Sacred Wonders Of Britain (2013) s01e01 Episode Script

Episode 1

This is St Nectan's Glen.
It's a spectacular 60-foot waterfall just a few miles from Tintagel in Cornwall.
There are stories here of Celtic water gods, of the sixth-century Christian martyr St Nectan and, of course, given its location, there's also a tale that King Arthur came here with his knights before going off on the quest for the Holy Grail.
But whatever the truth behind the legends, it's clear that many people find their own version of sacredness in this place.
People come here from all over the world and for many different reasons.
Some come to worship God or a god, they might be remembering a lost loved one, or looking for help coping with an illness.
I expect many arrive here just wanting some kind of comfort or reassurance.
These are universal themes and they flow down through the centuries and millennia.
The question is though, why do we regard some places as being more sacred than others? Why are there some sites that simply draw us back again, and again and again? Sacred Wonders of Britain is the story of how our island has been shaped by belief, from the end of the Ice Age 13,000 years ago, through to Henry VIII's Reformation in the 16th century.
From the heart of our cities, to the furthest reaches of our islands.
In this programme, I'll be travelling thousands of years back in time in search of the very first sacred wonders of Britain to try and reconnect with the people who built them.
What did these ancient Britons believe? What sacred clues did they leave in our landscape, just below the surface of the modern world? And why do these places still resonate with us today? From the very beginning and for tens of thousands of years, our ancestors lived by hunting and gathering.
The rituals and beliefs that they shaped and that shaped them were concerned with understanding how the world around them worked.
So the stories that they told each other and passed down to the succeeding generations were attempts to make sense of why and where the springs rose up out of the ground, where the rivers flowed, why the forests grew, which of the animals were good to eat, and how to hunt them.
Archaeologists believe that sometime around 13,000 years ago, a small band of these early Stone Age hunters tracked a reindeer herd northwards to the furthest reaches of Britain.
At the southern tip of a retreating glacier, they discovered a deep chasm in the Earth.
It offered sanctuary from the harsh world outside and a place to perform the rituals that would ensure a successful hunt.
In a time when Britain was still connected to Europe, our Palaeolithic ancestors, people of the old Stone Age, roamed freely across the land.
Bound only by the icy wastes to the north.
Creswell Crags, just a few miles from the modern town of Worksop, marked the northernmost limit of their range.
Today the crags are covered in vegetation, but in the late Ice Age, this was open tundra.
And the bare cliffs would have been visible from miles away.
A beacon for hunting parties, the steep-sided walls of the crags would channel game into a killing zone.
It must have seemed like a gift from the gods.
This place was almost too good to be true.
A kind of Palaeolithic Coronation Street with two rows of caves facing each other across the way.
Now, our ancestors didn't actually occupy both sides of the street.
They only lived in the caves on the north side.
The ones on the south side were left empty.
Now, that may simply have been because the caves on the north side were south-facing and benefited from a little bit of natural warmth from the sun.
However, something else is going on because one cave over here was set aside for a very special purpose.
The Victorians named it Church Hole Cave because the cave mouth reminded them of the entrance to a church.
Little did they realise how apt that name would prove to be.
It used to be thought that life in post-Ice Age Britain was too harsh for cave art, but ten years ago, archaeologist Paul Pettitt and his colleagues discovered something extraordinary in Church Hole Cave.
Not paintings, but a series of engravings of animals, etched into the rock surface with flint tools, clues to the mysterious hunting rituals and religion of our Palaeolithic ancestors.
Was the deer the first animal to appear out of the rock wall, as it were? It was.
We had to clamber up on to this ledge to find it, but when you're close and look at it in a certain light, it's pretty clear.
But in order to do that, we need to temporarily turn our head torches off and if I can just use this raking light from a torch, we have this animal in this area.
So can you see this natural erosional hole here? Yes.
Right there.
They've taken that to represent an eye indeed and there's this burrow remnant in the rock which they've taken to represent a mouth.
The antler and a lovely pointed ear, behind you've got that modern graffiti over it, and then the upper line of the neck and shoulders, its belly and chest and there's its front leg.
Back to the head again.
If these people are hunters, is this an animal that they're hunting? Is that why? Are they seeking to have some sort of magical power over the deer? Yeah, we think so.
It is a form of hunting magic in a sense.
These animals are critical to their survival.
They are totally dependent on hunting these animals in an inhospitable world.
These are functioning, one assumes, magical events.
And it may well be that it's not the image itself, hanging there in perpetuity, but the act of creating that image that was important.
