Ninety miles west of London and twenty miles north of Stonehenge stands Avebury, the largest known stone ring in the world. Older than the more famous Stonehenge, and for many visitors far more spectacular, the multiple rings of Avebury are cloaked with mysteries which archaeologists have only begun to unravel.
Similar to Stonehenge and many other megalithic monuments in the British Isles, Avebury is a composite construction that was added to and altered during several periods. As the site currently exists, the great circle consists of a grass-covered, chalk-stone bank that is 1,396 feet in diameter (427 meters) and 20 feet high (6 meters) with a deep inner ditch having four entrances at the cardinal compass points. Just inside the ditch, which was clearly not used for defensive purposes, lies a grand circle of massive and irregular sarsen stones enclosing approximately 28 acres of land. This circle, originally composed of at least 98 stones but now having only 27, itself encloses two smaller stone circles. The two inner circles were probably constructed first, around 2600 BC, while the large outer ring and earthwork dates from 2500 BC. The northern circle is 320 feet in diameter and originally had twenty-seven stones of which only four remain standing today; the southern circle is 340 feet across and once contained twenty-nine stones, of which only five remain standing.
The construction of the Avebury complex must have required enormous efforts on the part of the local inhabitants. The sarsen stones, ranging in height from nine to over twenty feet and weighing as much as 40 tons, were first hewn from bedrock and then dragged or sledded a distance of nearly two miles from their quarry site. These stones were then erected and anchored in the ground to depths between 6 and 24 inches. The excavation of the encircling ditch required an estimated 200,000 tons of rock to be chipped and scraped away with the crudest of stone tools and antler picks (there is some evidence that this ditch was once filled with water, thereby giving the inner stone rings the appearance of being set upon an island). From excavation and soil resistivity studies it is known that the three rings originally contained at least 154 stones of which only 36 remain standing today. There are three reasons for the disappearance of these stones. In the 14th century, and perhaps earlier, the local Christian authorities, in their continuing effort to eradicate any vestiges of 'pagan' religious practices, toppled, broke up and buried many stones. Later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, still more of the remaining stones were removed from their foundations. Crops could then be planted in these areas and the massive stones could be broken into smaller pieces to be used for the construction of houses and other buildings.
In the early years of the 18th century, however, the general outline of the Avebury temple was still visible. Dr. William Stukeley, an antiquarian who frequently visited the site in the 1720's, watched in dismay as the local farmers, unaware of the cultural and archaeological value of the ancient temple, continued with its destruction. For over thirty years Stukeley made careful measurements and numerous drawings of the site, drawings that are today our only record of both the immense size and complexity of the ancient temple. Stukeley was the first observer in historical times to clearly recognize that the original ground plan of Avebury was a representation of the body of a serpent passing through a circle and thus forming a traditional alchemical symbol. The head and tail of the enormous snake were delineated by 50-foot wide avenues of standing stones, each extending 1 and 1/2 miles into the countryside. One of the avenues terminated at another stone ring known as the 'sanctuary'. Continuing his explorations and mapping of the countryside surrounding the stone serpent, Stukeley gathered evidence that the sacred complex of Avebury included many other massive earth and stone monuments.
Only 1500 meters south of the main Avebury rings stands Silbury Hill, the largest, and perhaps the most enigmatic, of all megalithic constructions in Europe. Crisscrossing the surrounding countryside are numerous meandering lines of standing stones and mysterious underground chambers, many positioned according to astronomical alignments. Perhaps the most astonishing revelations of Avebury's ancient grandeur have come through the recent research of John Michell, Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller. Drawing upon legends and folklore, archaeological excavations and dowsing, these specialists have determined that the Avebury temple was part of a vast network of neolithic sacred sites arranged along a nearly two-hundred mile line stretching all across southern England. Positioned directly on this line are the great pilgrimage sites of Glastonbury Tor and St.Michael's Mount. (For more information on this line and the sites along it, consult Hamish Miller's book, The Sun and the Serpent.)
The length of time for the main continuity of use of the Avebury complex throughout the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age was, according to present dating studies, around 2300 years. This lengthy span of time and the vast size of the whole complex give testimony to the fact that the Avebury temple was perhaps the most significant sacred site in all of Britain, if not the entire continent of Europe. And what of its use? Various conjectures have been made but it is premature to speak with any certainty. To fathom the mysteries of Avebury will take some years still. Only since the 1980's has there occurred the essential meeting of science and spirit, of archaeology and intuition that may unlock the secrets of this wondrous place.
Aerial View of Avebury Stone Ring surrounding the village of Avebury