Avebury is a small village in the rolling Marlborough Downs of north-east Wiltshire, England. However, its main feature is not, as in many villages, the pub, but rather an excellent example of a Neolithic stone monument. Strangely it is less well-known than similar sites, despite the fact that it is the largest stone circle in Europe and is about 4,500 years old - 14 times larger and 500 years older than Stonehenge. Perhaps the best feature of the site is the fact that visitors can actually touch the stones and walk freely around the site at all hours of the day and all year round. Admission to the stone circles is free.
Avebury is the centre of a series of prehistoric monuments found in its vicinity which have collectively been classified as one of Britain's 14 World Heritage Sites. It lies 24 miles North of Stonehenge and is easily accessible by road from the region's main towns. Today it is managed by the National Trust on behalf of UNESCO and covers an area of 11.5 hectares (28 acres).
Most aspects of Avebury's past have proved very mysterious. Today the process of discovering Avebury's purpose is continuing, although it is unlikely that it will ever reveal all its secrets. It is known that Avebury was of extreme importance as a gathering place. Archaeological evidence suggests that it was an uninhabited area, as very little ancient rubbish has been found. The site would rather have been used solely for rituals and possibly as a temple. The seasons and fertility were probably the main focus of ceremonies practised.
4,500 years ago when the construction of Avebury began, the original builders would not have had in mind a complete picture of the site we can see today. A long process of evolution has meant that the site has been periodically modified to suit the specific needs of the generations.
The henge1 was started in about 3000 BC, using basic tools made from antlers and bones. The ditch is 9m (30ft) deep and 4m (13ft) high. In order to achieve this sizeable feat, 100,000 cubic metres (4 million cubic feet) of chalk had to be moved - this involved many thousands of man-hours.
The megaliths themselves were an addition made 500 years after the completion of the henge. The stones are made of a type of tough sandstone known as 'sarsen'. At the time this was naturally occurring all over the landscape to the south and east of Avebury. The name sarsen is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words sar meaning 'troublesome' and stan meaning 'stone'.
These massive stones, which each weigh between 10-60 tons, were dragged to the site using wooden sledges by men, teams of oxen and horses. The heavy stones would have then been hoisted upright into pre-dug holes with wooden levers and ropes. This would have been a painstakingly slow process, as any mistakes could have resulted in tragedy. In order to keep the stones steady, chalk was packed around the base of the stones and compacted down. Considering that this entire process was conducted using simple tools, it is conceivable that it may have taken up to a year to erect one of the larger stones.
The sarsens were not shaped by the builders but were chosen for their natural forms. The shapes of the stones were significant and fall into two distinct categories: male and female. The tall, rectangular shaped stones are thought to represent the male while the diamond shaped stones represent the female presence. Fertility was a property that is thought to be connected to the rings of stones, as this is true of other Neolithic sites.
The size was also very important, with the larger stones being used for the most important features, such as gateways and focal points. When worshippers walked through these imposing stones, they would probably have felt very humble, which might have been the intended effect. It is possible that some of the stones' positions marked important positions of the Sun and Moon which were significant elements of worship at the time. The stones have a rough and smooth side with the 'better' smooth side always faced inwards. So possibly even the aspect of the sarsens was integral. However, if every feature of the stones did originally have a subtle meaning, it can only be vaguely surmised as there are no records of the activities that took place.
Avebury was finally finished in the Early Bronze Age. At completion, there would have been a total of 600 stones in the stone circles, avenues and sanctuary. When Avebury was in its heyday it would have stood out for miles as a brilliant, gleaming white mound, whereas today grass has invaded the chalky soil and now covers the site. The amount of labour that was put into the site over generations shows how important it was for its people. These people died out along with their rituals and the true purpose for the monument was lost forever.
