Category: Location Guides

The Avebury Avenues – West Kennet Avenue and Beckhampton Avenue

Location Guides

Two avenues of huge standing stones lead out of Avebury linking the giant stone circle with other important sites in the wider landscape.

On a massive scale: Avebury and the Avebury Avenues

Probably the most extraordinary thing about Avebury is the sheer scale of the monument. Not only does it incorporate the largest of all Britain’s stone circles but the ditch and bank around the stone circle ‘may be the largest surviving earthwork of this age anywhere in the world’ (Pitts 2000).

To continue the mega theme, the monument sits within a landscape of archaeological sites that is truly enormous in scale. This includes two Avenues which snake out of the southern and western sides.

The circular bank and ditch of Avebury is clear in this aerial photograph. The West Kennet Avenue runs through the yellow field away from the circle towards the top of the photo and on to the Sanctuary 2.4 kms distant
The stones of West Kennet Avenue lead up the slope towards Avebury

Avebury henge, the ditch and bank with it’s stone circles, has four gaps in its circumference at the cardinal points. Leading out of at least two of these were pairs of massive stones that marched off into the landscape connecting it to other sites. In the aerial photograph above one of these avenues, The West Kennet Avenue, heads from the gap in the bank at the top of the circle and follows the line of the road running along the yellowy-green strip that leads towards the top of the picture. Before reaching the trees it probably veered off along the fence line before leaving picture left to continue its course to another late Neolithic monument known as The Sanctuary.

In his book Exlporing Avebury  – The Esssential Guide Steve Marshall suggests that the avenue led to West Kennet Spring  and that, in effect, a new avenue then led away from here to The Sanctuary. He makes a very convincing argument for water playing a crucial role in the Avebury complex.

The Avebury Avenues – The West Kennet Avenue

The West Kennet Avenue is one of the best known features in the Avebury landscape. It runs some 2.4km from Avebury’s southern entrance in a winding south easterly direction and terminates at The Sanctuary on Overton Hill. Best interpreted as some form of processional or ceremonial route The West Kennet Avenue once comprised about 100 pairs of standing stones or megaliths.

Looking south down West Kennet Avenue
West Kennet Avenue in December frost

The avenue is about 15m wide with stones set every 20 to 30m and standing between 1.5m and 3m tall, the heaviest weighing over 20 tons. Like everything else in the Avebury landscape it is of ambitious proportions. Built at the end of the Neolithic period, probably between c.2600 and 2300BC, the stones were erected by people using little more than antler picks, hide ropes, brute strength and community cooperation. It is, like so much else in this landscape, a remarkable concept and achievement.

Reconstructing West Kennet Avenue

When Alexander Keiller bought Avebury in 1934 he decided he wanted to put it back into its ‘original state’. This meant clearing the great banks and ditches of trees and rubbish, demolishing unwanted or derelict buildings within the Avebury henge and most spectacularly re-erecting fallen megaliths transforming ‘a relatively little-known archaeological site…(into) a public park’ (Pitts 2000). He concentrated his first efforts on the West Kennet Avenue where only four stones remained standing and in 1934 and 1935 erected 27 along the first third of its length and more again in 1939. This means we now have an impressive 37 pairs of megaliths to wander along giving us an excellent feel for its ancient form.

Looking north up West Kennet Avenue
The proposed terminus of West Kennet Avenue at the Sanctuary on Overton Hill

It is most commonly believed that the West Kennet Avenue terminates (or, more likely, begins) at The Sanctuary. All the stones of the timber and stone monument that once stood here were removed in the early eighteenth century, the timbers having rotted away thousands of years earlier. The original positions of all the timber posts and stones have been located through excavation and concrete markers now show where they once stood. You can see four pairs of these running towards the gate in the photograph above, the proposed beginning of West Kennet Avenue.

Interpreting the Avenue

Some think the stones represented ancestors lining the ceremonial pathway. What was the pathway used for though? If it was a processional route from the Sanctuary to the Avebury henge who was it for? It doesn’t run in a straight line so does it symbolise the tricky route from adolescence to adult hood? Did young men or women have to pass between the stones that bore witness to this important journey? The best place to discuss this is as we follow the route ourselves which is my favourite way to approach Avebury.

Adam and Eve, the last two stones of the Beckhampton Avenue
Adam and Eve

The Avebury Avenues – The Beckhampton Avenue

The Beckhampton Avenue however has a very different recent history. Very similar in form it runs, or rather ran, about 1.7km south-west from Avebury’s western entrance. In the aerial photograph, heading out to the right of picture through the trees and buildings. No work was done here by Keiller or anyone else and as a result out of about two hundred stones only two remain standing. These stand a few metres apart at the furthest end of the avenue from Avebury and are named locally as Adam and Eve or the Longstones.

It is now known that Adam (weighing c.62 tons!) was once part of a cove of four massive stones, a structure similar to the three stone cove in the northern inner circle at Avebury. Eve, however, is the last survivor of the Beckhampton Avenue. Surprisingly these facts have only been recently ascertained.

A certain William Stukeley claimed the existence of the Beckhampton Avenue when he was documenting the area around Avebury in the early 18th century; one of his drawings includes the sinuous line of its route. However since that time all the stones apart from Eve were either removed, buried or broken up on site for building materials and the avenue’s memory soon faded. In fact Stukeley was ridiculed for his suggestion by archaeologists of the late 19th and 20th centuries who didn’t believe such an avenue had ever existed. (Pollard and Reynolds 2002)

It was only in 1999 and 2000 that some targeted excavations by Mark Gillings and Josh Pollard confirmed the avenue’s existence and the roles Adam and Eve played. Gillings and Pollard also demonstrated the existence of an oval enclosure c.140 by 110m first spotted in an aerial photograph in 1997 by Ros Cleal, National Trust archaeologist and curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum in Avebury. This enclosure, dating from 2650-2500B, has a form reminiscent of the much earlier one on nearby Windmill Hill, its broad circuit marked by a shallow flat-bottomed ditch about 2m wide and 1m deep. (Pollard and Reynolds 2002).

As the possible starting point of the Beckhampton Avenue it is interesting that this Longstones enclosure had, like The Sanctuary at the end of the West Kennet Avenue, been a site of feasting. The fact that its ditches had been filled in by the time the stones were erected doesn’t detract from that situation in my mind: it is a widely held belief that the erection of the stones along the avenues at Avebury probably monumentalised already well-established processional, ceremonial routes.

One twist is that Stukeley claimed that the Beckhampton Avenue went beyond this point to an area called Fox Covert on the nearby gallops. Could he be right? Perhaps the avenue stops and restarts which is why it hasn’t been re-discovered. After all as I mentioned earlier in Exploring Avebury: The Essential Guide Steve Marshall believes that the West  Kennet Avenue similarly has a gap in it about half way along its length.

Adam and Eve alone in their field

There is not much to be seen here now except for Adam and Eve looking rather sheepish in a field but with the knowledge gleaned from the recent excavations it is now possible to conceptualise the scale and extent of the monuments that once stood proud in this landscape and to theorise about their purpose.

The Avebury Avenues – Rites of Passage

One theory I propose is that ceremonies in the Avebury landscape might have included rites of passage: coming of age or inter-tribal betrothal ceremonies. As far as we know there are only two avenues leading out of the henge and there is no simpler way to divide human society than into the sexes. Within Avebury henge there are two inner circles each with an extraordinary central feature, the huge obelisk in the southern circle and the monumental three-stone cove in the northern.

It has been suggested that the large number of arrowheads found at The Sanctuary ‘perhaps acted as symbols of male identity, being employed in strategies of display and formalised combat’ and that such timber circles could be ‘places where the categorisation of people, things and relations was reaffirmed’. In this reading The Sanctuary would have acted as the departure point for the male initiates. Here evidence has been produced for feasting on cattle and pig, meat-rich elements ‘implying that partially butchered carcasses or joints of meat were brought onto the site for consumption’ (Pollard and Reynolds 2002).

Progressing down the West Kennet Avenue they would have ended up at the southern circle with its phallic obelisk while the female initiates arrived from the Beckhampton Avenue at the northern circle where it has been suggested The Cove might have associations with the womb. Some also believe that the stones that survive in the West Kennet Avenue are paired as masculine and feminine stones: each pair as you progress along the avenue consists of a pillar on one side (male) and a diamond shaped stone on the other (female) although for me ‘the jury is out’ on this point as not enough conform to the rule for me.

This coming of age theory would also fit well with the regular renewal of the timber posts at The Sanctuary as recently suggested by Mike Pitts’ excavations – it might have been an annual event. See Pitts’ book Hengeworld for an excellent account of his work in the area.

Of course this is all conjecture and might be well wide of the mark but it is fun to try and bring the huge Avebury complex to life and after all similar ceremonies take place in most societies around the world and are likely to have always done so. The single burial at The Sanctuary is one of an adolescent (sex undetermined) while other burials (all male) have been found at the foot of stones along the northern third of the West Kennet Avenue (Pollard and Reynolds 2002). A further burial was also found at the base of ‘Adam’ in the Beckhampton Cove.

