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The largest stone circle in Britain

Avebury

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The stone circle, Avebury

I find it a little odd that Avebury is not as well known, nor as visited, as nearby Stonehenge. Personally I find it just as impressive and in some ways more atmospheric. Its henge (circular bank and ditch) encloses the remaining stones of the largest stone circle in Britain, built during the Neolithic period (c. 2850 BC – 2200 BC). The circle is so large that over time people have built their houses around and among the stones, so that today it seems almost as if the somewhat unearthly stones are slowly encroaching on human space.

This aerial photo, from Wikipedia, shows clearly how the henge encircles the village:

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Attribution: Detmar Owen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

There were originally over 100 stones in the main outer circle. Many have been lost, but about 30 still remain. The position of lost stones is today marked with smaller pyramid-topped concrete posts to give an indication of what the complete circle would have looked like. The missing ones suffered various fates – used as building materials by the villagers, or broken down and buried, perhaps because they were in the way of village development.

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The stone circle
~ you can see the concrete posts marking the location of missing stones

Within that main circle were two inner ones – the north one with 27 stones (of which only four remain) and the south slightly larger with 29 stones (with five remaining).

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The north inner stone circle

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The south inner circle

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Significance

This was clearly a significant site for the people of that period, and the surrounding landscape is dotted with others – avenues of stones leading to other sites, the man-made mound of Silbury Hill, burial mounds such as West Kennet Long Barrow, and more. Together with Stonehenge these form the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site.

The English Heritage website about Avebury concludes that:

‘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.’

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More images of the outer stone circle

There have been some at times rather bizarre alternative suggestions about the construction of Avebury, especially during Victorian times. These include the idea that both Avebury and Stonehenge were built by the Phoenicians (many Britons of that period believed these ancient seafarers first brought civilisation to our island). It has also been proposed that it was constructed to commemorate the final battle of King Arthur, and that his slain warriors were buried here. Yet another Victorian pseudo-historian argued that it was Native Americans from the Appalachian Mountains who once crossed the Atlantic Ocean to build the great megalithic monuments of southern Britain. All very fanciful, and none of them given any credence today.

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The stone circle, Avebury, and view over the Wiltshire downs

Visiting Avebury

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Lichen on a standing stone

Avebury is free to visit but parking is charged for, in a somewhat odd arrangement that sees the car park owned by the National Trust while the site itself is owned and managed by English Heritage. We stopped here on our way home from Wells and only had time for a slow walk around most of the circle, taking photos as we went. In any case, the onsite museum was closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

My main aim on this visit was to capture in photographs the slight eeriness of the site, in which I hope I have succeeded, but in future I’d like to visit the museum and also make time for stops at some of those other sights such as Silbury Hill.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:42 Archived in England Tagged landscapes england history archaeology

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Comments

In 2002, our daughter who was living in England on a job exchange, took us first to Stonehenge and then here which she and our grandson liked better. I wasn't able to go round the whole circle because walking on uneven surfaces was hard for me, but Bob did. I also don't have any digital photos - I think my digital camera of the time was out of battery power or something because I seem to have only film pictures of here. I saw a crop circle on the way to Avebury. I found a website on Avebury which says:
"The village itself holds much of interest including the church of St. James which has a long history going back to Saxon times. It also contains a notable font believed to date from the 12th Century which is adorned with some interesting carvings. There is also a fine Manor House alongside which is The Alexander Keiller Museum. This contains detailed information relating to the archaeology of the monuments and has many fascinating artifacts from the area on display. Supplementing the Keiller museum is the Barn Gallery which also contains some interesting "hands on" exhibits and other information supplied by The National Trust under whose care the monuments now fall."

I'm very glad to see your (MUCH) better photos

by greatgrandmaR

Very many thanks for that mini-tour for us Sarah - and especially the photographs. I first visited Stonehenge back in 1965 - when you could walk amongst - and even stand on - the stones but regret that, at the time when I lived in the South, I never heard of the Avebury Stones so thoroughly enjoyed seeing them through the lens of your camera.

by Yvonne Dumsday

Thanks for a very informative piece Sarah. I visited Avebury about twenty years ago and have fond memories of my visit. I also remember a lovely pub across the road where we dined after our trek around the site. Avebury deserves to be better known although maybe its relative obscurity is part of the charm.

by Anne Marie Byrne

Thank you all for visiting and your kind comments :)

Rosalie, the Manor House and church were, like the museum, unfortunately closed because of the pandemic. We will have to go back!

Yvonne, I too remember walking among the stones of Stonehenge, on a childhood visit while (I think) en route to Cornwall. Visiting Avebury you can capture some of that experience as you are free to walk wherever you want - although I am sure climbing on the stones would be frowned upon!

And I agree Anne Marie that Avebury deserves to be better known. It feels like a poor cousin to Stonehenge whereas in some ways at least (size, accessibility) it is better!

by ToonSarah

Sarah, thanks for the virtual tour of Avebury and the excellent photos. We have visited Stonehenge twice in the past, but never visited Avebury which is a shame really. Too bad the museum was closed. I agree, Avebury does deserve more attention.

by starship VT

Nice pictures Sarah. We skipped Stone Henge and went to Avebury instead. Fortunately the manor house, church and museums were all open at the time. I hope you can go back and visit them after the pandemic has run its course. I have a page on Avebury in my blog here on England with some of the house, church and museum photos. We ate in the tea room at the manor house but walked past The Red Lion Inn later and it looked like fun.

by Beausoleil

Thank you Sylvia and Sally :) Sylvia, I guess you will have to come back to England some time when this is all over and visit Avebury - we might even go together

Sally, I remember enjoying your Avebury page. When I read it, it had been ages since my previous visit there but it brought back good memories of the site. Maybe subconsciously it even got me thinking about visiting again!

by ToonSarah

So much more impressive than Stonehenge.
And with a pub in the middle!
What more could you want???

by Cathy Reichardt

I have never heard of Avebury. But you are right it is very impressive. I've never been to Stone Henge but know of it of course. I would really love to see this.

by littlesam1

Hi Larry - you're not alone! Far too few people get to hear about Avebury, imho - although the relatively low number of visitors compared to Stonehenge is part of its charm :)

by ToonSarah

Absolutely Cathy, although unfortunately the pub wasn't open on this visit, because of the pandemic. But we got a good lunch at a nearby one, on the outskirts of Marlborough :)

by ToonSarah

Yet another place to add in my ever-growing "Places to visit in England-list" :D

by hennaonthetrek

Definitely Henna :) Many tourists miss it, which is a shame.

by ToonSarah

Stonehenge is still on my wishing list and I am sure to add Avebury on it as well! Thanks for sharing Sarah!

by Ils1976

Definitely worth seeing both Ils, they're very different

by ToonSarah

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