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Avebury: Wiltshire's "Other" Stone Circle

by Moira Allen

When in Wiltshire, one should most certainly visit Stonehenge, which is undoubtedly the world's most famous stone circle. But one should also make time to visit Wiltshire's "other" stone circle, Avebury -- which holds the distinction of being the largest in the world.

Avebury is believed to have been constructed between approximately 2600 and 2500 BC, though some estimates date the Cove stones of the inner northern circle to as early as 3000 BC. The site actually consists of several circles within circles. The outermost ring is a massive earthwork: A grassy, 20-foot bank of chalk a mile in circumference and 427 meters in diameter. Within this bank lies a ditch, with four entrances (north, south, east, and west). Within this ditch stands the first, and largest, ring of stones, which encloses an area of nearly 28 acres. Once, this ring consisted of 98 sarsen stones; today, only 27 remain standing. It, in turn, encloses two smaller circles. The northern inner ring measures 320 feet in diameter, with only four of its original 27 stones still standing; the southern ring measures 340 feet in diameter, and retains five of its original 29 stones.

Avebury

The Cove Stones

By most accounts, these two inner rings are the oldest part of the monument, and the oldest portion of all may be the huge Cove stones, which once stood in the center of the northern circle. Originally there were three; today only two remain, flanking the modern path that winds to the top of the embankment. The sarsen stones, like those of Stonehenge, were brought from Marlborough Downs, some two miles away -- no small achievement, given that some weighed as much as 40 tons! The stones were then raised into position and often set as deeply as two feet into the chalk soil. Excavations of the surrounding ditch show that its creation involved digging away nearly 200,000 tons of rock, using stone tools and antler picks. There are indications that this ditch may have originally been filled with water, so that the stones would have appeared to have been standing upon an island or within a moat.

The village of Avebury itself, which now stands partly within and amongst the stone circles, did not come into existence until nearly 3000 years after the stones themselves were erected. There is no mention of a village at this location in the Domesday Book, though the church and earthwork are mentioned by the name of Aureburie. The village is mentioned as Aveberia in 1180, and Abury in 1386; the name "Avebury" first appears in 1689, but even today, many still pronounce the name "A'bury." This was also the name used by antiquarian William Stukeley, who wrote about the site in 1722 in his book titled Abury - a Temple of the British Druids.

Dr. Stukeley spent 30 years visiting, recording, measuring, drawing and chronicling the great stones of Avebury and the surrounding landscape. He believed that the central rings represented a serpent within a circle, whose head and tail were represented by two avenues of sarsen stones extending more than a mile into the countryside. In the process, he was a sad witness to the continued destruction of the great circle.

Avebury

Stukeley's Proposed Layout of the Avebury "Temple"

This destruction began in the 14th century, when local Christians sought to eradicate such monuments to pagan worship. During that period, many stones were toppled and buried -- though as the host of Avebury-Web notes, this may have actually preserved them from the far worse fate that awaited those stones that "survived" the religious zeal of the Middle Ages. This fate was documented in graphic detail by Stukeley, who recorded that of the supposed 188 stones of the original "great temple," just over 40 were still visible in his day -- 17 standing, 27 "thrown down or reclining." (John Aubrey recorded 73 surviving stones in 1648; by 1815, writer Richard Colt Hoare observed only 17.)

The destruction witnessed by Stukeley had nothing to do with religion. In the 18th century, villagers sought to clear the stones from their fields, or to break them up for use in building. Stukeley writes:

Just before I visited this place... the inhabitants were fallen into the custom of demolishing the stones, chiefly out of covetousness of the little area of ground, each stood on. First they dug great pits in the earth, and buried them. The expence of digging the grave, was more than 30 years purchase of the spot they possessed, when standing. After this, they found out the kanck of burning them, which has made most miserable havock of this famous temple. One Tom Robinson the Herostratus of Abury,* is particularly eminent for this kind of execution, and he very much glories in it. The method is, to dig a pit by the side of the stone, till it falls down, then to burn many loads of straw under it. They draw lines of water along it when heated, and then with smart strokes of a great sledge hammer, its prodigious bulk is divided into many lesser parts. But this Atto de fe** commonly costs thirty shillings in fire and labour, sometimes twice as much. They own too 'tis excessive hard work, for these stones are often 18 foot long, 13 broad, and 6 thick, that their weight crushes the stones in pieces, which they lay under them to make them lie hollow for burning, and for this purpose they raise them with timbers of 20 foot long, and more, by the help of twenty men, but often the timbers were rent to pieces.

Stukeley goes on to write that a single stone could provide enough pieces to build an ordinary house, but that because of the nature of the stone, such a house "is always moist and dewy in winter, which proves damp and unwholsome, and rots the furniture. The custom of thus destroying them is so late, that I could easily trace the obit of every stone; who did it, for what purpose, and when, and by what method, what house or wall was built out of it, and the like."

The salvation of the circle came in the person of Alexander Keiller, who purchased the site in the 1930's. Keiller had the site cleared of debris and surveyed, and began the process of excavating and re-erecting the surviving stones, or marking with concrete plinths the locations of stones that had vanished.

