Avebury henge and stone circles are one of the greatest marvels of prehistoric Britain. Built and much altered during the Neolithic period, roughly between 2850 BC and 2200 BC, the henge survives as a huge circular bank and ditch, encircling an area that includes part of Avebury village. Within the henge is the largest stone circle in Britain - originally of about 100 stones - which in turn encloses two smaller stone circles.
Avebury is part of an extraordinary set of Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial sites that seemingly formed a vast sacred landscape. They include West Kennet Avenue, West Kennet Long Barrow, The Sanctuary, Windmill Hill, and the mysterious Silbury Hill. Many can be reached on foot from the village. The Alexander Keiller Museum also displays many notable finds from the Avebury monuments. Together with Stonehenge, Avebury and its surroundings are a World Heritage Site.
In June 2017 mysterious wooden palisades found – which researchers believe may have been burned to create huge rings of fire – are 800 years older than experts believed. The wooden palisades found at Avebury in Wiltshire were first found 30 years ago – and researchers believed they were built at the same time as Stonehenge, 2,500BC. But radiocarbon dating suggests that the structures are much older – stretching over 2.5 miles and using 4,000 trees, possibly in mysterious rituals. View the news on BBC.
29 June 2017: “We discovered something really weird,” said Dr Mark Gillings, a reader in archaeology at the University of Leicester. “In a landscape of circles, we’ve suddenly got a square and lines. Slap bang in the middle of this monumental structure you’ve got a Neolithic house. It’s very strange and it shows that before we got the structure we see today there had been 1,000 years of jiggery-pokery.” View the news on The Telegraph
The Avebury complex is one of the principal ceremonial sites of Neolithic Britain that we can visit today. It was built and altered over many centuries from about 2850 BC until about 2200 BC and is one of the largest, and undoubtedly the most complex, of Britain's surviving Neolithic henge monuments.
The exact sequence of construction of the banks, ditches and stone circles at Avebury is still not completely understood.
Limited excavations and more recent aerial and geophysical surveys indicate that many other features once existed within the enclosure. It is quite likely that, before the stone circles were erected, timber circles and structures may have originally filled the area within the bank and ditch – as at other henges in this part of Britain.
At some stage, two avenues of stones were also built, linking the Great Henge with other ceremonial sites at Beckhampton and Overton Hill. The huge man-made mound of Silbury Hill stands not far away and is also broadly contemporary with these monuments.
The impression gained is of a landscape being shaped for rituals that involved inclusion, exclusion and procession.
If this is correct, then the various monuments may have been built as public ‘theatres’ for rites and ceremonies that gave physical expression to the community’s ideas of world order; the place of the people within that order; the relationship between the people and their gods; and the nature and transmission of authority, whether spiritual or political.
The length of time over which the Great Henge and its two avenues were built is so long that it suggests the community’s relationship with its environment may gradually have altered. Changing rituals may have been the driving force for the building of new monuments and for their eventual abandonment around 1800 BC.
Ideally you will be approaching the area from the direction of Marlborough and your first real indication that you are nearing the ancient Avebury landscape will be the row of Bronze Age round barrows that appear on the skyline to your right as you follow the A4 road up Overton Hill.
As you near the top of the hill be prepared to stop as on the left side of the road opposite the round barrows there is a small lay-by (in the map number 1) for visitors to the Sanctuary which is immediately visible.
The circular jumble of small concrete blocks lying in the grass give no hint of the wonders to come but the elevation of the site makes it the crown of the complex and it is from here that you will gain your first sense of the vast scale of what was once constructed in the landscape during the Neolithic period. The almost surreal spectacle of Silbury Hill looming out of the trees in the valley makes an immediate impression but a more careful look around around reveals much more.
The maintained section of the pre-historic Ridgeway path commences from this point and can be seen stretching away across the countryside adjacent to the round barrows on the other side of the A4 road.
Between the Ridgeway and Silbury Hill and a mile or so distant in the fields below can be glimpsed the surviving stones of the West Kennet Avenue marching on their way to Avebury itself which lies hidden in the dip beyond a conspicuous clump of trees.
The point at which the now decimated Avenue once joined the Sanctuary is indicated by concrete blocks.
If you now look across the valley toward the open fields to the left of Silbury the West Kennet Long Barrow and its facade of stones appears as a low mound on the distant hillside.
