On November 28, 1986 the areas and monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury, in Wiltshire, England, were added to the World Heritage Site (WHS) List. This List recognizes and seeks to conserve sites throughout the world that are considered to have universal value to mankind. While Stonehenge readily brings to mind images of great standing stones and the permeation of ancient mysteries, Avebury, though less well-known, comprises a cultural landscape that stretches from the Mesolithic era to present-day.
Occupying 2250 hectares, Avebury is situated on Marlborough Downs approximately 40 kilometers to the northwest of Stonehenge. Persuasive argument is made to eventually enlarge the WHS designation to include the full of Overton Down and its neighbor, Fyfield Down to the east.
Avebury presents one of the most complete prehistoric complexes in northwestern Europe. Visitors may walk the Avebury henge, one of the largest stone circles in England, visit the monuments known as Silbury Hill, Windmill Hill and The Sanctuary, wonder at West Kennet Long Barrow and walk West Kennet Avenue, a palisade of stones which links the Avebury circles with The Sanctuary. We will explore some of these locales presently and visit the remaining in an upcoming article.
At Avebury, the visitor is immediately drawn to artifacts or areas that can be seen, touched and walked upon. In a landscape dominated by such massive earthworks and monuments, satisfaction is easily come by. Tourists visit, take a few snapshots, visit an eatery and buy a trinket or book or two at village shops -- it is all quite civilized. Interestingly though, a recent study found that some eighty thousand people of the nearly half a million visitors to the site each year come seeking "spiritual fulfillment."
The Avebury earthwork is roughly circular in shape and covers an area of about 11.5 hectares. Built between 3000-2200 BC, the massive stone circles are surrounded by a ditch and bank and constructed on a chalk dome which slopes gently out toward the bank. The ditch that surrounds the stoneworks and the bank beyond the ditch, were both once 10 meters lower and higher, respectively. The ditch has lost depth and the bank height to the forces of erosion and occupation. The village of Avebury lies within the bounds of the earthworks.
With approximately 98 stones set within the circumference of the ditch, the enormous Outer Circle is the largest stone circle in Britain. There are four entrances to the henge, one in roughly each of the cardinal directions. The stones nearest the entrances are massive, some as high as 4.4 meters. Within the Outer Circle are the Northern and Southern Inner Circles, each of which once contained a complex setting of megalithic stones.
To place a stone, a small pit was dug to hold the stone. Stakes and ramps were used to guide the stone into an upright position where clay and chalk packing were used to secure it. In an experiment in 1934 it required four days for 12 men using ropes and levers to erect a stone. Research has shown that the larger stones may have required a workforce of over one hundred individuals. The henge and its surrounding monuments are thought to have been constructed with simple tools such as red deer antler picks, rakes, and possibly wooden shovels and buckets.
As the stones are such a prominent feature of Avebury, perhaps the story of the landscape should begin there. Some eighty million years ago the chalkland of Marlborough Downs formed and was later uplifted in the same action which resulted in the formation of the Alps. Thirty million years ago, sand and gravel were gradually deposited on the chalk and formed a cement-like layer of hard sand set to stone.
With time the great sandstone sheets broke, forming enormous slabs of sarsen stone, their upper surfaces pocked and eroded by ice and wind, their bodies slowly creeping into the downland on chalk that was softening to the surrounding damp of the receding Ice Age. The effects of erosion and the last Ice Age resulted in characteristics of the region seen today; high plateau areas, shallow valleys with broad, relatively flat bottoms -- what we would call a rolling countryside.
Sarsen stone is extremely durable, immense and good supplies of it lay within two miles of the region of Avebury. Some of these natural sarsen "trains" are visible today in the nearby area of Delling Wood, where there remain enough embedded stones upon which to step to walk the landscape without touching the ground. It is possible that stone from this area was used both at Avebury and at Stonehenge, the difference being that the architects of Stonehenge worked the material with stone mauls, whereas the builders of Avebury left the stone natural and unfinished.
