Large stone in a field
England,  History,  Monday walks

A stroll around Avebury’s stone circle

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:

Aerial view of a village with earthworks and large stones
Attribution: Detmar Owen, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Line of large stones in a field
The outer stone circle; you can see the concrete posts marking the location of missing stones
Large stones in a field and tree
Part of the outer stone circle

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).

Line of large stones in a field
The outer stone circle
Two large stones in a field
The south inner circle

Significance

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.

Large stone in a field with sheep
The north inner stone circle
Large stones in a field
The north inner stone circle

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.

Large stone in a field and building beyond
The south inner circle
Misconceptions

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.

Bright yellow lichen on grey stone
Lichen on a stone

Visiting Avebury

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.

Large stone in a field with view of fields and a road
View from the circle

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

62 Comments

  • rkrontheroad

    My son and I visited Avebury years ago. It was so much more moving, in a way, than Stonehenge, since it was not preserved as a museum-like experience. We walking around find the stones and patterns, talking about what life must have been like when those stones were positioned, so different from today. Thanks for this memory.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re right, it’s no nearly so museum-like as Stonehenge. I love that you can get close to the stones to properly appreciate their size and shapes 🙂

  • Annie Berger

    Likewise, I had never heard of the Avebury stones so I was intrigued to read about them from your perspective. Loved the photo of the area from the one stone as it gave a great perspective.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      No, but I read a story as a child about stones that moved in the night to gradually close in on a house. I was so scared I couldn’t finish it!

      • giacomoasinello

        You can see it on Youtube. Your post inspired me to take another look yesterday evening. Great stuff. Apparently it has been described as a milestone in children’s TV. I remember we were staying in a caravan park in Tenby in Wales in the late 70s and my sister and I refused to go to the beach because we wanted to stay in the caravan to watch the final episode. And we loved the beach!

  • Tanja

    Great post. I have visited Stonehenge but not Avebury. It definitely looks like an interesting site.we visited a prehistoric megalitic site in Malta and it was awe inspiring

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Tanja 🙂 There is definitely something awesome about these huge ancient stones, you can really feel some sort of aura of the past when you get close to them. That’s one of the big plusses of Avebury over Stonehenge, as you can’t get very close there whereas here you can even touch them.

  • wetanddustyroads

    I have never heard of Avebury stone circle before … and those are surely no small stones! It’s a shame that some were lost, but it’s still an intriguing place. Thanks for taking the time to introduce (and explain) this interesting place.

  • rosalieann37

    Thank you for the photos – when I visited I was only able to see the stones from afar. Maybe Stonehenge is more popular because the stones are bigger.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Glad you enjoyed this closer look Rosalie. You could be right about Stonehenge but I suspect it’s more to do with the fact that it’s more compact and more complete, so it’s easier on a visit there to understand what it once looked like.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Aha, you’ve just proved my point 😆 Avebury is as fascinating as Stonehenge and has the bonus that you can walk right up to the stones and touch them, yet fewer people have heard of it and far fewer people visit!

  • Beat Hiltbrunner

    Thank you for the pictures and comments about the origins of these rocks. I remember, 50 years ago it was fancied that extraterrestrials might have built these sites. These ideas seem to have been abandoned. Who knows if they won’t crop up again, given the current interest in UFOs.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I guess there will always be people with rather out-there theories, especially about places this ancient, where we can never be 100% certain about their origin and use. But I think the UFO idea has been pretty thoroughly debunked!

  • Anonymous

    Much prefer Avebury to Stonehenge these days. The “packaging” of Stonehenge has destroyed the mystery that Avebury still holds.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I know what you mean Leyle, although at least they had the sense to keep the Stonehenge visitor centre, car park etc at some distance from the stones themselves!

