Avebury stone circles
Avebury and its environs form an extensive Neolithic ritual complex in Wiltshire a few miles west of Marlborough. Avebury is one of Britain’s finest examples of a henge monument, as well as one of the largest ceremonial structures in Europe it is the most important British Stone Age grouping. See Figure 1 and Figure 2.
Figure 1. Geographical location of Wiltshire. Source: course hand-out from Powell (1996).
Figure 2. Location of Avebury within the county of Wiltshire. Source: Course hand-out from Powell (1996).
The complex includes Avebury Monument (circa 2900-2600 BC), West Kennet long barrow and England’s largest prehistoric tomb (circa 3600 BC), Windmill Hill Causewayed camp (circa 3600 BC), Silbury Hill which is Europe’s tallest artificial hill, and the remnants of two avenues of standing stones, see Figure 3.
Figure 3. The Avebury World Heritage Site. Source: Course hand-out from Powell (1996).
Avebury can be seen as central to the confluence of two rivers that align with sunrise and moonrise on summer quarter days. This implies ritual significance of the henge location and it is worth noting that there is a line of sight from the south stone circle to the top of Silbury Hill. The Avebury environs complex reflect an awareness of order explained by a Neolithic farming community, especially one that stresses a relationship between earth and sky as well as the cyclical progression of seasons and the animals, crops and the ritual that involves (Dames, 1977). Around Avebury the chalkland of Neolithic farmers reflects their genius within a sacred landscape that is fed by a sacred river fed by sacred springs (Meaden, 1999).
In addition the Avebury area has several Bronze Age round barrows which shows the continued significance during the post-Neolithic. Moreover, recent surveys show more earth and wooden structural remains at West Kennet Farm from the end of the Neolithic (circa 2300-2200 BC). Therefore, in order to define the ritual landscape of the Avebury environs there will be a description of the Avebury Henge Monument, Kennet Avenue, Silbury Hill, Windmill Hill, the Sactuary, West Kennet Long Barrow, see Figure 4, followed by a discussion of the ritual significance of this complex of structures within the landscape, with a final summary.
Figure 4. Avebury and its environs showing the associated complex. Source: Course hand-out from Dames (1977).
2. Avebury and its Environs
2.a Avebury Henge
The Avebury monument is 6 miles west of Marlborough, 8 miles north-east of Devizes, and 9 miles south-south-west of Swindon. The monument consists of an irregular circular bank 427m wide with an inner ditch of 351m diameter (some 6m high), with an outer stone circle 338m wide containing a south circle of 103m, and north circle of 98m in diameter. Within the bank the village of Avebury, see Figure 5, dates from the Anglo-Saxon period which developed out of the henge’s own continuum of seasonal use and ritual history.
Figure 6. Aerial photograph of Avebury. Source: public domain.
The monument is surrounded by a deep ditch and outer bank (set with standing sarsen stones along its inner edge) enclosing some 28-29 acres. The central plateau has two similar stone circles. A series of paired sarsens, the Kennet Avenue, leads to the smaller circle known as the sanctuary. A second avenue leading west, the Beckhampton Avenue (recorded during the 18th century) has recently been rediscovered.
Within Avebury there are 98 stones in the outer ring and 27 and 29 in each inner ring, see Figure 6, with an obelisk and minimum 13 stones associated with the south circle. There are 3 or 4 cove stones with another 12 associated with the north circle and Ring Stone. This totals at least 184 sarsens (some of which are up to 50 tons weight). These sarsens are hard grey sandstone ‘rafts’ above the chalk of the Marlborough Downs. It is difficult to determine
Figure 6. Plan of Avebury showing the stone arrangement of the henge. Source: Dames (1977).
the chronology of megalithic Avebury because few radiocarbon dates exist. It is known that within one or two centuries of the 3rd millennium’s beginning (not later than 2800 BC) that the development began (Meaden, 1999), and that during the next 500 years the gigantic component circles, banks, and causeways and avenues resulted in the “…splendid constellation of ordered standing stones…with Europe’s highest artificial mound and the world’s biggest ditch-and-banked stone circle.” (Meaden, 1999). All of these monuments are around the same date and constitute part of a single architectural complex (Bray, 1970).
2 b. Kennet Avenue
Four gaps in the bank (three marked by huge stones) show the original entrances with the south gap leading to the stones of Kennet Avenue (Burt, 1979). Kennet Avenue comprises two parallel rows of sarsens 50 feet wide, 80 feet apart, and one and a half miles long when ending at the Sanctuary (1 mile to the south east) on Overton Hill, seeFfigure 7.