Probably, it had significance for minutes, hours, as it was being created, while songs were being sung, dances danced, whatever went on, that focused clearly in this case, on a deer.
So, if you want to hunt these animals, you can't see them right now, but you conjure them up on the wall of the cave, and hopefully that act makes them appear? Absolutely.
In fact, these very much look like an act of creation to me.
The natural features of the rock wall suggest a deer trying to come into this world.
You help it and therefore you are helping in its birth and perhaps only by bringing a deer into this world are you allowed to remove one from it.
Modern sculptors talk, almost fancifully, about the idea of the rock suggesting the shape within and that they have to liberate it from the block.
And there's a bit of that going on here.
It is indeed, yeah, and these places, unlike our modern religious places, which are created by their religions, here, the natural world creates a place of significance.
It suggests these.
Would it be fair to call this a spiritual place or a religious place? Is it a temple? It would be fair to call it a temple, in the sense that a temple is a place where this world is thought to meet another and things move between it and so on.
So, yes, in that sense it is.
But we have to remember that there were also prosaic activities here, people sitting down and talking, so rather like Jesus and the money lenders in the temple in Jerusalem, so temples aren't exclusively mythological, religious places.
Again, they blur the distinctions between this world and the others.
These hunter-gatherers weren't creating art for art's sake.
They weren't just decorating the walls of their homes.
For them, the engraving of those animals was an act that would be better described as magical or spiritual or religious.
It was an expression of how they understood the world and how they understood their place within that world.
Having made that place special and sacred, perhaps they deemed it no longer respectful to ever go back again and so it was set aside.
It becomes a shrine.
You might even call it Britain's first temple.
7,000 years passed.
The glaciers melted and the North Sea washed away our connection to Europe, but for generation after generation, the daily lives of our ancestors carried on in much the same way.
But around 4000 BC, all of this began to change.
It was the coming of a whole new age, one that would see great monuments, sacred wonders, rise from the earth around Britain.
Slowly, but surely, the new technology of farming began to get a foothold in Britain.
The old ways of the hunter-gatherers were replaced.
People were no longer just living off the land, they were reshaping it, redeveloping it, rethinking it in a way they had never done before.
This was the Neolithic, the New Stone Age, and along with the new technology came new ideas and practices.
In future centuries, great cities like Athens and Rome would create foundation myths to help lay claim to the land.
In the Neolithic, the bones of the ancestors performed a similar role.
Across Britain, the remains of the founding generation who'd first farmed the land were interred in great mounds and tombs.
They still dominate our landscape today.
One of the most striking is Wayland's Smithy, a long barrow and chambered tomb in Oxfordshire, named in later centuries after a Saxon god.
How did farming change people's attitude to the world around them? Massively.
If you're going to farm, you've got to clear the land to make room for your livestock and for grazing, for ploughing and sowing, and that means you get a taste for altering it in general, which is why, as soon as the Neolithic arrives in Britain, people go mad about monuments.
They start putting them up in huge number, huge variety and huge form and this sort of thing is a classic example.
They're fantastic.
They have a presence that you just can't deny.
These stones are personalities, aren't they? They are.
When you look at them, because they're not carved, they're just natural boulders, they do suggest animal forms, or maybe people, glimpsed out of the corner of your eye.
They could be totem animals or spirit animals or they could, and this is quite a popular theory now, be regarded as dead human beings that have taken the shape of stone.
Stone is for the dead and so the bones in the tomb here would be surrounded by an older and more heroic form of dead people.
Rarely do these tombs yield complete skeletons.
Normally, it's a collection of jumbled bones.
It's led archaeologists to believe that just as later religions traded in the movement of relics, so the bones of the ancestors were constantly being moved and handled as part of Neolithic ritual.
The remains of the people over time then take on a different function, rather than the bones being part of a person's skeleton, they form another function, don't they? In their own right as bones.
Yes, they could be a treasure house of supernatural power.
They could be a telephone box through which you communicate with the divine.
They could be a TARDIS taking you imaginatively to other worlds which these sacred dead now inhabit.
Why do you think they chose the places they did to build these monuments? Because the places were special.
We often find middle Stone Age remains underneath Neolithic monuments, proving people have been coming there a long time.
It could be also that they're in places that marked a special event like a vision, or a marriage alliance, or a combat.
And also, these are places for meeting up at times of the year, seasonal festivals, which are really important to farming people.
Why's the mound so big? Everyone's attention is naturally drawn by that small chamber, but it's this footprint, it's like a church or a cathedral.
It certainly is.
