AVEBURY STONE CIRCLE
In the 17th century, the antiquarian, John Aubrey, noted that Avebury
far surpassed Stonehenge ' as a Cathedral doth a Parish Church'.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare was also much impressed and wrote, in Ancient
Wiltshire (1812): 'With awe and diffidence I enter the sacred precincts
of this once hallowed sanctuary, the supposed parent of Stonehenge,
the wonder of Britain and the most ancient, as well as the most
interesting relict which our island can produce'. Of the four Wessex
'super-henges' which are more than 300m across, Avebury earthworks
are by far the most impressive today. They also contain some of
the largest megaliths in Europe. The area has been inhabited by
villagers for about 1000 years. And so it comes as a surprise to
learn that it remained unknown to outsiders until Aubrey rode through
the village on a hunting trip in 1648.
of the great henge
about 2600 BC, or about 2000 years after the first farmers reached
Wessex, the building of Avebury began. They chose a lowland plain
at the foot of the Marlborough Downs. Like most henges, the site
is close to water, in this case the infant river Kennet. Using antlers
as picks, the shoulder bones of cattle as shovels, and woven baskets,
gangs dug out the ditch and threw up the bank outside. The precise
shape was not important. It would have been simple to define an
exact circle with rope stretched tight from the centre, but it seems
that the priests who first marked out the sacred enclosure were
quite content to pace out a shapeless ring. If geometry was insignificant
at this stage, the scale of the tremendous scale of the excavation
was clearly vital. 120,000 cubic metres of solid chalk were dug
from the ditch at Avebury, a volume about 60 tomes grrater than
the spoil from the ditch at Stonehenge. Only one earthwork can compare
in size to Avebury, the 250,000 cubic metres of chalk and soil excavated
to form Silbury Hill, just 1.5km to the south of Avebury. The two
biggest Neolithic earthworks in Europe somehow form part of the
same riualistic landscape.
digging at Windmill Hill, Alexander Keiller bought Avebury and carries
out a campaign of exemplary excavations through the 1930's. His
team revealed how far the ditch has filled up since it was dug.
When looking into the ditch today, visitors need to realise that
it was first dug out no less than 6m below the level of the present
turf. Imagine the bank perhaps 5m higher than today, faced on the
inside with a wall and gleaming white fresh chalk, and you have
some idea of its original appearance. The four modern roads still
enter the henge through the original gaps in the bank and causeway
across the ditch. The west Kennet Avenue still leads into the South
entrance and the former Beckhampton Avenue began at the west entrance.
has been estimated that there were originally a minimum of 247 standing
stones within the henge, and perhaps 400 more forming the avenue
outside. The heaviest remaining megalith, the Swindon Stone near
the north entrance weighs about 65 tonnes, but the survivors average
about 15 tonnes. The Avebury stones are sarsens of the same geological
type as those of Stonehenge. At Avebury, the sarsens were selected
for their shape and used in their natural state, whereas those at
Stonehenge were laboriously worked into a precise geometry. The
Avebury builders prefered their stones to be columnar or flat with
a triangular outline.
transport and erection of these stones in about 2400 bc represent
one of the great triumphs of prehistoric building. Experts agree
that they once lay on the surface of the surrounding hills and valleys,
especially the Marlborough downs. Neolithic and more modern builders
have removed all the natural boulders from the surrounding countryside
but, if you follow Green Street out of the henge to the east, a
chalk track will take you 3km to the main source area. There on
Fyfield Down, around map reference SU134706, natural sarsens still
litter the lonely sheep walks, although the heaviest ones were taken
4000 years ago.
is natural to wonder how the huge stones were moved and erected.
A knowledge of the available technology makes wooden rollers the
most likely method of transport, with the exact route chosen to
avoid steep and dangerous gradients. Once at their site, a small
socket, only about 1m deep, was dug into the chalkand lined with
wooden stakes to guide the foot of the stone into the correct position.
Ropes, wooden props and levers gradually raised the stone to the
vertical in its socket. This was a laborious process - an experiment
by Alexander Keiller's team in 1934 showed that 14 untrained men
would take four days to erect one small flat stone using Neolithic
methods. Great care was taken to place the centre of gravity directly
over the middle of the hole. The final act was to ram a hard packing
of chalk, flints and small sarsens around the base of the megalith
to hold it firmly in its socket. The stability achieved is particularly
impressive in the case of the great Swindon Stone which has spent
4000 years balanced on one corner with only a fragment of its bulk
builders chose to raise three sacred circles inside their temple.
Despite their popular name, prehistoric circles are very rarely
circular. This is certainly very true of the Great Circle, which
follows the irregular plan of the henge, keeping a constant distance
from the inner lip of the ditch. Originaly it must have consisted
of about 98 stones, but their partial destruction means that we
can no longer tell if the columnar or triangular stones were placed
at random or in some meaningful pattern.
huge size of the Great Circle allows ample space within it for the
two separate circles, while in turn each of these could accommodate
Stonehenge. In contrast with the general outline of Avebury, they
are both exactly circular. The sequence of erection of the three
stone circles remains unclear.
of the inner circles have the same diameter (103.6m). According
to Alexander Thom's Theory of prehistoric surveying, this is exactly
125 'megalithic yards' and the builders used in these circles a
value for Pi of 3.140, only one part in 1,975 from the true value.
Although they are the same size, the two circles contain very different
ritual features. The centre of the southern circle was emphasised
by an obelisk, a particularly tall stone with a height of 6.4m.
Its site is now marked by a plinth. Stukely drew it lying on its
side in 1723, but all that was left for Keiller to record in the
1930's was the large burning pit used to break it up. A similar
fate befell 24 of the 29 stones that were once evenly spaced around
the southern circle. The obelisk is made more unusual by forming
the centre of a mysterious D-shaped setting of small rough sarsens,
the so-called 'Z' feature, which partly survives.
northern circle is just as fragmentary - only four stones survive
from the original 27 - but the ritual element at its centre is more
complete. The rectangular cove survives as a three sided setting
of stones. The 'Devils Brandirons', to use its popular name probably
imitated the burial stall of a megalithic chambered tomb. But instead
of being hidden under the dark earth of a barrow, the Avebury cove
is a giant niche open to the sky, the setting for some public ritual
of death. Such rites seem to have been widespread: other coves,
such as Stanton Drew in Somerset or Stenness in the Orkney Isles,
either lie within or close to stone circles.
Avebury temple remained in active use for about 700 years. Towards
the end of this period c.2000 BC, the 75 Stonehenge sarsens were
collectedfrom the rich source on the Marlborough Downs. The difficulty
of fording the River Kennet further downstream raises the fascinating
possibility that these sarsens were a gift from the Avebury people
and passed through their completed temple for the priests to sanctify
them. Rodney Castleden believes it likely that Beckhampton Avenue
was actually built to celebrate the first mile of their long and
ponderous journey to Stonehenge.
Stonehenge was dedicated to the worship of the moon and sun the
meaning of the Avebury temple seems instead strongly connected to
the great human themes of fertility, life and death. Rich evidence
of funerary feasts has been found at the Sanctuary, which was linked
by a procession route, the West Kennet Avenue, to the henge. The
columnar and triangular stones of this avenue were deliberately
paired together. Such a strong sexual symbolism implies a close
connection between fertility and funerary rites. This celebration
of the cycle of birth, life and death was a central part of neolithic
philosophy which is consistent with the symbolism found in megalithic
passage graves of the same period. We conclude that the rites at
Avebury were intended to bring life to the dead and good fortune
to the living.
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