On a delightful summer’s day we visited Avebury henge in Wiltshire. It’s one of the principal and best-known ceremonial and sacred meeting places for our ancestors in Britain. Avebury contains the largest stone circle in the world.
Development of the site is said to have begun about 2850 BCE, continuing to 2200 BCE. We found it awe-inspiring to imagine the construction process. The hours of sweat and toil involved to dig the deep, internal ditch with deer antler picks. They would have used woven baskets to transfer the soil, into the large, outer circular bank. It’s the biggest and most complex existing henge monuments in Britain.
MARKERS INDICATE WHERE STONES WERE DESTROYED – NOTE THE EARTHEN BANK
In the 14th Century, believing the site to be the work of the devil, Avebury villagers pulled down many of the stones. They buried them in ready-made pits. Destruction came to a sudden halt when a huge, two metre stone collapsed. It killed one of the helpers . Superstitious villagers feared it was retribution. Soon afterwards, in 1349, the Black Death must have confirmed their suspicions. The illness almost halved the population, and left few with the will to continue the project.
In the 17th and 18th Centuries, destruction resumed. Christians of the day desired to remove all trace of the pagans who had erected the monument. Antiquarian and writer, John Aubrey, fascinated by the antiquity and mystery of the site, made extensive notes about Avebury and other prehistoric monuments. He created maps of the area and placement of stones. This proved invaluable for later archaeologists. It detailed many standing stones which were later destroyed by locals. Heated by fire, cracked by water and battered into submission by sledge-hammers, locals carried off their booty to build cottages.
By 1837, many standing stones had become building materials. Ironically, the main survivors were those which had been buried, centuries earlier. However, we owe the Avebury which folk enjoy today, to a wealthy archaeologist, Alexander Keiller. Between 1908 and 1922, he was among those surveying and evacuating earth at Avebury. At the bottom of the 11 metre ditch, they found 40 red deer antlers picks, human jaw bones and the skeleton of a woman. With the site under threat from development, Keiller purchased the entire area. Vacant houses and those belonging to deceased estates were gradually bought and pulled down, especially within the inner circle.
In the 1930s Keiller re-erected remaining stones. Markers were added to indicate lost or destroyed stones. One of the survivors became known as the Barber Stone.Beside it they unearthed the skeleton of a man Keiller identified as a barber-surgeon . 13th C coins were found in his leather purse, along with scissors and a probe-like instrument. Scissors were expensive, so the victim could just as easily have been an itinerant tailor
In a geophysical survey, the national trust found 15 more buried megaliths. Keiller continued his vital work. The stone’s surface are not dressed in any way. Were they chosen for their intrinsic beauty? Are the taller ones considered male, the shorter female? Keiller, their saviour, died at Avebury Manor in 1955.
New discoveries are still being made. One stone buried 2.1 metres deep was estimated to weigh over a hundred tons. The University of Leicester has detected a unique square megalithic monument within the Avebury circles. It could be one of the earliest structures on the site.
Modern pagans, especially Druid groups, continue to worship at the henge. Services are staggered, ensuring conflicting beliefs never clash.