Why not come and try your hand at interpreting the landscape. We can walk the West Kennet Avenue, interpret the rings at the Sanctuary and visit Adam and Eve as well as Avebury henge itself and its museum full of artefacts. There is even a cafe and a pub on site.

Please have a look at my Facebook posts from 15 May 2017 and 7 February 2018 for a flavour of a typical day out in the area:

Looking south along the West Kennet Avenue in winter

Stones and winter shadow on the West Kennet Avenue

Looking down on West Kennet Avenue

Adam’s Grave

Location Guides

Adam’s Grave is a Neolithic chambered long barrow dating from the first half of the 4th Millennium BC and so is at least 5,500 years old. ‘Along the northern escarpment of Pewsey Vale, the focus of many chance finds of Neolithic axes, only Adam’s Grave is prominently visible.’ (Field, 2006).

Adam's Grave, an Early Neolithic burial mound.
Adam’s Grave crowns Walker’s Hill on the northern escarpment of the Pewsey Vale. The tiny figure on the right hand slope of the monument gives an ideal of the scale of this Neolithic Chambered Long Barrow.
Looking towards Adam's Grave and Alton Barnes White Horse.
One of Wiltshire’s famous white horses (Alton Barnes, cut in 1812) can be seen on the slope below Adam’s Grave beyond the yellow fields of oilseed rape in this delightful photograph taken by Olivia Taylor. The white horse illustrates just how well the chalk stands out even from this distance.

Adam’s Grave was so named many years ago before people had any concept of the great depth of time man has inhabited the region. They knew it was an old burial mound and aptly named it after the first person they believed to have walked the earth. Archbishop James Ussher (1581 – 1656) calculated, from the generations listed in the bible, that God created the world in 4004BC, starting on 22nd October to be exact, Adam being brought to life on the sixth day of His work. Curiously that date for this tomb isn’t that far out. The Neolithic period began in the UK some time around 4000BC and this Early Neolithic Long Barrow dates from a short time after that, perhaps around 3,600BC. However, I would say it is very unlikely that it’s first inhabitant was called Adam!

Situated on top of the chalk escarpment overlooking the Pewsey Vale, Adam’s Grave commands stunning views south across to Salisbury Plain. However since it is a burial chamber it was perhaps the view of IT that was more important to the builders. Visible from all the surrounding area it would have served as a permanent reminder of the ancestral past for the people that inhabited the vale. When first built it was perhaps also a territorial marker for anyone approaching from the south, a symbol on the ridge that someone already had ownership of this land.

As with so many of the other chalkland monuments of this time, the long barrow was capped in chalk and would have gleamed white much as the local carved white horses do today. As Martin Green says in his terrific book ‘A Landscape Revealed’: ‘Their original appearance must have been exceptionally striking. Cresting the hill their gleaming white form would have provided a clear statement to those who viewed them of the resident community’s rights to the land.’ (Green, 2000 p.54)

Two Early Neolithic monuments, Knap Hill causewayed enclosure and Adam's Grave Long Barrow lie on the skyline just a few hundred metres apart.
This photograph shows the approach from the north to Knap Hill on the left of the and Adam’s Grave on the right, both Early Neolithic in date.
Adam's Grave overlooking the Vale of Pewsey
The builders of Adam’s Grave sited their monument absolutely perfectly overlooking the Vale of Pewsey

Adam’s Grave lies a few hundred metres west along the ridge from the contemporary causewayed enclosure at Knap Hill so they probably had a close connection at the time. It was excavated by John Thurnam who also also excavated West Kennet Long Barrow and Amesbury G42 at the end of the Cursus in the Stonehenge landscape. Thurnam was Medical Superintendent of the Devizes Asylum in the 1860s and he recovered some human remains for study as part of his research into the skull shapes of our ancestors. However the long barrow has not been subjected to modern excavation methods and no doubt has much more to disclose.

Adam's Grave a Neolithic Long Barrow from the air

As you can see in this aerial photograph (taken by me from a 2 seater aircraft piloted by Tony Hughes of the Wiltshire Microlight Centre) the material required to build the mound including the chalk to finally cover it was quarried from two massive ditches running either side of it. This is consistent with the  design of all the long barrows in Wiltshire but in most cases, as for instance at West Kennet, the ditches have long since silted up and, if anything at all has survived thousands of years of the plough, only the mound survives. The flip side of this however is that the ditch silt has often protected the archaeology beneath, as it is the bottom of the ditch that is contemporary with the mound construction, giving modern archaeologists plenty of material for research should they excavate.

The area around Adam’s Grave was also the alleged site of a battle in AD 556 between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons and, more certainly, of a battle  in AD 715 between the West Saxons and the Mercians.

Cherhill White Horse

The photograph above is of Oldbury Tours’ local white horse on Cherhill hill. Again, it is not that old, having been cut in 1780, although it is the second oldest in Wiltshire after Westbury (1778). Interestingly it was designed by a Dr. Christopher Alsop of Calne who was a friend of the artist George Stubbs, famous for his equestrian paintings. The horse is carved into the hillside  below our eponymous hill-top iron age fort, Oldbury Castle, the massive ramparts of which are visible on the ridge above.

I have found these two specialised books very useful in understanding the role of Long Barrows in the Early Neolithic.


Location Guides

Woodhenge near Stonehenge in Wiltshire on a sunny afternoon

Woodhenge on a sunny afternoon

Laurence of Odbury Tours stands among the concrete markers at Woodhenge, Wiltshire, UK

Laurence standing in among the concrete markers to give scale

Concrete markers mark the place of huge timber posts that once stood at Woodhenge, Wiltshire, UK

The sweep of the outermost ring. When the sockets were all holding massive timber posts it most have been quite an extraordinary place

Woodhenge as seen from Durrington Walls, Wiltshire, UK

Woodhenge as seen from Durrington Walls where there were at t least two similar circular structures of concentric rings of wooden posts

The birth of aerial photography in archaeology

Woodhenge was discovered in 1925 by WW1 veteran fighter pilot Group Captain Gilbert Insall VC MC. He was one of the first people to recognise the benefits to archaeology of aerial photography. Flying out of Netheravon aerodrome, one of many airfields that were by then installed on Salisbury Plain, Insall noticed marks on the ground that were evidently not natural.

Concentric rings of circular marks

In the fields below him Insall could make out a pattern of dark circles in the crops. They were caused by the actions of people digging through the shallow soil into the chalk bedrock below. Plants, whether grass or planted crops grow more vigorously above dug features due to the increased depth of moisture retaining, nutrient rich soil. From the air it can be very easy to spot areas that have been disturbed even if they are barely visible on the ground. In fact it is extraordinary how often these marks have lasted until modern times and just how clearly they still stand out.

What Insall photographed was the monument we  now know as Woodhenge. Less than two miles from Stonehenge it caused a great stir in the archaeological circles of the time. Could it be another hidden Stonhenge? It was certainly about the right size. It was down to Maud and Captain Cunnington of the Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Society (WANHS) to dig out the truth.

Digging for answers

Between 1926 and 1928 the Cunningtons revealed what Mike Pitts calls ‘one of the greatest timber structures of Hengeworld’ (Pitts, 2001). They discovered that the monument comprises a classic henge format of a broad ditch with a narrow external bank broken by a single entrance to the North East. Inside this henge are six concentric oval rings of post holes carved into the chalk. Four and a half thousand years earlier the holes had contained the footings for huge timber posts. These posts might have supported a roof. More likely, however, they were open to the sky and quite possibly linked around the top by horizontal lintels as at nearby Stonehenge.

A buried child

There is a child’s grave near the centre which is probably later than the main monument’s construction, possibly even Roman (Darvill 2006). The site was probably built and used during the second half of the third millennium BC and so is contemporary with the main sarsen and bluestone building phase of Stonehenge and the inhabitation of the adjacent Durrington Walls henge. Other similarities to Stonehenge are notable. Not only do the two structures share the same proportions but they also share the same axis: Woodhenge is similarly aligned on the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset.

Total excavation

Unfortunately, as at ‘The Sanctuary’ near Avebury, the Cunningtons did a very thorough job excavating all the post holes. This may seem like the obvious thing to do but even with today’s brilliant scientific techniques modern practice is to target only small areas for excavation. This way you leave the majority of any site for future generations of archaeologists to examine, with presumably even more sophisticated tools. Further excavations were however conducted through the surrounding bank and ditch in 1970 by Geoffrey Wainwright and John Evans when they found a second burial.

Having dug the site the Cunningtons erected concrete markers that not only show the positions of the original timber posts but also their approximate diameters as not all six rings contained the same sized timbers. Although this probably wouldn’t be done today it is useful for our purposes as it gives us a good idea of the scale of the structure and as you walk around the markers the design gradually becomes apparent after originally looking like a jumbled mess. Laurence is standing in the centre of the monument in one of the photos to give an idea of scale.