It could be simply that it's a statement in the landscape.
It's a declaration.
It says, "We're here! We're brilliant! "We love our deities! We're good at what we do.
"Look at it!" But why build these strange shapes in the landscape? What lies beneath them? Archaeologists are still piecing together clues to the world of the Neolithic, but on Dorstone Hill in Herefordshire, just a few months ago in the summer of 2013, Julian Thomas and his team made a major breakthrough.
Beneath the remains of two Neolithic long mounds, they found the charred remnants of a 6,000-year-old timber hall.
The first physical proof of something long suspected, that some Neolithic tombs started life as domestic buildings.
The mound built over the timber hall at Dorstone Hill was bulldozed in the mid-20th century, but had similarities to the chambered tomb of Cairn Holy near Dumfries in Scotland, where I caught up with Julian.
This timber hall then, what would that have been used for? Is it someone's home? Quite likely some people were living there at least some of the time, but it's bound into the life of a new community that's coming together at the beginning of the Neolithic and it represents that community in a whole series of ways, so they're gathering there, they're feasting there, they're engaged in a whole lot of activities, but the important thing is that it's a physical manifestation of that community in the landscape.
So, it's a kind of cross between a community centre and a church.
It's like a village hall with a religious dimension.
But the burning of the hall is intentional.
Yes, I think that's right, because in the long term, the memory of the hall becomes more valuable than the hall itself.
Their destruction forms a kind of conspicuous consumption.
What is it that's being remembered or made into a memorial? I think what's important is that this is happening right at the beginning of our Neolithic, so it's a founding generation that are being remembered.
It's a group of people who brought a community together, who founded a new way of life and who are then buried in the mound and that act of foundation is of cardinal importance.
It's then remembered for generations and generations by these people.
The burnt timber and daub from the walls were gathered together and covered with turf.
Sometime later, it was decided to encase the turf mound in stone.
Why move to a stone element of that structure? I think, in a sense, you're moving to something that is more and more memorable.
So it's just pragmatic, it's just about making something that will last? Well, except that the materials are important in themselves.
They're imbued with meaning and perhaps also imbued with some kind of spiritual force.
And that Herefordshire model that you've pieced together, does that help us to understand a place like Cairn Holy? For a long time, archaeologists have talked about the relationship between houses of the living and houses of the dead, that there's a very precise relationship between those two things and that what is important is this idea of the foundation of a community and then the veneration of that community as those ancestors become more and more removed from the present and as they take on a status which is perhaps almost that of deities.
But belief and ritual weren't just reserved for great monuments.
It was part of everyday life, inseparable from the world.
Sacred places were everywhere and sometimes in the most unlikely of locations.
At first glance, this field in Norfolk might appear like any other.
Nothing out of the ordinary, you would say, but view it from another perspective and it's revealed as somewhere quite extraordinary.
This is Grimes Graves.
It's as though a little bit of the surface of the moon had been transported to Earth and covered with grass, but in fact, all of these craters are man-made.
They're the surface scars of back-filled pits and shafts, some of them more than 40 feet deep, left behind by miners as they dug down into the earth in search of that most precious of stone age raw materials - flint.
But there's something else going on here, other than the purely industrial.
In later centuries, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism would all see sacredness in gold.
In the Neolithic, flint axes from Grimes Graves held similar cultural value and have been found in burial mounds and ritual deposits across Britain.
Someone who understands flint's power more than most is John Lord.
40 years ago, he served as custodian here.
Since then, he's dedicated his career to working out how our Neolithic ancestors lived their daily lives.
How do you feel about flint, if that's not a silly question? I justin love with the material, really, I mean you can make such beautiful things.
This is one of mine, the sort of thing that may occasionally have been made at Grimes Graves, but I found thatthat much of one of them just behind the site.
Flint was the Swiss Army Knife of the Stone Age, used to cut down trees, kill game, strip meat, scrape hides and for a thousand other uses.
The thing that gets me, though, I find that if there was an equivalent made of metal, I don't think it would hold my attention as long as I just find that I want to look at that for a long time.
It's good quality stuff.
That's magical.
NOTES RING OUT FROM FLINT WHEN TAPPED You could make a hit, you know.
THEY LAUGH It's even got sound qualities apart from anything else.
It makes music, the music of the flint.
4,500 years ago, Neolithic miners dug more than 400 vertical shafts, up to 12 metres deep, down into the chalk.
Ladders and wooden platforms made extracting the rubble easier.
Reaching the flint, they'd chase the seams through a maze of tunnels and galleries.
