Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Wiltshire Landscapes - Avebury Standing Stones

Avebury (South Quadrants)

I think it would be remiss of me not to include why the vast majority of people visit Avebury - not its Manor but it's standing stones.

The Neolithic stone circles at Avebury are believed to have been constructed between 2600-2400BC. Many of the sarsen stones that make up the three circles within the henge (a circular area, often containing standing stones or sometimes wooden posts, dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Age) would most likely have been relatively close at hand, lying on top, or partly buried within the chalk landscape. Others would have been dragged on wooden rollers (logs) supporting sledges greased with animal fat, no mean feat when you consider some of them exceed 40 tonnes or more. Once in position they would have been hoisted into place using leather straps in a pre-prepared pit, where wooden stakes were driven into the ground opposite the stone to prevent it from over balancing. Once upright the stone's base would have been packed with more stakes, chalk rubble and smaller stones to secure it in position. The close proximity and abundance of stones must have been a deciding factor when the ‘stone builders’ were looking for somewhere to erect their monument.

The Avebury monument is the largest of its kind in the world, attracting some 300,000 visitors annually. It comprising of a vast henge which covers some 11.3 hectares (28 acres) which, when observed during one early investigation in the 17th century by antiquarian John Aubrey, inspired him to write of the henge, 'it did as much to excel of Stonehenge as a Cathedral does a Parish church.’

The henge is approximately 420m (460yrds) in diameter, inside which are the remains of a huge circle of standing stones, which in turn enclose the remains of two smaller circles of standing stones each about 91m (100yrds) in diameter. The three circles are surrounded by a raised bank and ditch. The ditch, when completed around 3000BC, would have had sheer chalk sides to a depth of approximately 10m (33ft) by 23m (75ft) wide. Chalk rubble would have been hauled up from the ditch by labourers using primitive baskets, leather buckets and ladders, a massive undertaking by any standards. The rubble was then piled up on the outer edge of the ditch to a height of approximately 4m (13ft).  It is estimated that 150,000 tonnes of chalk were removed from the ditch. Today, due to natural erosion the ditch is only about a third of its original depth. The henge has four entrances or causeways, the final component of the build.

Most grand is The West Kennet Avenue which runs from the south-east entrance terminating just short of The Sanctuary at Overton Hill and is the longest avenue of standing stones in Britain. Originally this Avenue would have had 100 pairs of stones spaced some 80 feet apart and 50 feet wide. The Beckhampton Avenue, not as impressive but just as important, lies south-west of the henge and terminates at the Longstones, Beckhampton.  This avenue comprises of just two stones - the Adam and Eve stones. These two would suggest solitude but drawings made by William Stukeley in the 1720s show an avenue populated similar to that of West Kennet. In 1999 the Universities of Southampton, Newport and Leicester found six buried stones in parallel confirming Stukeley's drawings, along with several stone pits, the last surviving remnants of where many more of these mighty giants once stood.

The whole project is estimated to have taken 1.5 million man-hours to complete using the most rudimentary of tools; antler picks, ox scapulars and flint axes, many of which have been unearthed during archaeological digs.

Just what motivated our ancestors to build such an elaborate structure and their ultimate purpose in doing so remains a tantalizing mystery. In the absence of any written records, generations of archaeologists have had to piece together this magnificent monument's history through recovered fragments. One of many theories put forward suggest the henge may well have been a place of sacrificial offerings, as suggested by William Stukeley during his examination of the Ring Stone, although no evidence to collaborate his claims have been found. What has been found are knives, flints, broken pots, nuts and twigs from fruit trees. These discoveries may well have played a part in rituals to appease the gods ensuring a good crop yield and the continued fertility of animals and people.

There are those who favour an astral observatory and believe the stones were placed in some kind of geometrical plan or alignment. Difficult to prove, in view of the fact that many of the stones are missing, making any suggestion of alignment with the stars iffy at best. Having said that, the skies and stars were of great importance to Neolithic man, so there is every likelihood the stones may well have played a part.