What’s it all about?

In short, we don’t know. However, excavations produced an enormous quantity of animal bones, mainly pig, pottery and worked flint. From this we can safely say ceremonies were held at Woodhenge that had an element of feasting. It would appear that at certain times of year rituals were performed at this wooden ‘temple’ for the people that were living in the landscape around. From analysis of material excavated from similar wooden structures at nearby Durrington Walls it appears that these people travelled from far and wide to be present.

One theory, that is now widely held, proposes that Stonehenge is actually a stone version of these timber temples. After all it was constructed using woodworking techniques. The idea is that the timber versions provided ritual centres for the living and that Stonehenge provided the same for the ancestors. What they were used to in life could be carried on beyond death. Read more about Stonehenge here and Durrington Walls here.

I took the aerial photographs on this page with a pretty standard camera. The first is of what archaeologists believe to be a Bronze Age or Iron Age enclosure that could date from any time between 2,400BC to 43AD. ‘The Horton Enclosure’ as it is known has never been excavated although I did take part in a magnetometer survey of the area with the field group of the Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Society (WANHS) in October 2013. The two lane road on the right of the picture gives some scale to the monument.

The second is of the Wilsford Henge. This is another Bronze Age enclosure that was previously only known from aerial photographs. I was involved with excavations here in 2015 and once the trench had been opened I thought it would make a great aerial photograph giving scale to the hidden monument.

Horton Enclosure from the air

Horton Enclosure (date unkown but definitely of prehistoric origin) Pilot: Tony Hughes; Photo: Laurence Davies

WAHNS carrying out geophysical surveys at Horton Enclosure, Wiltshire

Members of the Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Society Field Group, including Laurence second left, with Andy Payne (English Heritage) at the Horton Enclosure in October 2013

Wilsford Henge from the air during excavations in 2015

The 40 metre diameter feature known as Wilsford Henge stands out clearly in the barley crop as a dark green ring. Photo taken by Laurence during excavations in 2015

The ditch, outer ring of pits and excavation trench at Wilsford Henge, Wiltshire in 2015

From directly overhead it is easy to make out the dark green ring of the ditch. You can also see a ring of pits dug in a circle outside of this ring. Despite constant agricultural use of the soil above this site has survived for four and a half thousand years.

Durrington Walls

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The scene of fascinating recent discoveries

Durrington Walls is the site of some of the most fascinating recent archaeological work in the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site if not the whole of the UK. Between 2003 and 2009 the Stonehenge Riverside Project, directed by Mike Parker Pearson, gathered together a stellar line-up of British archaeologists to carry out some thorough 21st century archaeology within the Stonehenge landscape.

Where the Stonehenge builders lived?

Probably the most spectacular discovery was the exposure through excavation of the floors, hearths and post holes of late Neolithic houses within the area known as Durrington Walls. The houses date from the time the massive sarsen stone monument was erected at Stonehenge and the archaeologists are certain they were inhabited by the people that built and used our most famous landmark. The remarkably narrow range of carbon dates from Durrington Walls suggest that the site was only occupied for about 40 years between 2,500 and 2,460 BC and perhaps even then only at certain times of the year. Laboratory analysis of animal bones left over from massive feasts suggest people came from far and wide particularly to celebrate the winter solstice, the incoming folk perhaps swelling the village into a town of thousands for brief periods thereby also providing the manpower required for monumental building projects.

Ritual sites

As well as domestic buildings, the foundations for other structures were discovered including the chalk-cut post holes for two circular timber structures that might have resembled in wood what Stonehenge looked like in stone. The southern of the two circles has a floor plan of 6 concentric rings of posts that is remarkably similar in size and form to Stonehenge, the 4th circle for instance having the same number of timber uprights as the 4th stone circle of Stonehenge; the famous sarsen circle with linking lintels. The innermost ‘ring’ was similarly a horseshoe except here it was open to the mid-winter sunset.

However, rather than being prototypes for the stone monument Parker Pearson is certain these wooden buildings served a purpose, probably ritual, for the inhabitants of Durrington Walls in the same way he says that Stonehenge served a purpose for the spirits of their ancestors: wood and transience for the living, stone and permanence for the dead; one ritual area for the living, another ceremonial area for those who have passed into the domain of the ancestors (see the column on the right starting ‘The photograph above…’ for a description of the suggested relationship between the two monuments).

As should be expected with any unprovable theory there are other eminent archaeologists who are unconvinced of this reading but the Stonehenge Riverside Project unarguably uncovered some extraordinary new evidence for where the people that built Stonehenge right at the end of the Neolithic age spent at least some of their time.

Looking north along Durrington Walls bank

Massive earthworks

Although there is not a huge amount to see now the scale of the site is evident from the massive bank that was built to enclose or ‘henge in’ what had  apparently become a sacred site after the domestic buildings had been abandoned. The bank still stands 2 -3 metres high in places and with a diameter of 520 metres the roughly circular henge is 100 metres wider  than Avebury. Like Avebury, Durrington Walls’ bank had an enormous internal ditch following its circumference although here the ditch was not quite as deep (still some 6 metres however) and is now fully silted up so Avebury can trump it on that account. It is possible to wander over at least half of the area enclosed by the bank (about 11 hectares) as it is owned and managed by the National Trust.

Another circular monument, Woodhenge, lies very close by and walking from here one starts to appreciate the scale of the area that has Stonehenge at its centre. If you know where you are going you can carry on from here beside farmland and across meadows to approach Stonehenge along the last third of its processional avenue. By following in the footsteps of our ancestors we can perhaps start to understand how all the various monuments in this landscape relate to each other. While plenty of mystery still surrounds Stonehenge and its environs some of the jigsaw, whose pieces have been missing for so long, is gradually being put back together.

Most recent excavations

There was great excitement in 2015 when Birmingham University and The Ludwig Bolzmann Institute in Vienna announced that they had found a new line of some 90 sarsen stones buried beneath Durrington Walls’ south western bank. The two universities had been conducting a huge survey using various remote sensing and surveying techniques (including lidar and magnetometry) of the whole of the Stonehenge landscape including Durrington Walls – the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project. This new stone setting was heralded as their greatest discover amongst a fair few other important revelations. I, like almost everyone else, was taken in by it and couldn’t wait to hear more on the matter. Please see my excited Facebook article at the time posted on 13th September 2015:

Excavations in the first two weeks of August 2016, however, proved that the two ‘stones’ they targeted were in fact post holes, the empty sockets for enormous wooden posts. Remarkably these posts, which could have weighed as much as two tonnes, were later removed vertically without damaging the holes they had been standing in: the excavations revealed they had existed, had not been left to rot in place, and had shown no evidence for the usual rocking backwards and forwards of the post to enable its extraction. Curious!

What had the posts been there for? Well, they were seemingly in place at the same time as the Durrington Walls houses, i.e. before the henge bank was constructed, and they curve around the entire south western side of the area, the direction of Stonehenge. Were they there to form a barrier, a shield between the land of the living and the land of the dead? Perhaps.

The bank of Durrington Walls curving into the distanceThe huge sweep of the western bank of Durrington Walls, the most pronounced section remaining, can be seen curving towards us from the top left of this photograph. The Neolithic builders actually utilised the low natural escarpment for this portion of the henge bank so the land behind continues at the same height but in other places the bank was built from excavated material (turf, topsoil and then chalk). This work created an enormous ditch running inside the bank for the henge’s full circumference, no less than 6 metres deep and up to 18 metres wide!

The site would have been visually spectacular especially when first dug out of the chalk which, upcast to form the bank, would have left both ditch and bank gleaming white.

Looking down towards the Avon from Durrington Walls

The photograph above was taken from the eastern verge of the ‘new’ embanked road that runs through Durrington Walls, so the viewer is looking east from still within the enclosed area of the henge monument. Excavation has shown that there was originally an avenue leading from this point to the river Avon whose course is highlighted by the white-blossomed trees in the valley below. The 15m wide Neolithic pathway of packed natural flint linked the massive henge enclosure with the river and probably served both a functional and a ceremonial purpose for the people who lived here four and a half thousand years ago.

Parker Pearson’s theory, eloquently delivered in his book Stonehenge, is that people made their way down this road to the river perhaps especially on the occasion of the Winter Solstice. Each year on this day the sun rose along the axis of the Southern timber circle (see main article, left) now buried deep below this point on the roadside. Perhaps this was the rallying point on this auspicious shortest day of the year.

After processing down the avenue the participants’ journey continued along the river Avon to its junction with the Stonehenge Avenue. This processional avenue in turn leads from the river 2.8 km over land to Stonehenge itself. The final straight section of the Avenue on its approach to Stonehenge is aligned directly on the horseshoe of trilithons that straddles the main axis of the stone settings.

