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The county of Wiltshire has long been noted for its ancient landmarks and monuments – there’s much more to it than just Stonehenge. To the north – just off the A4 as opposed to the A303 – is a village called Avebury, and that is home to the largest ancient stone circle in all of Europe. It may not have the immediate impact of Stonehenge – the number of stones has over the centuries been greatly reduced – but it has a distinct charm of its own, which is helped by the fact that part of the village actually lies within the stone circle. Plus, unlike Stonehenge, it’s free to visit and you can actually go up and touch the stones.

In fact, it could be said that the stone circle at Avebury, which dates back to the third millennium BC, is more of a circular enclosure with various arrangements of standing stones (including two smaller circles) inside, and that it’s merely a part of a whole complex of ancient structures in the vicinity, “one of a cluster of major prehistoric works,” according to the book Mythology of the British Isles by Geoffrey Ashe which I have been dipping into recently. Other stones form an avenue leading away from the Avebury circle towards a smaller site known as the Sanctuary, an easy-to-miss site close to the A4 which is not far from the burial mound that is the West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill, which looks man-made because it is (it’s the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, similar in size to the smaller pyramids at Giza); it dates back to around the same time as Avebury and apparently took several centuries to make.

The stone circle at Avebury, which as well as various other standing stones also encloses part of the village (including the pub, the Red Lion, which can therefore claim to be the only pub to be located within an ancient stone circle), is itself enclosed by a henge – a ditch and earth bank which would appear to have served as a means of restricting entrance to the site to certain key points (rather like, I suppose, the doors of a cathedral).

Quite a few of the stones are no longer there. Over time, some were broken up for use as building materials while others were removed to allow for cultivation of the land. It’s also been noted that even though there has been a Christian church at Avebury since the seventh century (it is located outside the stone circle), superstition about the stones led to the removal and burial of quite a few of them in the fourteenth century. It was this removal of the stones that led to the only known death to have been directly associated with them. “About 1320,” states Ashe, “a man who was helping to smash one of the stones was crushed to death when it keeled over on top of him. In 1938 his skeleton was found, with the tools of his trade – he was a barber-surgeon.” One imagines an itinerant tradesman unexpectedly getting roped into helping out with some heavy lifting while he was passing through the village, with fatal results.

As for what it was built for, that is a mystery that continues to fascinate – and the Neolithic people who built it left us no clues, as they were of a pre-literate age. The lack of human remains that have been unearthed precludes the notion of Avebury having been a place of death or sacrifice, and the best guess is that it was a temple used for ceremonies of some sort, in which the path of the sun played a key role, for the stones’ astronomical alignment has been remarked upon (light-heartedly as well as seriously; in 2014, the National Trust claimed that they were planning to move one of the stones at Avebury in order to align the circle with British Summer Time – a claim that was, of course, made on April Fools’ Day). What can be in no doubt is that this was clearly something of great importance to our Neolithic ancestors; even though the rocks/blocks are local (they are sarsen, a type of sandstone) it would have taken a long time to drag them over several miles before erecting them in pre-determined positions. To make the whole thing would have taken years, if not decades or even centuries (much like the building of cathedrals in the Middle Ages).

In the eighteenth century, the antiquarian William Stukeley pioneered archaeological investigative techniques at Avebury – taking notes, making drawings and doing careful measurements in a bid to unlock the mystery of the stones (at the same time as some of the local farmers were busy removing some of the stones, not out of superstition but in order to obtain building materials and clear the land for the plough). Stukeley figured out that there were two stone avenues extending out from Avebury – one, the Kennet Avenue, heading south-east to the Sanctuary and another, the Beckhampton Avenue, heading south-west (few stones from the latter had survived even in Stukeley’s time, and for many years archaeologists reckoned he’d got it wrong although buried stones have recently been unearthed along its route). He theorised that Avebury had been built by the Druids (who actually post-date the construction of the site) and that the avenues formed a ‘solar serpent’ and he reckoned that to be similar to symbols used in ancient Egypt. 

Wishful thinking, probably (as Ashe states, a “past guess at serpent-worship had no basis but the fancy that the Avebury-Avenue-Sanctuary formation was serpentine”) – although in Stukeley’s favour he was right about the Beckhampton Avenue, and by studying Avebury at a time when quite a few of the stones were being dismantled his contribution towards our understanding of the site is invaluable. He also seems like a fascinating chap, as antiquarians often do, being from a time when men could get away with having multiple scholarly interests (as well as digging around at Avebury and Stonehenge, he was a biographer of Newton, no less, as well as being a C of E priest who was obsessed about the Druids).

Further theorising came in the early twentieth century with the development of the notion of ley lines, the idea that prehistoric and not-so-prehistoric sites are not located at random points but are arranged in straight lines. Avebury plays a part in this. “One of the longest and most impressive leys in the country,” state Janet and Colin Bord in their book Mysterious Britain, “cuts through the southern edge of the Avebury circle … This ley or ‘dragon line’ stretches from Land’s End to Burrow Mump and Glastonbury Tor, thence on to Avebury, and eventually reaches Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, touching en route many hills and churches dedicated to St Michael”. Mysterious Britain is a work from the Seventies which focuses on Britain’s ancient monuments with a strong emphasis on the weird and the wonderful, and seems to take a lot of the mythology at face value (I suspect that Stukeley would’ve loved it). Ley lines are a good example of people making way too much about what is essentially a couple of coincidences, and in the case of the example mention it falls flat when you look at a map and realise that several the places mentioned aren’t really aligned on a straight line, although I guess it depends on how thick said line is (a mile, perhaps?), while Ashe hedges his bets by stating that the St Michael Line (as he calls it) is “not perfectly straight, but good enough to be significant”.

More seriously, the early twentieth century saw an archaeologist by the name of Alexander Keiller working at Avebury. His excavations led to the reconstruction of some of the stone settings, for he was able to find quite a few of the stones that had been buried and re-erect them in their original positions (or as close as possible); in addition, he marked the positions of stones that had been lost for good with concrete posts which he’d designed specially for this purpose. It was he who found the remains of the unfortunate barber-surgeon. It’s also thanks to Keiller that the site is the way it is today, for he was a wealthy man who purchased much of the land in Avebury so that he could carry out his excavations, and he later sold it to the National Trust – which runs the site today. It is most definitely worth a visit.

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