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More on Avebury

Writing about Avebury some time ago, I noted that the eighteenth-century antiquarian William Stukeley had theorised that the two stone avenues radiating out from the stone circle had formed a ‘solar serpent’ pattern. He got this idea because the route taken by said avenues (only one of which still partially exists) can be interpreted, and indeed was interpreted by Stukeley, as being representative of the body of a snake, passing through Avebury itself and ending at the head – which took the form of another (smaller) stone circle called The Sanctuary which is located just under two miles from Avebury itself (there are no stones left there, and nowadays their positions are marked by concrete blocks).

I happen to go to Avebury rather a lot, and I’ve found a reference to this notion in an old building in the vicinity of the stones. St James’s church in Avebury dates back to at least the seventh century although the nave of the current building dates back to around 1000, with the aisles, chancel and so on being added later. Rather tellingly, the church itself is located outside the stone circle (after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, stone circles came to be seen as the work of the devil while many have local legends attached that state that they are people who were turned to stone for dancing or playing music on Sunday), but who knows if any of the masonry that now makes up the church came from smashed-up stones that once formed part of the circle? 

Quite a few old English churches have some special features, and the church at Avebury is no exception. It has a rare example of a medieval rood screen, an installation intended to separate the nave from the chancel; most of these in English churches were done away with during the Reformation, although in the case of the Avebury church it was hidden and later restored. There is also a hagioscope – also known as a squint, a small hole in the interior wall dating back to the fifteenth century, used to ensure that the mass taking place at a side-altar could be synchronised with the mass at the main, central altar (priests back then would have had their backs to the congregation). On the wall under the tower is a Royal coat-of-arms, which all C of E churches were once required to display by law. Quite a few older churches still do; the Avebury one dates back to the reign of George III.

And then there’s the stone font, reckoned to be Norman or perhaps even Saxon, upon which is carved the image of a serpent-like creature being stabbed in the head by a human figure. Perhaps this symbolises the coming of Christianity in the Dark Ages, or perhaps it hints at the notion of the old stone circle being part of a larger, serpent-like structure. Perhaps that’s where Stukeley got the idea from, for although he’s not listed as having been a former vicar of that parish, he was a C of E priest who spent some time in the area, so he must have been aware of what was, and still is, on the font.

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