For over a thousand years the Avebury earthwork lay forgotten and fell into disrepair. During the time of the Roman occupation of Britain2 the circles were virtually complete but were extremely overgrown. It was during the 6th Century AD that the Saxons began to build their homes inside the circle. They called it Weala-dic meaning 'Ditch of the Britons' and in the 10th Century they built a church just outside the Pagan temple. Finally, in the 13th Century the Christian church, having established itself, decided that the Pagan symbols on their doorstep were no longer tolerable and decreed that every single stone of the monument had to be torn down and destroyed. However, the people of Avebury did not actually destroy the stones, but rather buried them, which ironically saved the monument until they could be excavated.
The removal and toppling of the stones eventually ended after a tragic accident took place. A barber-surgeon was helping to topple a stone when he slipped at the exact moment that the stone fell. He was fatally trapped under the stone. He lay for 600 years in the grave he helped to make. In modern times the stone was lifted and his body was discovered along with various implements which identified him as a barber. Today the stone has been restored to its former place and has been named the Barber's Stone, standing in the southwest circle.
During the second half of the 17th Century the clearance of the area began, so that the land could be cultivated. It was at this stage that some of the sarsens were physically destroyed, by being broken into pieces. A special technique had to be devised because sarsen stone is extremely hard which makes it difficult to break. The stones were repeatedly heated in the blacksmith's scorching fire and then rapidly cooled by dousing them with ice-cold water. This process weakened their structure, causing large fissures to form, which allowed the blacksmith to then prise them apart. Once they had been split into several smaller blocks, they were used in local construction work. Today, evidence of these sarsen stone blocks can be seen in the village houses and dry stone walls.
John Aubrey is the first historian credited with recognising Avebury's true importance. As with many discoveries that have happened purely by chance, this occurred while Aubrey was fox-hunting in 1649. Avebury made an immediate and lasting impact on him as he describes:
Avebury doth as much excel Stonehenge as a Cathedral doth a parish church.
This description was impressive enough to attract King Charles II to visit Avebury in 1663. Today, thousands of visitors come to the Avebury stone circles every year.
There are very few records of Avebury from earlier periods in history and William Stukeley's eyewitness accounts have been among the most valuable. During the early 18th Century, William Stukeley described and illustrated Avebury as he saw it. Luckily he was there to witness the destruction of the site, as his records have been a major source in the earthworks reconstruction. He also had a theory that the site was the work of Druids although we now know it is much older.
After years of destruction, farm rubbish and derelict buildings had made the monument barely recognisable as anything but a pile of rocks under a mound of vegetation. A wealthy marmalade businessman, Alexander Keiller, bought the site and decided to buy the entire village too during the early 20th Century. He realised the historical value of the site and intended to fully restore it to its original state. Unfortunately his plan included demolishing the entire village which, not surprisingly, disgruntled the local people and eventually demolition was halted after two-thirds of the village had been destroyed. Before his death, Keiller sold Avebury to the National Trust for £12,000 which was not a hefty sum considering that he had spent £50,000 on its restoration (equivalent to £2 million today).
What to Look for at Avebury
Unfortunately, not all the original stones have been excavated and many have been completely destroyed. This means that there are several gaps in the circumference of the stone circles. The positions of these missing stones are shown with concrete markers. An interesting feature to look for is that some of the stones bear a resemblance to human heads, although fairly abstract and rock-like.
The Blacksmith's Stone
Fragments of a stone were found in a forge and restored using glue and bolts to hold the separate pieces together. The rather unusually-restored stone was placed back in its original position where it stands today. The blacksmith's iron wedge is still stuck in a crack near the base where he tried to split the stone.
Devil's chair forms part of Avebury's southern gateway. This vast stone has a natural seat on one side that gives the stone its name and is extremely popular with tourists as a photo opportunity. Above it is a gulley known as a 'chimney', which is said to smoke at different times. Another popular story is that the Devil can be summoned by running around the stone a hundred times anti-clockwise. These stories may have arisen in order to deter Christians from visiting the Pagan site.
