Avebury–more awesome than Stonehenge

Everyone’s heard of Stonehenge, the enigmatic stone circle on Salisbury Plain, but just seventeen miles to the north stands an even more imposing monument–Avebury.

Actually it’s a whole landscape of monuments. For miles around the rolling fields are dotted with the burial mounds of forgotten chieftains, and many hilltops are protected by ancient ramparts. Avebury itself is a massive stone circle with two avenues running across the fields to a pair of smaller stone circles. The entire area has been designated a World Heritage Site.

Stonehenge is more self contained, a pretty picture and fascinating to stare at, but it suffers from familiarity, so much so that the Times Online listed it as one of the world’s five most overrated tourist attractions. Avebury is far more vast, and instead of walking along a cordoned path with hundreds of other visitors, you can wander through a prehistoric landscape away from the crowd.

Getting off the bus at the village of Avebury, you don’t have far to go to see the main monument, in fact you’re right in the middle of it. An impressive circle of stones (called a henge in scientific parlance) more than a thousand feet in diameter is surrounded by a deep ditch and earthen rampart. Two smaller henges stand inside the large one. An avenue flanked by smaller stones heads south, and there used to be another one headed west, although that’s all but disappeared thanks to the march of time. This main monument was started around 3000 BC, or five thousand years ago.

Considering the region’s history, it’s amazing any of the smaller stones survive at all. During the Middle Ages the local farmers got religion in a big way and decided to destroy this reminder of their pagan past. Easier said than done. Whole villages turned out to make huge bonfires to crack the stones, and then they hauled the pieces away and used them for local buildings, a common practice throughout England and seen especially along the route of Hadrian’s Wall, where the Romans were kind enough to make properly shaped stones instead of massive monoliths.

Destruction was as dangerous as it was difficult. Local legend says that one day a group of men were working to topple a large stone and it fell over, crushing one of the workers. In 1938 archaeologists dug up a fallen stone and found the skeleton of a man underneath. He carried some 14th century coins and the tools of a barber-surgeon (the jobs were the same back then). These folks, who cut hair, lanced boils, and utterly failed to find a cure for the plague, were considered to be quasi-magical, their strange arts necessary but somewhat suspect. It’s interesting that a magical person was brought along to destroy a magical place, and it’s no wonder his death became enshrined in local memory.

Fortunately much has been preserved or restored. A walk down the avenue of stones headed south from Avebury brings you to two more famous monuments.

%Gallery-72633%The field slopes down toward the south, and as you pass around the brow of a ridge a giant conical hill appears. This is Silbury Hill, a 130 ft. chalk mound erected around 2500 BC. Nobody is sure what it was for, but some researchers noticed it’s in a large circular valley that works as a natural amphitheater. I spoke to one of the site’s volunteers who participated in an experiment a couple of years ago. A group of musicians using reconstructed prehistoric instruments played them atop the hill while people stood at various locations around it. This woman stood a mile away and could hear all the instruments clearly, except the drums which were muffled due to the rain. She could even hear a song one of the musicians sang, picking out most of the words even though artillery practice was going on at the nearby military base!

On a ridge beyond Silbury Hill is West Kennet Long Barrow, a gallery of stones forming a long hall and four side chambers, with a larger chamber at the end. All of it is covered with earth to make a long artificial ridge atop the natural one. It was started around 3600 BC and remarkably some of the burials survived to the modern era. The first two rooms flanking the gallery held the remains of women, children, and the elderly. The next two contained adults, and the big room at the end had bones only of adult males. Were these warriors? Nobody knows, but it’s fun to speculate.

All in all, Avebury makes for a fun day of wandering. I suggest starting early and taking a good pair of walking shoes and an Ordinance Survey map. There are many smaller archaeological sites in the area worth visiting that only take a mile or so of walking to get to. The visitor center in town sells detailed maps.