A herculean task carried out with picks of reindeer antler.
When it was time to abandon the pit, they'd dig another a few metres away and use its rubble to backfill the original mine.
When you come here now, you've been coming here for so many years, what's the feeling you get? Well, it's just magical to be here.
It's one of those places where you can actually feel that you're just a few minutes too late to see anything going on.
There's a mystery here.
Winning the flint from so deep underground involved considerable effort, but all around Grimes Graves, perfectly good flint occurs naturally on the surface.
So why go to all the trouble of mining for it? So is this the only one that's preserved below in its Neolithic sense? It is pretty much the only one we can still go down into and get a sense of the Neolithic experience, yes.
Thank you.
OK, I'll follow you.
Best of luck.
A mere 12 metres down.
Climbing down into this mine is far more than a descent into an ancient flint works.
It's one of the few, rare glimpses of the Neolithic world we have left.
It's amazing how much lighter it is.
You feel as if you're looking down into the pit.
You do.
Your eyes get accustomed to it eventually, but bear in mind that we've got this big concrete base above us.
There would have been sunlight flooding down into the pit.
And it would have been bright white, I suppose.
Yes, reflecting all the sunlight coming off it.
Gosh, it's amazing.
I've been in here before, but you forget the extent of it.
Yes, you've got a whole network of galleries just extending off and connecting with other ones.
Disappearing off in the distance.
Exactly, the whole hill here is just completely sort of a rabbit warren of tunnels.
This is a massive impact to make on the landscape, isn't it? For people who haven't really done much of that so far.
All the other monuments of the period relate to controlling the surface, modifying the surface.
This is the first time they're going down into the ground and altering the whole structure of the Earth, so it's a major investment.
The amount of people necessary to dig this kind of shaft out and then to go off into the galleries to actually cut down into the chalk with bone and antler tools, it would have been a massive effort.
Especially when there's so much workable flint topside anyway.
Absolutely, on the surface, in tree roots, in rivers and streams, you've got so much flint.
In fact most of the flint we find on Neolithic sites around here is surface flint, so perhaps there has to be another reason for digging down and getting down to the floorstone.
Can we go into the galleries? Absolutely let's crawl down into these galleries and have a look see.
Oh, yeah.
Why else would you dig an enormous great hole with so much effort, if not just to get at the raw material? I think it's the, actually, the act of going into the ground itself that's the important issue, because we're dealing with people who live on the ground surface, they never You know, we've got cellars, subways, a whole range of subterranean features today.
They didn't.
So coming down here, it's a different temperature, it's dark, it's the unknown.
Sounds are muffled, you're really leaving the known world, your familiar world and you're entering into a really alien environment.
And why do that, why make your life hard and uncomfortable? That's what obviously makes the flint extremely important, it's thisthat hard-won nature of it, it's the effort of coming down 12 metres, digging these galleries out and extracting it that makes it a far more important thing, so it's not really from an economic point of view, it's really from perhaps a spiritual point of view.
It's difficult to get your head around the idea of making things hard.
We're all about labour saving, but to have an objective which is, if it's not difficult and a challenge, it's not worth winning the stuff.
Well, I think when we look at a lot of the galleries today, they're really restricted spaces, they're really narrow, they're really difficult to get into.
And the only two bits of evidence that we've got from miners or people who seem to have been crushed by chalk in the Neolithic, both from Sussex, seem to be young females, so I sort of think whether this might actually be some form of initiation, because most early farming societies, they have some kind of ceremony moving from childhood to adulthood.
Going down into the mine, crawling off into these dark, unknown spaces, extracting the flint and coming up onto the surface might be a rebirth, it might be your entering into adulthood and you'll enter a different stage in your life.
So the people coming down here are minors with an 'o' as well as miners with an 'e'? Yeah, I think it's at all levels of society, but seems to be the younger ones who were coming down into these unknown and dark spaces.
Is there archaeological evidence of more going on down here than just mining? Yes, there is.
In a number of these galleries, when they seem to have been finished, they're leaving their antler picks, all their sort of tools in quite large numbers at the end of the gallery.
And again today, that makes no sense to us, because these are still viable tools.
It would be like modern miners leaving all their pickaxes behind, but I think it might be a sense of either having worked down there, those tools are spiritually polluted, you can't take them somewhere else, but it may also be a thank you, you're giving something back to the ground for all the things that you've taken up onto the surface.
Oh, look at that! Quite amazing, isn't it? Wow! How long have they been there?! They haven't left the mine, they've been down here for 5,000 years, since they were last used.