West Kennet Avenue
Pairs of sarsens used to stretch for 2.5km (1.15 miles) from Avebury to the Sanctuary on Overton Hill. This was likely to have been a processional walkway to and from the circle used during festival times. Visitors can still wander along the avenue, where archaeologists have discovered that the stones are arranged in pairs of male and female stones. The avenue contained approximately 100 stones, although today there are gaps where stones are either missing or undiscovered.
The Obelisk was a massive stone about seven feet tall and it may have been used as a type of sundial, casting shadows that indicated the most important festival dates. William Stukeley chronicled the toppling and destruction of the Obelisk during the early 18th Century. Without his eyewitness account and sketches, it would have been impossible to recognise that the Obelisk ever existed. Today there is a large concrete marker where the Obelisk stood. Surrounding the Obelisk stood several smaller sarsens known as 'Z' stones. The meaning of these stones remains a mystery although they may have formed part of the Neolithic 'sundial'.
Today two large stones stand at right angles to each other, although there used to be three in a U-shape. The stones face north-east and may have been aligned to the most northerly moon rise. The Cove is the opposite of the Obelisk and is the main female symbol. The Cove is surrounded by a smaller circle of stones similar to the 'Z' stones around the Obelisk. The two remaining Cove stones are the only stones at Avebury that are fenced off. This is due to continuing structural reinforcement intended to stabile the stones which are set much deeper underground than previously thought. Recent archaeological studies have suggested that the larger Cove stone may weigh nearly 100 tons.
The Diamond/Swindon Stone
The Diamond Stone stands on one of its corners and hangs partially over the road. It is one of the Northern gateway stones. There is a local story that the stone crosses this road at midnight in its search for its missing partner. Another tale says that the stone rotates 360° at midnight. The Diamond Stone is one of the few stones that has remained standing in its original position.
Other Nearby Ancient Sites
Avebury is the focus for a number of similarly mysterious sites in the surrounding area.
The Sanctuary was an important part of the activities centred at Avebury, as it is directly connected to the stone circles via an avenue of stones. The Sanctuary is approximately a mile from Avebury and consisted of concentric circles of timber posts and stones. Unfortunately these were destroyed around 1725 AD and today their positions are shown with concrete markers. Although this gives a rough idea of the site's layout, it is a poor representation of the visual impact the Sanctuary would have created. It is thought to have been connected to burial rituals possibly being the place where a body was taken to decompose. The bones may then have been taken to Avebury as part of a ceremony.
Silbury Hill is Europe's largest artificial prehistoric hill. It is situated less than a mile to the south of Avebury and at 130ft high is an imposing structure on the horizon. The hill consists of several barrel shaped layers on top of each other that graduate proportionately to achieve a symmetrical conical hill. It is an amazing testament to the ancient Britons' understanding of structural engineering and earthwork construction.
West Kennet Long Barrow
West Kennet Long Barrow is one of the longest burial mounds in Britain and is found 1.5 miles South of Avebury. Its entrance is sealed with sarsen stones. Its contents include detailed stone carvings of a human head and a sheep's head.
The area around Avebury has become host to the phenomenon of crop circles. Whether this is due to lines of earth energy that Avebury was built to harness, or by alien-impersonating students, crop circles continue to occur in neighbouring fields. It is believed in some circles that a strange force exists around the site. It has been theorised that the Earth's iron core helps to create this. As the Earth rotates, the spinning iron core produces a magnetic field. People who believe in the 'force' at Avebury think that more of this energy is focused at the site. Some people have experienced the failure of electronic instruments near the stones although it has not been proved scientifically. Strangely, certain people, often seen bearing pendulums and/or wires, seem to be inexplicably drawn to the stones, and are possibly trying to 'absorb' the power of the stones.
Avebury is a site that has inspired visitors for centuries. It has amazed royalty and puzzled scientists and archaeologists alike. It is a legacy of a culture and people that have been lost and is a testament to human ingenuity. A visit to this majestic site is likely to leave the visitor wanting to return again as it is not easily forgotten.