A large Neolithic stone circle in Wiltshire.
The village of Avebury in Wiltshire is the site of a Neolithic stone circle, even larger than stonehenge. A huge circular ditch encloses the main ring of individual standing stones, which measures almost 1.6 kilometres (1 mile) in circumference, with some of the stones almost 5 metres (16 feet) high. Two smaller rings, which are much less complete than the main ring, are enclosed within this. Two curving lines of stones, known as avenues, lead away from the circle, but so many stones are now missing that their exact significance remains unclear. It is thought that one of them connected the site with another nearby hilltop stone circle known as The Sanctuary. It is believed that building began c.2800 bc, using stones quarried from the nearby Avebury Hills, and continued over the next 500 years.
Various theories have been put forward as to the purposes of this ancient complex of stones. Some believe that the two inner circles were used as temples, and both of them had a central standing stone. The larger of these, which was known as The Obelisk until its destruction in the 18th century, is believed to have been erected to cast a shadow (in much the same way as the gnomon of a sundial) which could be interpreted as marking the changing seasons. Similarly, ‘The Cove’, a group of three stones (two of which remain) at the centre of the other inner circle, is thought to have been aligned with the position of sunrise at midsummer.
The relatively close proximity of other significant Neolithic remains, such as at silbury hill and The Sanctuary, suggest that Avebury may have been part of a large area of interconnected sites with particular religious significance. It has been discovered relatively recently that some of the stones have faces carved into them but it is not known whether the builders or subsequent inhabitants are responsible for these.
In modern times, the stones were ‘discovered’ by John Aubrey (1626–97), the English antiquary, biographer and folklorist, who assumed that the structures must be connected with ancient druidic worship. He was supported in this theory by the antiquary William Stukeley (1687–1765), whose accounts of his researches at Avebury also record his dismay at the removal of stones by local farmers. Stukeley also suggested that the two avenues of stones represented a great serpent passing through the circles.
Several of the largest stones have been given names in local folklore, including the Swindon Stone, and the Devil’s Chair, which has a hollow in which one can sit.
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