Everything we think about is history has happened while that antler has lain there, while empires rose and fell and wars were fought, these just lay here in the dark.
They've been waiting here for their owners to return and never have.
How fantastic.
You're talking about that being set down by a Neolithic hand and then nothing.
Nobody touches it for 5,000 years.
That's Something else.
That really is Neolithic right there.
Oh, it really is like coming back into the world, isn't it? Feel the heat as you're coming out.
Totally different atmosphere.
Oh, very good.
The flint mines of Grimes Graves were part of a belief system that centred on the relationship between people and the world around them.
It was the act of winning the flint from deep underground that was all important.
That's what helped to make the final product so valued.
But beliefs change and in the world above, the time for worshipping communal ancestors in their stone tombs had passed.
The ancient dead were still important, but no longer part of daily life.
They could rest in peace.
A new society was emerging based on ruling elites, who claimed descendancy from their own personal ancestors.
I've been in here a few times over the years.
This is West Kennet Long Barrow, one of the biggest and best preserved in the whole of Britain.
There are other similar long burial mounds within a couple of miles of this site.
They were in use for about a thousand years and then around maybe 2600 BC, everything changed.
The great tombs like this one were sealed up.
The chambers were backfilled with rubble and, in the case of West Kennet, these enormous sarsen stones were dragged in front of the entrance.
Meanwhile, just down the road, one of the greatest civil engineering projects of the age was under way - the henge and stone circles of Avebury.
It was as though a line was being drawn under the old religion and the time of the stone circles had begun.
Stone circles were aligned on the sky, somewhere far beyond the reach of dead hands.
You could say that it was the start of a new idea, one that still resonates for people today.
The sense that the spirits of the dead, their souls, were no longer among us, but gone to somewhere else, another realm entirely.
Something or someone had inspired Britain to go mad for turning stones on end to form circles.
Many are small - something a few strong lads might throw up in a weekend, but others are vast, and the biggest of all is Avebury .
the largest stone circle in Europe.
A world-class wonder.
Its great outer circle alone once held around 100 standing stones.
Within those lay two more inner circles and within them, laid out in rectangles and curving rows, even more stones.
Everywhere you looked, it seemed great boulders were being turned up on end.
The landscape was being redefined and at Avebury, the raw material was very close at hand.
This forgotten little field shows what the Neolithic landscape would have looked like.
It's covered, littered, in sarsen boulders.
Sarsen is old English and it means troublesome stone.
They described them that way because, when they were ploughing, they would often hit these stones lying just below the surface and the plough would be damaged, so troublesome stones.
But for the ancients, for the people in the Neolithic, they were clearly something else, there was a power they felt and they were compelled to set some of them up on edge in great circles.
It's as though stone was a living force and, at Avebury, that energy was being harnessed in a more spectacular way than ever before.
This was nothing less than the creation of an entire ceremonial landscape, one that included old monuments like West Kennet Long Barrow and new wonders like Silbury Hill.
To better understand how people moved between these ritual sites, archaeologist Nick Snashall walked me from the Sanctuary, once a great timber circle now marked by concrete posts, through West Kennet Avenue, a massive double line of sarsen stones that leads up to the Avebury henge and stone circle.
Do you think we have any hope as 21st-century people of experiencing this monument the way Neolithic people did? I think it's difficult to cast from our minds the 21st century, but what we can do is, when we come here, is walk through the monuments, spend time in them and try to get a sense of how, if you like, the physicality of it, the architecture of it, how that affects how you feel, what you see, sometimes what you might hear and put yourself in the place of the people who put these stones up and a sense of the physicality of the effort that went into it.
And so very, very different from Neolithic people for whom the world is without architecture? We walk all the time through a built-up landscape, but theirs is devoid of that.
Yes, it's an extraordinary thing to try to get your head round, because we're so very used to it, that when people came to places like this, particularly having stone architecture, it's such a different world.
So to come to places that have these enormous stones that have been re-erected and to have your movement directed in this way, will be a whole different sort of experience for people.
And the way it doesn't take motorway straight lines, it's unnecessary kinks in it? Yeah.
I think what they're doing is they're taking you on a journey through the landscape.
We're never going to quite understand exactly what that journey is, but they certainly appear to be directing or manipulating people's experience of what's happening here.
So here in front of us is the end of the avenue as it meets the henge banks, goes past the ditch and then you're into the great outer circle of stones of Avebury itself.
So, after all that long walk, this should have been the first moment, the only time when the people in the procession would actually see what they were walking towards? That's right.
It's the great reveal at the end of it all.
