Was the Massive Stone Circle of Avebury In Honor of a Humble Neolithic House? [New Report]
A peculiar square formation recently discovered within the Neolithic stone circle monument of Avebury henge is reshaping the traditional narrative of one of the wonders of the prehistoric world. It seems one of the world’s largest Neolithic circles had its ancient beginning as a simple wooden house.
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Experts consider that the hidden stones, recently discovered with the help of radar technology, were one of the earliest structures at the site and could have possibly honored a Neolithic building structure to around 3700 BC. When the find was first made in 2017, the Guardian reported, that previously archaeologists suggested that the huge stone outer circle – which at 330 meters (1080 ft) in diameter is the largest in Europe – had been constructed from the outside inwards. The most recent work, however, shows that a lowly wooden building that possibly served as a center of interest for the Neolithic community, seeded the monument with a successive series of stone structures springing up around it over hundreds of years.
The full survey, written by archaeologists from the University of Leicester was published by Antiquity magazine on April 10 expands on the new findings about the origins of Avebury henge. The authors suggest that, “Avebury's Southern Inner Circle was constructed to memorialise and monumentalise the site of a much earlier ‘foundational’ house.” The importance of this discovery is that it implies, “the way that traces of habitation may take on special social and historical value, leading to their marking and commemoration through major acts of monument building.”
But why would such a building be reverred by prehistoric people in such a way? Answers are of course, speculative, but the researchers think that the descendents of the original house owners might have first commemorated it with a few stones, and it grew from there, reports New Scientist. “It’s a monument that developed in a series of stages,” says Pollard, “Think of Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland. It was once just a house, now it’s a shrine.”
Although the exact chronology is still unknown, the team suggests it was built around 3700 BC, due to the type of flint tools that have been found at the site. From then, and over the course of centuries, the site grew larger and lager until the massive monument that survives today.
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Part of Avebury outer stone circle (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Mark Gillings, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester who directed the work, told the Guardian:
“Our working interpretation is that the house is the first thing. It falls into ruin but they’re still remembering and respecting it. They put a square around it about 3000 BC and then the circles. It’s like ripples on a pond coming out from the house.”
Gillings and his team spotted the positions of the prehistoric standing stones, which they speculate were hidden and buried for many years, while they suggest there are more stones at the site which most likely were destroyed during the 17th and 18th centuries. Usually, henge monuments like Stonehenge are round, making Avebury extremely rare, a fact that gives new meaning to the recently discovered formation.
The original square monument with the huge obelisk in the center (Credit: School of Archaeology & Ancient History, University of Leicester)
New Formation Changes the Traditional Narrative
First evidence to the existence of a square structure, each side of which was around 30 meters (100ft) in length, were first discovered by the archaeologist Alexander Keiller who carried out an excavation at the site in 1939. Keiler would discover a few small stones positioned in a line close to a 6 meter (20 ft) upright stone known as the Obelisk. Keiller’s excavation would also divulge postholes and grooves in the ground, indicating that a building was once standing there, “He concluded that it was a strange medieval lean-to cattle shed,” Gillings told the Guardian.
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Nevertheless, when the newly found square was compared with Keiller’s notes, archaeologists discovered that the stones were centered on and lined up with the building, indicating that it was Neolithic in origin. Similar Neolithic buildings have recently been discovered at other sites and experts suggest that they probably served as a center of interest for communities.
“It completely changes the narrative. The seed might have been in the form of a small inconspicuous house. The commemoration gradually got more dramatic and in your face and by 2,000 BC you’ve got stones everywhere,” Gillings told the Guardian.
Avebury stone circle, the largest known stone circle in the world. (CC BY SA 2.0)
National Trust archaeologist at Avebury Nick Snashall added:
“This discovery has been almost 80 years in the making but it’s been well worth waiting for. The completion of work first started by Keiller in the 1930s has revealed an entirely new type of monument at the heart of the world’s largest prehistoric stone circle, using techniques he never dreamed of.”
So the question now is: Will the new finds become the reason for organized arachaeological excavations launch at the site? Gillings leaves no doubt with his answer: “Hell yeah. If this doesn’t I don’t know what would. We’d like to go in and excavate and tease out more of the details.” And the truth is, that is the only way to get more evidence regarding the deep rigns of this enigmatic and massive monument.
Top image: Stones in the South Circle viewed from the south-east quadrant bank. The tower of St James church is in the background. (By JimChampion CC BY-SA 3.0)