Recently, some fascinating archaeological research has come to light, placing new significance on the Neolithic sites of Stonehenge and Avebury. I’ve actually never visited Stonehenge, but I have seen several other neolithic circles, and in 2009 I got to visit Avebury.
After Stonehenge, Avebury is probably the most popular Neolithic archaeological site in Britain. The megalithic henge (henge refers to the Neolithic ditch-and-bank enclosure, not the stones) is the largest in Europe, so large in fact that an entire village (albeit a small one) exists inside it. It’s not just any stone circle, it is THE stone circle.
Avebury doesn’t exist in isolation, it’s part of a huge network of “sacred” sites throughout the country, with a particular concentration in this area of England. It was constructed over two centuries (2600-2400BC), each new generation enlarging or adding on to the structure. First the henge itself would have been shaped – the great circular ditch and bank dug with shovels made of antler and the shoulder blade bones of cows. This ditch and bank encloses more than 30 acres, with the bank being 6m high, and required more than 120,000 cubic metres of solid chalk to be removed, making it the second largest Neolithic earthwork in the country (after Silbury Hill, a man made chalk hill less than a mile from Avebury). Experts think it would have taken as much as 1.5 million man-hours to construct the bank and ditch and place the sarsen stones.
Archaeologists estimate more than 400 great sarsen stones – the largest weighing 65 tonnes – were used to create the Avebury complex. The West Kennet Avenue – a wide avenue of stones leading to Avebury, was added in 2300BC. Because these neolithic people left no writing, we have no real clues as to the purpose of the stones, although it is widely accepted they had some kind of prominent religious and ceremonial purpose. What we do know is that they took a tremendous effort to create the site, bringing the stones from quarries miles away, using only wooden rollers and rope, and erecting them using precise measurements and simple engineering.
Inside the large outer circle were two smaller circles, each with a seemingly different purpose. One circle contained a tall obelisk, which has since been destroyed, and the other contained a sacred cove. There are four entry points into the ditch, each from the cardinal compass points.
Archaeological finds around the site show the Romans visited it, probably as a curiosity, judging by their writings about the ancient peoples of England. The settlement was established during the Saxon era, probably because the site would’ve been very easy to fortify, with the deep ditch around the henge deterring attack. In 1140AD, Avebury got a small Benediction Priory, and it’s first church.
As the parish grew during the 12th century, Christianity took over as the dominent religious force in the area, quashing any remaining pagan beliefs. Many of the larger stones were given names related to the Devil and witchcraft, and several were pulled down and buried. There are two important archaeologists associated with the site: William Stukeley, who explored the site in the 1700s and took many detailed maps of the placement of stones. And a good thing he did, as many of the stones were subsequently broken up to be used as building material. The other was Alexander Keiller, who used money from his family’s marmalade fortune to buy the land in the 1930s. He conducted detailed excavations and also replaced many of the fallen stones into their original positions.
Avebury is lovely to visit. It’s a short day trip from popular tourist centers like London and Bath. We drove here from Portsmouth in our campervan and parked up next to a field full of cows. You can walk around the whole site, explore the ditch, and climb on the stones, all while enjoying a view over the picturesque Wiltshire countryside.
I’ve always been profoundly interested in the ancient history of England, and especially pre-Christian society. My mum has this book about sacred circles that I read as a teen, and it always made me want to visit these sites and get a sense of what made them centers of ancient magic. So much of the aspects of worship seems to focus around the celebration of fertility and the female form, such a vastly different culture from that of the Christianity that tried to stifle it. I feel quite a strong connection to sites like this. Touching great stones like the Avebury sarsens gives you a tangible connection to ancient people who, thousands of years ago, stood in that same spot and drew energy and power from the earth, from the landscape. For them, the gods were of the earth, of the meadows and the groves and the stones and the sky – gods and goddesses that could be touched, that were accessible to everyone.
What kind of religious worship went on within this circle? There’s a rugged romance to the site. Because you can’t read an account of what went on there, you have to close your eyes and imagine it. Birth and death and rebirth, seasons passing, battles won and lost, these stones have seen centuries of it. It is only though those stones that these people live on, and if you focus hard enough, you can get a sense of them, of what this place meant to them, of what it meant to be here at its height.
While stonehenge seems to have been dedicated to celestial worship, experts believe Avebury had more human themes. The site has strong sexual themes, with column-shaped and triangular stones paired together. When plotting Avebury alongside other sacred sites in the area on a map, the configuration seems to suggest the form of the Goddess. The nearby River Kennet, sacred to the Goddess too, fills the ditch surrounding SIlbury Hill each spring, which is probably not a coincidence.
Two prominent ley lines (Michael and Mary) that run from Bury St. Edmunds to Land’s End, kiss near the stones in the southern edge of the Avebury circle. The village is often cited as one of the most haunted places in England.
After walking around the stones, you can meander through the village of Avebury, taking in the quaint cottages and moss-covered walls. You can visit the Alexander Keiller Museum which houses artifacts found in the Avebury excavations, along with those from other nearby Neolithic sites like Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long Barrow. I think we were a bit museumed out at this point, because we didn’t visit. Or maybe we just really needed a drink.
We finished the day at the Red Lion pub, the only pub in the world located witin a stone circle (well, you would say that, if you owned the pub, wouldn’t you?) The pub is also haunted – we drank our beer next to the old well, where the proprietor allegedly disposed of his wife. And they do an amazing brownie pudding. So it’s a win on all counts.
Avebury on the official Stonehenge website. Visitor information and a quick and dirty FAQ.
Avebury on National Trust. A cool website that will tell you the times of the sunset over Avebury, what other sites are nearby, and here you can stay.
Avebury as a sacred site. A great resource for sacred sites around the world.
@AveburyNT. Yes, Avebury has a twitter feed.
Have you ever visited Avebury or another stone circle? What did you think?