TheIn one case, Keiller's work unearthed more than a stone! When stone #9 of the southwest quadrant was raised, workers discovered the skeleton of a man in the pit beneath. A leather purse found with the body held a pair of scissors (thought to be among the oldest ever found), a probe or lancet, a French coin, and two 14th-century pennies from the reign of Edward I. The man was believed to be either a tailor or a barber-surgeon; hence, the stone has come to be known as the Barber stone. At first, it was believed that when the stone was toppled in the 14th century, it fell upon the man and crushed him, and he was simply left in the grave thus created for him. More recent analysis of the skeleton, however (which was believed lost in the Blitz but was recently rediscovered in the Natural History Museum) suggests that the man was already dead when placed in the pit beneath the stone. Thus there is yet one more mystery associated with the Avebury Circle!

Unfortunately, Keiller's reconstruction of the site came to a halt during World War II (when many monuments that would be visible from the air were concealed or camouflaged to prevent them being used as landmarks by German planes). Since then, minor adjustments have been made to the Cove stones, but otherwise the appearance of the henge has remained unaltered.

More stones remain to be uncovered, however. In 1881, A.C. Smith led a survey using probes to locate far more stones than Keiller uncovered, and recent geophysical surveys by the National Trust have confirmed the existence of at least 15 buried stones around the eastern portion of the henge. This survey also revealed a double ring of post holes in the northeast quadrant of the henge, and another "circular feature" in the northwest quadrant.

Avebury

Thirty-six stones may not sound like a great many, but they are enough to instantly strike the visitor with the sheer, awesome grandeur of the site. What is also bound to strike any visitor with a shred of imagination is the varied "personalities" of the stones. Unlike some circles where the stones are of similar sizes and shapes, the stones at Avebury vary widely. Perhaps this is pure accident -- but when one thinks of the effort that must have gone into hauling these stones from their quarry two miles away, raising them upright, and embedding them up to 24 inches in the earth, it's hard to imagine that their appearance was utterly left to chance. So perhaps the imaginative visitor can be forgiven for seeing in one stone the figure of a shrouded woman, while another looks a bit like a breaching whale. Yet another, partially split down one side, gives the impression of a parent and child, while the one my husband is examining rather seems to be examining him in return!

Avebury

After wandering amongst the Avebury stones, the visitor can view some of the archaeological finds from the site at the Alexander Keiller Museum, housed in a barn on the outskirts of the village. Here, one will also find displays describing life in Neolithic times, and a short film about the life and work of Keiller himself. Be warned, however: The Barn is dimly lit and unheated, and is sometimes shut down in very cold weather.

If you're looking for something a bit warmer but still on the spooky side, consider taking lunch or tea in the only pub in the world to be found in the middle of a stone circle: The Red Lion Inn. The Red Lion serves good, solid pub grub, along with a side helping of ghost stories. One of these centers around the old well that sits right in the middle of one of the common rooms, glassed over so that you can actually eat on it -- if you wish! As the story goes, a soldier who lived at the inn came home from the Civil War in the 17th century to discover that his wife had taken a lover. Enraged, he shot his rival and slit his wife's throat, and pitched her body into the well, tossing in a boulder to seal it after her. Supposedly, the lady's ghost has haunted the place ever since. Don't let this ruin your appetite, however -- or spoil your rest, should you wish to take advantage of the inn's bed-and-breakfast facilities!

The Red Lion Avebury

Notes:

*The term "auto da fe" (or auto de fe) means "act of faith" and refers to the Spanish Inquisition's ritual of judging and condemning heretics. The ceremony has generally been thought to include executions by burning at the stake (which is no doubt what Stukeley is alluding to), though some sources claim that the actual executions were held separately.

**Herostratus sought to make a name for himself by setting fire to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (Turkey) in 356 BC. He boasted proudly of his act, so the authorities not only executed him but decreed that his name should never be spoken again, on penalty of death. Obviously it didn't work, and the name "Herostratus" subsquently became associated with the idea of seeking glory through acts of destruction or violence.

More Information:

Earth Mysteries: Avebury
http://witcombe.sbc.edu/earthmysteries/EMAverbury.html

Avebury
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avebury

Avebury: National Trust
http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-avebury/

Avebury Web
http://www.avebury-web.co.uk
This site contains a wealth of information about the stones and their history, and you can also find a page-by-page facsimile of the entire book by William Stukeley.

The Inn Among the Stones
http://www.bbc.co.uk/wiltshire/villages/redlion.shtml

Stone Pages
http://www.stonepages.com
A great site for everything to do with stones, prehistory and archaeology; they also have an excellent weekly newsletter on archaeological discoveries.


Moira Allen has been writing and editing professionally for more than 30 years. She is the author of seven books and several hundred articles. She has been a lifelong Anglophile, and recently achieved her dream of living in England, spending nearly a year and a half in the history town of Hastings. Allen also hosts the Victorian history site VictorianVoices.net, a topical archive of thousands of articles from British and American Victorian periodicals. Allen currently resides in Maryland.
Article and photos © 2007 Moira Allen

 

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