England's Palmyra: 18th Century Iconoclasm

The scenes of destruction at Palmyra a few years back
at the hands of ISIS insurgents.
With the civil war in Syria playing out over the last five years, the world was forced to watch helplessly as Assyrian monuments were deliberately defaced and destroyed by Islamists under the flag of ISIS. The ruins of  Assyrian cities, which still contained priceless artefacts and unique architecture, were blown up and systematically sledgehammered from the walls they had sat on for some 4000 years. Those taking part in these barbarous acts were inspired by their prophet Mohammed's documented destruction of idols, like those in cities such as Mecca (circa 630AD).

The issue seems to be more widespread than just ISIS though, this isn't an issue of just one group of extremists within the religion of peace. It seems that there is an inherent issue within more conservative Islam over it's protection (or lack thereof) of historically important sites. In Saudi Arabia for example, the Government there has completely turned a blind eye to even Mecca's Islamic heritage, with one Time Magazine article explaining that as much as 98% of the heritage sites there have been bulldozed for modern development projects.

There were even calls from ISIS during its brief time as a dominant force in the Levant (before Russian intervention) and extreme Islamic preachers, to destroy what is left of the Sphinx and pyramids of Giza. Of course this wouldn't be the first time, as the nose of the Sphinx and many statues across Palestine and Turkey were defaced (quite literally) by religious nutters throughout history. They weren't just Muslim either, as Iconoclasm has been used quite extensively across history as a method of erasing the memory of a previous civilisations when conquering land or subjugating a group of people.

Whilst the practice has been used since the dawn of time, the main offenders across history have tended to be those from a more Abrahamic religious persuasion, and although we might today think of these acts as having occurred in exotic locations in the Middle-East or on some isolated Mediterranean island, it may shock some to hear that similar practices happened fairly recently in England.

The religious extremism that occurred in England is fairly unheard of today. The last large scale destruction of monuments started during the period of Puritanism. From as far back as the late 1500's during Elizabeth I's reign, Puritans had tried to steer the Church of England in a certain direction and around hundred and fifty years or so they pushed for extreme reform. Although they never appeared to achieve full domination of the religious and political fabric of the English nation, they got pretty close to it with the Parliamentarian victory of the second Civil War. Cromwell, the war-time leader of the Parliamentarians was an unabated Puritan and had he had his own way, would have banned Christmas celebrations. Because of histories bias towards Cromwell (the reasons for which must wait for another time,) most of this information has been mostly forgotten.

Whilst the overall story of Puritans and English-come-British history is obviously a little too complex for a few paragraphs, the overall situation in the mid-1600s to 1700s is of a fragmented aristocracy, split between the three ideas of Traditionalism, Rationalism (or 'Enlightenment') and Puritan Extremism that was expressed by some elements in English society.

So what is "England's Palmyra"?


Well it sits approximately twenty-odd miles north of Stonehenge and despite being a World Heritage Site (and the entire area being in the region of twenty times the size of Stonehenge,) its actually fairly unheard of. Avebury: a neolithic monument of such epic proportions that it pretty much contains an entire village quite comfortably within its earthen banks.

Like Stonehenge, nobody is one hundred per cent sure of its purpose, but one thing that we do know is that throughout the medieval period, the huge sarsen stones were broken up for use in construction on farm walls and buildings. Now despite what I've suggested previously about the Puritans, the method of using the stones for building material was not something new, and this is obvious when you look at the villages' architecture. However, the sites destruction seemed to accelerate around the late early 1700s for a brief time.

That been said, a vast amount of damage had already been done to the monument through the 14th century. The population were brainwashed into associating these once sacred monuments with the Christian concept of Satan, and this is still evident today with many neolithic sites bearing a demonic name. This ideological obsession (spurred on by the clergy) convinced men to go out and dig the foundations of these stones out and bury or burn them. Fortunately (or perhaps with some divine influence from the land wights) one man taking part in the destruction of the henge was crushed under a falling stone and may have been the reason why the desecration of the site stopped for some time. The tales tell of a man who was was a barber by trade, that was buried under the stone, and that his death was seen as an omen by many, protecting the remaining sarsens from the villagers destructive behaviour. As it happens, an excavation in the 1930s by Keiller actually proved this old tale historically correct, when a skeleton was found under a buried sarsen with a coin dating to the 1300's his barber scissors still in a pouch on his person.

