An unexpected encounter
The Skeptic, 8.2
Overlooking Silbury Hill, and not far from Avebury, is West Kennet long barrow, one of the finest Neolithic burial mounds in Britain. Over 320 feet long and 8 feet high, inside is a stone passage giving access to two circular burial chambers on each side, and another at the end of the passage. Human and animal remains were buried in the chambers, and in spite of extensive plundering of the tomb in the seventeenth century, a number of burials, flints, beads and fragments of pottery have been recovered. An analysis of their dates shows the tomb to have been in regular use for 1000 years. They built things to last in those days.
In the cleared-out chambers on either side of the passage there was evidence of recent occupation of the 20th century kind - a few cigarette butts of the `herbal' variety, some cinders and the inevitable discarded can of Special Brew. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw a light flickering at the far end of the passage. My first thought was that there was a chink in the rock letting the daylight in. But that was nonsense: beyond the far end of the passage were tonnes of earth making up the barrow. Perhaps there was someone else in the tomb, using a torch. I shouted `hello', but there was no answer. I felt agitated. After years of highly skeptical exposure to Hammer Horror and Dennis Wheatley, I would have expected to be able to take flickering lights in ancient tombs on deserted windswept hills in my stride, but it was proving remarkably difficult to do so. Then I remembered my heavy walking boots, the day-glo whistle in my rucksack, and decided to be brave. I held up my car key like a dagger and rushed down to the end of the passage. What I found there astonished me.
In the wall at the end of the passage was a small stack of stones, making a kind of rough shelf, which had been transformed into a shrine, decorated with freshly-cut flowers, straw, sticks and jewellery. There was a thick red candle, burning onto a block of incense, which filled the chamber with a sickly sweet smell that had not yet permeated the rest of the tomb. The candle could not have been burning long: it only just fitted into the narrow gap at the top of the shelf, with room for the flame to burn the block of incense lodged into a gap in the stones above, and there was little melted wax. On the floor were pieces of evergreen, sweets, and coins, carefully arranged in patterns. On a ledge on the side of the passage someone had placed a large fired-clay mask, a cross between a woman's face and the Whitley Strieber `alien' face.
The shrine I could understand; what perplexed me was the candle. The air in the tomb was still, so the candle wasn't in danger of being blown out. It appeared to have been lit very recently - but by whom? I had been parked for ten or fifteen minutes before the walk up the barrow, and had seen no-one. And before I entered the tomb I had stood for ten minutes looking round at Silbury Hill and the fields beyond. There was no-one in sight.
A New Ager might find much potential in a minor `mystery' like this, and similar anecdotal examples crop up in New Agey books all the time. Earlier, at lunch in a nearby pub, I had chatted with two campers who were visiting the area specifically to feel the vibes around Avebury and the other ancient sites. They had heard that you could see mystical lights hovering around the standing stones, and feel radiations of natural energy. I have no reluctance to say that I enjoyed the vibes around the shrine, but I remain convinced that the candle was ignited by a corporeal tent-based entity, and not by the breath of the Earth Goddess.
Back at Kennet, as I was returning to the car, a man and his young boy were on their way up. We nodded hello. I wanted to tell him about the shrine and that it wasn't my work, but I didn't. I hope he isn't a New Age author.
©Toby Howard 1995