Assuming the ceremony was scheduled to last the full day the people approaching would then have seen the same mid-winter sun setting directly in front of them behind the great monument in the  knowledge that, the appropriate offerings having been made, the days will lengthen from the next sunrise, the cycle will begin again and mother earth will once more provide for the coming year. A very neat idea.

The sun sets behind Stonehenge in midwinter
The sun setting behind Stonehenge in midwinter. This photo was taken from the Stonehenge Avenue which continues as the axis for the stone settings.


Location Guides

Stonehenge is unique and is world famous for many reasons. The ruins we see today are what remains of the ‘last great stone monument of the Megalithic* age’ (Parker Pearson 2012,)

Stonehenge Private Guide for family tour
Stonehenge for all the family
Stonehenge Private Guide for couples
A beautiful May afternoon at Stonehenge
Stonehenge private guided tours for families
Family fun at Stonehenge

By way of explanation – Megalithic and Neolithic

*Megalithic literally means ‘massive stone’ and refers to the type of monument building that incorporated such megaliths during the Neolithic period across Europe. These include the huge stone structures of Carnac in northern France and the many tombs and stone circles in Britain and Ireland. Similarly Neolithic means ‘new stone’ to differentiate it from the Mesolithic ‘middle stone’ and Paleolithic ‘old stone’ ages, the Neolithic age being the most recent when people first settled down and started farming in stead of following the hunter-gatherer life style of the previous stone ages.

Stonehenge – The Iconic Monument

Stonehenge is an iconic monument and probably the most famous of Britain’s landmarks. Yet even after 400 years of excavation there is still much mystery surrounding the ancient monument regarding its purpose, manner of construction, who exactly built it and much else. In addition to these uncertainties its known story is more complicated than most people realise.

Stonehenge private guided tours in winter
Stonehenge under February skies
Stonehenge Private Guide operating all year
Stonehenge in early morning June mist

A long period of construction and use

From its beginnings in about 3000 BC Stonehenge has undergone several phases of construction and reconstruction with many stones being reused and reconfigured. New stones and features were added to the site during 1,500 years of activity. There are disagreements among archaeologists regarding which of the Stonehenge stones belong to which periods so for simplicity I am going to stick with Mike Parker Pearson’s chronology. In his book Stonehenge – Exploring The Greatest Stone Age Mystery Parker Pearson incorporates the most recent scientific research made during the Stonehenge Riverside Project (2004 – 2009).

If you would like to see all the radiocarbon determinations (dates) gained from the many excavations at Stonehenge then have a look at Mike Pitts’ 2001 title Hengeworld. Here you will discover the reason for the many different interpretations.

Stonehenge Private guided tours in all weather
A forest of grey stones against a grey sky
Stonehenge private guided tours in the evening
Stonehenge reflects the pink evening sun

Stonehenge guide – Building Stonehenge 3,000BC to 1,500BC

Phase 1: a circle then a cemetery

The first construction work on the site of Stonehenge began in about 3000BC. This original monument was a circular bank and external ditch cut into the chalk bedrock. At least 3 entrances led into its interior by way of causeways left uncut across the ditch with corresponding gaps in the bank. Within this circuit 56 large pits were dug equally spaced in a circle just inside and following the line of the bank. These 56 pits are known as the X holes or Aubrey holes after John Aubrey, a 17th century antiquarian who first recorded them.

It is this earliest monument that is the basis for the O of Oldbury Tours’ logo, representing a side to the prehistoric monuments of Wiltshire little known to the general public.

The ditch to the right of the main NE entrance to Stonehenge
The South entrance across the ditch, part of the original monument
Your Stonehenge guide - part of the ditch of the original monument at Stonehenge
The circular bank and ditch of the original 3000BC monument is still clear encircling the famous stones at about 40m distance

The Aubrey Holes – stones or posts

There is much debate among archaeologists over what if anything the Aubrey holes originally contained as part of that first monument, some say posts, others stones. Mike Parker Pearson, who has led some of the most recent work within the henge is certain that they held the first stones on the site which ‘formed a circle right at the beginning of Stonehenge’s sequence’ (Parker Pearson 2012). According to him these stones were the famous bluestones originating in the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, 180 miles away to the west. These stones, he says, were the ones later reused in the structure we see today.

Others such as Timothy Darvill and Mike Pitts are equally positive that if the Aubrey Holes held anything at all they held large timber posts. There certainly were many timber posts erected in other areas within the Stonehenge site at about this time. Whatever the truth, however, these holes were soon filled in. any stones or posts having been removed.

Stonehenge Private guided tour for bluestones
Two of the much smaller Welsh ‘bluestones’ are framed by enormous sarsens
Private Guide at Stonehenge
Oldbury Tours’ guide Laurence is standing next to a bluestone to in this picture.
Stonehenge Private Tour in Inner Circle
Notice the vertical groove, was this bluestone used in an earlier monument here or back in Wales perhaps

Britain’s Largest Neolithic cemetery

With the stones or posts removed the holes were then put to a very different use. Over the course of up to five hundred years the majority of the holes were used as the final resting places for cremated human remains. Thirty four of the fifty six holes have been excavated since the 1920s and at least twenty four of these contained cremation burials. Added to other burials found within the area enclosed by the original ditch (only the eastern half of which has been excavated by the way) estimates for the number of people laid to rest here range as high as 240 individuals. This makes Stonehenge ‘Britain’s largest cemetery from the 3rd millennium BC’: Mike Parker Pearson again (2012).

Phase 2 and on – huge stones erected

Sometime between 2620 and 2480 BC, i.e. some 500 years after the first activity, there was an enormous change at Stonehenge. At this time massive sarsen stones, some of which weigh over 35 tons, were incorporated into the monument. These are the huge stones, some of which weigh over 35 tonnes, that people are so familiar with today. They were probably dragged to the site from near my childhood home in the Marlborough Downs over 19 miles to the north. In fact recent research has determined that those sampled came from West Woods which I often drive past on the route between Avebury and Stonehenge.

The first stones to go up were probably the five gigantic trilithons, three-stone settings such as the one pictured here in May. They were configured in a ‘horseshoe’ pattern astride the main axis with the open end towards the north east and the midsummer sunrise. This construction was then surrounded by the circle of thirty sarsens capped by a continuous lintel of a further thirty stones, a total of seventy five sarsen stones constituting Parker Pearson’s Second Stage.

Viewing the giant stones on a Stonehenge Private Tour
Two of Stonehenge’s giant trilithons
The most complete section of the outer sarsen circle with lintels is on the NE side

the bluestones re-placed

As many as eighty Welsh bluestones were erected at the site from this time. The sarsens, being so huge, then remained static but the much smaller bluestones (still up to four tons in weight however) were moved around within the monument on at least one subsequent occasion. The final configuration had an innermost horseshoe of bluestones inside the sarsen horseshoe of trilithons. These were surrounded first by a complete circle of bluestones and then outermost the complete circle of sarsens with their lintels.

An arc of bluestones just inside the sarsen circle
One fallen bluestone lies on another, half buried. The lower one has carved holes that suggest it was a lintel in a former monument either here or elsewhere

– other stone settings…

To further complicate matters other stones are also present and were probably erected during the sarsen stage, including the evocatively named Slaughter and Altar Stones, the unusually titled Heel Stone and the four Station Stones. These require considerable explanation so why not come to Wiltshire and let me show you around?

The view to Stonehenge past the Heel Stone
The Slaughter Stone lies just inside the NE entrance
The Heel Stone on the far right of the picture in the sun stands off from the main monument and acts as the gunsight for summer solstice sunrise
This fallen stone was called the Slaughter Stone by the Victorians because rain water turns red in its puddles due to the stone’s high iron content.

Was the monument completed?

This is a question that is often asked and no-one can be certain of the answer. There are however a couple of facts. Sockets known to us as the Y and Z holes have been discovered dug as late as 1680-1520BC nearly 1500 years after the first activity. These were perhaps created to hold stones in two further concentric rings outside the other four rings. They were never filled and the site soon started to fall into disrepair.

Having started as a fairly simple monument and of a type not that uncommon at the time, with similar examples of circular Neolithic monuments being known across Britain, over time Stonehenge became an extraordinary, complicated and unique monument that is deservedly one of the most famous landmarks of the British Isles. As Timothy Darvill says ‘there was simply nothing else in north-west Europe quite like it’ (Darvill 2006).

More mystery – Stones carved like wood

One other aspect that makes Stonehenge unique is the way the stones were handled. It is not just that the stones were dragged here (and they were from at least some distance) and then erected, but they were also treated as if made of wood! That is to say they were carved, or dressed, before being joined together using methods familiar to carpentry. All the upright Sarsens, in both the full circle and the inner horseshoe of truly massive stones were finished with a tenon – a protruding knob – on top. The lintels that were then raised on top of them had corresponding mortice holes carved in their undersides so that there was a perfect fit. Furthermore the lintels have a tongue and a groove on opposite ends so that they fitted perfectly with their neighbours on either side and were curved so as to complete a perfect and smooth circle.

