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The sleep project II: the long barrow

Sleep and death: it’s one of  the great metaphors: up there with fire/desire and dove/love, only the rhyme doesn’t work so well.

Having said that, tonight’s venue mines our metaphor as deeply as anywhere in the world. There’s the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, I suppose, or the tomb chamber of the Taj. But it’s a tight call. And unlike them, an overnight in the long barrow can be fitted in between putting the kids to sleep and a wake-me-up blog-drafting session in Swindon’s central branch of Starbucks. Now that’s death. Sleeping with your head where, for several thousand years there were piles of bones, is small beer compared to breakfast in Starbucks.

No one knows how long this spot has been special, somewhere set apart. Certainly, long before they built the long barrow. Perhaps there was already a clearing here, among the trees of the wildwood, a place people had come to for centuries. Perhaps at some point they began to honour the dead in the middle of this opening: an ox-hide on a wooden frame; offerings. Perhaps the very age of this association made it a place linked to the past, with those who have gone before. Yet it’s unremarkable enough a spot; just a moment in a smooth rise, not quite at the top of the low hill. Parallel to the swift, cold river below that moves through the night like a snake. Parallel, too to the bleached Down above, distant and imperious, a high chalk reaper. But that could be said of much round here.

 Then, six thousand years ago (or so), they built this enormous thing here, piling up stones of such dead weight hardness it beggars belief, and then covering the result with a long, low spine of solid earth. They had made a house: a house grander than any that people actually lived in, and far more fixed; for these people were hunter-gatherers, who moved through the landscape in search of food. Once the long barrow had been constructed, it offered the dead of this community a more permanent home than any they had known in life. And in creating it, they invented Architecture.

There is, quite simply, nothing older, these islands, at least: nothing permanent, man made, designed. The long barrow has an interior: five rooms, arranged around a corridor. It has a façade: a sequence of colossal, bare rocks, rising and falling with the profile of the great earth mound; it has intention, inexplicability: for 80 of its 100 metres it tails away, without obvious function. Like all great buildings, then, it does something that doesn’t need to be done, but which is an important part of how we perceive it. It is architecture: it is First Architecture.

And then they filled their house of stone with bones. A few people for each generation, people set apart in some way, from a culture which returned and repeated their internments here for centuries. And at the same time they came back, and back, sorting and re-sorting the piles of bones, tenderly, obsessively shifting them from one bedroom to another; bones of the young in one room, the old in another; many skulls and longbones removed, others kept. Some think there were two stages to the process: dead bodies left to clean and decompose before being disarticulated, either outside, on platforms of wood above the long barrow, or in a special room of the barrow itself. The room I’m going to sleep in.

And then finally, at the end of a millennium of such use, a climactic change took place. They brought a few of the mightiest stones imaginable, and blocked off the house of bones, making it both more memorable and more closed. A First Façade for the First Architecture.

And there the bones lay. Mighty structures – colossal circles of timber and stone, man-made mountains – came to the valleys nearby, then fell into disuse; invaders swept through the country, more than once; someone invented civilisation: writing, property, law, the Church, cities, factories, everything; and throughout the millennia, countless dead, countless memories, countless grieving people, filling the round barrows, the pyres, the churchyards, the crypts and finally the crematoria. For most of this time, no one knows what people made of this man made long green hill on top of natural one. And then, in 1955, Stuart Piggot came along with a band of diggers, and with a care not seen since the bones were first laid to rest, took them all out again, and classified and resorted them once again; undid the careful curation of the ancestors, and left the empty architecture uninhabited, awaiting a couple of generations of gaping visitors: tourists, hippies, heritage-spotters, and a now a pair of Adventurers Close to Home.

It’s a cold night. The ground is hard; crystalline piles of ice sit in the furrows and against the edges of the path. Cold, and clear: reached across freezing fields left fallow, the massive profile of the First Façade and the low, battered ridge of the First Architecture skyline against a shattered mass of stars, hard, hot, distant and focused. The sarsens are more enormous, the pitted tail longer, the sky more colossal, than they are by day. The wind is firm and cutting, severing the senses.

Have we done the right thing? My wife didn’t think so. She feared I would return dusted with some Neolithicpharaohic curse, here on the cusp of the new moon, at the turning point between my year and hers. We stand on the top of this earth-mountain; we lie against the stubble and stare up into the bottomless black bowl, potsherds of the heavens. And then we go in.

Immediately inside, the air stilled, and the temperature rose by several degrees. The chill left the air completely. And the air was sweet with incense-sticks, and with the soft honey-scent of roses, left for us in every stone bed-chamber, soft, deeply coloured, alive, inseted into the colossal sarsen walls.