Some suggest the banked ditch may have served as a public theater or amphitheater, an elevated viewpoint for the faithful to gather and observed the rituals taking place within the henge. The henge was never a defensive structure as the raised bank is on the outside.

Today, a few so-called modern day druids still favour Stukeley’s inaccurate theories and have subsequently adopted Avebury as there own. But fear ye not dear reader, for <em>all</em> are welcome at Avebury, it is not obligatory to dress up like wizards to enjoy your visit.

It is unfortunate that not all of Avebury’s estimated 500 - 600 stones have survived. Of the three rings only 36 stones are left standing and at least 20 remain buried. Many were pushed over in the 14th century by zealous Christians wishing to ‘deconsecrate’ what they saw as a pagan temple. Christians at that time also regarded the stones as harbingers of ill luck. This practice was quite benign compared to what was to come. In the 16th and 17th centuries many stones were broken up into smaller pieces in 'fire-pits.' The stones were toppled over onto a bed of burning straw where they would be super-heated then doused with water causing them to crack, at which point they would have been broken up into manageable pieces using sledgehammers. This practice was undertaken to clear the land for agriculture and to construct many of the buildings in the village. Some of these magnificent stones even went to cobble the streets of Avebury and Devizes. Evidence of stone burning can still be seen about the village, look out for a dull reddish tinge on some of the walls. It is utterly incomprehensible why such disregard for the monument was allowed to continue, especially when you consider the abundance of stones lying about the landscape which were not part of the monument but would have served just as well for building. William Stukeley, who witnessed much of the destruction knew many of the culprits, the most notorious of all being Tom Robinson, a housing speculator who's blatant indifference of the monument beggars belief

John Aubrey (1626-1697) and William Stukeley (1687-1765)

It was the discovery of Avebury’s megaliths by antiquarian - John Aubrey in 1649 whilst out on a foxhunting jolly, that would ultimately, in years to come, alert the many to the significant importance of Avebury's standing stones. Aubrey’s drawings (there were few) of the monument were to prove vital for future research, as they showed mid 17th century Avebury and its subsequent destruction.

In the early 18th century Avebury was visited by antiquarian - William Stukeley who witnessed the mindless destruction to the monument. Stukeley’s drawings, maps and extensive research proved extremely valuable as they clearly show many of the stones that no longer exist or had been buried.

Between 1719-1724, Stukeley made annual visits to Avebury staying at the Catherine Wheel Inn which once stood in the north-east sector close to the ‘Cove’. Stukeley’s measurements, drawings and sketches encouraged him to produce a book Abury. This book, along with his many notes are now held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford where they remain an invaluable reference to early 18th century Avebury.

One of Stukeley’s ‘pseudoarchaeological’ theories (alternative archaeology) was way off the mark however when he expressed the view that Avebury had been constructed by the druids during what we now call the iron age. This was later disproved as the monument is at least 2000 years older.  Stukeley’s  obsession with druidism distorted his ideas to such a degree that he was ostracized by his contemporaries.

Today, a few so-called modern day druids still favour Stukeley’s inaccurate theories and have subsequently adopted Avebury as there own. But fear ye not dear reader, for all are welcome at Avebury, it is not obligatory to dress up like wizards to enjoy your visit.

Avebury complex by Adam Sorell - 1958, based on archaeological excavations and historic drawings.

Alexander Keiller (1889-1955)

In 1873 a Victorian MP, Sir John Lubbock passed a bill preserving ancient monuments. But it wasn’t until the intervention and purchase of the monument by Dundee Marmalade tycoon and archaeologist - Alexander Keiller in the 1930’s, that the destruction ceased. Keiller set up the Morven Institute for Archaeological Research in 1937. He and his team of local men were responsible for the re-erection of many of the stones. When Keiller first arrived there were only 10 stones standing in an overgrown and neglected landscape. He undertook a mammoth task to clear the detritus and prepare the way for excavation. He re-erected 26 stones and cleared the ditch of rubble. Where he found 'receptor pits' (pits where stones once stood) he placed concrete markers which are still in situ today. It was the outbreak of WWII which ultimately put a stop to his work. In 1943 he sold his holding at Avebury to The National Trust for £12,000. Ill health prevented him from completing his work and much of the henge remains uninvestigated.