  • XingfuMama

    We visited Avebury many years ago (25 or so) and I remember wondering at the time why Stonehenge got so much more fame. Avebury is so much larger, and wandering around you really got a sense of how much planning and effort went into its construction. Very inspiring, like a precursor to the great cathedrals.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It is curious why this isn’t as famous as Stonehenge – perhaps because the circles are less complete and it’s a little harder to imagine how it once looked? You make a great point about the connection to our great cathedrals 🙂

  • Heyjude

    There is something immensely attractive about stone circles and I agree with you that Avebury is probably better than Stonehenge, in that you can wander at will. it has been many years since I last visited, but I did write a post about it on my travel blog which you may like, even managed a photo of the magical Silbury hill. I like to think that the large granite stones in my garden have come from the iron age hillfort that once stood at the top of ‘my’ hill.
    https://traveltalk.me.uk/2014/03/01/ancient/

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I had look at that post Jude, but couldn’t comment there as it’s an old one. You have some great photos of Avebury (love the rainbow shot!) and Silbury looks magical. It’s a remarkable sight, I agree, and the whole of the Wiltshire countryside is dotted with smaller burial mounds and other reminders of the past 🙂

  • salsaworldtraveler

    Thanks for introducing this site to me and explaining its history and relationship to Stonehenge in an understandable way. Whatever ceremonies were carried out here would have been amazing to see.

  • Sue

    Ah, Avebury…yes more of a connection to the paste than Stonehenge, and more original. I have always found stone circles fascinating, but rarely seen them in good light, alas.

  • restlessjo

    That darned Covid got you in the end? We might as well have exchanged germs. Hope you’re feeling better now. It certainly seems to be romping its way around the community here. I really like the look of Avebury. The weathered stones look so much more characterful than Stonehenge. My lovely friend, Sue, shared some beautiful posts about them.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, it got me! Maybe it would have been better to have had it sooner via you, as we wouldn’t have had to postpone our Sofia trip (and I still reckon we would have been OK anyway!) I’m better now thanks, just a niggling cough – and to be honest it was never much more than a cough, thankfully 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed this look at Avebury, and I’m sure you’d also enjoy a visit if you ever get a chance. Is that one of the Sues I know and follow? I’d be interested in a link to those posts.

  • maristravels

    Haven’t visited WP for a few weeks now due to holiday (hurrah)! and my eye problems which are not improving, but nice to catch up with your blogs. I’ve never been to Avebury but you maske it sound the sort of place I should visit should the opportunity ever come about. You give a very informative overview and your images, as always, compliment the prose so well. Such delightful English countryside was a welcome addition. I’ll catch up later but hope you are keeping well.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Mari and good to hear from you. I’m sorry your eyes are no better – I appreciate you taking the trouble to visit and comment especially under those circumstances 🤗 I’m glad you enjoyed this piece and yes, I do think you would enjoy Avebury if you get the chance to visit.

      And thanks for asking after me – I AM well but have just emerged from my first encounter with Covid. Thankfully not too unpleasant (just a nasty cough) but badly timed as we had to cancel a weekend away. Luckily we’ve been able to reschedule for later in the year so no real harm done.

  • leightontravels

    I had only heard of Avebury by name, so really enjoyed this informative overview complimented by your excellent images. Fascinating formations set in such lovely English countryside. And what a lovely view to have from your village cottage. I think the pyramid-topped concrete posts are a tasteful way to show the locations of those former stones.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Leighton, I’m glad you enjoyed this introduction to Avebury 🙂 I agree about the concrete posts – they give a clear indication of the original stones’ locations without intruding too much on the overall scene.

  • susurrus

    I really enjoyed this post. I’ve visited both Avebury and Stonehenge and much preferred Avebury, as you did. It has a gentler atmosphere.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Yes there’s several of these other, lesser known ancient sites dotted around Britain, aren’t there, and they’re always fascinating and, as you say, just a bit eerie. Von Daniken would have us believe that aliens from outer space placed them here solely to confound us.

  • Pat

    I visited a few times with students and also wondered why it isn’t more widely known. I also enjoyed the village of Avebury and suspect that the people who live there would appreciate it if more people didn’t come.

  • Yvonne+Dumsday

    Tour aims were achieved Sarah and, hoping that you do mange to return, I look forward to reading more about this site.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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