Saturday Art and Archaeology: Avebury stone circle
Avebury encircles the stone circle
The opportunity to visit historic sites such as the neolithic stone constructions of Avebury, England’s, stone circle, the fascinating Stonehenge, and excavated barrows in the area, has been one I was very fortunate to have during my recent trip to Great Britain. As you know here at FDL, discovery and exploration are exciting to me, and I cannot recommend enough that what is out there you will find worth a visit.
While the Druids did have ceremonies at these ancient sites, intensive research has revealed that they were originally created by neolithic inhabitants, dating back to around 3,000 B.C. in their origins.
Avebury (/ˈeɪvbri/) is a Neolithic henge monument containing three stone circles, around the village of Avebury in Wiltshire, in southwest England. One of the best known prehistoric sites in Britain, it contains the largest stone circle in Europe. 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 (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 Middle Ages, 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. Archaeologicalinvestigation followed in the 20th century, led primarily by Alexander Keiller, who oversaw a project of reconstructing much of the monument.
The construction of large monuments such as those at Avebury indicates that a stable agrarian economy had developed in Britain by around 4,000–3,500 BCE. The people who built them had to be secure enough to spend time on such non-essential activities. Avebury was one of a group of monumental sites that were established in this region during the Neolithic. Its monuments comprise the henge and associated long barrows, stone circles, avenues, and a causewayed enclosure. These monument types are not exclusive to the Avebury area. For example, Stonehenge features the same kinds of monuments, and in Dorset there is a henge on the edge of Dorchester and a causewayed enclosure at nearby Maiden Castle. According to Caroline Malone, who worked for English Heritage as an inspector of monuments and was the curator of Avebury’s Alexander Keiller Museum, it is possible that the monuments associated with Neolithic sites such as Avebury and Stonehenge constituted ritual or ceremonial centres.
Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson noted that the addition of the stones to the henge occurred at a similar date to the construction of Silbury Hill and the major building projects at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls. For this reason, he speculated that there may have been a “religious revival” at the time, which led to huge amounts of resources being expended on the construction of ceremonial monuments.
Archaeologist Aaron Watson highlighted the possibility that by digging up earth and using it to construct the large banks, those Neolithic labourers constructing the Avebury monument symbolically saw themselves as turning the land “inside out”, thereby creating a space that was “on a frontier between worlds above and beneath the ground.”
When the Celts arrived, the stone construction had been around for aeons, and their arrival dated around 1000 A.D. At that point, the stone arrangements were a mystery to them as they are now for us.
Below, earth mound at West Kennet
Below, Stone tools excavated at Stonehenge