Avebury is a small village located about six miles west of Marlborough on the Wiltshire Downs. The stone circle at Avebury, which is nearly 3/4 of a mile in diameter making it the largest of Britain's stone cirlces, dates from the Mid-Neolithic (2500 - 2000 BC). It is unique, not only for its size, but also as being the only stone circle in Britain to have a village in the centre of it. The Avebury complex is one of the largest ritual landscapes in Britain and there are many ideas and theories behind its use in the past. Many of the stones were broken up in the Medieval period to try and ward off the ghosts and memories of the pagan peoples that used to worship there. Because of their zeal, very little of the original monument still stands, but recent concrete additions help to give some feeling for the original layout. For a similar monument as far as scale and layout are concerned, visit the much better preserved Stanton Drew, Britain's second largest henge.
Avebury is made up of three stone circles. The outer circle is largest, having a diameter of approximately 421 metres. This is the circle in which the village of Avebury lies, as well as the two smaller circles, both of which are about 100 metres in diameter. The outer circle is surrounded by a ditch and then a bank, making Avebury a henge monument. The circumference of these earth works is almost a mile, making it the largest henge in Europe.
The outer circle consisted of some 100 sarsen stones, of which only 27 still remain. These stones, unlike those of Stonehenge, were unworked in appearance and so looked more natural within the landscape. There are four entry points into the outer circle, each of these corresponding to the four points of the compass. There are not however, thought to be any other astrological alignments as Avebury does not appear to line up with any solstice sunrises or sunsets.
The two inner circles are known as the North and the South circle, and it is thought that they are meant to represent femininity and masculinity respectively. The North circle would have comprised of 27 stones altogether, but now only 2 remain. In the centre stands a cove, or 'U' shaped feature of three stones and this is thought to have some relation to the Summer Solstice. There is also some evidence that there were several concentric rings to the circle, but these have also been robbed over time for building materials.
The South Circle was originally made up of 29 stones, and of these only 5 now survive in situ. In the centre of this smaller circle stood a huge obelisk, thought to be connected with male fertility, but this was pulled down in 1725. Maypole dances continued on the site well into the 19th Century and now a much smaller concrete post stands rather forlornly in its stead.
There are two avenues at Avebury, both leading off to other important sites. The West Kennet avenue leaves the henge at the southern entrance and then heads off in a south-easterly direction, terminating at the now destroyed Sanctuary site on Overton Hill. Although only 27 stones still remain, the avenue would originally have comprised of some 200 hundred stones, laid out in pairs.
Beckhampton Avenue exits the henge at the west entrance and stretches off into the south-west towards the Beckhampton long barrow. Of this avenue very little remains, the only stones still visible are about 3/4 of a mile from Avebury itself. Here there are two stones, now known as the Longstones or Adam and Eve. 'Adam' would have formed part of another cove and 'Eve' was originally one of the avenue markers.
Most of the evidence for the avenues is drawn from the writings of William Stukely, a rather eccentric early historian who made many sketches of the site before its partial destruction by the townspeople in the 18th century. He believed the two avenues formed a 'snake' with Avebury at its centre.
The village was founded at some point within the Dark Ages by the Saxons, their leader thought to be called Ava from whom the village takes it's name.
The town of Avebury has evolved over time, the only remnant of the Saxon village now being found next to the parish church. During the Early Medieval period, plague decimated the village leaving most of the houses deserted, but it was recolonised in the mid seventeenth century, after the sites discovery by John Aubrey, who attributed it to the ancient druids. During this second period of recolonisation, many of the stones that had used to form the sarsen circles went missing, but if you walk round the village today you can note the particularly fine sarsen masonry that makes up the fabric of most of the Medieval houses...
It was only in the nineteenth century that the stone circle became protected and the villagers stopped pillaging it for building materials. Avebury is now owned by The National Trust and is one of only 14 World Heritage Sites in the country.
Legends and Stories
One of the main reasons that the pillaging of the Avebury stones ceased was not because of legislation, but because of an event involving what is now known as the Barber Stone. The villagers, whipped up into a frenzy by local ministers, went out to the stone circle intent on destroying it and the pagan beliefs that had put it in place. Avebury's barber-surgeon was attempting to pull down one of the stones, but got trapped underneath and was crushed to death. The skeleton now resides in the British Museum, after its discovery by the great Avebury archaeologist Alexander Keiller in the 1930's. It shows no signs of having been crushed, and it is thought that while burying the stone, the barber got trapped underneath and suffocated.
Another story involves a stone known as the Devil's Stone. If this particular stone is run around 100 times, then the devil will be summoned, but if run around counter-clockwise.
Other Related Sites
Within the village of Avebury are two important sites that should be visited. The first is the Alexander Keiller Museum, a collection of the prehistoric artefacts discovered during the 1930's archaeological investigations of the stones (which restored many of those 'lost' or buried to their original places). Alexander Keiller lived in the nearby Avebury Manor until his death and made his fortune from the infamous (!) Keiller marmalade that you can purchase in the National Trust shop.
Also worth a visit and new this year is the Barn exhibition. This is an interactive journey through Avebury's past with CAD images and walkthroughs in an attempt to bring people closer to touching their past and visualising Avebury as it once stood. It is sited in a 17th century Barn that also contains the Tourist Information Centre and Museum of Wiltshire Rural Life. For non-English Heritage members the Barn costs £4, including a trip round the Alexander Keiller Museum mentioned above.
Less locally on the Wiltshire Downs are many other prehistoric sites, the light calcerous soils and moderate climate making an excellent settlement area for the early farmers of the Neolithic. Avebury is just one small part of a ritual landscape that spreads across the downs, encompassing many important sites. Nearby can be found:
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for more information and photographs of Avebury village.
for a plan of Stukely's great stone serpent.