- This article is about the Avebury prehistoric site; for an article on the modern village and civil parish containing it, see Avebury, Wiltshire.
Some of the megaliths at Avebury (1993)
Avebury is the site of an enormous henge and stone circles in the English county of Wiltshire, surrounding a village of the same name. It is one of the finest and largest Neolithic monuments in Europe dating to around 5000 years ago. It is older than the megalithic stages of Stonehenge, which is located about 20 miles to the south, although the two monuments are broadly contemporary overall.
Most of the surviving structure consists of earthworks, known as the dykes. A massive ditch and external bank henge 421 m in diameter and 1.35 km in circumference encloses an area of 115,000 square metres (28.5 acres). The only known comparable sites of similar date (Stonehenge and Flagstones in Dorset) are only a quarter of the size of Avebury. The ditch alone was 21 m wide and 11m deep with its primary fill carbon dated to between 3400 and 2625 cal BC. A later date in this period is more likely although excavation of the bank has demonstrated that it was enlarged at one stage in its lifetime, presumably using material excavated from the ditch. The fill at the bottom of the final ditch would therefore postdate any in an earlier, shallower ditch which would have been destroyed.
Within the henge is a great Outer Circle constituting prehistory's largest stone circle with a diameter of 335 m (1100 ft). It was contemporary with or built around four or five centuries after the earthworks. There were originally 98 sarsen standing stones some weighing in excess of 40 tons. They varied in height from 3.6 to 4.2 m for the examples at the north and south entrances. Carbon dates from the fills of the stoneholes are 2800 - 2400 cal BC.
Nearer the middle of the monument are two other, separate stone circles. The Northern inner ring measures 98 m in diameter although only of two of its standing stones remain with two further, fallen ones. A cove of three stones stood in the middle, its entrance pointing north east.
The Southern inner ring was 108 m in diameter. Almost all of it has been destroyed with sections of its arc now beneath the village buildings. A single large monolith, 5.5 m high, stood in the centre along with an alignment of smaller stones until they were destroyed in the eighteenth century.
There is an avenue of paired stones, the West Kennet Avenue leading from the south eastern entrance of the henge and traces of a second, the Beckhampton Avenue lead out from the western one.
Aubrey Burl conjectures a sequence of construction beginning with the North and South Circles being erected c. 2800 BC, followed by the Outer Circle and henge around two hundred years later and the two avenues being added c. 2400 BC.
A timber circle, of two concentric rings, identified through geophysical survey may also have stood in the north east of the outer circle although this has yet to be tested by excavation. A ploughed-out barrow is also visible from the air in the north western quadrant.
The henge had four entrances, two opposing ones on a north north west- south south east line and two on an east north east- west south west line.
Destruction of the stones
Many of the original stones were destroyed from the 16th century onwards to provide local building materials and make room for agriculture. Both John Aubrey and later, William Stukeley visited the site and described the destruction. Stukeley spent much of the 1720s recording what remained of Avebury and the surrounding monuments. Without his work we would have a much poorer idea of how the site looked and especially little information on the inner rings.
Only 27 stones of the Outer Circle survive and many of these are examples re-erected by Alexander Keiller in the 1930s. Since the early Middle Ages, people who considered them to be "pagan" attempted to bury or move them. This is famously personified by the story of the Barber surgeon of Avebury.
The former locations of the missing stones are now marked by concrete pylons and it is likely that more stones are buried on the site.
Excavation at Avebury itself has been limited. A trench was put through the bank by Sir Henry Meux in 1894 which gave the first indication that the earthwork was built in two phases.
The site was surveyed and excavated intermittently between 1908 and 1922 by a team of workmen under Harold St George Gray . He was able to demonstrate that the Avebury builders had dug down 11 m into the natural chalk in excavating the henge ditch, producing an outer bank 9 m high around the whole perimeter of the henge and using red deer antler as their primary digging tool. Grey recorded the base of the ditch as being flat and 4 m wide although some later archaeologists have questioned his use of untrained labour to excavate the ditch and suggested that its form may have been different. Gray found few artefacts in the ditch fill but did recover scattered human bones, jawbones being particularly well represented. At a depth of about 2 m, Gray encountered a complete skeleton of a woman only 1.5 m tall who had been buried there.
Keiller excavated beneath the stones he righted and dug further during the programme of beautification he forced onto the villagers after buying the site in 1934. When a new village school was built in 1969 there was also limited further opportunity to examine the site and an excavation to produce carbon dating material and environmental data was undertaken in 1982.
Theories about Avebury
A great deal of interest has surrounded the stones at the monument which with are often described as being in one of two categories; either being tall and slender or short and squat. This has led to numerous theories relating to the importance of gender in Neolithic Britain with the taller stones being considered 'male' and the shorter ones 'female'. The stones were not dressed in any way and may have been chosen for their pleasing natural forms. Numerous people have identified what they claim are carvings on the stones' surfaces, some carvings being more persuasive than others.
The human bones found by Gray point to some form of funerary purpose and have parallels in the disarticulated human bone often found at earlier causewayed enclosure sites. Ancestor worship, although on a huge scale, could have been one of the purposes of the monument and would not be mutually exclusive with any male/female ritual role.
Being a henge and stone circle site, astronomical alignments are a common theory to explain the positioning of the stones at Avebury. Similarly, less well evidenced theories relating to aliens, ley lines, crop circles and the lost wisdom of the ancients have been suggested.
As with Stonehenge, the lack of modern excavation work and reliable scientific dating make studying and explaining the monument difficult.
The Avebury Triangle
Avebury Henge and Village (2002)
The small village of Avebury, complete with public house, is enclosed within the monument. Two local roads intersect within the monument, and visitors can walk on the earthworks.
The two stone avenues (Kennet Avenue and Beckhampton Avenue) that meet at Avebury define two sides of triangle that is designated a World Heritage site and which includes The Sanctuary, Windmill Hill, Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long Barrow.
Film and television
The area was used to chilling effect in The Children of the Stones (1976), a British television drama produced for children.