Avebury is a Neolithic henge monument containing three stone circles, around the village of Avebury in Wiltshire, in southwest England. Unique amongst megalithic monuments, Avebury contains the largest stone circle in Europe, and is one of the best known prehistoric sites in Britain. It is both a tourist attraction and a place of religious importance to contemporary Pagans.
Constructed around 2600 BCE, during the Neolithic, or 'New Stone Age', the monument comprises a large henge (that is a bank and a ditch) with a large outer stone circle and two separate smaller stone circles situated inside the centre of the monument. Its original purpose is unknown, although archaeologists believe that it was most likely used for some form of ritual or ceremony. The Avebury monument was a part of a larger prehistoric landscape containing several older monuments nearby, including West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill.
By the Iron Age, the site had been effectively abandoned, with some evidence of human activity on the site during the Roman occupation. During the Early Medieval, a village first began to be built around the monument, which eventually extended into it. In the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods, locals destroyed many of the standing stones around the henge, both for religious and practical reasons. The antiquarians John Aubrey and William Stukeley however took an interest in Avebury during the 17th century, and recorded much of the site before its destruction. Archaeological investigation followed in the 20th century, led primarily by Alexander Keiller, who oversaw a project of reconstructing much of the monument.
Avebury is owned and run by the National Trust, a charitable organisation who keep it open to the public. It has been designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument, as well as a World Heritage Site, in the latter capacity being seen as a part of the wider prehistoric landscape of Wiltshire known as Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites.
Iron Age and Roman periods
During the British Iron Age, it appears that the Avebury monument had ceased to be used for its original purpose, and was instead largely ignored, with little archaeological evidence that many people visited the site at this time. Archaeologist Aubrey Burl believed that the Iron Age Britons living in the region would not have known when, why or by whom the monument had been constructed, perhaps having some vague understanding that it had been built by an earlier society or considering it to be the dwelling of a supernatural entity.
In 43 CE, the Roman Empire invaded southern Britain, making alliances with certain local monarchs and subsuming the Britons under their own political control. Southern and central Britain would remain a part of the Empire until the early 5th century, in a period now known as Roman Britain or the Roman Iron Age. It was during this Roman period that tourists came from the nearby towns of Cunetio, Durocornovium and the villas and farms around Devizes and visited Avebury and its surrounding prehistoric monuments via a newly constructed road. Evidence of visitors at the monument during this period has been found in the form of Roman-era pottery sherds uncovered from the ditch.
Early Mediaeval period
In the Early Mediaeval period, which began in the 5th century following the collapse of Roman rule, Anglo-Saxon tribes from continental Europe migrated to southern Britain, where they may have come into conflict with the Britons already settled there. Aubrey Burl suggested the possibility that a small group of British warriors may have used Avebury as a fortified site to defend themselves from Anglo-Saxon attack. He gained this idea from etymological evidence, suggesting that the site may have been called weala-dic, meaning "moat of the Britons", in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons.
The early Anglo-Saxon settlers followed their own pagan religion which venerated a selection of deities, the most notable of whom were apparently Woden and Thunor. It is known from etymological sources that they associated many prehistoric sites in the Wiltshire area with their gods, for instance within a ten-mile of radius of Avebury there are four sites that were apparently named after Woden: Wansdyke ("Wodin's ditch"), Wodin's Barrow, Waden Hill ("Wodin's Hill)" and perhaps Wanborough (also "Woden's Hill"). It is not known if they placed any special religious associations with the Avebury monument, but it remains possible.
During the Early Mediaeval period, there were signs of settlement at Avebury, with a grubenhaus, a type of timber hut with a sunken floor, being constructed just outside of the monument's west bank in the 6th century. Only a few farmers appeared to have inhabited the area at the time, and they left the Avebury monument largely untouched. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the Anglo-Saxon peoples began gradually converting to Christianity, and during the 10th century a church was built just west of the monument.
In 939, the earliest known written record of the monument was made in the form of a charter of King Athelstan which defined the boundaries of Overton, a parish adjacent to Avebury. In the following century, invading Viking armies from Denmark came into conflict with Anglo-Saxon groups in the area around Avebury, and it may be that they destroyed Avebury village, for the local prehistoric monument of Silbury Hill was fortified and used as a defensive position, apparently by a local Anglo-Saxon population attempting to protect themselves from Viking aggression.