The outer circle of lintels and the tenon joint exposed on stone 56 in the distance
The mortice hole is still evident on this fallen lintel, once part of the largest trilithon with stone 56

A very plausible explanation

There were several contemporary monuments within the UNESCO world heritage site that resembled Stonehenge but were constructed out of wood. Less than two miles to the north east of Stonehenge are the sites of three of them. Most famously Woodhenge was a circular structure of six concentric circles of huge timber posts. But also discovered within Durrington Walls was a similar structure that almost exactly mirrors the floor plan of Stonehenge. Were these wooden monuments for the use of the living then? And Stonehenge for all the ancestors buried there? This is what the Stonehenge Riverside Project directors believe.

Building Stonehenge was a truly extraordinary and enormous undertaking and one that must have been born of a very convincing belief.

Stonehenge guide – theories and interpration

Circularity = unification?

I very much like the idea suggested by many archaeologists that Stonehenge was a symbol of unification, kinsfolk perhaps bringing their ancestral stones from Wales and from north Wiltshire, 2 separate peoples coming together here on Salisbury plain in a spectacular display of solidarity. However without any proof of this some geologists still hold the rather less romantic opinion that the stones were moved by glacial activity not human endeavour.

Celestial reverence

One aspect of the monument that is acknowledged by most is that Stonehenge was deliberately aligned on celestial events. The axis around which the stone settings were erected and which runs through the centre of the largest Sarsen trilithon of the horseshoe is aligned with midsummer sunrise in one direction and midwinter sunset in the other, the latter now being considered to be the more significant. After all when the winter solstice had passed and the days began to lengthen this was presumably a time of celebration for the early farmers heralding a time of rebirth when the land would once again soon become fertile for their crops.

Midsummer dawn at Stonehenge viewed from near Bush Barrow, Normanton Down
Shadows lengthen through the entrance as the midwinter sun sets behind the stones
Stonehenge is often attended by dramatic skies
The midwinter sun sets behind Stonehenge creating a striking corona with its rays

Stonehenge guide – a landscape of monuments

An isolated stone monument?

Contrary to popular belief Stonehenge is not a monument in isolation but is surrounded by other Neolithic and later Bronze Age monuments. Most of these have a funerary context. For instance over six hundred Bronze Age burial mounds (round barrows) are known in the immediate area along with some nineteen Neolithic Long Barrows. There are also two Cursus Monuments, whose purpose is unknown, including the 1.7 mile long Stonehenge Cursus which we can walk to from Stonehenge or Durrington Walls.

One of the most visible monuments is a 1.5 mile ‘Avenue’ of parallel banks leading from Stonehenge to the river Avon. I think this avenue possibly holds the key to Stonehenge’s purpose: the shadows of the dying winter sun run directly down its length, pointing the way to the river, maybe the sacred river, Avon.

Perhaps most excitingly a huge occupation site has recently been discovered within the vast henge of Durrington Walls nearly 2 miles to the North East. The huge circular bank that once surrounded the site is all that is visible but the scale is similar to that of Avebury and this was obviously once a very important place. Dating from the time of Stonehenge’s main megalithic construction, it is almost certainly where the builders of the great monument lived. The excavated site of Woodhenge also lies nearby.

Several other enclosures and henges (circular bank and ditch earthworks) are known in the area but aren’t visible on the ground. Some of these have only recently been discovered using modern surveying techniques.,

The whole landscape is owned by the National Trust and is open access so we can visit all of these sites and monuments as part of a tour.

Shadows hundreds of metres long run towards us and on down the avenue
The midwinter shadows from Stonehenge point straight down the Stonehenge Avenue perhaps leading our ancestors towards the river Avon.
Stonehenge at winter sunset
The winter sun sets behind Stonehenge.

Stonehenge guide – digging for answers and more…

Grave robbers, antiquarians and archaeologists.

Timothy Darvill has said that ‘the Stonehenge landscape represents in microcosm the history of archaeology generally’ (Darvill 2006). By this he means that Stonehenge was one of the first places in Britain to attract the attention of people with an interest in the past and a spade to dig with. It has continued to be a major focus for antiquarians and archaeologists ever since. As archaeology developed from little more than upper-class grave-robbing in the 17th century into a fully fledged science in the 20th each age has brought its new techniques, theories and agendas to bear on Stonehenge and its surroundings.

The history of archaeology at Stonehenge begins with the Duke of Buckingham in 1620 when he got his men to dig a huge pit in the middle of the circle of stones essentially looking for treasure. He was disappointed to find nothing more, as Darvill quotes in his book Stonehenge – The Biography of a Landscape, than animal skulls and horns, ‘charcoal, arrowheads, rusty armour and rotten bones’. All of this would of course hold enormous interest for modern day archaeologists but was not what the Duke was hoping to find.

Since that time each generation has approached the task of excavating Stonehenge in progressively more methodical ways, searching not so much for treasure but for answers. Reverence for those buried here has also come on apace. At the beginning of the 19th century the antiquarian William Cunnington maintained that human remains buried in the area survived better the lower down they were found in the chalk bedrock. He tested his theory by seeing how far they could be thrown without breaking, not something that archaeology students are encouraged to attempt.

World class museum collections – Gold from the time of Stonehenge

On a full day tour it is possible to fit in an hour or so at the exceptional Wiltshire Museum in Devizes which is in between Stonehenge and Avebury . They have the most important collection of Neolithic and Bronze Age artefacts in the UK. Their recently modernised exhibition rooms include many of the remains and finds from the Stonehenge and Avebury area. These include the extraordinary gold treasures that came out of Bush Barrow near Stonehenge as well as many other stunning items. Click on their logo to visit their website.

If we are staying in the Stonehenge area for our tour then the Salisbury Museum also has a spectacular collection of artefacts. Their recently modernised exhibition room includes a fascinating history of archaeology displaying many of the finds unearthed by the early archaeologists. It is a wonderful room to wander through. The museum is opposite the entrance to the extraordinary Salisbury Cathedral which houses King John’s Magna Carta. A visit to the cathedral can also be included on a tour.

Keeping it in the family

A visit to Stonehenge and Avebury should be on everyone’s bucket list and so it was for Barack Obama. The American president paid Stonehenge a special visit while he was in the UK for the NATO summit in September 2014. Just to keep it in the family my nephew was there on that day as part of the police protection force.

Your Stonehenge guide - Police inside Stonehenge prior to President Obama's 2014 visit
My nephew’s colleagues search the stones in September 2014 before a visit by Barack Obama

So when you are in the UK make sure you make your visit especially memorable by contacting Oldbury Tours for your Stonehenge guide.

West Kennet Long Barrow

Location Guides

West Kennet Long Barrow in the middle distance

An extraordinary place to visit

West Kennet Long Barrow is seen here in the middle distance looking rather like an enormous olive green caterpillar lying across the top of the late summer fields. It is an earlier Neolithic* funeral mound of a type called a long barrow and is one of the oldest monuments known in the UK. It is one of the largest of this type of monument in the UK reaching over 100m in length hence ‘long’ barrow. It is also one of the  best preserved of the long barrows incorporating megaliths* in their structure and when excavated included the most extensive mortuary deposits so far encountered in the region (Pollard and Reynolds, 2002).

Altogether it is an extraordinary place to visit and as a result I rarely drive past it at any time of year without seeing small groups walking up or down the short path from the A4 for a visit. Contact Oldbury Tours and we will include a visit on your schedule.

By way of explanation

*Neolithic means ‘new stone’ to differentiate it from the Mesolithic ‘middle stone’ and Paleolithic ‘old stone’ ages, the Neolithic age being the most recent. This is when people first settled down and started farming in stead of following the hunter-gatherer life style of the previous stone ages. Some of the earliest monuments from this time, including West Kennet Long Barrow lie within our area.

Similarly megalith literally means ‘massive stone’. Megalithic refers to the type of monument building that incorporated such megaliths during the Neolithic period across Europe such as the huge stone structures of Carnac in northern France and the many tombs and stone circles in Britain and Ireland. The terms Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic were coined by Sir John Lubbock in the nineteenth century. He also bought Silbury Hill and later took the title Lord Avebury. His descendant, the 4th Baron Avebury, still owns the hill.

Aerial photograph of West Kennet Long Barrow
West Kennet Long Barrow from the air. Pilot: Tony Hughes; Photo: Laurence of Oldbury Tours

Construction and exploration

At the eastern end of the barrow there is a stone façade and behind this an impressive and elaborate stone construction consisting of 5 separate burial chambers branching off a central passage that extends 12m underground.

West Kennet Long Barrow was originally explored in 1859 by John Thurnam. During his excavations he only managed to locate the main passage and end chamber. It was only during further televised excavations by Richard Atkinson and Stuart Piggott in the 1950s that the 4 lateral chambers were discovered.

