation and restoration of the Avebury Henge and other sites and artefacts for which we have a fairly good record of what they were like before being damaged.

In 1991 Michelangelo’s David sculpture had one of its toes intentionally vandalised. Not unlike the dropped T’ang vase we fortunately had all the pieces of the toe and a photographic record before the sculpture was damaged; we also knew when it was damaged, how it was done and exactly where the toe belonged on David’s foot. No problem, the toe was repaired and the statue restored to its former state. Compare the David statue with the Venus de Milo; here we have little or no idea when her arms were lost, little idea what they looked like, nor what position they were originally in. Result? The conservator would do nothing about the lost arms (and a responsible restorer would certainly not try to restore them to some modern interpretation of how the arms might have once appeared). The conservator might also take a more holistic approach to the statue – checking its overall condition, as well as where and how it might be displayed (or transported) in the future. More than anything else the conservator would endeavour to preserve the statue for posterity without the addition or subtraction of anything that might damage it in any way.

Enter the Avebury standing stones. Many of the Avebury stones were subjected, just a few centuries ago, to intentional firing. Once the stones were hot enough cold water was poured over them so that they cracked and could then be smashed and used as local building material (many walls and buildings in Avebury village are made from the shattered remains of standing stones). Some of Avebury’s standing stones, those not subject to this appalling cultural vandalism, still lie where they fell – either naturally or deliberately toppled over. Some Avebury stones were even buried – perhaps to hide them, perhaps even to protect them, and some of those stones still remain below ground today. The point is that many of the fallen or buried stones at Avebury lie very close to where they once stood.

Fallen stone in the south-east quadrant of Avebury © Littlestone

Enter again our time factor. One of the most impressive stones at Avebury is the taller of the two remaining Cove stones (the one on the left in the photograph below). Several years ago this Cove stone began to tilt dangerously and a decision was made to pull it back into a safe and stable position. Put another way, the Cove stone was restored to as near as possible its original position. The decision to do this was made because the stone was in danger of falling; had it fallen it may have shattered, but even if it had not shattered the stone would almost certainly have been re-erected. That being the case one is forced to asked why the other Avebury stones (those that still lie fallen or buried) have not also been re-erected. What is it that dictates today that one Avebury stone (the Cove stone in this case) is worthy of re-erecting while the other Avebury stones are not? Well, the cost of such a restoration project springs to mind (and in the present economic climate we might even have some sympathy for that argument) but what is totally puzzling (and quite unacceptable) is the often advanced argument against restoration which goes somewhat along the lines of, “To which period of Avebury should these fallen/buried stones be erected?” To those who ask this question we’d first like to ask, “From which principle are you arguing against their re-erection? The principle that they cannot be restored to their former position or the principle that they are best conserved where they now lie fallen or buried?” There is also another argument, one that deserves no attention here, and that is the argument that says to erect more of the Avebury stones would attract more visitors to the Avebury World Heritage Site. The Heritage Trust leaves the reader to assess the merits (or perhaps the non-merits) of this argument for themselves.

The two remaining Cove stones in the north-east quadrant at Avebury © Littlestone

Returning to the argument of the erection or non-erection of the Avebury stones on the grounds of conservation or restoration (the only legitimate arguments for this action at the Avebury World Heritage Site) the arguments for and against are actually quite simple, with the argument for conservation and restoration winning hands down over the argument against.

Let’s take the conservation argument against re-erecting the stones first. It does no good whatsoever for a stone to lie visible and prostrate while livestock and irresponsible visitors to Avebury climb all over it, deposit detritus in its crevices and allow the elements to weather it in a way that is totally at odds with the designs of the Henge builders. Further, the Avebury stones that are buried are in no safer a condition if left there than if they were re-erected and visible – and may even be in a more perilous condition in that state from agricultural activity (or even theft). The argument for leaving the Avebury stones buried or fallen is a spurious one (either from an archaeological point of view or a cultural one). If these stones were Roman statues they would not lie fallen or buried for long; they would be excavated, restored, conserved and put on display – yet these massive, megalithic artefacts from our distance past, selected with care and hauled considerable distances, are allowed to remain fallen or buried at Avebury. Why? The argument against the re-erection of the Avebury stones on archaeological, conservation or cultural grounds has no merit in it whatsoever. So what about the often wheeled-out anti-restoration argument of, ”To which period of Avebury should these fallen/buried stones be restored?” Those who advance this argument usually have in mind the pre-historic appearance of Avebury, but that reference point is an arbitrary one. If we were to follow the logic of that argument we could also apply it to the Avebury Cove and how it looked in the photograph below. No-one can seriously suggest that doing away with the eyesore that was once the Cove garage, with its wind turbine and surrounding rubbish, and restoring the Cove to what it was before the garage was built was not the right and proper course of action. In other words, the argument against the restoration and the re-erection off the Avebury stones to at least what they looked like within recorded history is nonsensical.

The Avebury Cove and garage before Alexander Keiller’s restoration work

So, if the argument for the re-erection of the fallen and buried Avebury stones (from a conservation and cultural point of view) is shown to be the correct one do we have a point of reference from which to proceed? Fortunately we do, we have both a detailed and accurate record of how the Avebury Henge looked in the 1720s and how it looked just a few years later after so many of its stones were broken up or lied fallen or buried. Like David’s toe we have not only a point in time from which we can work out a restoration policy we also have a detailed and accurate record to accompany it – we have the Stukeley Line.

William Stukeley (1687-1765) was the first person to study and illustrate Avebury accurately and in detail. His 1720’s illustrations and Groundplot map of the Avebury Henge are an astonishing testament to his powers of observation and the meticulous way he went about recording Avebury before it was so brutally vandalised a few years later. Stukeley wrote of the appalling destruction taking place at Avebury as, ”…this stupendous fabric, which for some thousands of years, had brav’d the continual assaults of weather, and by the nature of it, when left to itself, like the pyramids of Egypt, would have lasted as long as the globe, hath fallen a sacrifice to the wretched ignorance and avarice of a little village unluckily plac’d within it.” William Stukeley was powerless to stop the destruction of so many stones that had once formed the proud Avebury Henge but in 1743 his studies at Avebury came to fruition with the publication of his, Abury, A Temple of the British Druids, With Some Others Described.* Stukeley may be forgiven for thinking that there was a connection between Avebury and the Druids; our debt to him lies not in his beliefs but in the more than twenty detailed illustrations he made of Avebury and the surrounding area (including Silbury and West Kennet Long Barrow). These illustrations stand as an accurate pictorial record of how Avebury looked at the beginning of the 18th century and it is to these illustrations that we can, and should, refer when considering the restoration of the Avebury Henge.

The Stukeley Line is a clear one drawn in the sands of Avebury’s long history and there is no better one. We, as Avebury’s present cultural custodians, would be failing in our duty not to restore Avebury to something of its former glory based on Stukeley’s meticulous record of the place. A duty that transcends local politics, archaeological aspirations or financial constraints and gives back to the international community a place truly worthy of the title World Heritage Site.

Avebury from the north-east quadrant in 1722. From William Stukeley’s Abury – A Temple of the British Druids

* For a full facsimile of William Stukeley’s book see “Abury – A Temple of the British Druids