Late Mediaeval period
By the Late Mediaeval period, England had been entirely converted to Christianity, and Avebury, being an evidently non-Christian monument, began to be associated with the Devil in the popular imagination of the locals. The largest stone at the southern entrance became known as the Devil's Chair, the three stones that once formed the Beckhampton Cove became known as the Devil's Quoits and the stones inside the North Circle became known as the Devil's Brand-Irons. At some point in the early 14th century, villagers began to demolish the monument by pulling down the large standing stones and burying them in ready-dug pits at the side, presumably because they were seen as having been erected by the Devil and thereby being in opposition to the village's Christian beliefs. Although it is unknown how this situation came about, archaeologist Aubrey Burl suggests that it might have been at the prompting of the local Christian priest, with the likely contenders being either Thomas Mayn (who served in the village from 1298 to 1319), or John de Hoby (who served from 1319 to 1324).
During the toppling of the stones, one of them (which was 3 metres tall and weighed 13 tons), collapsed on top of one of the men pulling it down, fracturing his pelvis and breaking his neck, crushing him to death. His corpse was trapped in the hole that had been dug for the falling stone, and so the locals were unable to remove the body and offer him a Christian burial in a churchyard, as would have been customary at the time. When archaeologists excavated his body in 1938, they found that he had been carrying a leather pouch, in which was found three silver coins dated to around 1320–25, as well as a pair of iron scissors and a lancet. From these latter two items, the archaeologists surmised that he had probably been a travelling barber-surgeon who journeyed between market towns offering his services, and that he just happened to be at Avebury when the stone-felling was in progress.
It appears that the death of the barber-surgeon prevented the locals from pulling down further stones, perhaps fearing that it had in some way been retribution for toppling them in the first place, enacted by a vengeful spirit or even the Devil himself. The event appears to have left a significant influence on the minds' of the local villagers, for records show that in the 18th and 19th centuries there were still legends being told in the community about a man being crushed by a falling stone.
Soon after the toppling of many of the stones, the Black Death hit the village in 1349, decimating the population. Those who survived focused on their agricultural duties to grow food and stay alive. As a result, they would not have had the time or man power to once more attempt to demolish any part of the non-Christian monument, even if they wanted to.
Early Modern period
It was in the Early Modern period that Avebury was first recognised as an antiquity that warranted investigation. Around 1541, John Leland, the librarian and chaplain to King Henry VIII travelled through Wiltshire and made note of the existence of Avebury and its neighbouring prehistoric monuments. Despite this, Avebury remained relatively unknown to anyone but locals and when the antiquarian William Camden published his Latin language guide to British antiquities, Britannia, in 1586, he made no mention of it. He rectified this for his English language version in 1610, but even in this he only included a fleeting reference to the monument at "Abury", believing it to have been "an old camp". In 1634, it was once more referenced, this time in Sir John Harington's notes to the Orlando Furioso opera, however further antiquarian investigation was prevented by the outbreak of the English Civil War (1642–1651), which was waged between the Parliamentarians and Royalists, with one of the battles in the conflict taking place five miles away from Avebury at Roundway Down.
With the war over, a new edition of the Britannia was published in 1695, which described the monument at "Aubury" in more detail. This entry had been written by the antiquarian and writer John Aubrey, who privately made many notes about Avebury and other prehistoric monuments which remained unpublished. Aubrey had first encountered the site whilst out hunting in 1649 and, in his own words, had been "wonderfully surprised at the sight of those vast stones of which I had never heard before." Hearing of Avebury and taking an interest in it, King Charles II commanded Aubrey to come to him and describe the site, which he did in July 1663. The two subsequently travelled to visit it together on the monarch's trip to Bath, Somerset a fortnight later, and the site further captivated the king's interest, who commanded Aubrey to dig underneath the stones in search of any human burials. Aubrey however never undertook the king's order. In September 1663, Aubrey began making a more systematic study of the site, producing a plan that has proved invaluable for later archaeologists, for it contained reference to many standing stones that would soon after be destroyed by locals.
In the latter part of the 17th and then the 18th centuries, destruction at Avebury reached its peak, possibly influenced by the rise of Puritanism in the village, a fundamentalist form of Protestant Christianity that vehemently denounced things considered to be "pagan", which would have included pre-Christian monuments like Avebury. The majority of the standing stones that had been a part of the monument for thousands of years were smashed up to be used as building material for the local area. This was achieved in a method that involved lighting a fire to heat the sarcen, then pouring cold water on it to create weaknesses in the rock, and finally smashing at these weak points with a sledgehammer.