The stonework utilises the same local sarsen stone that was later incorporated into the stone monuments of Avebury and Stonehenge. It is supplemented by dry stone-walling made of oolitic limestone coming from slightly further away. The nearest source of this ‘foreign’ stone is Oldbury Tours home town of Calne, 10 km west (Leary and Field, 2010) although it may have come from as far away as northern Somerset. The horizontal layers of this stone are clearly visible in the internal photographs.

Dating the discoveries

It was rather fortunate that Thurnam hadn’t found the side chambers because when Atkinson and Piggott did find them they used modern  excavation methods. Subsequent carbon dating of human bones found during these excavations suggest a date for construction between 3,700 and 3,600 BC assuming the chambers were built specifically to house these individuals. This research, carried out by Cardiff University and English Heritage, suggests a surprisingly brief period of funerary use with all the initial burials occurring within a few decades, perhaps only one generation. There were however a few subsequent interments mainly of children from 3,300BC up until perhaps as late as 2,500 BC (Cleal 2008).

West Kennet Long Barrow central passageway
The central passageway
West Kennet Long Barrow western chamber
Looking into the western chanber
The facade of West Kennet Long Barrow

How many people were buried here?

The original excavator, John Thurnam, was the Medical Superintendent of the local asylum in Devizes and as such had an interest in the evolution of human crania. He also excavated the long barrow at the eastern end of the Stonehenge Cursus and another Neolithic long barrow, nearby Adam’s Grave. In the large western chamber Thurnam discovered 6 crouched inhumations, the remains of 5 adults and 1 child. Their ‘crouched’, or curled up, positions may mean that they were interred in organic – leather perhaps?- sacks. These would have rotted away over the 5,500 intervening years but bone pins which might have been used to secure the sacks were still present.

The 1950s excavations by Atkinson and Piggott revealed the remains of a further thirty or so individuals. The reason we cannot be absolutely sure of the number of individuals buried is because the skeletons were not all complete and the bones were often jumbled up. Archaeological practice is therefore to note the largest number of a specific bone, such as a left talus, that is found and state that there must have been ‘at least’ that number of people.

Who was buried within?

The burials had often been segregated by sex and age. In the western chamber, for instance, the majority of burials were of adult males while in the south eastern and north eastern chambers nearest the entrance the remains were mostly of children and the old aged.

Furthermore bones had often been sorted and re-organised. The south western and north western chambers contained bones of certain types such as skulls and the long bones of legs and arms. These were stacked against the walls, the bones thereby losing there lifetime identity.

West Kennet Long Barrow - looking into the South West Chamber
Looking into the South West chamber
West Kennet Long Barrow - looking into the North West Chamber
Looking into the North West Chamber

It doesn’t all add up

Also is also interesting is that skulls and long bones were ‘noticeably under represented’ (Pollard and Reynolds, 2002) compared to other bones. This perhaps gives us an interesting insight into early Neolithic burial practice. Were representative bones taken elsewhere such as nearby Windmill Hill for ceremonies or re-burial? Were some bones removed by nomadic family groups moving on to fresh lands and taking ancestral relics with them? Or the other way round: were family groups moving to the West Kennet/Avebury area and bringing ancestral relics with them to be interred here?

Ritual use

What rituals were performed and whether these rituals remained the same over the barrow’s enormous period of use is another unanswerable question. As Steve Marshall points out in his book Exploring Avebury the bones were often at the back of the chambers, perhaps leaving room for the living to visit. And what we do know is that the barrow was used as a ceremonial centre for over 1,000 years before there was a drastic and dramatic change.

West Kennet Long Barrow -looking into the South East Chamber
Looking into the South East Chamber
West Kennet Long Barrow - looking into the North East Chamber
Looking into the North East Chamber

What happened next?

At about the same time that nearby Silbury Hill (the top of which is just visible on the far right of this photo) was being built, c.2,400 – 2,300BC or maybe slightly after, the tomb was sealed. Having been filled with debris West Kennet Long Barrow was finally ‘decommissioned’ by the erection of enormous sarsen blocking stones across the entrance. For centuries the rising sun, particularly on an equinox, had lit the interior shining straight down the central passage. As with many long barrows in the area the entrance is at the eastern end. These new stones emphatically stopped this effect – there was to be no more light for these ancestors.

Did this represent a symbolic parting with old traditions allowing a new culture to dominate? It was around this time that the Beaker culture arrived in Britain, the so called ‘Beaker People’ bringing with them or adopting the knowledge of how to make metal and establishing new traditions, practices and perhaps an altogether different interpretation of the world around them. I say ‘adopting the knowledge’ because most archaeologists now believe that the local people adopted a culture that was already established in continental Europe instead of there being any sort of invasion from abroad. However, the idea of people arriving with this new metal technology (and perhaps guarding their secret) would certainly give credence to them having an exaggerated influence over the indigenous population instigating these enormous changes in ritual practice. It is easy to see why this is such a stubborn popular conception.  A nearly complete example of one of their distinctive Beakers was found as part of the final infilling of the chambers and forecourt demonstrating that they and their beliefs were definitely around….

West Kennet Long Barrow - the blocking stones
The massive blocking stones
Inside West Kennet Long Barrow
Inside West Kennet Long Barrow


West Kennet Long Barrow with a West Kennet Long Barrow guide

Long Barrows

Location Guides

Seen from the air West Kennet Long Barrow’s proportions can be fully appreciated. It is over 100 metres long and is built for the most part from solid chalk excavated from huge ditches on either side of the mound. behind the facade of huge sarsen stones at the nearest, eastern end of the photo is a stone-lined passageway and five burial chambers.

East Kennet Long Barrow at sunset

East Kennet Long Barrow seen on the ridge covered in beech trees is thought to be structurally very similar to West Kennet Long Barrow. It has never been excavated.

Our most ancient of monuments

Long barrows are the oldest monuments in the British Isles with examples being constructed from about 3,800 BC onwards.  Present throughout the UK, there are many in the area we visit on our tours.

Horslip Long Barrow which is hardly visible on the southern slope of Windmill Hill has provided the earliest radiocarbon date for the Neolithic* in the region even though it has a wide margin of 4,300 – 3,600BC and East Kennet Long Barrow which is very visible is the largest example in England at over 100m and has never been excavated. In the photograph the profile of East Kennet Long Barrow stands out tree-lined in the sunset.

The central passage - West Kennet Long Barrow

The central passage of West Kennet Long Barrow culminates in the western burial chamber. The entrance to one of the four lateral chambers, the north eastern, can be seen a short way up the passage on the right of the photograph

Easton Down Long Barrow near Devizes mirrors Cherhill hill in the distance
The Longstones long barrow is a well preserved example of an Earlier Neolithic Long Barrow sited just to the north of the Beckhampton roundabout between Calne and Avebury

Chambered tombs

Paul Ashbee suggested a total of 153 for known long barrows in the south of England in his 1970 book The Earthen Long Barrow In Britain. The best known of these, like West Kennet and East Kennet Long Barrows, contain stone tombs for human burials and are consequently known as chambered long barrows.

But not all long barrows follow the same format. In fact most of the long barrows in our region (132 out of Ashbee’s 153) don’t include the sarsen stones of West Kennet’s façade and burial chambers in their fabric being made of just chalk, earth and turf and known simply as earthen long barrows.

An extant example in our area is the mound at Easton Down to the south of the road between Avebury and Devizes pictured here at the top of the slope to the right of the photograph, it’s mound mirroring Cherhill hill in the distance, home of Oldbury hill fort and the Landsdowne Monument.

Although most of these earthen long barrows probably did cover a timber mortuary house some on excavation, such as the pictured example on the Beckhampton roundabout and the one at the end of the Stonehenge Cursus, have not disclosed human burials or any timber or stone funerary building. This obviously doesn’t fit if they are all to be considered burial mounds. It has been suggested that these ’empty’ earthen long barrows might better be considered as memorials or cenotaphs, still having a funerary context but containing remains in the form of memories and ancestral spirits perhaps rather than actual human remains.

These long mounds did however often contain animal remains particularly cattle skulls and bones making a clear interpretation more complicated. Speaking at the April 2015 Wiltshire Archaeology Conference PhD student Emily Banfield, who has studied the animal bones deposited at three earthern long barrows in the Avebury region (Horslip, Beckhampton Road and South Street), suggested that they were in fact concerned with ‘life processes’ rather than commemoration of any sort – it will be interesting to read her final conclusions.

On the chalk downlands of Wiltshire the different types of long barrow (there are also shorter, possibly later, ‘oval’ long barrows) were all capped with a layer of white chalk dug from parallel ditches running the length of the mound on either side. These have usually silted up but are still very clear in this aerial photograph of Adam’s Grave. Consequently they would have stood out in the landscape, even gleaming on a sunny day much as the local carved white horses do today.

In Olivia Fischer’s photograph the Alton white horse stands out clearly when seen across the fields of oil-seed rape. The long barrow known as Adam’s Grave is on the hillside directly behind the telegraph pole and would have been  similarly visible.

