The Old Stones: Remarkable Development of the Avebury Landscape
The Avebury monuments cluster around the headwaters of the upper Kennet valley in north Wiltshire, close to the northern edge of the Wessex chalk uplands. Much of the archaeological fame of this region resides in its spectacular late Neolithic monuments. The Avebury henge, its megalithic avenues, Silbury Hill and the West Kennet palisaded enclosures are among the largest megalithic, earthen and wooden constructions found in the Neolithic of Atlantic Europe.
While monument building here reached its apogee in the centuries around 2500BC, the origins of this remarkable ceremonial complex, and the pre-eminent status of this landscape, must be sought in developments during the earlier Neolithic. On present evidence, the first farming communities in the region look to have been established close to 4000BC. By the 37 th century BC they were well established, and the wider Avebury landscape – taking in the chalk downlands to the south, west and east – relatively well populated. Key monuments such as the Windmill Hill enclosure and the West Kennet long barrow – one of 30 or so long barrows in the wider landscape – belong to this time. Both stone-chambered and earthen/chalkmounded examples are present; the latter more common in the western half of the region. Many were tombs of sorts, others, such as South Street, near Avebury Trusloe, had no funerary function. By virtue of its scale and the wealth of material found in its ditches, particularly animal bone, the enclosure on Windmill Hill was a major, extra-regional focus for gatherings and feasting events, establishing a tradition of collective ceremonial activity that was to continue and grow.
West Kennet Long Barrow ( Colin & Linda McKie / Fotolia)
During the first half of the third millennium BC, both settlement and monument building were more focused on the valley floor around the Winterbourne and head of the River Kennet. At the heart of the area is the Avebury henge, which seems to have the longest history of construction and use of the region’s ceremonial sites. Its stone circles and avenues make use of the local sarsen stone: a silcrete rock that was originally widely distributed across the Avebury landscape.
Avebury Stone Circle and Henge at sunrise, Wiltshire ( Gail Johnson / Fotolia)
By 2500BC the pace of monument building had markedly increased. This repeats a picture found across Wessex, and could mark a response to the ideological challenge posed by the introduction of the new ways of life and beliefs of Continental Beaker groups. The numbers of Beaker newcomers are likely to have been small to begin with, but their impact would prove profound and lasting. Building ever-larger monuments like Silbury Hill may have been a way of reinforcing existing belief systems and ancestrally sanctioned authority in the face of these new world views. Over the space of a few generations many of the elements of the Avebury henge, Silbury Hill, the Sanctuary and the West Kennet palisaded enclosures were created. Separate sites were integrated into a single ceremonial complex through the creation of linking avenues connecting Avebury with the Sanctuary and the Longstones); while the Sanctuary, West Kennet palisades and Silbury Hill are visually linked and connected to a degree by the River Kennet. This may have served to structure landscape-scale as opposed to site-specific ceremonial activity, and, by tying together places with history, enforced a particular narrative of the landscape and its occupation. The process would have involved participation from far and wide, and stretched resources to the limit. It likely culminated with the building of the colossal mound of Silbury Hill.
Silbury Hill, Avebury ( Tim / Fotolia)
Communities were still being drawn into the region during the early Bronze Age (2200–1500BC), as testified by the 300 or so round barrows that cover a variety of burials, and by the ongoing deposition of human remains within Avebury henge. Much of this remarkable history of ceremonial activity remains visible in the landscape, even though ploughing, stone breaking and decay have taken their toll. Avebury preserves a distinct sense of place and a connection to an intriguing past. Archaeological fieldwork is ongoing, with new geophysical surveys across the landscape, and a programme underway to investigate prehistoric settlements. The Living with Monuments project has highlighted the scale of settlement within the region, showing this was by no means a reserved “ritual” landscape. A connection existed between monument building and routine living, and certain locations with long histories of Neolithic settlement, such as on Overton Hill and at Avebury itself, were later monumentalized.
Top image: Avebury Stone Circle ( Andrew Foster / Flickr )
By Joshua Pollard, Reader in Archaeology at the University of Southampton
This article is an extract from the book ‘ The Old Stones: A Field Guide to the Megalithic Sites of Britain and Ireland’ Edited by Andy Burnham. Watkins Publishing, 2018’