And suddenly the death-house was filled with loving care. With dedication, with a determination to do right by the dead. To sacrifice every effort, every resource, in order to house them well. From the colossal random corbelling of the roofs to the delicate dry stone walling that flls the gaps, every room was built with the same dedication they gave to the endless re-sorting, dis-membering, re-calling of the bones. There was pain and fear in this, of course, but intimate connection, too, a sense that of rites designed for passage – perhaps the most important passage of all – not ending; this is the home of the opposite of oblivion

Danny chose the inner right room, the one with the red roses, one of those where Piggot found mixed bones of the young and the old. I choose the master bedroom, the Main Chamber, where the only bones were male, and included one articulated skeleton; perhaps it had been left to rot to clean whiteness and forgetting, before it too was to be cycle and recycled through the sleeping-halls of death.

The nightlight made shadows dance on left the rippling passage walls. Seen from outside the rough rectangle of warmth was an inviting prospect.. Distant artics topping the brow at Overton made belisha-flickers on the façade.

The first few hours were easy, but even this was not the homely sleep I had begun to hope for. A consciousness lurked beneath the slumber, crushed at first by the weight of tiredness, but shifting from time to time into the parts of sleep that know they are there. Dark disorientation: am I facing a wall of sarsen or a corridor open to the bleak air? A shifting, uncertain sense of the extraordinary, too half-dreamt to be properly named. At the time, the perception that there was astonishing, heart-breaking love and care about the longbarrow felt like the big discovery gained by sleeping here: but in retrospect it is this, something darker, shifting to a kind of wakefulness in the heart of those enclosing, ancient, stones, that is the sensation that lingers most. Perhaps that is a little what death is like.

3am: I lit the candle, drifted in and out of sight. Now I could see clearly in my surrounding how they made this place. The plan was laid out first, in massive sarsens set in the earth, its circles and corridors very much like prehistoric stone settings. Then they began to pile earth up against them, and lifted stones onto it so they piled up and filled the gaps between those that stood in the earth. Gradually, and in an improvised, stone-by-stone way, these were corbelled outwards. And the earth was piled up further, until the most colossal rocks could be brought, great flat things to bridge the gap and make a roof. And in the meantime, someone brought something special: perfectly split tiles of limestone, from perhaps 30 miles away, to be laid into every gap with delicacy and craftsmanship that.

4am: the A4 is never silent: every lone lorry, late reveller and night worker can be heard working their way along the tarmac strip, from halfway to Marlborough to halfway to Calne, the sound funnelled into our pipe-dream of stone. More than that, I am sleeping in a tomb, its wide mouth open to the elements, roofed over by things that would crush me in an instant, things that are held in place only by their own gravity: by a force forever pushing them downwards, and towards me. Why is one of the roofing-stones missing, and what has happened to it? The concrete-and-glass Ministry of Works ceiling that replaced it gives the longbarrow something of the aesthetic of the 1960s public loo.

4.30am: Where are the foxes, the deer, the voles and hedgehogs that I know to fill this landscape? What do they know that I don’t? That articulated skeleton, ancient archaeologist, mocking as he rots: and then memory. Of being an archaeologist myself, a sorter of bones, an honourer of ancestors. Of Stumbling on a medieval pilgrim in a ruined cottage on a Welsh island; of finding his toe first; of the deep intimacy of being the first person to touch this toe since his wife or child, centuries ago. Death is the deepest intimacy of all. They knew its horribleness, and things it does to bodies, in ways that we don’t. They knew real fear instead: but they also knew real love, for a force as sure and worthy as any other natural appetite. They included death, accorded its residence a grandeur and fixity they never knew in life. They were in community with it.

5am: this hill is made of bone: of millennia of calcium, tiny crustaceans piling on the airless seafloor, lifted up and eroded. I am made of bones. There is something about death and stone: the complete unconsciousness of the truly mineral, this is the stuff that most of the universe is made of; and to think we think it alive. Stones and bones: I’m groping my way back to crass metaphors and easy rhymes: not a good sign. 

5.30: my last sight before I blow out the nightlight again the delicate courses of limestone and my breath a great frozen cloud

7am: a walk across the concrete-hard field to Swallowhead, where we drink water fresh, warm, thick with mineral; calcium water, a solution of earth and bone, of oblivion and soil, of the inexplicable continuity of complete death and burgeoning fertility. And someone has left a lifesize doll of a little girl by the Kennet spring. And I realise I was wrong, this obvious-as-hell metaphor does rhyme: womb/tomb.

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