All of the 6 long barrows in the Avebury region to have been subjected to modern excavation methods were built on sites that had previously been inhabited or used (Pollard and Reynolds 2002). For example the land under the South Street Long Barrow had previously been ploughed for agricultural purposes. Long barrows have given us some fascinating insights into the individuals interred and tantalising glimpses of their lifestyles and society; analysis of bones found at West Kennet Long Barrow has demonstrated that the people buried here had shared a similar diet of mixed plant and animal protein. Considering that evidence from other UK sites indicates different dietary make-ups this could suggest kinship amongst those using the West Kennet tomb, a family mausoleum if you like, since they had seemingly passed on lifestyle habits (Pollard and Reynolds, 2002). When you combine this information with the differing individual styles of long barrow you begin to get an idea of how these early farmers were starting to make personal marks on the landscape they now considered home. The people of the early Neolithic might well be considered still semi-nomadic, migrating with their herds to different pastures but for the first time they were monumentalising the land that they knew they would return to, leaving a clear and lasting indication of their society and beliefs. Along with cursus monuments and causewayed enclosures, long barrows were the earliest forms of monumental expression.

* Neolithic means ‘new stone’ to differentiate it from the Mesolithic ‘middle stone’ and Paleolithic ‘old stone’ ages, the Neolithic age being the most recent when people first settled down and started farming in stead of following the hunter-gatherer life style of the previous stone ages. Similarly Megalithic literally means ‘massive stone’ and refers to the type of monument building that incorporated such megaliths during the Neolithic period across Europe such as the huge stone structures of Carnac in northern France and the many tombs and stone circles in Britain and Ireland.

The Eastern facade of West Kennet Long Barrow

Knap Hill

Location Guides

Knap Hill from the airThe northern escarpment of the Pewsey Vale


Knap Hill, Wiltshire is the site of an earlier Neolithic* Causewayed Enclosure constructed in the mid-fourth millennium BC one of only fourteen such monuments in England that survive ‘to any extent as earthworks’ (Oswald et al, 2001). These enclosures were probably built as venues for social gatherings rather than as permanent domestic settings although most of those excavated seem to be variations on a theme both in construction and use. As Andrew Lawson says they were perhaps ‘meeting places, markets, political, ceremonial or religious centres all in one’ (Lawson 2007). However, excavations have suggested that they generally were occupied for at least some of the year, probably most usually between spring and autumn. As is often the case with these ‘camps’ the Knap Hill site occupies a strategic position on top of a hill and in this case on the edge of a dramatic escarpment. From here it offers commanding views across the Pewsey Vale to the south with Salisbury Plain the site of the, then future, Stonehenge in the distance. It is one of my very favourite places and I love the affect the area around it has on anyone experiencing it for the first time especially when approaching from the north.

Looking across the Pewsey Vale from Knap Hill

Andrew Lawson among others points out that causewayed enclosures are often paired with long barrows, a type of earlier Neolithic mound concerned with funerary rituals, and this is certainly the case here with ‘Adam’s Grave’ located a few hundred metres west along the ridge. Quoting evidence from a similar site on Hambledon Hill in Dorset, Lawson suggests that bodies were exposed in these places having been systematically defleshed. The disarticulated bones were subsequently dispersed ‘some to be buried in selected locations at the enclosures, others to be placed temporarily or permanently in long barrows’ (Lawson 2007). As Ros Cleal points in the current National Trust guide to Avebury ‘almost more than anything else, it is this treatment of the dead that brings home to us the difference between our own time and this distant past’ (Cleal 2008).
Knap Hill Causewayed Enclosure in the snow
The Knap Hill site was one of the first of these enclosures to be investigated. It was excavated during 1908 and 1909 by Maud and Ben Cunnington on behalf of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society. In the ditch they discovered huge quantities of Neolithic pottery and worked flint. Animal bone was also present and it had often been deliberately deposited in the ditch, not just discarded as rubbish – it would be therefore fair to assume that there was a ritual element to this action that perhaps followed periods of feasting or sacrifice. The ditch is up to 3 metres deep in places and lies outside a simply constructed bank as can be seen in the aerial photograph, the causeways that give the enclosures their name still very evident left undug to give access across the ditch into the interior.


* Neolithic means ‘new stone’ to differentiate it from the Mesolithic ‘middle stone’ and Paleolithic ‘old stone’ ages, the Neolithic age being the most recent, covering the period from c.4000BC to 2,400BC in the UK, when people first settled down and started farming in stead of following the hunter-gatherer life style of the previous stone ages. Similarly Megalithic literally means ‘massive stone’ and refers to the type of monument building that incorporated such megaliths during the Neolithic period across Europe such as the huge stone structures of Carnac in northern France and the many tombs and stone circles in Britain and Ireland.





Click on the ‘read more’ button below to read more about causewayed enclosures in general.



Windmill Hill

Location Guides

Windmill Hill is best known for the early Neolithic causewayed enclosure which sits on its crown and for the pioneering archaeology that took place here. Causewayed enclosures are some of the earliest monuments in the British Isles being built between 3,700 and 3,400BC (Lawson 2007). This period is shortly after the time people moved on from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and into a more settled pattern of life with small scale farming at its heart which had occurred around about 4,000BC. The enclosures, or camps, consist of one or more sub-circular rings of ditches with the earth thrown up on the inside to form a bank; causeways, or land bridges, were left uncut to give access across the ditches into the interior. Their full purpose is far from clear but from excavation it appears that these enclosures were used for habitation at certain times of the year, as seasonal meeting places where different family groups might have met to trade goods and exchange ideas and stories. Inter-tribal betrothals, for instance, perhaps took place and from remains found and identified there was certainly a considerable amount of communal feasting.
Windmill Hill from The Ridgeway
The Windmill Hill site, seen in the middle distance in the above photograph, consists of 3 concentric rings of ditches dug between 3,700 and 3,500BC long before the Avebury monument or Silbury Hill existed and is one of the largest of these early meeting places. It is also one of the earliest known examples and one of the most extensively excavated. The first excavations took place in 1922 and 1923 led by the vicar of nearby Winterbourne Bassett, H.G.O. Kendall but it was later in that decade that the really large scale excavations took place. These were carried out by Alexander Keiller along with his wife, Veronica and his sister-in-law Dorothy between 1925 and 1929. It was this Alexander Keiller who, having bought the Avebury estate, was later responsible for restoring the Avebury stone circle and the West Kennet Avenue.
The work carried out within the site has produced enormous amounts of deposits, Keiller’s excavations finding thousands of animal bones, tens of thousands of worked flint tools and knapping debris and the remains of about 1,300 clay pots. These round-bottomed pots  lent the local name to this distinctive form of early Neolithic pottery that has been found across the region and has subsequently become known as Windmill Hill Ware.


Click on the button below to read more about Neolithic Causewayed Enclosures in general.


Avebury Stone Circle

Location Guides

Avebury stone circle is the largest stone circle in Britain and lies ‘at the centre of one of the most remarkable concentrations of Neolithic and early Bronze Age archaeology in western Europe’ (Gillings and Pollard, 2004).

On the bank at Avebury on an Avebury Stone Circle tour
Looking down from the top of the bank of Avebury henge.
At Avebury Stone Circle on an Avebury tour
In front of the Devil’s Stone – Stone 1 of the Avebury Outer Circle
At Avebury Stone Circle on an Avebury tour
At the southern inner circle, Avebury.

Awe-inspiring’ Avebury – a long, long period of construction and use

Lying 25 miles from Stonehenge the earth, ditch and stone circles of Avebury combine to make the most astonishing monument in the northern half of the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site. To many it is the most impressive of them all and to me, probably the most personal. It is surrounded by other magnificent sites, all of which we can visit together as part of a tour.

As with so many of the monuments in this World Heritage Site, Avebury was constructed, used and remodelled over an enormous period of time from about 3,000 BC for something like a thousand years. There is much to tell of its development over this time and of the individual elements it comprises. Since it was ‘rediscovered’ in 1649 many antiquarians and archaeologists, including some fascinating characters, have excavated here and developed their own interpretations of this extraordinary place. ‘The multidimensional nature of the whole thing is never less than awe-inspiring’ (Critchlow 2007).

Avebury super-henge – the enormous circular bank and ditch

The whole monument is enclosed by a roughly circular bank about 420m in diameter which you can see taking up most of my aerial photograph below. The bank is up to 30m wide at its base and still rises to over 5m above the present ground level. This surrounds an equally extraordinary ditch which was originally between 7 and 10 metres deep! It is still impressive today, diving down nearly 4 metres from ground level. Four gaps, whether entrances or exits, interrupt the henge at the cardinal points.