In 1719, the antiquarian William Stukeley visited the site, where he witnessed the destruction being undertaken by the local people. Between then and 1724 he visited the village and its monument six times, sometimes staying for two or three weeks at the Catherine Wheel Inn. In this time, he made meticulous plans of the site, considering it to be a "British Temple", and believing it to having been fashioned by the druids, the Iron Age priests of north-western Europe, in the year 1859 BCE. He developed the idea that the two Inner Circles were a temple to the moon and to the sun respectively, and eventually came to believe that Avebury and its surrounding monuments were a landscaped portrayal of the Trinity, thereby backing up his erroneous ideas that the ancient druids had been followers of a religion very much like Christianity.
Stukeley was disgusted by the destruction of the sarcen stones in the monument, and named those local farmers and builders who were responsible. He remarked that "this stupendous fabric, which for some thousands of years, had brav'd the continual assaults of weather, and by the nature of it, when left to itself, like the pyramids of Egypt, would have lasted as long as the globe, hath fallen a sacrifice to the wretched ignorance and avarice of a little village unluckily plac'd within it."
Stukeley published his findings and theories in a book, Abury, a Temple of the British Druids (1743), in which he intentionally falsified some of the measurements he had made of the site to better fit his theories about its design and purpose. Meanwhile, the Reverend Thomas Twining had also published a book about the monument, Avebury in Wiltshire, the Remains of a Roman Work, which had been published in 1723. Whereas Stukeley claimed that Avebury and related prehistoric monuments were the creations of the druids, Twining thought that they had been constructed by the later Romans, justifying his conclusion on the fact that Roman writers like Julius Caesar and Tacitus had not referred to stone circles when discussing the Iron Age Britons, whereas Late Mediaeval historians like Geoffrey of Monmouth and Henry of Huntingdon had described these megaliths in their works, and that such monuments must have therefore been constructed between the two sets of accounts.
Late Modern period
By the beginning of the Victorian period in 1837, the majority of Neolithic standing stones at Avebury had gone, having been either buried by pious locals in the 14th century or smashed up for building materials in the 17th and 18th. Meanwhile, the population of Avebury village was rapidly increasing, leading to further housing being built inside the henge. In an attempt to prevent further construction on the site, the wealthy politician and archaeologist Sir John Lubbock, who later came to be known as Lord Avebury, purchased much of the available land in the monument, and encouraged other buyers to build their houses outside rather than within the henge, in an attempt to preserve it.
Following the opening of his own excavations, archaeologist Alexander Keiller decided that the best way to preserve Avebury was to purchase it in its entirety. Keiller was heir to the James Keiller and Son business and was able to use his wealth to acquire the site. He also obtained as much of the Kennet Avenue as possible and the nearby Avebury Manor, where he was to live until his death in 1955.
Excavation at Avebury has been limited. In 1894 Sir Henry Meux put a trench through the bank, 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 the direction of Harold St George Gray. He was able to demonstrate that the Avebury builders had dug down into the natural chalk using red deer antlers as their primary digging tool, producing a henge ditch with a high bank around its perimeter. Gray recorded the base of the ditch as being wide and flat, but 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 he did recover scattered human bones, amongst which jawbones were particularly well represented. At a depth of about , Gray found the complete skeleton of a tall woman.
When a new village school was built in 1969 there was a further opportunity to examine the site, and in 1982 an excavation to produce carbon dating material and environmental data was undertaken.
In April 2003, during preparations to straighten some of the stones, one was found to be buried at least below ground. It was estimated to weigh more than 100 tons, making it one of the largest ever found in the UK. Later that year, a geophysics survey of the southeast and northeast quadrants of the circle by the National Trust revealed at least 15 of the megaliths lying buried. The National Trust were able to identify their sizes, the direction in which they are lying, and where they fitted in the circle.
Alexander Keiller Museum
The Alexander Keiller Museum features the prehistoric artefacts collected by archaeologist and businessman Alexander Keiller, which include many artefacts found at Avebury. The museum is located in the 17th-century stables gallery, and is operated by English Heritage and the National Trust. The nearby 17th century threshing barn houses a permanent exhibit gallery about Avebury and its history.
Founded by Keiller in 1938, the collections feature artefacts mostly of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age date, with other items from the Anglo-Saxon and later periods. The museum also features the skeleton of a child nicknamed "Charlie", found in a ditch at Windmill Hill, Avebury. The Council of British Druid Orders requested that the skeleton be re-buried in 2006, but in April 2010 the decision was made to keep the skeleton on public view.
The collections are owned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and are on loan to English Heritage.