Today, a fair amount of the monument still exists, however the magnitude of its grandeur would not be possible today without the illustrations made by John Aubrey and by William Stukeley during the 17th and early 18th century. The full extent and size of the monument far exceeded what we see today, as much of the existing stone avenue was destroyed, along with most of the two inner-rings and a large 'phallic' monolith which was destroyed apparently when Stukeley was present. Credit where it's due, there would be nothing there today at all had it not been for John Lubbock who purchased the estates in 1871 in an attempt to preserve the site, or had it not been for the efforts of Alexander Keiller during the 1930's to dig up and re-erect the buried stones.

One of the 'accepted views' about the destruction of this site during the 17th and 18th
centuries is that this was not religious in nature, and was merely due to an increasing population in the village. They support the theory that in many cases, villagers wanted the stones removed in order to make ploughing fields easier, or to use the huge stones as building material for new homes. However, I reject this line of thinking, on account of Stukeley's own accounts, which read:

'Just before I visited this place... the inhabitants were fallen into the custom of demolishing the stones, chiefly out of covetousness of the little area of ground, each stood on. First they dug great pits in the earth, and buried them. The expence of digging the grave, was more than 30 years purchase of the spot they possessed, when standing. After this, they found out the kanck of burning them, which has made most miserable havock of this famous temple. One Tom Robinson the Herostratus of Abury,* is particularly eminent for this kind of execution, and he very much glories in it. The method is, to dig a pit by the side of the stone, till it falls down, then to burn many loads of straw under it. They draw lines of water along it when heated, and then with smart strokes of a great sledge hammer, its prodigious bulk is divided into many lesser parts. But this Atto de fe** commonly costs thirty shillings in fire and labour, sometimes twice as much. They own too 'tis excessive hard work, for these stones are often 18 foot long, 13 broad, and 6 thick, that their weight crushes the stones in pieces, which they lay under them to make them lie hollow for burning, and for this purpose they raise them with timbers of 20 foot long, and more, by the help of twenty men, but often the timbers were rent to pieces.'

Stukeley goes on to write that a single stone could provide enough pieces to build an ordinary house, but that because of the nature of the material, it would seem unwise to do so. Stukeley wrote:

[houses made of sarsen stones]... is always moist and dewy in winter, which proves damp and unwholesome, and rots the furniture. The custom of thus destroying them is so late, that I could easily trace the obit of every stone; who did it, for what purpose, and when, and by what method, what house or wall was built out of it, and the like."

Now reading that passage, to me it looks like the method of using these stones for building material went out of fashion for even the eighteenth century. The removal of these stones was clearly labour intensive, expensive and produced building material of inferior quality that would create cold and damp homes. To my mind, religious reasons have to come into this in some way or another. Lets not forget that only seventy years previous to this that the Witchfinder General was wandering around the land in search of people to murder and earn commission off of. They gained very little land in destroying the stones, and as Stukeley states, this seems to have had more to do with Tom Robinson's ideological beliefs than for any real practical reason.

In any case, I think its safe to say that the monument at Avebury has received a second wind. It is now a vibrant place to visit with a deep spiritual and cultural connection for hundreds of thousands of people. It receives a huge number of visitors, and is a destination for a worldwide pagan pilgrimage, which is something we can only dream of for places like Nimrud and Palmyra which have recently been spectacularly blown up with plastic explosives in the last few years.


Avebury Today



Whilst there is a case to judge Islam and its more extreme elements for the damage done to historically important monuments across the Middle East, we have to remember that it is only through the chance that the same fate did not also befall some of Europe's most treasured sites. The true enemy of civilisation and culture seems in every case to be inflexible religious or ideological dogma. It has been shown time and time again to turn back humanities development, and ISIS was just another reverberation of that historical cycle. Avebury survived by the skin of its teeth and through the hard work of conservationists spanning a hundred years or more. It's new position as a culturally important destination today is merely good luck. Unfortunately for the sites in Syria, luck had ran out.

Thing is, it's probably pertinent to point out all the sites in England which didn't make it. Places like Stanton Drew which would have been as impressive as Avebury once upon a time, or the thousands of other sites around the country which were deliberately targeted by the early Church for being pagan. Many sites like Rudston in Yorkshire, or the Thor shrine at Thundersley in Essex for instance -were specifically chosen as church sites in an attempt to Christianise any religious significance left behind.

Now ask yourselves this question. If ISIS and other other Islamic groups who are considered less extreme were left to run amok throughout the English countryside, what do you think would happen to our beloved pagan sites? Our parish churches and cathedrals? Or our war monuments, and castles? The Islamist hasn't even a fleeting interest in even their own history, yet many in Europe today think it wise to import hundreds of thousands of these people from overseas, expecting them to respect us and our culture!

Sources


William Stukeley's book Abury, published in 1740. 

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