The Sanctuary, Avebury

History of The Sanctuary, Avebury

The site was first recorded by John Aubrey in 1648 when many of the stones were still standing. He claimed that the Sanctuary was the name given to the site by the local people. A century later William Stukeley recorded the site shortly before it was destroyed by a farmer. In 1930 Maud Cunnington used Stukeley’s drawings to rediscover it and carried out extensive excavations. 

Aerial view of the Sanctuary with the A4 road to the north
Aerial view of the Sanctuary

Building the Sanctuary

The Sanctuary was first constructed in about 3000 BC and its site might have been a new clearing on Overton Hill or it might already have been regarded as of ceremonial importance.

The first structure was a small and simply constructed round hut, measuring 15 feet (4.5 metres) in diameter. There were eight posts supporting the outer wall and a single central post supporting what might have been a conical thatched roof.

The second phase of building, perhaps 100 to 200 years later, saw a new extended building on the same site, which completely enclosed the first hut (probably still standing) within a much larger structure. There were two rings of post holes, very much larger in size than the first hut, with a diameter of 37 feet (11.2 metres).

The third phase appears to belong to the later Neolithic period, owing to the pottery found in association with the post holes. This was almost twice as large as its predecessor and had a diameter of 66 feet (20 metres) and three concentric rings of post holes.

At some stage, possibly while the building was still standing, a sarsen stone circle was incorporated as part of the middle ring of posts, making a near continuous internal wall of stones and posts. An entrance marked by two particularly massive posts was located on the north-west side looking roughly towards Avebury.

The fourth and last phase of construction appears to be contemporary with the West Kennet Avenue and possibly with the stone circles at Avebury. It consisted of a sarsen stone circle of forty-two stones erected to form an outer boundary to the Sanctuary complex. This circle was 138 feet (40 metres) in diameter and was connected to the West Kennet Avenue by two stones on the circumference, in roughly the same position as the door posts of the previous phase.

Concrete blocks marking the position of the original wooden posts and stones
Concrete blocks marking the position of the original wooden posts and stones

Purpose

The function of the Sanctuary remains a mystery, although a number of clues suggest possible uses of the structure. The choice of site might have been made because it had traditional importance.

The original wooden building may have been the home of a wise man, for example. Whatever the original significance of the site it seems to have been the centre of some type of mortuary practice.

Huge numbers of human bones were found and recorded by earlier antiquaries and more fragments were found in the 1930s excavations, scattered in the soil, together with much evidence of food. This suggests that the rituals that took place in the successive buildings on the site were accompanied by elaborate feasts involving animals and a great range of ceramic vessels.

The burial of a child in a crouched position along with a beaker appears to have been one of the last acts on the site before its abandonment in around 2000 BC. It seems likely that the Sanctuary was a special ritual place associated with death rites and ceremonies.

In its later phases it probably took on a different character, since it was incorporated in the Avebury complex. The building of the West Kennet Avenue in order to connect Avebury with the Sanctuary reinforced the status of the site and allowed the new Avebury henge to share in its status and rituals. Some people have suggested that the henge represented fertility rituals whereas death rituals continued to be celebrated at the Sanctuary.

Whatever its use, its importance in the ceremonial landscape is obvious and the site intriguing.

Reconstruction drawing of the possible phases of development of the Sanctuary
Reconstruction of the possible phases of development of the Sanctuary

Description

Sadly little remains of this once impressive monument, although its position within the ceremonial landscape of Avebury is clear.

Now only small rectangular blocks of concrete indicate the positions of the holes once occupied by the wooden posts and sarsen stones that formed the concentric circles of this mysterious structure.

Further Reading

Pollard, J, ‘The Sanctuary, Overton Hill, Wiltshire: a re-examination’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 58 (1992), 213–26 

Note

The text on this page is derived from the Heritage Unlocked series of guidebooks, published in 2002–6. We intend to update and enhance the content as soon as possible to provide more information on the property and its history.

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