You snaked your way through the landscape, and here are the henge banks in front of you.
Have to wonder if it was a good place to arrive at or if it had another connotation altogether? They might have been quite fearful by the time they got here.
Just depends what actually happens behind that bank.
Today, our eyes are drawn to the stones themselves, but 4,500 years ago, it would have been Avebury's great henge, the surrounding ditch and bank, that set pulses racing.
The ditch that I'm walking along is about four metres deep, but when it was freshly cut, it was more than twice that depth, it's just silted up.
So, in the Neolithic, I would have been standing against a sheer wall ten metres high, 30 feet and more.
Now, you've also got to do away with, in your mind's eye, this V shape and the green of the grass because, when it was new, it was straight-sided, dropping straight down on the vertical and shining white because of the chalk.
It would have looked like the world's biggest polo mint lying in the grass and all of it achieved without any metal tools whatsoever.
You're talking about men, women and children using the sweat and the muscle of their backs to dig this out with antler picks and shovels or spades made from the shoulder blades of cattle.
It's simply unbelievable.
The great ditch may bring to mind a defensive moat, but look more carefully at the way it's been constructed and you see another purpose entirely.
What we're looking at is an earthwork that's the inversion of what you'd normally expect.
If you want to make an earthwork to keep things on the outside from getting inside, you put the ditch on the outside, the bank on the inside.
What we have here is a ditch on the inside and a bank on the outside.
So it's almost so the purpose of the earthwork is to control and contain whatever is inside.
Keeping something in as opposed to keeping something out? Exactly! And we know or we can suspect, given the fact that what we see inside the stone settings, that they're not trying to keep cattle or people inside, they're trying to keep the stones inside, they're perhaps trying to keep that sort of power, that aura, that extreme sacredness.
They're using this henge earthwork as a kind of boundary, as a wrapping to separate off this eminently sacred space from the rest of the landscape.
Archaeologists believe the massive ditch and bank of the henge were constructed around 2500 BC, possibly to contain already sacred and more ancient monuments that lay within.
One of the oldest is known as The Cove.
Originally made up of three stones, today only two survive.
The Cove formed a box that some believe may have been meant to represent a chambered tomb.
There's no denying that these stones have a presence? Yes, it's very true, I mean especially with a block like this, you really do feel its very sort of physical presence.
Even by Avebury standards, this is colossal.
It is.
It's certainly the biggest stone in the complex.
We know through excavation that there's at least another three metres of this stone set in the ground.
So we're potentially talking about only being able to see half of this boulder.
It could well be, yes.
Yes, that's right.
We're looking at a block that is in the order of 100 tonnes, maybe 100 tonnes plus.
It could therefore be the largest megalith within the British Isles.
It is just a wonder.
And even as a 21st century person, you come and you see them and they just beggar belief? They do! Especially when you get close to the stone, when you really feel its scale, feel its presence, it almost seems unbelievable that people have the kind of capacity to sort of manhandle, haul this thing, set it upright in the ground.
We know that they didn't quite get it positioned correctly within the stone hole, but I suspect when it fell in, they were probably just so relieved, that no-one was going to worry about the fact that it had a slight lean to it.
Yeah, think of it, to be amongst that crowd or in the onlookers, to hear that thing drop down into the pre-prepared socket, you know, boom! This is the kind of thing that would have been remembered, this is the kind of thing that would have entered history and mythology, the act of moving and erecting this great stone.
So, in a way, the people might have been so impressed by this single object, that that might have been part of the inspiration for building here? It could well have been, yes, I mean, this may have been the place that was marked out as being special simply because it had this sort of configuration of very large or very sort of distinctive or notable stones.
And that could have been what afforded this place this sort of special or sacred character.
Excavations have shown that, even after the great circle had been completed, stones continued to be erected and re-erected for hundreds of years to follow.
It seems the whole point of Avebury was to be involved in a great communal effort that must have drawn people from far and wide.
Like the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages, many of those toiling in the ditches of Avebury or hauling great stones into place could not have expected to have seen the monument finished within their lifetime.
This was an act of devotional labour.
Society was clearly changing.
Mobilising this amount of effort required someone to be in charge.
A leader capable of wielding enormous power, who could unite diverse groups of people to a common cause.
Further clues to how these communities were brought together and what beliefs they shared are being revealed in new discoveries at the northernmost tip of Britain.
It's tempting to think of Orkney as remote, but it's worth remembering that the first farmers arrived here over 5,500 years ago.
They crossed the Pentland Firth from mainland Scotland with their livestock and seed crops and they spread out across the islands.
