Twenty-five miles north of Stonehenge lies the Neolithic stone circle of Avebury. It is older and much bigger than its more famous cousin (it is in fact the largest stone circle in the world), and is part of a much larger ritual complex that includes the Long Barrows and Silbury Hill. Yet today, Avebury Circle is forgotten and unknown to most people.
During the period of time known as the Neolithic, about 5,000 years ago, the practice of agriculture, which had begin in the Tigris/Euphrates Valley in the Middle East, had spread to Europe, and most European peoples gave up their nomadic hunter/gather lifestyles and settled into permanent agricultural villages. This led for the first time to the construction of permanent ritual structures, and chief among these were the stone circles. Called “henges”, these were made by placing large stones (called “megaliths”) into circles or ovals, ranging from just 30 yards to over 400 yards in diameter. The peak period of stone circle building seems to have been at around 2800 BCE, during the Late Neolithic Period, and continued on into the Early Bronze Age at around 2200 BCE. By 1500 BCE, the tradition of megalith-building had died out. Most of these “stone henges” were located in the British Isles and in nearby Brittany in modern France. Although Stonehenge in Salisbury is the best-studied and most famous, there are actually over 1300 stone circles known in Europe, with some occurring as far away as Poland and Israel. Some of the best-preserved examples of megalithic stone rings in England are The Hurlers and The Merry Maidens in Cornwall, Long Meg and Her Daughters and the Swinside in Cumbria, The Nine Ladies and Doll Tor in Derbyshire, Stanton Drew in Somerset, the Rollright Stones in Warwickshire, and Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire. In Scotland, there are stone circles at Aberdeenshire, Orkney, Galloway, and the Island of Lewis; in Wales stone circles are found at Denbighshire Gwynedd, and Anglesey; and in Ireland they are found at Drombegg, Carrigagulla, Ardgroom, and Glantane. In Brittany, the best-known stone circle is at Carnac, which is older than any of the circles in the British Isles. In some places, postholes and other remains have been found where circles were constructed of large tree trunks instead of stone. These are called “wood henges”–some of the wood henge sites are older than the stone henges, and some locations, like Stonehenge, had both stone circles and wood circles. Of all the stone henges in Europe, though, the largest and most complex is at Avebury, not far from the Salisbury Stonehenge. Construction here began at around 2800 BCE. The largest feature is the outer ditch. It is constructed in the same manner as the early defensive hilltop fortresses of the time, with a deep ditch dug into the chalk, in the form of a circle about 400 yards across and over a mile around. Alongside the ditch, a chalk and dirt bank was piled up, and, probably, a palisade fence ran across the top of the bank. Originally, the ditch would have been about 30 feet deep and 60 feet wide, with the bank adding an additional 25 feet. This ditch and bank enclosed an area of about 28.5 acres, with four entrance points left open. But unlike the hilltop forts, which faced outwards, the ditch and bank barriers at Avebury face inwards, meaning their purpose was ritual, not defensive. They were not intended to keep things out, but to (at least symbolically) keep things in. At some point, large megaliths began to be dragged in from the nearby Marlborough Downs, the same place from which the large “Sarsen” stones for Stonehenge were quarried. Over a period of centuries, these were arranged into three stone circles. (The exact timing of the construction is a matter of dispute–some archaeologists argue that the inner stone circles were built first, and the outer stone circle and bank/ditch were added later. Others argue that the ditch and bank was first, and the stone circles added later.) The large outer circle of stones is located just inside the ditch, and originally contained about one hundred stones. Inside are two smaller circles located next to each other, one centered around a large stone known as The Obelisk, 20 feet tall, and the other centered on a small rectangle of stones known as The Cove. Most of these are now gone. In all, Avebury originally contained over 500 megaliths, each averaging over 40 tons, and each dragged from the surrounding hills and placed upright into a pit. But, impressive as it is all by itself, the Avebury henge was just a part of a much larger ritual complex. From the entrances to Avebury, avenues made of dirt and rock causeways flanked by large stones ran out in several directions to a number of nearby points. One of these goes to The Sanctuary, a stone circle, itself bigger than Stonehenge, about a mile and a half away. Other avenues may have run to the Long Barrows, large nearby funeral hills that pre-dated Avebury, and to Silbury Hill, a large man-made hill that was built around the same time as Avebury. At about 1500 BCE, as the Iron Age was beginning in Britain, Avebury and the other stone henges were abandoned, and their history was forgotten. When the Romans conquered “Britannia” in the 1st Century CE, they mistakenly attributed Avebury and Stonehenge to the local Druids, and built a road running from Londinium to the site, which is now the modern A4 roadway which runs right through the stone circle. By the 10th century CE, a small medieval village and church had been built inside the Avebury circle. The village remains today, populated by about 500 people. Most of the village buildings were constructed using stones from the monument, which were heated in a bonfire and then had cold water poured on them to crack pieces off. In this manner much of the original monument was destroyed. In the 14th century, when Church officials considered the pagan site to be the work of the Devil, many of the remaining stones were deliberately buried. During one of these operations, one large stone fell onto a medieval villager and killed him. The body was left under the stone, where it was later excavated and revealed a lancet, a pair of scissors and three silver coins. It is now known as “The Barber’s Stone”. The practice of using pieces of the Avebury stones in construction continued into the 1700’s–at that time, the entire Obelisk stone was broken apart and used to build village houses. The first study at Avebury was in 1663, when historical writer John Aubrey visited the site and made a number of detailed maps and sketches, recording the positions of many stones that would later be destroyed. In 1719, another British writer, William Stukeley, also made a number of maps and sketches, and it was largely through his efforts that the destruction of the stones was finally ceased. But it wasn’t until the 1930’s that the first serious effort was made to study and preserve the henge stones. Archaeologist Alexander Keiller excavated a number of trenches (he was the one who discovered the body of the medieval Barber), and made an attempt to reconstruct some of the monument by re-erecting some of the stones that had fallen or been buried, and placed cement markers at the spots where stones were known to be missing. Some of Keiller’s discoveries are now displayed in a small museum at the site. Today, the Avebury stone circle is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is preserved by the British National Trust. Though not as famous or well-known as Stonehenge, Avebury still attracts a large number of visitors each year, and is the site of many modern-day pagan and druid gatherings. The ditch and bank. Some of the inner stones. Cement markers where stones are missing. Silbury Hill, an artificial mound near Avebury.