Here is the draft opening to my new project on "The Weight of the Past." I'm attempting to frame the problem with an initially negative solution, but (you know me well, my readers) will eventually swing around to something more affirmative.
This project, I should add, is the biggest loser in the theft of my laptop: my research notebook, with the detailed scribblings, observations, outline, and bibliographic notes, vanished with that computer. I had not backed it up since August 17. But (speaking of swinging around to a more affirmative mode), the loss of the project's past has given me the chance to clear out some of the weight of that history, and to think certain components of my argument anew. That's strangely liberating, even if a buttload of work.
We stand beneath the megalith. Brisk winds roam the grass. The sheep are complaining. “Can you feel anything?” I ask. His palm presses against the rock as eagerly as mine. “Yes,” he whispers, fingers searching clefts and lichen. “I think I do.” He places his head against the stone and closes his eyes, as if through an intimate touch he might discern hoary secrets. He seems as certain and as joyful as when, many years ago, he used to press his head to my chest to apprehend the life of an invisible heart. In a solemn voice, as if he has absorbed from deep in the rock its enduring history, he announces “It knows it killed someone.”
I realize immediately that my son must have pilfered my copy Aubrey Burl’s Prehistoric Avebury: Second Edition. He must have been reading the volume late into the night of our London flat. “Me, too,” I say. “I definitely feel something.”
I am lying. Like my son I want to feel power in the towering stone. Not the energy of astral planes or the pull of a vortex or proximity to pagan divinity. Not whatever it is New Age druids come to Avebury seeking. Yet as in their dreams, my desire is that the stone not be inert. My son is right: this megalith did, after all, take someone’s life. After standing for millennia, the 13-ton rock crushed a man and preserved him for six centuries beneath its bulk. The weight of the past, indeed. Alexander Keiller discovered the body in 1938 when he disinterred and re-erected the stone. Archeologists hypothesize that the skeletal remains were in life an itinerant barber-surgeon. His leather purse contained some scissors, a lancet, and some coins from the early fourteenth century. He was likely witnessing or even assisting in the contemporary effort to obliterate Avebury, “mightiest in size and grandeur of all megalithic rings” until a piecemeal destruction commenced in the Middle Ages. Pits were dug beneath the standing stones so that they toppled and were buried, acts of “pious vandalism” directed at what was probably understood to be an unchristian structure. Perhaps the effort was abandoned when the accidental entombment of the barber convinced its witnesses that these stones could still exert some force. Since its re-erection eight decades ago, the megalith has been known as Barber Rock, its new name bearing witness to the life it took.
As destructive as the fourteenth-century project of toppling Avebury may have been, this attempted annihilation of an architecture four thousand years old paradoxically assisted in preserving its components. Those rocks buried by medieval vandals where they fell were shielded from fragmentation and reuse in later periods. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were especially brutal to the Avebury stone circle. The utter destruction of numerous megaliths was accomplished through the use of fire, cold water, and sledgehammers. We will never know how many of the rocks became, once smashed to pieces, the foundations of local farmhouses and the stuff of quotidian roadways.
My son felt power abiding in a megalith that, having celebrated thousands of birthdays as part of a Neolithic architecture, fell upon and crushed a medieval man. The stone had patiently awaited resurrection for five hundred years so that it could again tower over a verdant field, could again render the humans standing alongside it small and ephemeral. With my son I wanted to believe that histories long separated from us can endure in objects like Barber Rock – and Avebury, and Stonehenge, and the prehistoric past, and the Middle Ages. I wanted to believe that human meaning can survive across inhuman temporal gaps. Yet I knew that the body of the crushed barber-surgeon, of the man who had dared to undermine the stone and had paid for the act with his life, had been rediscovered recently in London. A new theory holds that the barber was dead before the stone toppled over him. So much for the agency of the rock, its dangerous and enduring force. Those are powers we humans yearn to observe because we suspect that they do not exist, that time brings history to an oblivion as mute as stone.
Intimations of mortality. Whatever its initial architects called it, in whatever language they spoke but could not bequeath to us, Barber Rock has perhaps always been inert. The dolmens and stone circles that tourists wander Brittany, Ireland and Britain to glimpse -- architectures we think endure from time out of memory -- are typically modern reconstructions using nearby materials, designed to look Neolithic. Avebury is no different, a product of a massive restoration in the 1930s as much as a time capsule mailed five millennia ago. My son and I touched a megalith’s cold side and felt our own desires.
So much for the weight of the past. History, it seems, is literally immemorial, “out of memory,” impossible to hold for long.