No doubt lives were hard and lifetimes short, but the land was fertile and there was wood for fuel and soon they began to channel their energies into reshaping the world around them.
Much of their effort was focused on the Ness of Brodgar, a thin strip of land that separates the lochs of Stenness and Harray.
The great chambered tomb of Maeshowe was built and two magnificent stone circles - the Standing Stones Of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.
These are among the oldest henge monuments in Britain and recent research is revealing how and why they were built.
The Ring of Brodgar is a true circle.
It's 100 metres across, there were originally 60 stones in the circle, they're very evenly spaced.
In terms of the design and execution, it's a work of some technical precision, but it's more complicated than that.
Every stone in the circle is unique.
They're different sizes, they're different shapes, but best of all, each has been quarried from a different part of Orkney.
In recent years, some of those quarry sites have been found.
One of them is six miles away on a remote coastal hillside, above the remains of the Neolithic village of Skara Brae.
Look at that.
Look at this, yes.
That's just a Ring of Brodgar stone lying down.
Yes, this very slanted top to it.
Point on it.
Fantastic, isn't it? That's amazing and it does just look like they walked away from it for whatever reason.
They got it this far and then And just left it here, but look at these ones.
When you're very used to seeing the Ring of Brodgar, it's so strange to then get a glimpse of It's almost behind the scenes.
Yes, it's what went before.
What's the significance of the stone from here? Why come looking for stone so far away from where you're building? Well, we think it was because communities and different parts of Orkney were bringing stone from near where they lived to express this coming together of community and different identities and you could do that because the stones are all slightly different depending on where they're quarried from.
And you can actually see the technique that they were using, these stones that are poking out from underneath are its trestle, so this is what it's being slid onto, so what you're seeing is something quite extraordinary that we don't normally get a glimpse of at all.
The process of moving it must have been every bit as impressive, really, as seeing it in its socket at the circle.
The hundreds of people, the ropes or the timber or whatever else was in play.
Cos what the people would remember wouldn't be the finished monument, they would, but what they really would remember would be the effort.
And they would tell stories about how Dad was involved in that or Grandad was involved, that's what they would remember, not the monument.
Yes, they would be remembering that journey, the length of time it took and the stories that were told as that journey was taken and the story that that journey became.
A long time ago, there was a race of giants that lived in Orkney.
Great, bad-tempered, blustering creatures, but they did like to come together and dance.
And one night they gathered together on a plain between two bodies of water.
And they danced in a great circle round and round and round.
As the fiddler stood playing the fiddle, they got faster and faster, dancing more and more.
And they were enjoying themselves so much that they lost track of time and, before they knew what happened, the sun rose and they were all turned to stone.
And there they remain to this day, only now we call them the Ring of Brodgar Whose story is that? Well, we can trace the story probably back to the Vikings, but they could have heard the story from the Picts who were here before them.
You do wonder how and when the original truth gets lost? There must have been a time when the circles were in use by the people who'd built them and those stories would have been passed on, that explanation, but somewhere along the line, that truth gets dropped and is replaced by something much more fanciful.
Well, the Vikings would have been interpreting it in a way that they understood from their own culture, and there are lots of stories about giants and trolls being turned to stone, so maybe they were hearing stories about these stones representing people or representing the ancestors and they just put their own understanding on it.
Maybe at the very least, people are remembering that sense in which the stones were regarded as having a life.
Yeah, I think it's quitequite likely.
You'd have this memory of them representing someone or somebody or something.
Um and I think that that would come across in the stories, so, yeah, it is possible.
The people living closest to the quarry, at least as far as we know, were those at Skara Brae.
Now this village laid buried beneath sand dunes for 4,500 to 5,000 years until a great storm one night in 1850 scoured away the sand and returned this to the daylight.
There are eight houses surviving intact connected by low passageways.
They're built of beach stone and they're the perfect response to the Orkney weather, but it seems to me that if you were going to send a stone to be incorporated into the great circle at Brodgar, then you'd want something more substantial, more special.
So maybe it was the people here who cut a stone from the quarry and hauled it to Brodgar to say this is us, we are here too, the people and the place of Skara Brae signified for ever in stone.
Many archaeologists now believe that constructing the Ring of Brodgar helped bind the different communities of Orkney together.
How to create larger social groups was a problem being faced across Britain.
Massive building projects like Stonehenge and Avebury required huge numbers of people to come together and work peaceably side by side.
Orkney already had a model for social harmony, the very houses themselves with the central hearth round which a family could gather.
