I find it a little odd that Avebury is not as well known, nor as visited, as nearby Stonehenge. Personally I find it just as impressive and in some ways more atmospheric. Its stone circle is so large that over time people have built their houses around and among the megaliths; so that today it seems almost as if the somewhat unearthly stones are slowly encroaching on human space.
After taking you to its more famous neighbour for last week’s Monday Walk, I thought I would introduce you this week to another of Wiltshire’s many ancient sites. And as we stroll around the circle I’ll tell you a bit about its history and significance.
Avebury’s henge (circular bank and ditch) encloses the remaining stones of the largest stone circle in Britain, built during the Neolithic period (c. 2850 BC – 2200 BC). This aerial photo, from Wikipedia, shows clearly how the henge encircles the village:
There were originally over 100 stones in the main outer circle. Many have been lost, but about 30 still remain. The position of lost stones is today marked with smaller pyramid-topped concrete posts; these give an indication of what the complete circle would have looked like. The missing ones suffered various fates. They were used as building materials by the villagers; or broken down and buried, perhaps because they were in the way of village development.
Within that main circle were two inner ones; the north one with 27 stones (of which only four remain) and the south slightly larger with 29 stones (with five remaining).
This was clearly a significant site for the people of that period, and the surrounding landscape is dotted with others. There are avenues of stones leading to other sites; the man-made mound of Silbury Hill; burial mounds such as West Kennet Long Barrow, and more. Together with Stonehenge these form the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site.
The English Heritage website about Avebury concludes that:
The impression gained is of a landscape being shaped for rituals that involved inclusion, exclusion and procession.
If this is correct, then the various monuments may have been built as public ‘theatres’ for rites and ceremonies that gave physical expression to the community’s ideas of world order; the place of the people within that order; the relationship between the people and their gods; and the nature and transmission of authority, whether spiritual or political.
The length of time over which the Great Henge and its two avenues were built is so long that it suggests the community’s relationship with its environment may gradually have altered. Changing rituals may have been the driving force for the building of new monuments and for their eventual abandonment around 1800 BC.
There have been some at times rather bizarre alternative suggestions about the construction of Avebury, especially during Victorian times. These include the idea that both Avebury and Stonehenge were built by the Phoenicians (many Britons of that period believed these ancient seafarers first brought civilisation to our island). It has also been proposed that it was constructed to commemorate the final battle of King Arthur, and that his slain warriors were buried here. Another Victorian pseudo-historian argued that it was Native Americans from the Appalachian Mountains who once crossed the Atlantic Ocean to build the great megalithic monuments of southern Britain. All very fanciful, and none of them given any credence today.
Avebury is free to visit but parking is charged for, in a somewhat odd arrangement that sees the car park owned by the National Trust while the site itself is owned and managed by English Heritage. We stopped here on our way home from Wells a couple of years ago and only had time for a slow walk around most of the circle, taking photos as we went. In any case, the onsite museum was closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
My main aim on this visit was to capture in photographs the slight eeriness of the site, in which I hope I have succeeded. But in future I’d like to visit the museum and also make time for stops at some of the other related sites in the area, such as Silbury Hill.
I visited Avebury in 2020