After the last glacial epoch some 9,000 years ago, these great stones lay aground, sharing their environment with wild cattle, pig, roe and red deer. The improved climate proved favorable to the growth of vast woodlands and the first sporadic visits by modern humans, the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic era (10,000 -- 4,000 BC). Little evidence remains of the occupation or utilization of the Avebury region by Mesolithic peoples.
It was in "treescapes" such as these that Meso- and Neolithic people may have developed the deep affinity for the vegetative landscape which has become our legacy. Archeologist M. Edmonds tells us that woodlands could have been considered by these people in at least three ways; as a source of food and shelter, as a history of their lifetime activities in the clearings that they created and the secondary growth that followed, and as a fertile source of metaphoric meaning. Trees were living, useful companions. Their life-cycles could be compared to those of humans and would have marked the waxing and waning of generations.
Mature trees could have stood as living monuments, a sentiment that even today we apply to beautiful old trees. In the early Neolithic, the region of Avebury was heavily forested with a dense canopy of oak, birch, yew and ash woodland, accompanied by an understory of hazel, hawthorn and blackthorn. It is undoubtedly little coincidence that these are all significant trees that inhabit the Celtic world-view. Possibly the Celts themselves learned of the wisdom of these trees from the indigenous tribes who occupied these regions before they.
As noted above, evidence of Mesolithic activity is sparse, but on the neighboring Salisbury Plain under the car park at Stonehenge, a row of post holes that originally held enormous pine trunks has been located, dating to approximately 8500 BC. Though they may not have settled this area, the hunter-gatherer group who built this communal shrine left an expression of their connection between earth, sky and woodland.
The hallmark of Mesolithic peoples was their mobility, their foraging and hunting for food and provisions provided by the environment. Neolithic people (4000 - 2400 BC) are typically considered to be the harbingers of a more sedentary, but perhaps not permanent, large-scale agricultural industry. It is in this time period - a time of Mesolithic thought and belief blending into the incoming Neolithic mind - that some of our most potent symbols and perhaps longings arise.
Although the monuments left by Mesolithic communities may not be many (or as yet unlocated), it is believed that hunter-gatherer peoples endowed their landscape with symbolic, mythological and narrative importance. Features of the landscape that were naturally or humanly created could have become repositories of spirits, ancestral epics or sources of wisdom and compassion in times of need. The persistent significance of these places would have been noted by early Neolithic tribes and possibly initiated a reverence for these locales that carried over into the great monument building of the Neolithic era.
Considering the advent of the Neolithic, archeologists J. Pollard and A. Reynolds write "we can begin to create a picture of a landscape not only invested with myths, meanings and histories, but one perceived as a potent and animate realm inhabited by spirits and diverse non-human agents."
To our modern minds, the concept of a natural and easy connection of individual and tribe to spirit of land and tree may seem sadly queer. The Western quest for individual expression is paramount. Whereas these people who lived long ago were no less individuals than we, our attachment is to individuality rather than community, or tribe. The ensuing depersonalization of this approach deprives both human and nature of their once vibrant connection. The result is lonely people who live in a crowded world, walking a sometimes ugly land, looking for something, something...something they just cannot remember.
By recognizing numenistic features in the landscape and conserving, memorializing or monumentalizing them, the Neolithic human created an infinitely large landscape in which the transcendent was permitted to flow. Their society most likely recognized the value of cultural landmarks to both the individual and community, thus strengthening the bond of both to nature, and thus, the cycle of life.
To me, the true magnificence and power of Avebury lies in the landscape itself, the connective tissue that lies under the heavens and between the monuments. Forty-five hundred years of human life has passed underfoot leading to the moment when we gaze out upon the land and attempt to make sense of its silence, to look for that "something" that we used to have.
Our exploration of the Avebury region shall continue as we look next to the monuments beyond the Avebury henge.