On the 27th August I went on a field trip to Stoney Littleton long barrow (near Stony Littleton village, 6 miles from Bath, OS landranger map 172 142:ST735572), another of the Cotswold Severn long barrows, along with Uley and Nympsfield.
I took the 178 from bristol to Peasedown St John, and followed my printed out section of an OS map. My English heritage field guide didn’t have an entry about this particular barrow, so I printed out some information from the website to read on the way, and I learned that it:
“Probably dates from about 3500 BC, it is about 30 meters (100 feet) long, and features multiple side chambers in which human remains were once buried. The approach to the barrow – down a long narrow lane, across a stream and through fields – takes the visitor across a landscape that has probably been farmed continuously since Neolithic times. Chambered long barrows mark an important stage in the evolution of prehistoric society in Britain. They seem to represent the emergence of élites among the early farming communities – élites whose status may have led them to develop ideas about ancestry and posterity that required impressive and durable structures for their expression. Although usually considered to have been tombs, it is possible that many long barrows were in fact shrines – places where the presence of the ancestral dead helped the living to contact their gods, much as a medieval church contains graves while being primarily intended for the living community that built it. Some barrows have provided evidence that use continued even after burials were no longer made. There are three sets of paired chambers, and a seventh chamber at the far end – the only known example of such an arrangement.
The bus was on diversion, I was lost for a while. I pass a ‘ruin’ of a broken car. The rain threatens to make my map obscure, so I only take it out when I really need to. I find the road to Stoney Littleton and head away from the bypass at Peasedown St John. There is a mist clinging to everything, the air is soaking even when the rain stops, it all makes for some very painterly skies and scenery. The roads get so narrow I have to jump into hedges to let tractors pass. I follow the footpath on my map, pass by two farms and come face to face with a hill. There is nobody around and sheep stare at me as I pass. I come to a stream, eat my lunch and listen to the loud bees in the flowers.
Turning to the hill, I am excited to find the barrow, heading up the steep hill, I find nothing, just fields and crops. My map is no further help and I decide to walk around the rim of the hill, and am stopped short when I suddenly see my first glimpse of the barrow across the plateau. Like at Uley, it seems unbelievable that it is there. At this barrow I feel more alone, you would see anyone coming from far away, and I see nobody, so I truly feel its me and the barrow. I am a bit awestruck at just the physicality of it. I sit and just listen. I want to take my time. I approach the portal, and trace a sea anemone in the stone of the doorway with my hand. When I enter I am actually taken aback by a lit candle in the chamber to my left. Used now to the idea of being alone here, it seems a very uncanny thing to see, a trace of human presence.
Like at Uley, being inside it is hard to sing for long without without feeling heady and short of breath. But this barrow is more intense, having seven chambers. I did not bring a torch. I cant quite describe the process of entering without one – thoughts get loud as silence gets loud and thicker, deeper into the earth, further from the light, eyes not yet adjusted, feeling my way with my voice, feeling the interior of my body as well as the sensation of being in the interior of the earth, trying to find the shapes of the chambers through the sounds reflected. While nearer the entrance longer breaths and open-mouthed sounds are possible, now my vocal sounds get shorter, smaller in compass, deeper in pitch, due to the increasing compression of my body.
Deep in the interior, far from day light, the natural quiet fully descends, which fills with the flashing imagery of your mind, the sounds of the inside of your body, the many internal voices getting ever louder as I try to just be there. It felt thick, heavy, weighty, like undergoing something that took me somewhere rarely accessed. I made myself lie in one of the furthest chambers and just breathe. Its the kind of experience that makes you forget your own name, your own lifetime, you just dissolve, and every second is an eternity. I had to go out at one point. I climbed onto the barrow gasping for air, and a huge wave of sunlight was speeding across the landscape and the dark sky towards me and the front of the barrow – a dramatic line of light as wide as the eye could see. I re entered the barrow and made more recordings.
On my way back, I realised (again!) that there was a more accessible path that the one I had gone on. I crossed a style and a small wooden bridge. There was a car park, and a house nearby even had an ice cream sign, it looked a bit surreal. The whole experience felt dramatic, and transformative, and finding my way back, I felt a heightening of senses lingering on, making me startle at sounds and movements of living things.