It appears to have been an idea that spread beyond the islands, as across Britain, excavations of large timber circles and shrines have revealed scaled-up versions of the floor plan of the Orkney house.
These were places where great crowds could meet and think of themselves as part of one household.
At the end of their lives, the timber monuments were enclosed in great stone circles and henges, sanctifying the Orkney idea of the house for all time.
Back on the islands, the idea of the house as a home for a whole community took a new direction.
It had long been thought that the two great stone circles of Stenness and Brodgar were the focus of ceremonial life in Stone Age Orkney, but a chance discovery has revealed that they were part of something much bigger.
There's a low hill between the two circles that everyone thought was just something left behind by the glaciers.
In fact, it's almost entirely man-made.
Emerging from beneath it is a complex of buildings of such a scale, of such sophistication that they would have dwarfed anything else on Orkney, in Britain, perhaps even in the whole of Europe.
The so-called Temple of Ness of Brodgar is revolutionising our understanding of spiritual and sacred life in the Neolithic.
Archaeologist Nick Card and his team have revealed at least a dozen large house-like buildings that appear to have been used as temples.
Nick, why is all of this where it is? Why did they choose this location for it all? Well, I think you've just got to look around, Neil, you've got this amazing natural amphitheatre created by the hills running all the way round.
And then this thin spit of land of the two lochs on either side, you really do feel central to the whole landscape.
And what this landscape seems to reflect almost is this kind of microcosm of the wider world, land, water, land and then beyond that the sea.
So before there was anything here, before there was a stone circle or a building, just the shape of the landscape here would have attracted people or caught their attention? I think so.
It's quite unique.
Each building at the Ness of Brodgar differs slightly in style, which has led Nick and his team to conclude that, just as with the Ring of Brodgar, different communities from across Orkney were building their own structures within the complex.
Do you get any sense of what kind of religion or science or magic was being practised here? It's difficult to know, we'll never know for sure! But you look at the alignments of some of these buildings, which align with the mid-winter solstice and the summer equinox, etc.
I'm sure that the celestial bodies must have formed some part of that religion.
But I think what the Ness also probably represents is a place where people came, maybe during particular times of the year, during rites of passage, maybe to do with death, maybe with birth, maybe with healing and it's all those different aspects.
Do you think what was going on here, what with the Ring of Brodgar and Stenness and this complex, that the fame of the Ness of Brodgar would have spread right through Britain and beyond, people would have known this was here? I think that at some stage of the Ness's life when you have this kind of massive walled enclosure, with these magnificent buildings, really nothing quite like them known elsewhere, that the Ness would have been almost a pilgrimage site from people coming right the way across Britain.
Orkney and the Ness of Brodgar would have been right up there at the pinnacle, you know, rivalling Stonehenge at some stage of its life.
So something starts here, I mean, is this the origin point of a religion and a way of understanding the world? Well, I think when you look at henge monuments, which again are this kind of pan-British phenomenon, the earliest dates we have are from Orkney.
And you think that to go along with that, there was these perhaps religious ideas that were being transmitted.
That's amazing though to think that something that ended up finding its way throughout Britain might have been kicked off in these islands? Well, it's been suggested before that Orkney really does turn the map of Britain on its head.
Gosh, so whatever it was, it was someone here that had the idea? Well, you sometimes think that it must have been maybe an individual that kind of started off this kind of idea, why build a henge monument? What was the kind of forces behind that? Gosh, it's like there was a messianic figure here, some inspirational spiritual leader here, you know, 4-5,000 years ago? It's one interpretation! Around 2300 BC, the Ness of Brodgar was deemed no longer of use.
The buildings were filled with rubble and mud and in one final glorious act of conspicuous consumption, 500-odd head of cattle were sacrificed to the decommissioning feast in what sounds like the biggest barbecue of all time.
I believe something profound began on Orkney around 5,000 years ago.
It reflected a fundamental change in the way people understood the world and their place within it.
It found expression, at least in part, in great building projects, chamber tombs and then circles of massive stones.
And having begun on Orkney, it then spread the length and breadth of Britain.
But I can't shake off the idea that, if you could follow the path all the way back to the beginning, it would lead to someone.
Some great visionary and thinker, and the message that they had to give changed the world for the people around them.
Now, we know the names of some of the great visionaries of history, but the mystic of Orkney must remain anonymous.
Next week, my journey continues into the age of metal.
As new technologies and beliefs flood into Britain, our ancestors seek meaning and solace in the natural world.
But beyond the horizon, the power of Rome is rising.