Much further to the left the unexcavated East Kennet Long Barrow can be seen as a large clump of trees above the buildings of East Kennet Village.
After visiting the Sanctuary a visit to the West Kennet Long Barrow is next on the list. A continuing ride down the hill and through the hamlet of West Kennet will bring you to another roadside lay-by (in the map number 2) that will be obvious as Silbury Hill comes into view on the right of the road.
This lay-by is at the beginning of the track which leads up to the barrow. It is a walk of about half a mile up a gentle incline to reach the monument which is silhouetted on the skyline as you approach. It is here that you get your first glimpse of the massive stones that have been used throughout the Avebury complex and a powerful sense of the remoteness of our prehistoric past is evident as you explore the stone chambers within the mound. Once again a look around the landscape from this viewpoint is recommended.
The Sanctuary is easily located by watching the traffic passing over Overton Hill and the tree-covered East Kennet Long Barrow is obvious as you look further to the right.
Silbury Hill again dominates the view as you look back to the lay-by whence you came.
If you look down toward the trees in the valley mid-way between Silbury and the Sanctuary you are looking at the location of the massive palisaded enclosures that once existed in that area.
When in the Avebury area Silbury Hill seems to make its presence felt wherever you are.
When you are back in your vehicle continue along the A4 past the awesome bulk of the hill without being too distracted as this can be a busy road and there is a sizeable car park (in the map number 3) on the right of the road a few hundred yards further on. From here you are able to get a more relaxed and safer view of the spectacular and mysterious mound.
When you have finished trying to work out the whys and wherefores of this amazing construction it is time to retrace your route to some extent.
Turn left as you exit the car park and return to the hamlet of West Kennet. As you reach the houses look for a small road off to the left (in the map number 4) and turn down it.
The next mile or so must be one of the most fascinating stretches of road in the whole country. You will soon encounter two largish stones either side of the road which are a precursor to your first good view of the West Kennet Avenue stones as they stand in the field alongside the road. These are the survivors of an avenue that once led all the way up to the Sanctuary but nevertheless still make a fine and unique spectacle.
A small lay-by (in the map number 5) exists nearby which allows you to stop and examine the stones.
As you continue along the road a mixture of concrete plinths and occasional stones accompany you until you are suddenly confronted by some large stones dominated by two massive megaliths to the left of a group of trees on the outer bank of the Henge. At this point it is easy to be distracted by the spectacle in front of you but take care as it is here that you join the busy road that runs through Avebury village on its way to Swindon.
Turn left at this junction and after a few hundred yards you will see the main visitor car park on your right (in the map number 6) into which you will need to turn. Once parked a small path takes you past the cricket pitch up to the outer bank of the Henge and then into the Village High Street.
By now you are probably ready for some refreshment and something to eat.
The Red Lion Pub can be found where the High Street joins the main road or signs will lead you to the museums where a restaurant is available.
After replenishment you may feel like visiting the museums, exploring the shops or be keen to continue your exploration of the Henge.
Assuming the latter I will continue (though a visit to the museums is recommended if you can fit it in).
If you are at the museums/restaurant complex a small flight of steps and gate (in the map number 7) will take you take you into the NW quadrant of the Henge where you will get your first good view of the outer stone ring and its relationship to the ditch & bank.
Follow the ring of stones round and remember that most of them were dug up and re-erected by Alexander Keiller during the 1930s. Where stone holes were found but the actual stones were missing he marked with concrete plinths.
As you get nearer to the road you start to realise that you are approaching some stones that are distinctly different.
You come to a stone that is significantly larger and bulkier than those you have just walked by and you are suddenly aware that the next stone on from this is not only even bigger, it is colossal!
Diamond shaped and standing on its point it is known as "The Swindon Stone".
Almost hanging over the road it is one of a pair of stones that formed the portal to the northern entrance to the Henge. Standing by this mighty megalith helps bring into focus just what a massive undertaking the Avebury Henge represents.
A tidy pathway takes you from the Swindon Stone along the hedge to a gate (in the map number 8) where you will need to cross the road to an opposite gate that is the access to the NE quadrant. Take care crossing here as traffic can suddenly appear around the nearby corner.
Once you are into the NE quadrant you are confronted by another two massive stones. These are the surviving stones of a feature known as "The Cove" which was at the centre of the Northern Inner Circle of which there are only four stones surviving the most obvious of which stands alone off to the left of the Cove.