During this field trip, I was reading Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? – Experiencing Aural Architecture by Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter (The MIT press, 2009). The chapter ‘Aural Spaces from Prehistory to the Present’ begins with this quote:
“The historical sense involves a perception, not only of pastness but of its presence” – T.S Eliot 1975
The chapter discusses the ways spaces ‘speak’ through the ages:
“The history of aural architecture, far from simply cataloguing historical spaces and their associated acoustics, has found clear evidence that older cultures employed alternative cognitive frameworks for experiencing sound and space. Our modern approach to aural architecture is only one of many possibilities. Because buildings and spaces endure, often for centuries or longer, the two way relationship between culture and aural architecture is passed along to many successive generations. Once constructed, the aural architecture of a space memorializes the values of those who built it. Later generations, in turn, develop their own cognitive framework from experiences in those inherited spaces. Indeed, residing under an overlay of science, technology and rationality, ancient cognitive frameworks are still part of our sensory legacy; we can understand our current aural architecture only by relating it to that of our ancestors.”
However this does not mean that we can ever experience an ancient space as the ancients would have: “Although modern scholars can examine the ancient structures that have survived, and although a modern audio engineer can synthesise their acoustics from archaeological artefacts and written records, it is impossible to re-create the original experience of the original listeners who used or lived in these structures, just as it is impossible to re-create their music or ceremonies. The spatial experience of our ancestors is forever buried with them”.
Reading this resonates with my aim to not try to ‘replicate’ the sounds or ceremonies the people who created these sites would have made, or any subsequent people for that matter. Rather, I seek to incorporate such research as I find on how this or any of the sites may have been used, as part of exploring what it is today – and to allow that an ambient presence in my work. It is important to me to respond to each site as I find it, as it is the day I am there, in the present tense, and for me part of this is an openness to the multiple layers of history which make up its physical presence in the present moment. In this way, this project is not about nostalgia or pretending to be in another time – it is about the extraordinary experience of finding these structures in the here and now. I like the quote I heard recently by Tacita Dean – “I am not working with the past, but with an object which has a past.”
The chapter goes on to describe how for ancient people, natural spaces such as caves, had voices: “The voice of a resonant cave is more than just a literary metaphor. You would have felt the cave was alive when it acknowledged your presence by responding to your footsteps with a voice of its own.” As an extension of this, it can be speculated that it was through sound such as echoes, reverberant hot spots etc. that the voices of the spirits could in turn be heard in man made sacred spaces. “Then, as now, sound acquires its power by its experiential immediacy, its direct connection of source with listener. Because they connect the interior of one person to the interior of another, voice and music are some of the most powerful sounds.”
Upcoming: ‘Operation Stonehenge: What Lies beneath’ – BBC 2, starting 11th September 2014, 8pm Today I learned there will be a new programme about new discoveries at Stonehenge, showing how it has been a sacred landscape for over 9,000 years – pre-dating the farming communities who built the stones that currently stand. In an interview with breakfast news, Professor Vince Gaffny replied to the question of ‘what Stonehenge means?’ by saying “The question may be wrong, because: meant to who? Its worshipped today. The point about Stonehenge is it changes for every generation, and what it meant in say two and a half thousand BC was not what it meant in one and a half thousand, or five hundred BC, or five hundred AD, and today. People throng to Stonehenge at the solstice now.”
Next field trip: Over Bridge
Note: these tracks are panned to use both left and right, so for the best experience use headphones or stereo speakers.
These tracks are are composite arrangements (CA) of field recordings, or as I term them, ‘sound sketches’. Tracks labelled FR are straightforward field recordings (FR).
Track 1: (4.30 min) CA
Like with Uley, I wanted to sculpt this track to resemble the form of the barrow – this time focusing on the noteble 7 chambers rather than the overall form. The track begins with the sound of a hand on the wet mantle stone at the portal (entrance) of the barrow. The tracks are then arranged left and right to correspond to the layout of the barrow. I made a recording in each chamber – so just as on entering the barrow the first pair of chambers are on your left and right, you hear the recording made in each simultaneously in the left and right of your headphones. The track then takes you further into the barrow, and you similarly hear chambers 3 & 4, and 5 & 6 as pairs, and finally chamber 7, which was larger and so allowed me to stay longer. I spliced and overlayed the tracks in relation to the chamber number (e.g. the chamber 4 audio is spliced into 4 and then arranged in layers etc), so they would grow in ‘thickness’ and textural weight as you progress. My voice got smaller, closer, and more compressed as I went deeper in, not just from space restriction but just from feeling an intimacy with the space. But in the 7th chamber it felt right to vocally open out again, and by the dividing this longer recording into 7 pieces and layering them up, I could sculpt some interesting harmonic moments, flitting between dissonance and flickers of consonance.
Bees at work by the stream below Stoney Littleton long barrow.