There are three other ‘super-henges’ in the region, at Durrington Walls, Marden and Mount Pleasant, but this is the most impressive to visit as the others don’t have stone settings. As part of a full day tour I can. however, take you to Durrington Walls and Marden henge as they both lie in between Avebury and Stonehenge.They have both been subject to large-scale recent excavations and the results have added a lot to the story of the World Heritage Site.

Avebury stone circles with a flying guide
Avebury from the air. Keiller’s reconstructed sections are on the left, the SW and NW quadrants Photograph: Laurence, Pilot: Tony Hughes of the Wiltshire Microlight Centre
Visit with an Avebury guide - Avebury henge ditch and bank
People give scale to the massive Avebury henge ditch and bank in the south east quadrant

Avebury stone circles

Inside this chalk and earth structure is a circle of what was originally about 98 massive, naturally shaped sarsen stones. I say ‘about 98’ sarsen stones because many of the original stones were removed, destroyed or buried during the medieval and later periods and only two of the four quadrants have been fully excavated. Within this circle of huge stones (megaliths) are the remains of two inner circles of about thirty even larger stones plus other features in varying degrees of preservation and restoration.

The restored outer circle of the SE quadrant.
These two huge stones frame the southern entrance into the stone circles.

The Obelisk, The Cove and an enigmatic line.

The two Inner Circles had as their centre pieces the Obelisk and The Cove. Unfortunately the enormous Obelisk was destroyed in the eighteenth century but we still have two stones of The Cove, one of which is the heaviest standing stone in the UK. There are also some smaller sarsen stones within the southern of the inner circles that recent work suggests might be the oldest part of the monument. Up until now the ditch and bank have yielded the earliest radiocarbon dates but it is odd that all the other super-henges in the area were built to enclose an already established area of activity. Maybe Avebury will at last conform to this pattern? Hopefully excavations might happen soon to confirm this theory.

Weighing an estimated 100 tons it shouldn’t be too hard to hide behind the heaviest standing stone in the UK!
Both of the surviving Cove stones have fossil circles in them – surely not a coincidence. This one can be seen just above the man’s right shoulder.
Visit with an Avebury guide - perhaps the oldest part of the monument
Recent research shows that this line of smaller stones may feature in the oldest part of the monument. Geophyics have revealed it is one side of a square that may surround the site of an Early Neolithic building.
A group of visitors forms a circle around a concrete pillar that marks the position of the destroyed Obelisk, one of the two central features of the Avebury monument.

Restoration of the monument.

In the 1920s an extremely wealthy man called Alexander Keiller came on to the Avebury scene. Between 1925 and 1929 he directed excavations at nearby Windmill Hill which he had bought in 1924. He went on to excavate and reconstruct a portion of the Neolithic West Kennet Avenue (1934-5) which leads into Avebury. Then, fully under Avebury’s spell, in 1935 he leased Avebury Manor and its estate eventually buying it outright in 1937. The manorial estate included much of the village and the great Neolithic monument. Having already re-erected many stones of the Avenue he decided his mission was now to restore the stone circles to their ‘original’ state. Work started in the spring of 1938.

Fallen stones that lay prostrate on the surface were re-erected. If he found buried stones he resurrected them and concreted them into their original sockets. Where he discovered only empty sockets in the chalk bedrock (as evidence of removed stones) he placed concrete markers to show the missing stones’ previous positions.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), financial pressures and the outbreak of WW2 brought an end to Keiller’s project and as a result only half of the circle was restored. For modern archaeologists this means that there is a huge amount of undisturbed ground which could yet answer a lot of questions. Watch this space, as the saying goes.

Avebury - the southern inner circle with markers
The sweep of the southern inner circle with Keiller’s concrete markers closest to camera
A long-standing stone of the un-restored northern inner circle. Windmill Hill, where Keiller cut his archaeological teeth can be seen in the distance beyond the henge bank.
Before Keiller’s restoration work only four of this arc of stones in the NW quadrant were still standing.
Some of Keiller;s restoration work: a pieced-together stone of the NW sector that had been partially destroyed.

Mystical Avebury – childhood fascination 

My first visit to the great henge and stone circles of Avebury was as a primary school pupil at Preshute School in nearby Manton and I remember how fascinated we all were particularly by the tale of ‘the barber-surgeon’. Believed by most experts now to be a tailor from the 14th century due to the hinged iron scissors found with him, his skeleton along with his few belongings were found buried below the collapsed stone 9 of the outer circle. Handily for the archaeologists he had three silver pennies on him dating to the reigns of Edward II (1307 – 1327) and Edward III (1327 – 1377) so his burial presumably dates from the reign of Edward III or possibly just afterwards.

After that Avebury became something of a playground and regular picnic spot for me and my family. My brothers and I used to career up and down the bank and ditch as children still do today.

Visit with an Avebury guide - Avebury in winter
Children playing on Avebury’s bank in winter
Sunrise at Avebury on the summer solstice in 2017

Our Avebury – touching the stones

In contrast to the stone settings at Stonehenge there is nothing to stop anyone from getting up close and personal with the Avebury stones at any time of day. As an integral part of the village the stones share the landscape with people going about their daily business along with visiting tourists and local families such as us. Instead of detracting from the importance or value of the site I think it is rather better to see this as a continuation of the stone-human relationship. Our interpretation is undoubtedly different from those who conceived and built this ancient monument but it still inspires a sense of wonder and is even still a sacred place to some.

Some people claim to feel energies coming from the stones.

Purpose and interpretation

Since this monument was constructed in the depths of prehistory we can only guess its original purpose. Among many other things, excavation can tell us the order of construction. The very few reliable dates we have for the site suggest that the bank and ditch were constructed first and then, about 500 years later, the stones were added. Many archaeologists doubt that this order of construction is likely but without examining more date-able material from new excavations they can’t further argue their case.

There have been very few finds here compared to other sites of a similar age in the area. There is no evidence of feasting as there was at Marden and Durrington Walls for instance, where huge amounts of Grooved Ware pottery and animal bone were recovered. At these two sites then we know at least some of the behaviour of the people that frequented them. Avebury is different, comparatively very ‘clean’ of evidence, making an interpretation much more difficult.

We still have a lot to learn then but it is great fun to discuss the different theories we do have nonetheless. For instance is it a site for mother earth fertility ceremonies or coming-of-age rites of passage? Were gods summoned here? Was it reserved for a priestly caste? Was the area used all year round or just for certain specific festivals? These are just some of the ideas we can talk about.

A path runs along the top of the henge bank around the SE quadrant. Strolling along it allows great views across the monument.
Avebury in November mist.

The prehistoric Avebury landscape

Towards the end of Avebury’s construction period at least two and possibly four stone avenues were created leading out of the circle to connect it to other Neolithic sites in the area. One of these avenues the 2.4km long West Kennet Avenue once led to ‘The Sanctuary’, another circular monument this time of stone and timber on Overton Hill. This avenue of huge stones was also much restored by Keiller and is now once again very much part of the site.

Also nearby are the famous sites of Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow and many other lesser known and, in some cases, hidden places of ancient significance. During a day or half day exploring the area I will explain their relationship and possible meanings.

Inside West Kennet Long Barrow
Two weeks after heavy rains and the base of Silbury Hill is flooded by underground springs. Is this what the builders intended?
In West Kennet Avenue, the stone lined route towards Avebury

The Alexander Keiller Museum, Circles Cafe and NT shop

Many of Keiller’s discoveries are on display in this small museum within part of the Manor estate. The museum is housed in two buildings: his collection in the old stable block and a more hands-on exhibition space in the medieval barn. They both lie just outside the henge bank and a very worthwhile visit can be included on a tour.

The cafe here provides refreshments in the form of some home cooked hot food, sandwiches, cakes and hot and cold drinks. The National Trust shop sells books and magazines as well as National Trust gift items.

Inside the Alexander Keiller Museum
Inside the barn section of the museum
Outside the old Circles Cafe

Avebury Manor and Gardens

The manor house where Keiller lived and worked is now owned by the National Trust. There are timed entrance tickets available and it is an interesting diversion on a day tour. Dating back to the Elizabethan period, the house was renovated for a BBC TV programme called The Manor Reborn (2011). Nine rooms were redecorated in period styles of the different owners over its long history, from Tudor bedrooms through to Keiller’s 1930s front parlour. The gardens are a delightful place to wander around on a pleasant day and often host sculpture exhibitions.

Avebury Manor
Avebury Courtyard and Dovecote

Avebury Village and Shops

Famously the henge monument surrounds a living village, my school music teacher lives here for one! The village shop sells everything you may need for a picnic in the henge and there are two excellent gift shops focusing more on the spiritual side of Avebury than the archaeological. There is even a thatched pub selling food and drink within the stone circle, said to be the most haunted in the UK.

The way into Avebury village from the east
Parked outside Elements of Avebury
Parked at the Red LIion

A different kind of Avebury guide

For a different perspective you can fly over the area in a fixed wing light aircraft with Tony Hughes of The Wiltshire Microlight Centre. Follow this link to book a twenty minute or half hour flight or click on their logo.