The great henge monument of Avebury represents one of the largest and best-preserved Neolithic sites surviving in England. Henges, which are unique to the British Isles, are ditched enclosures, often of roughly circular form, with a surrounding bank and ditch entered through causeways, within which were structural arrangements and alignments of standing stones, timbers, and pits. Avebury is part of a dense Neolithic complex of surrounding monuments and domestic activity that date from early in the Neolithic (c. 3800–4000 b.c.) to the Bronze Age (c. 2000 b.c.). The henge represents a final phase of building activity and appears to replace the nearby earlier causewayed enclosure site of Windmill Hill.
The complex (which is repeated in similar form and sequence at a number of other ceremonial sites in southern Britain) includes first a dense concentration of Neolithic long barrows for collective burial (at least 25 are known from within 10 kilometers of Avebury), together with evidence for occupation and ritual activity, such as mortuary enclosures. The complex is followed by later Neolithic monument building, including avenues of posts and stones, burials, circular ceremonial buildings, enclosures, and henges. At Avebury an immense artificial mound called Silbury Hill dates from this phase together with enclosures and buildings or circles at the Sanctuary, Beckhampton, West Kennet, and other sites. Such landscapes and monuments are considered to have been intentionally designed as part of the "sacred geography" of the Neolithic world.
Avebury is located in central southern England, in the county of Wiltshire, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of London. It lies within a basin in rolling chalk downland, which offered an easily cleared, well-drained, and fertile environment to the early farming communities of prehistory. Located at a height of between 150 and 200 meters (about 500 to 600 feet) above sea level, the hilly landscape is dissected by small streams and river, draining to the River Thames, with Avebury broadly visible from the landscape around it. Local resources also included sarsen stone (a hard silicaceous sandstone used for constructing the stone circles), which is scattered over the area along with flint.
The Neolithic in Britain began about 4000 b.c. with the arrival of agricultural practices and associated domestic artifacts from continental Europe, including pottery and groundstone axes. For several centuries the clearance of natural vegetation and woodland formed a major activity, one that is well documented in the Avebury area, revealing a progressively open and managed landscape. The Windmill Hill enclosure was constructed in the middle of the fourth millennium b.c. and was in use well into the third millennium b.c. Avebury and other henges were built in the first two-thirds of the third millennium b.c., often over many centuries. Stone circles were constructed from late in the third to the early second millennium b.c. (c. 2200–1600 b.c.). At Avebury dating evidence has been obtained from the surrounding ditch, showing it was constructed between 2900 and 2600 b.c. Dating the stone circles is more difficult. Carbon-14-dated charcoal from the outer circle suggests erection between 2500 and 1700 b.c. (broadly contemporary with the much damaged stone Beckhampton Avenue, c. 2400–2200 b.c., which lies to the west of Avebury and is under archaeological investigation). The inner circles, however, remain undated by modern methods, and the presence of lower chalk packing (a harder and geologically earlier chalk excavated from the deepest parts of the great ditch and not exposed elsewhere) around the standing stones suggest an early date.
The henge of Avebury had an immense ditch and bank; excavation shows that the ditch was 10 to 14 meters deep, with the spoil (dirt) made into a huge outer bank reaching originally to a height of as much as 6 meters. There were four causewayed entrances, each about 20 meters wide, and aligned north-northwest, south-southeast, east-southeast, and west-southwest. The southern entrance was connected to a stone avenue (the West Kennet Avenue) and there may have been additional standing stones linking Avebury with sites at Beckhampton. The "circle" reached a diameter of about 350 meters (1,140 feet), and covered 11.5 hectares (28.5 acres). The now-reduced standing stones within the circle were arranged as an outer circle of some 95 to 100 stones surrounding a number of other arrangements, including two inner circles each with a diameter of about 100 meters and at one time comprising some 25 to 30 stones each. At the center of the northern circle was a "cove" of three huge stones, and at the center of the southern circle was an arrangement of small standing stones known as the "Z" feature surrounding the "obelisk," an upright monolith. Resistivity and other remote sensing techniques have identified several other potential settings of timbers, stones, and earth within the henge, which may include timber buildings such as found at Woodhenge and the Sanctuary. These settings may have been aligned on solar, lunar, and other celestial observations, forming a simple astronomical observatory, although this has never been proven. Excavations undertaken in 1908–1922 by Harold St. George Gray and in 1934–1939 by Alexander Keiller explored the ditch and the standing stones and showed how the site was constructed. However, artifactual finds mostly in ditch and stone-hole deposits have been few, and they include later Neolithic and Beaker pottery, flint tools, rare animal and human bones, and antlers. Some scholars interpret the placement of such artifacts, for example, at the terminal ends of ditches, as symbolic and intimately connected to the ceremonies and activities of Avebury.