Recent investigation of the Cove stones has revealed that the larger component may be the most massive surviving stone of the whole monument as a large portion of it remains underground and the stone could weigh as much as 100 tons!
From here a well trodden path takes you down the slope toward the eastern entrance of the Henge where you will find another massive stone lying on its side. This stone has been numbered 73 and must have been a portal megalith of the nearby entrance.
A small gate nearby (in the map number 9) will take you across the lane and into the SE quadrant of the Henge. The path will now lead you onto the top of the outer bank. As you climb the bank don't miss the spectacularly exposed tree roots that are on your left. Many visitors have left their mark on the tree trunks over the years.
A pleasant meander along the bank now gives you a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside and the Henge itself. As you stare down to the bottom of the ditch it is worth remembering that it is now only a third of its original depth and the bank was once substantially higher. It is an awesome realisation.
From here you are aware of the abundance of ancient Bronze Age round barrows that exist in the area, most of them obvious from their tree-covered profiles on the surrounding downland.
Eventually, you will come to a group of trees that grow on the bank at the south entrance where you will find yourself staring down at the two colossal stones that formed the portal to the West Kennet Avenue and which formed the original south entrance (in the map number 10).
Descending the bank and walking up to these massive megaliths again brings a feeling of awe at the achievements of our Neolithic ancestors.
No doubt you will feel the need to sit upon the small stone "seat" that nature has formed on the left hand stone which is known locally as "The Devil's Chair".
To the right of these entrance stones and further into the Henge a small stone sits in the grass. This is known as "The Ring Stone". Its purpose a mystery.
Looking across at the village to the right and close to the Chapel you will see the large concrete plinth that marks the spot where the mighty stone known as The Obelisk once stood (in the map number 11). Adjacent to it are a row of mysterious small stones referred to as The Z Feature.
At this point you are standing in the centre of the Southern Inner Circle of which its 5 surviving stones still make an impressive arc which reveals just how massive the inner circles were.
When you have finished exploring this wonderful group of stones small gates will take you across the road and into the SW quadrant where a magnificent section of the outer circle has been restored by Alexander Keiller.
Almost directly opposite the gate is the infamous "Barber Stone" which when excavated by Keiller was found to have trapped an individual believed to have been involved in the burying of the stone during the 14th Century. Other stones in the quadrant offer a variety of interesting shapes and opportunities for the photographer.
Following the circle around will bring you back to the Village High Street.
The last stone (in the map number 12) you come to is an odd assembly of pieces that Keiller recovered from the floor of a nearby forge.
This incomplete relic brings into focus the tragic destruction that has been inflicted on this incredible monument.
By now you will probably have had a very full day if you have spent much time investigating the various sites and will be relieved at returning to your transport.
However there is one component of the complex that you may still feel like visiting if you still have some reserves of stamina.
When you come out of the car park turn right toward Beckhampton. Shortly you will be passing Avebury Trusloe on your right and a magnificent view of Silbury Hill to your left. Once you are past Avebury Trusloe you should spot the two Longstones standing alone in the fields to your right.
Just before you get to the roundabout at Beckhampton a small road (in the map number 13) allows you to get close to the stones which are the only survivors of the Beckhampton Avenue and Cove (in the map number 14). Known locally as "Adam & Eve" the larger stone was part of a cove feature and the smaller stone belonged to the avenue itself.
As you look back toward Avebury you may lament the loss of the spectacular avenue that once would have led you back to the Henge.
If you have followed the itinery described here you should be returning home with a comprehensive memory of the Avebury monuments and hopefully will feel motivated to read-up in detail on the wonders you have seen.
If you feel inspired to return there are other places worth visiting such as Windmill Hill and The Beckhampton Long Barrow. The tree-covered East Kennet Long Barrow is impressive but requires a long walk.
The one surviving stone of Falkner's Circle, though, is only a short stroll down the hedgerow from the West Kennet Avenue lay-by. You also may want to seek out the four stones of the West Kennet Avenue that still lie by the hedgerow at the bottom of Overton Hill.
If you are passing through Marlborough it is worth pulling into the grounds of Marlborough College to see the massive mound that resides there. Also worthy of a visit are the sarsen stone fields at Lockeridge Dene and Piggledene.
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