Among the rolling hills of the Vale of Avalon, lies the sprawling settlement of Glastonbury. At its peak, its population reaches 200,000. It’s over 1.5 miles wide and stretches over 1,200 acres of land.
Legends tell of the site’s ancient origins, when anyone could enter for the cost of a single coin and new-age travelers were allowed to roam freely. But the 70s were a long time ago now and its perimeter is defended against marauding bands of ticketless wild folk by 8.5km of super-fence.
To all intents and purposes, Glastonbury looks like a massive, fortified city. Among its remains there is clear evidence of a highly stratified society with an impressive system of infrastructure. Its members love technology, religious symbolism and the iconography of recycling. And yet everywhere we go, there is waste.
We start our walk from one of the western gates. Heading east, we encounter a desolate landscape strewn with litter. In many senses, it is an archaeologist’s dream – we spend most of our lives digging up what our ancestors discarded in order to understand how their societies worked and what they valued.
The grass is thick with abandoned tents, pegs, beer cans, food wrappers, gas canisters, balloons, deflated guitars, Dolly Parton wigs, bottles, chairs, sun cream – all the detritus you’d expect from a carefree hoard of holidaymakers. It doesn’t take long to work out that the site was not settled permanently and was only recently abandoned.
But it’s not just the tents, garbage and smouldering barbecues that give it away. There are no dug foundations, and even the largest structure on the site is basically a lightweight pop-up. If they lived here, this would be a society which imported everything it consumed, never cooked their own food or tidied up after themselves.
An impressive system of infrastructure, where God-like figures hail the crowds from mighty platforms
And yet, an examination of the site’s layout quickly reveals an impressive system of infrastructure – there is a bus station, a ‘police village’, medical centres, water taps, information kiosks.
There is also a high degree of spatial organisation; a network of access routes leads through a series of enclosures to a grand arena, where a giant pyramidal structure shelters a huge altar, and is in turn surrounded by more enclosures which restrict access to the god-like figures that must have hailed the crowds from its mighty platform. It is a thoroughly planned, and highly stratified society.
A large area is given over to a bustling commercial district with over 800 market stalls. Discarded stock and packaging indicates that everything was available, almost none of it at a reasonable price. Mounds of wellies are everywhere.
And to the south is what could at first appear to be the city’s industrial heartland. A gigantic robot hand is surrounded by the crushed husks of cars. A huge, metal spider fitted with flamethrowers dominates another enclosure. But there are no tools, by-products or slag heaps. This is not industrial machinery, but an awesome moving statue around which people dance.
Religious symbolism is prevalent throughout the site – this is after all the Vale of Avalon, steeped in myth and legend. Another vast enclosure is installed with temples, caves and something that looks a bit like purgatory. An experienced phenomenologist on a large dose of psychedelics might be able to tell you what this was all about…
Some interpretations suggest it gave people a way to reconnect with nature, others something to lean against after inhaling too much laughing gas
As we continue walking, we stumble upon such quirks as a pedal-powered washing machine, a 1950s Heidelburg printing press and a fibre-glass cow with 40Mbps 4G broadband still spilling from its udders.
Further on, we find a stone circle. Some interpretations suggest it gave people a way to reconnect with nature, others something to lean against after inhaling too much laughing gas.
We encounter a lone recycling volunteer, picking their way through the litter – the site has not been completely abandoned. There are still 1,300 people here to clean up after the visitors. They’ve set up an industrial operation to process their garbage, and most of them say they did it in exchange for a ‘ticket’.
As for the sewage system, there are 2,268 long-drops onsite and over 1,000 compost toilets – probably a world record for the most composting toilets in the whole history of defecation. Decorated with vivid artwork, they seem to enshrine the production of human waste.
What conclusions, then, can an archaeologist draw about this vast tent-city, the beliefs of its inhabitants and their societal values?
The larger structures are clearly dedicated to the gods of the music industry, while many of the smaller ones appear to elevate an ethos of recycling, technology and religion onto a pedestal around which its people can dance.
Yet this is also a culture which leaves behind its belongings, from wellies, to tents, to mobile phones, not as tributes, but because they are regarded as little more than disposable.
They came, they partied and they left almost everything behind.
Though they mix high technology and religious symbolism with a heady concoction of eco-paganism, their way of life still seems to be driven by consumption. The archaeology of Glastonbury is the spatial and material embodiment of a transient society clearly obsessed with fun, massive media entertainment, and spectacle; they came, they partied and they left almost everything behind.
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