Figure 7. Avebury showing the circles and the stones of Kennet Avenue. Source: Dames (1977).
The avenue has some 200 megaliths with Beckhampton Avenue possibly similar, see Figure 8, which combined with the 60 of the sanctuary and 12 for Faulkner’s Circle, has a total in excess of 600. Burial sites have been found
Figure 8. Map showing the relationship of Kennet and Beckhampton Avenues to Avebury. Source: Dames (1977).
beside four of the Kennet Avenue stones, which arise over a ridge and descend towards Kennet Valley. These burial sites were associated with Beaker and Rinyo-Clacton wares, whilst near the southern end of the avenue an occupation site evidenced Beaker and Neolithic wares.
2 c. Silbury Hill
Silbury Hill is the largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe whose present shape is a truncated cone with a base area of 2.1 hectares (Darvill, 2002), a height of 40m and a flat top of 30m diameter, see Figure 9.
Figure 9. Aerial view of Silbury hill. Source: Public domain.
Constructed around the same time as Avebury (circa 2600 BC), Silbury Hill is a huge conical chalk mound surrounded by a deep quarry ditch, constructed in an effort that surpasses even Avebury (Bahn, 2001). It has an internal structure and recent excavations (R. Atkinson) found no traces of burial within or beneath. Yet 3 phases were determined and revealed a stepped pyramid shape. Phase 1 started 2800 to 2700 BC and completed 2000 BC was possibly a spiral or flat circular area some 20m across and enclosed by a wattle fence (Darvill, 2002), the centre a turf covered clay mound. Silbury 11 enlarged Silbury 1 with quarried chalk to 73m diameter, and then Silbury 111 (circa 2200 BC) extended the structure to 160m diameter to form a stepped cone. Its purpose remains unclear but it must be associated ritually with the surrounding complex.
2 d. Windmill Hill
One of the largest causewayed enclosures in Britain, see Figure 10, it has an area of 8 hectares, outer ditch of 360m diameter, with 3 roughly concentric rings of interrupted ditches (Darvill, 2002), and “…provides clues to the
Figure 10. Windmill Hill. Source: public domain.
activities of the ancestors of the megalith-loving peoples.” (Meaden, 1999). Earliest occupation was around 3800 BC with the enclosure built circa 3500 BC with a number of infant burials and human remains scattered throughout the ditch floors (Darvill, 2002). Type site of the Windmill Hill Culture representing the earliest Neolithic ware (characterised by carinated round-based bowls) of south-west England (Bahn, 2001). The purpose of the enclosure has been much debated and is regarded by some as a seasonal gathering place for surrounding farming communities, a gathering for rituals, festivals, and trade (Darvill, 2002; Whittle, 1999). In ritual terms the mound has been described as the image of a pregnant Mother Goddess in harvest (Dames, 1976). This concept envisages the ritual role of the mound as a giant umbilicus or enormous single mammary gland.
2 e. The Sanctuary
The structure was possibly a timber circle (an open enclosure) started around 3000 to 2700 BC and completed circa 2000 BC during the Beaker period and the transition to the Bronze Age, see Figure 11.
Excavation plan of the Sanctuary after Maud Cunnington. Source: Meaden (1999).
The sanctuary had a complicated history with several stages of reconstruction (Bray, 1970). However, it does appear to be intimately connected to the Avebuty complex and probably played a significant role, even as a temple, in rituals and festivals.
2 d. West Kennet Long Barrow
One of 27 in the Avebury landscape it is a simple structure with insertion of a megalithic tomb chamber at the southern end, see Figure 12. A megalithic construction(circa 3600 BC) it is 100 yards long with a concave facade
Figure 12. Plan of the standing stones of the West Kennet long barrow (after Piggott). Source: Meaden (1999).
at its east end of sarsen stones (Bahn, 2001). These were intended to block an earlier entrance to the two sides and terminal burial chambers sealed at end of use of the barrow. The barrow (excavated by Stuart Piggott)
Figure 13. The West Kennet long barrow.
contained remains of at least 46 individuals with disarticulations suggesting ritual practices concerned with ancestors. This chambered tomb indicates that people live in or near Avebury long before the stone circles were raised.
