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).
‘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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.