Avebury

 

The most important and oldest megalithic
henge in Britain, predating the Druids with active use
between 2600–1600 b.c.e. Avebury is said to be the largest
henge in the world, covering 28.5 acres and including
most of the village of Avebury, located six miles west of
Marlborough in Wiltshire, southern England. The site
may have served Neolithic Goddess worship and is considered
a center of Earth and psychic power by Wiccans,
pagans and others. The original purpose of the stones is
shrouded in mystery.
Site and layout. The henge is surrounded on three sides
by the Marlborough chalk downs and consists of a 15-
foot-high bank, 1,200 feet in diameter, encircling an outer
ditch. The bank is intersected by four roads, three of
which, and possibly the fourth, are thought to have been
causeways to provide access to and from the henge. From
the air, Avebury looks like a Celtic, or circled, cross.
Within the large outer circle stand the ruins of two
and perhaps three smaller circles. The outer Great Stone
Circle once contained about 100 upright sarsen stones
which are hard, sandstone rocks found in the downs.
Only 27 remain, due to massive destruction by the Puritans
in the 17th and 18th centuries. The largest of these
weigh about 60 tons and stand around 25 feet tall.
The circle to the north is known as the Central Circle
and was composed of about 30 stones, four of which
still stand. In the center were three stones forming a ring
called a Cove or Devil’s Den; only two of the stones survive.
The Cove may have been used for funeral rites for
bodies that were buried elsewhere.
Standing alone between the main circle and the South
Circle at the other end is a stone with a natural hole. It
is now referred to as Stukeley’s Ring Stone for William
Stukeley, the 18th-century antiquarian-archaeologist
whose investigations provided much of what is known
about the site before modern developments.
The South Circle has two large stones still upright at
its entrance. Originally there were about 32 stones, five
of which remain, and there are markings where others
once stood. Some theorists believe that this inner circle
was the site of fertility ceremonies during which human
bones were used.
A large stone, called the Obelisk, stands in the center
with smaller stones, called Z stones, surrounding it. The
Obelisk may have been the site for an ancestor cult, for
human bones were found at its base. At this end are also
some tall standing stones and smaller stones in triangle
or diamond shapes, perhaps depicting the male and female
forms.
A double row of stones forms West Kennet Avenue
and leads toward the Kennet valley from the South Circle.
Originally, the avenue comprised about 200 standing
stones set in pairs and was the link between the Great
Stone Circle and another small circle known as the Sanctuary,
one mile away on Overton Hill. One researcher,
Alexander Keiller, excavated the site in 1934 and found
burials at the bases of four of the large stones. Keiller also
learned that the avenue was crossed by early Iron Age and
Roman field boundaries.
The Sanctuary might have been built on the site where
wooden rings stood and where corpses were stored until
the flesh decayed. The dead may have been carried along
the avenue to this circle. The Sanctuary also was part of
Stukeley’s theory that the Druids were serpent worshipers
and Avebury, like Stonehenge, was a serpent temple
of ‘Dracontia.’ The Sanctuary was the head of a snake, the
West Kennet Avenue stone paths formed the neck, and
the sarsen circles were the coils of the body.
At the western entrance of the henge once stood Beckhampton
Avenue. It was destroyed by the Puritans and
now only two stones, known as Adam and Eve or the Longstones,
stand. No one knows where the avenue ended, but
it is thought to have extended a mile and a half. Stukeley
claims that it stretched from the two stones to the sarsen
circles. Sir Norman Lockyer, a 20th-century astronomer,
asserted that the Beckhampton Avenue and Cove features
were orientated to the May sunrise and May ceremonials,
and the West Kennet Avenue was once used to observe the
morning rise of Alpha Centauri in November.
Silbury Hill is built on a natural chalk ridge covering
about five acres and rising 130 feet in height. It is the largest
man-made mound in Europe, and while its purpose
and relationship to Avebury have not been determined,
the carbon date for its first phase of use is c. 2600 b.c.e.
and suggests it was built about the time of the first construction
stages of Avebury. However, West Kennet Long
Barrow, a mound about 350 feet long with a long passage
and five burial chambers, was built c. 2700 b.c.e.
Windmill Hill, 1.5 miles northwest of Avebury, has an
earthwork on the top that was built around 2500 b.c.e.
Animal bones uncovered here suggest it may have been a
cattle market, trading post and ritual site.
The antiquarian John Aubrey visited Avebury in 1648
and observed that the stones were either standing in their
original places or had fallen nearby. Shortly after, the Puritans
began destroying sarsens by breaking them with
hammers or by burning them. In 1649, stones were removed
to clear the land for farming. Local inhabitants
used them in their own buildings; fragments can still be
seen in the village manor house, church and homes. Aubrey’s
notes provide modern investigators with their only
clues for defining the stones’ original positions.
Purpose and uses of the stones. Excavations at Avebury
and monuments in the surrounding area have failed to
14 Avebury
determine a definite origin, purpose or interrelationship
among the stones. According to various theories, the entire
site may have comprised a single religious, magical
or psychic center, or one specific set of stones may have
served as sites for fertility, religious or burial rites or for
astronomical purposes.
The most widely accepted theory holds that Avebury
was built by prehistoric Beaker folk, so named for their
beaker pottery, over a period of five centuries. Beaker
pottery has been found in the area, and timber buildings
were uncovered at the site, suggesting that Avebury might
have once been a settlement of huts. The name Avebury,
however, implies that at some time in its history, it was a
burial site and was referred to as such in the 10th-century
charter of King Athelstan.
One scenario holds that Avebury was built for seasonal
festivals, and the stones were arranged for processionals.
Some observers see male and female aspects to the pillars
and diamond shapes of the stones. Silbury Hill may be
an image of the pregnant Goddess, another fertility symbol.
Still another symbol is the Devil’s Chair, a huge stone
that measures 14 feet wide by 13 feet high and contains a
ledge. In folk tradition, Avebury village girls would sit on
Devil’s Chair on Beltane (May Eve) to make wishes.
The stones of Avebury are widely believed to be the
collectors and repositories of Earth and psychic energy,
which supposedly was known to the original users of the
site and which can be dowsed. The area around Avebury
has been popular with the makers of crop circles.

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