History and Research: Avebury Henge and Stone Circles

The Avebury complex is one of the principal ceremonial sites of Neolithic Britain that we can visit today.

It was built and altered over many centuries from about 2850 BC until around 2200 BC and is one of the largest, and undoubtedly the most complex, of Britain's surviving Neolithic henge monuments.

Aerial view of Avebury

Aerial view of Avebury
© English Heritage

History of construction

The exact sequence of construction of the banks, ditches and stone circles is still not completely understood.

Limited excavations and more recent aerial and geophysical surveys indicate that many other features once existed within the enclosure, and it is quite likely that, before the stone circles were erected, timber circles and structures may have originally filled the area within the bank and ditch – as at other henges in this part of Britain.

At some stage, two avenues of stones were also built, linking the Great Henge with other ceremonial sites at Beckhampton and Overton Hill. The huge man-made mound of Silbury Hill stands not far away and is also broadly contemporary with these monuments.

Ritual landscape

The impression gained is of a landscape being shaped for rituals that involved inclusion, exclusion and procession.

If this is correct, then the various monuments may have been built as public ‘theatres’ for rites and ceremonies that gave physical expression to the community’s ideas of world order; the place of the people within that order; the relationship between the people and their gods; and the nature and transmission of authority (whether spiritual or political).

The length of time over which the Great Henge and its two avenues were built is so long that it suggests the community’s relationship with its environment may gradually have altered – and that changing rituals may have been the driving force for the building of new monuments and for their eventual abandonment around 1800 BC.

A reconstruction painting of how Avebury might have looked in the Neolithic period

A reconstruction painting of how Avebury might have looked in the Neolithic period
© English Heritage

Description

As the site appears now, it consists of a huge circular bank and ditch with four causewayed entrances and an inner circle of upright stones enclosing a further two stone circles, each with a central feature.

A double avenue of stones leads away from the southern entrance towards the Sanctuary stone circles on Overton Hill, about a mile (1.6 km) to the south east.

Banks and causeways

The massive bank and ditch enclose an area of 28.5 acres (11.5 ha).

The shape formed by the ditch is sub-circular and is divided by causewayed entrances into four unequal arcs. The bank is now some 14–18 feet (4.2–5.4 metres) high but was once nearly 55 feet (17 metres) above what was originally a 30-foot (9-metre) deep ditch.

The bank of stark white chalk must have been a spectacular sight. It is as irregular as the ditch in shape and appears to have been built by different work gangs. Where the bank ended at an entrance, timber revetments appear to have been used to keep the bank in place.

The surfaces of the four causewayed entrances were reduced by scraping the top layer of chalk, so that the banks each side appeared even higher and more impressive.

There may also have been timber entrances of some kind, restricting access to the circles to only a few people at a time.

Together with the stones, the Great Henge at Avebury took many hundreds of thousands of hours to complete. It was one of the most labour-intensive Neolithic monuments in Britain along with Stonehenge and Silbury Hill.

Three Stone Circles

There are three great stone circles within the henge at Avebury: an outer circle and two smaller inner circles that were aligned more or less north and south.

The main outer circle probably had between 98 and 105 stones arranged around the perimeter edge of the surrounding ditch.

The stones were quite variable in shape and size, but the tallest ones stood at the northern and southern entrances to the henge – presumably placed to form impressive openings.

The Southern Circle and Great Obelisk

The southern circle focused on a central point, the great Obelisk, which was the largest stone in the circle at 21 feet (6.4 metres) high.

This was removed sometime after 1725 and its former position is now represented by a concrete post. It was surrounded by twenty-nine smaller stones, which formed the circle. These were set at regular intervals, about 36 feet (11 metres) apart, the same as the stones in the outer circles and also of roughly the same height.

Around the central point of the Obelisk, an arrangement of smaller rough sarsen stones formed a near rectangular enclosure that had already been staked out with wooden posts. When excavated this curious alignment was called the ‘Z’ feature. South of it was a single stone, perhaps lining up with the southern causewayed entrance.

The Northern Circle

The northern circle probably consisted of twenty-seven stones, also spaced at the interval used elsewhere at Avebury of about 36 feet (11 metres).

Most of the original stones are now missing, but two still stand and two more lie on the ground.

At the centre are the remains of the Cove, or the Devil’s Brandirons, as it was known.

This once consisted of three rectangular shaped sarsen stones, arranged around three sides of a square with the opening to the north. Although not visible today, it is likely that, like the Obelisk in the southern circle, the Cove was surrounded by rows or a ring of smaller sarsen stones.

diagram showing how the sarsen stone may have been levered in to position

How the sarsen stones may have been placed in position
© English Heritage

Medieval and modern history

In the Middle Ages the stones may have been associated with pagan and devil worship and many were either buried or destroyed. Later building and agricultural improvements led to others being removed.

Records and maps made by early antiquarians such as John Aubrey and William Stukeley give us some clues as to its former layout.

The appearance of the site today, however, owes much to Alexander Keiller, heir to a fortune made from the famous Keiller marmalade, who bought the site and cleared away buildings and re-erected many stones in the late 1930s.

Today, Avebury (along with Stonehenge) is designated a World Heritage Site.

Part of the stone circle

Part of the stone circle
© English Heritage

Sources

Malone, C 1989. ''The English Heritage Book of Avebury, Batsford: London

Malone, C 1994. 'The Prehistoric Monuments of Avebury, Wiltshire', 2nd ed, English Heritage: London

Disclaimer

The text and pictures on this page are derived from the 'Heritage Unlocked' series of guidebooks published in 2004. We intend to review, update and enhance the content in the near future as part of the Portico project, whose objective is to provide information on the history, significance, research background and sources for all English Heritage properties.