3. The Avebury Ritual Landscape
The components of the Avebury complex are situated on the rolling chalk downs within sight of each other and indicate a purposive clustering (Dames, 1977), suggesting “…the monuments were created as a coherent ensemble to stage a religious drama…” (Dames, 1977). In Neolithic religious ceremonies were the recognition of opposites such as Goddess and God, Moon and Sun, Earth Mother and Sky father (Meaden, 1999). Moreover, the stones at Avebury (as elsewhere during the Neolithic) were gender classified and so “…were assigned solar-calendrical duties, the objective being fertility.” (Meaden, 1999). The megalith sarsens were seen as Type A (male) and taller than wide, with Type B (female) broader than long. In addition Neolithic religion ascribed right-handedness to the divine female and left-handedness to the divine masculine. An example can be seen in the Avebury sarsen 106 which purports to be in possession of a prominent vulva mark, see Figure 14.
Figure 14. Photograph of stone 106 of the Avebury inner circle showing the prominent vulva mark in relation to the once existing male obelisk. Source: Meaden (1999).
The sexual metaphor in shamanic and fertility rituals is often shown with rock art motifs that symbolise the vulva, with the entry of the shaman into spiritual realm regarded as a form of ritualised intercourse (Pearson, 2002). The Avebury complex has been described as the scene of a cyclical drama that took a year to perform with “…each edifice offering in turn a special setting for the celebration of a particular event in the farming year, matched to the corresponding event in the human life cycle.” (Dames, 1977). In the Avebury area around 2600 BC the Neolithic inhabitants of the locale have left pottery evidence for ceremonies of fertility and ritual use of human bones (Burl, 1979).
Avebury henge itself is a ritual enclosure as evidenced by its circular form of a bank outside the ditch with substantial buildings within. Thus the circularity and repetition of Neolithic ritual practice combined with the “…architecture of the entire cycle was designed to be read as a sequence of visual images of the Neolithic deity.” (Dames, 1977). The deposition of white chalk balls in the ditches of Avebury suggests egg, and therefore fertility (Burl, 1981).
The implication is that a mythological cycle exists for the Avebury environs coupled inextricably to the worship of the Mother Goddess (implying a matriarchal form of social organisation) linked to creation and fertility. Meaden (1999) argues that the stone circles of the Avebury complex express “…the notion of genital shrines of fertility and creation.” The Avebury environs, as a ritual pathway, do seem to reflect a cyclical drama with each monument an important landscape stage in a ritualised drama that starts at one monument and proceeds to another until completed. Each stage, each monument, symbolising an even in the life of the community and their Mother Goddess.
Some 4500 t0 4000 years ago the monuments of the environs of Avebury were at the height of their glory, the whole complex having been constructed by Neolithic tribes living about 20 miles apart on the chalk downs of Wiltshire (Meaden, 1999). Building ceased at the end of the late Neolithic and the old chambered mounds were sealed. With the onset of the Beaker period there began the practice – some 1000 years – of burial beneath round barrows. During the Middle Bronze Age there occurred the abandonment of Avebury as a ritual centre and the beliefs that created it and maintained it were eclipsed by other outlooks, other interpretations.
Eventually another ritual practice came to Avebury around 700 to 800 years ago when “…a community which had been living quietly inside and outside Avebury Henge for some 5 centuries came under the influence of condemnatory preachings of the Church and centuries of wilful destruction followed.” (Meaden, 1999). Even though the ritual practices are no longer performed the evidence remains that the environs of Avebury were a ritual landscape and in some respects still are, perhaps the landscape is more enduring than those who try to destroy are after all.
References and Sources Consulted
Bahn, P. (2001). The Penguin Archaeology Guide. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
Bray, W. & Trump, D. (1970). A Dictionary of Archaeology. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
Burl, A. (1979). Rings of Stone. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London.
Dames, M. (1976). The Silbury Treasure. Thames & Hudson, London.
Dames, M. (1977). The Avebury Cycle. Thames & Hudson, London.
Darvill, T. (2002). The Concise Dictionary of Archaeology, OUP, Oxford.
Gimbutas, M. (1989). The Language of the Goddess. Thames & Hudson, London.
Grinsell, L. V. (1958). The Archaeology of Wessex. Methuen, London.
Meaden, T. (1999). Secrets in Stone. London.
Pearson, J. L. (2002). Shamanism and the Ancient Mind. Altamira Press, USA.
Powell, A. B. et al. (1996). Archaeology in the Avebury Area. Thames Water, Wessex.
Whittle, A. et al. (1999). The Harmony of Symbols. Oxbow, Oxford.
Essay contribution to University of Oxford Undergraduate Certificate in Archaeology (2003).