Avebury Stone Circle, Wiltshire, England

Archaeologists Search for Neolithic Home of Avebury Stone Circle Builders Between the Monuments

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Archaeologists from the National Trust, Southampton and Leicester Universities, and Allen Environmental Archaeology are trying to find out where the people who built the world-famous Avebury Stone Circle in Wiltshire actually lived.

The stone circle at Avebury surrounds the center of the village and two smaller circles stand within the main ring of sarsen stones, one to the North, alongside the road to Swindon and the other to the south, next to the road to Devizes.

The monument, along with its famous neighbor, Stonehenge, is a World Heritage Site. It was constructed over many centuries, from around 2850 BC to 2200 BC with a huge bank and ditch surrounding the stone circle.

The archaeologists are currently exploring a site that was first investigated by Alexander Keiller in 1934. There are many Neolithic stone tools and pottery found just below the surface and experts are now engaged in a three-week dig, having first thoroughly explored the area over the course of the last three years.

“Avebury's prehistoric monuments are justly world famous but one of the questions I'm most often asked is where the people who built and used them lived” said Nick Snashall, speaking to The Western Daily Press . Mr. Snashall is The National Trust's archaeologist for Stonehenge and Avebury. “This landscape has been studied by antiquaries and archaeologists for almost 400 years, which makes it all the more astonishing that we had no idea where its Neolithic and Bronze Age residents lived or what they did in their daily lives. So a few years ago a group of us decided it was about time we changed that and teamed up to form the Between the Monuments Project.”

Snashall said that the team is trying to “put the people back into Avebury”. However, one of the main problems with this kind of work is that it is incredibly difficult to locate the houses the first farmers in the area built, whereas finding stone circles and burial mounds is comparably easy.

The team started by investigating the records assembled by Alexander Keiller and currently held at the Avebury Museum. This led them to a site near West Kennet, where a well-known ‘long barrow’ chambered tomb stands on a small hill – a regular stopping-off point for visitors to Avebury. Close to the barrow stands Europe’s largest man-made hill, a huge earthen mound called Silbury Hill and there is another long barrow at East Kennet.

West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury, Wiltshire, England
West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury, Wiltshire, England ( Wikimedia Commons )

A double row of sarsen stones called the West Kennet Avenue connects West Kennet long barrow with the stone circle and the spot where the team are digging is located part of the way along this avenue, hence the name of the project - ‘Between The Monuments’. 

When the archaeologists stripped back the turf, they found plenty of arrowheads, clusters of flint scrapers used to work animal hide and plant materials, miniature flint saws and pottery. Mr Snashall said that the finds were appearing three or four at a time, in clusters, and that its amazing to think about the millions of people who have visited the site yet had no idea what they were standing on.

The team has also discovered a structure which they think may have been an ancient house .

Scottish archaeologist and businessman Alexander Keiller was heir to his family’s marmalade business, James Keiller & Son, and so he became a very wealthy man. He used part of his inheritance to buy land totaling 950 acres (3.8 square kilometers) in Avebury where he then began to conduct excavations, including re-erecting some of the stones which had fallen over time or had become buried.

After investigating the West Kennet avenue site in 1934, he then moved on to Avebury itself in 1937. It was Keiller who discovered the famous ‘barber surgeon’ skeleton in the stone circle’s south west quadrant. In 1938 Keiller opened a museum at Avebury to display his discoveries, including artifacts he had uncovered at another site at nearby Windmill Hill. Keiller sold all his holdings in Avebury to The National Trust in 1943. The museum is still open to visitors to this day.

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