Avebury is one a small group of so-called superhenges, which are of great size and are spread across Britain and parts of Ireland. Other sites include Marden (530 meters diameter) and Durrington Walls (525 meters diameter), both in Wiltshire; Mount Pleasant (370 meters diameter) in Dorset; Knowlton (227 meters diameter) in North Dorset; the Giant's Ring (180 meters diameter) near Belfast in Northern Ireland; Dowth Q (175–165 meters diameter) in Ireland; and the Ring of Brodgar (123 meters diameter) in Orkney. Stonehenge, in comparison, has a diameter of only 110 meters. The "superhenges" enclosed settings of wood posts, stones, pits, and circular buildings and were located within landscapes of dense prehistoric activity with large and prominent monuments. Typically they seem to be part of a long succession of monumental ceremonial landscapes and monuments, often originating around clusters of Early Neolithic long barrows and causewayed enclosures. By the later Neolithic in the mid–third millennium b.c., the long barrows and related sites had been replaced by henges, avenues, rare large round burial mounds—such as Duggleby Howe in Yorkshire, Knowth in Ireland, and Maes Howe in Orkney, Scotland—and other individual graves, structures, and enclosures.
Research since the late twentieth century has concentrated on interpretations of the meaning of henges and how they were perceived by their builders and users. In particular phenomenology has become a popular means to investigate prehistoric sites. Phenomenology is a personal and interpretative approach to the human experience of landscapes and places and involves a philosophy of space, society, and perception. It is thought that the enclosures were used for the enactment of ceremonial and religious activities involving large numbers of people. The banks and ditches may have served the function of providing a viewing area while at the same time excluding active participation from the onlookers. Landscape research and reconstruction has provided important evidence about tree clearance and land use and shows a reversion to scrub and grassland during the third millennium b.c. Such changes may have been the result of economic and social upheaval, and monument building in the form of henges and avenues might express new social identities and belief systems.
See alsoNeolithic Sites of the Orkney Islands (vol. 1, part 3); Boyne Valley Passage Graves (vol. 1, part 4); Stonehenge (vol. 2, part 5).
Burl, Aubrey. Prehistoric Avebury. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.
Malone, Caroline. Avebury. London: Batsford, 1989.
Pollard, Joshua, and Andrew Reynolds. Avebury : The Biography of a Landscape. Stroud, U.K.: Tempus, 2002.
Ucko, Peter J., Michael Hunter, Alan J. Clark, and Andrew David. Avebury Reconsidered from the 1660s to the 1990s. London: Unwin Hyman, 1991.
Avebury is possibly the most spectacular of the ancient megalithic monuments in the British Isles, far surpassing in size the more well-known Stonehenge. Like Stonehenge, it is located in Wiltshire. Enough of the monument has survived that a picture of what it looked like when it was completed can be reconstructed.
The large ritual area is surrounded by a circular earth embankment some 1200 feet in diameter. Immediately inside of the embankment is a ditch, and on the inner edge of the ditch there once stood a circle of some 100 stones; a number of which once formed the western half of the circle remain in place. Inside the large circle were two inner circles, both of approximately 340 feet in diameter. In the center of the circle to the north is a cove, but its purpose is unknown. There was a single stone, surrounded by a rectangle of smaller stones, in the center of the southern circle. All of the stones appeared unfinished and were gathered from the surrounding countryside. Similar stones lie scattered on the landscape of the region to this day.
Avebury has been inhabited since late Neolithic times. Then, around 2600 B.C.E., the southernmost inner circle was erected, and it appears to have been used for a variety of ritual purposes. The northernmost inner circle was erected soon afterwards. It was quite different in that it had a double ring of stones. It has been suggested that it was possibly used for funeral rites. Next, a ditch was dug around the entire site and the earth taken from the excavation was used to form the rampartlike outer circle. A double line of stones, generally called West Kennet Avenue, led from Avebury to the south toward an associated monument about a mile away. There were at one time as many as 200 hundred stones along the avenue, but less than 20 remain today. Avebury probably was completed around 2000 B.C.E. and utilized for more than a millennium.
As the megaliths in Britain have been studied, Avebury has been placed in the larger context of sites scattered across the land. It has been studied in light of the alignments its stones might offer to various prominent planetary bodies. Alexander Thom, who pioneered such study, did very accurate measures of the remaining stones, and has suggested they demonstrate a quite sophisticated knowledge of the Moon's movements. Others have noted that so many stones are missing that determining alignments is quite difficult if not impossible. The circles were probably places in which a large number of the people in the surrounding countryside gathered, but their essential functions remain a matter of widespread speculation.
Brown, Peter Lancaster. Megaliths and Masterminds. New York: Charles Scribners's Sons, 1979.
Burl, Aubrey. Rings of Stone. New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor & Fields, 1980.
——. The Stone Circles of the British Isles. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976.
Thom, Alexander. Megalithic Sites in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.