Keiller acquisition of Avebury Manor in 1937 from Lt. Col Leopold Jenner, allowed him to modernized the Manor’s stable block to house a museum for his work and findings. Although small, it is very informative and well worth a visit. He died in 1955 of lung cancer at his home in Kingston Hill Surrey.


Folklore has evolved over hundreds of years regarding the alleged power of Avebury’s sarsens. These enigmatic giants appear to cast a spell on many who see them. Some believe the stones have healing properties and by a 'hugging' one will release its magical properties and cure most ills. Others have claimed whilst hugging a stone, to have felt vibrations emanating from within its very core. 'Stone hugging' is a common sight at Avebury. Often when I have been passing through, I can pretty much guarantee that someone will be flat against a stone, adopting a pose reminiscent of the crucifixion and gazing heavenward in eager anticipation of 'the vibe‘. Now I’m no cynic but I think 'the vibe' can most likely be attributed to the rumble and subsequent vibration of heavy traffic passing close by on the A4361. As mentioned earlier, the locals used to believe the stones were harbingers of ill luck, so hugging one is probably not such a good idea on hindsight.

With all the magic, mystery and ancient rituals which have grown up around the stones, you would have thought the circles would be a supernatural hotspot. If truth be known, the opposite is very much the case, especially when compared to the generous helpings of ghostly history from the likes of The Red Lion pub, which stands within the circle, the stately Tudor Manor and 12th century church of St. James and not forgetting reports of ghostly hitchhikers on the A4361 and the famous coach and four said to thunder through the village in the dead of night. The few hauntings that have been reported from the stones are as follows:

Back in the Sixties, a woman driving through the village late at night, reported seeing ghostly figures dressed in period costumes dancing amongst the stones. I would question, that what she actually saw, was probably nothing more than one of the many pagan rituals and parties which take place regularly at Avebury.

There are claims of dwarf like creatures seen darting amongst the stones in the dead of night and of a spectrum of tiny twinkling lights believed by some to be fairy folk. These lights have been seen countless times dancing above the stones, especially the mysterious Diamond Stone, which is located at the north-west quadrant, a stone incidentally, said to uproot itself and cross the A4361 at the stroke of midnight, no mean feat at around 40 tonnes.

In the South East quadrant you will find the massive Devil’s Chair stone, its name will become apparent as you approach it. Here, many have sat awhile to have their photograph taken, but I do wonder how many would stick around if they knew that on occasion the ‘chimney’ will belch black smoke as a warning that the Devil himself is in residence. There is a legend that if you run round the stone anticlockwise 100 times you will evoke the devil. These stories probably came about to prevent God fearing Christians from attacking the stones.

The henge is thought to have been constructed on top of several ley lines (hypothetical veins of invisible energy beneath the earth, said to connect ancient megalithic sites, monuments and even buildings, particularly churches) which dowsers especially believe intersect beneath the henge and are most likely responsible for generating subterranean ‘earth energy’ which may account (according to dowsers) for some of Avebury’s strange goings on.

There have been reports of poltergeist activity in some of the cottages in the village where sarsen stones were used to build them. A friend of mine, who, several years ago rented what is now ‘The Lodge’ was convinced the place was haunted. Many items, especially in the kitchen, would be mysteriously moved when he was out or in bed asleep. He, was the only occupant.

Avebury is a fascinating place and well worth a visit, if only to marvel at its construction and debate its mystery. That said, the claims surrounding the stones abilities will, I'm sure, stretch even the most vivid of imaginations.


No comments: