The Magical Landscape Of Neolithic Avebury
stukeleys rendition of avebury as it used to be
One can only imagine how impressive avebury must have been in ancient times.It was 14 times bigger than stonehenge and was comprised of up to 100 surrounding stones with two inner circles.enclosing this is a monumental ditch known as a henge.It had four causewayed entrances with stone avenues leading from two. In the nine square miles of the avebury landscape there are around 330 known archaeological sites including the sanctuary which was connected to avebury by one of the stone avenues,windmill hill which was the site of a five and a half thousand year old settlement.It is the monuments within a square mile i will be taking about: the stone circle,west kennet long barrow,and silbury hill
The surrounding landscape must have been very important in neolithic times and the lack of domestic rubbish points to the fact that this was a place of worship and ritual.In a similar way to stonehenge its appearance would have changed over time to suit the changing circumstances of the people. Before the outer circle was built,the largest stone was put in place(it is referred to as the cove)weighing over a hundred tons.it sits very deep underground and is one of the only ones to remain in its original position since it was placed there.It is enclosed by a circle of twenty seven and a little further south is another twenty nine.The cove that i mentioned was originally 3 stone that were aligned to the summer soltice sunrise.
The henge is nearly a mile in circumference and the ditch was originally nine meters(30ft) deep.It is estimated to have taken one and a half million man-hours to complete with very basic digging tools that consisted of antlers to dig and oxen shoulder blades to shovel the loosened chalk into wicker baskets.they would then hoist that up to be deposited to form the bank.If you ever have a chance to visit,you should sit on the bank,look down on the circle and reflect on the backbreaking work and sheer determination that was carried out here all those millenia ago.
The eighteen foot banks must have looked amazing before the grass caught hold,the white chalk against the green landscape.it was a couple of centuries later that the outer ring of stones was erected.The are made from a local stone called sarcen(the same stone used in the construction of the stonehenge trilithons).Sarsen stones get their name from the anglo-saxon words 'sar' meaning troublesome and 'stan' meaning stone.They were chosen for their natural form and weren't shaped.They fall into two categories ,some are diamond shaped and others are rectangular representing male and female aspects
The last thing to be added were the stone avenues leading from two of the entrances.it is quite and experience to walk the avenue in the footsteps of the countless millions who have done it over thousands of years,it sends a shiver down your spine.
Avebury was built over a period of about a thousand years but strangely after about a thousand years of intense activity,something led to the abandonment of the circle.it stood unused for thousands of years and nature tried to reclaim it.it was in the middle ages onwards.that the biggest treat to avebury was come.
The destruction of avebury
Middle ages When chritianity was starting to gain more influence,the church wanted all symbols of paganism destroyed.They wanted the stones destroyed but found it very hard to break the stones(the sarsens living up to their name).they opted for toppling them and burying they in holes.Perhaps the locals were afraid to break them because of some local legends or folklore.A surgeon barber was killed by a stone falling on him and it is thought around this time they stopped trying to bury the stones.The remaining stones were left alone for some time and it was in the sixteenth century that the biggest threat to avebury was to arise.
Sarsen stone is incredibly strong sandstone that is strengthened by silica.In an effort to procure building materials they found that setting fire to the stones and rapidly cooling them caused them to crack.This would be repeated till they were workable sizes.They were used in the construction of some local buildings and and a red coloration can be seen on some of these stones from the heating process.
it was william stukeley who came across avebury at the height of this destruction and realised that it was an important ancient site.Even though he protested,the clearance continued.Luckily he made detailed drawings of the stones as they fell and he also seen the giant obelisk stone before it was destroyed.The stones of the beckhamton avenue were also mostly destroyed leaving just two stones.Only fifteen stones were left above ground on the entire monument.It remained like this till the 1930's when alexander keiller set out to restore it as one of the greatest stone circles in britain.
Starting in the 1930's he spent 50,000 pounds of his own fortune restoring the monument.Where the oringinal stones could not be found due to them being destroyed he placed concrete pillars.He sold it for £12,000,a faction of what he spent,to the national trust before his death.He never got to fully excavate the site and that is why some of it looks inconplete.In 2003 they carried out a geophysical survey and discovered 15 more stones and their original positions.Unfortunately there are no plans to excavate them to date.there is a museum in the village showing his collection of artifacts.He also tried to have all of the houses removed from within the circle but that stopped in the sixties.They also discovered when they were excavating the west kennet avenue that the stones were alternating shapes(rectangle and diamond) both next to and facing each other
some other views of the stonesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Only 1/3 of the avenue was restored,it used to go the whole way to sanctuary which is about a mile and a half away.if you follow the avenue and then the road about a mile down the road(which seems like 10 miles when you are hauling nearly your body weight in a backpack with blisters on your feet),you eventually spot silbury hill off in the distance.It is the largest man made mound in europe.Silbury hill is very enigmatic,and is reluctant to give up its secrets after two centuries of excavation.
For many years it was believed to be a much larger version of the round barrows that are very common in the area.These smaller ones were usually plundered for grave goods,so it would be natural to assume that the larger one would have belonged to someone of profound wealth and importance and would contain lots of treasure.One such legend is of a solid gold life-size statue of king sil.
Over time three tunnels were dug into the hill.The first was in 1776 by a team hired by the duke of northumberland and colonel drax.they entered through the top of the hill.The next was in 1849 by dean merewether for the archaeological institution.This time they tunneled from the side.The last attempt was in 1968 by the bbc and cardiff university.It was dug close to the second hole.None turned up any treasures but the last attempt turned up some antler picks for digging and allowed it to be dated to 2400bc.At first glance it doest look like the complex structure that it is.Silbury hill is 31 meters high and covers 5 acres at its base.it was obviously built by people with an understanding of soil mechanics.
Although in the year 2000 after 4000 years,heavy rains threatened to collapse it.the first tunnel(1776) wasn't refilled correctly.During repairs it gave them another chance to record the building materials inside.Who knows what may remain hidden inside!
SILBURY HILLClick thumbnail to view full-size
WEST KENNET LONG BARROW
In close proximity to silbury hill is west kennet long barrow.It was so worth the trek through a flint strewn field to get to it(we didnt see the path which would have saved us a lot of bother).A strange,eerie felling inside this chamber tomb,but a remarkable experience.It is one of the longest chamber tombs in the uk.It was constructed five and a half thousand years ago and remained in use for a very long period of time up to about 2000bc when for some reason they filled it in untill 1859 and then the side chambers were excavated in 1955.It has five chambers leading off a central passage.It is aligned to the east so the morning sun would illuminate the main chamber.
The bones of many people were found including vertebrae,heaps of long bones and rows off skulls.It is hard to tell how many people because of the varying levels of completeness of the skeletons,but there is believed to be 46.They are both male and females raging in age from child to adult.The stone chambers only take up a sixth of the length and the rest was believed to be wooden chambers.It has not been properly excavated yet.Although a local doctor apparently used to remove plenty of human bones to make medicine for locals(not sure what the time frame for this is).Also an interesting note:Many of the bones found in the chambers Showed signs of spina bifida and all the adults had arthritis.
I wish i had more time to explore the area but i had to travel on to stonehenge for the after hours special access tour.more to come on that.