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Cover of British Archaeology 103

Issue 103

Nov / Dec 2008



New insights into Viking Orkney

Aubrey Hole find could change Stonehenge's meaning

Child buried with unique carved pig

Dress pin

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


Vikings in north-west England
Genetic and placename study reveals legacy - now expanded

THE BIG DIG: Avebury
After six years, was it worth it?

Heritage proterction
Have we learnt the lessons of Iraq?

35 years of the Matrix
Edward C Harris reflects on his idea

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones expores online games and Lorna Richardson describes free web utilities


your views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Don Henson says archaeology has a strong future in education


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


THE BIG DIG: Avebury

A survey of Avebury, Wiltshire, in 1997 turned into a major excavation project at one of our most famous ancient landmarks. Mark Gillings, Josh Pollard, Rick Peterson and David Wheatley look back on a unique voyage through prehistoric Britain.

Often overshadowed by its near neighbour, Stonehenge, for many the great later neolithic henge monument at Avebury commands equal status. The 17th century polymath John Aubrey famously remarked "that it did as much excel Stoneheng as a Cathedrall does a Parish Church".

The Avebury henge itself encloses the largest stone circle in Europe, and is at the heart of a complex of neolithic monuments that includes Silbury Hill, the Sanctuary, Windmill Hill and the West Kennet long barrow, among others. It shares with Stonehenge many points in common: the use of local sarsen stone in construction, for example; and a similar history of research – antiquarian investigation, major excavations between the two world wars, and projects in the 1980s and 90s designed to situate the key monuments within local prehistoric sequences and patterns of settlement.

Recent projects have highlighted how much remains to be discovered in these landscapes, despite long histories of research. A quiet familiarity has hidden the complexity of the prehistoric and later archaeology. The results to date of the Stonehenge Riverside Project have recently been reported in British Archaeology (Sep/Oct). Here, we summarise the findings of the Longstones Project, which we undertook to enhance knowledge of why and when Avebury's megalithicmonuments were constructed, and the response of later inhabitants to their presence. Our initial focus was an investigation of the putative Beckhampton Avenue, first recorded by the antiquarian William Stukeley. We also investigated other late neolithic monuments, including an enclosure at Beckhampton, the West Kennet Avenue, Falkner's Circle and Avebury Cove.

Early stonescape

By the late neolithic (c3000BC) the Avebury landscape was dramatically transformed through woodland clearance, settlement and monument building. Curiously though, there is little evidence for sustained late mesolithic settlement in the region – just a few microliths indicating occasional visits by hunters and gatherers before 4000BC. Alasdair Whittle has agued that the beginnings of the neolithic here represented a process of infill by communities from outside the region. If rather lacking in people, the mesolithic landscape was home to other residents – stones. The dry valleys around Avebury were originally littered with spreads of sarsen, a resilient Tertiary sandstone. Their presence would have invested the region with a unique quality, and could explain why the area later became special. Ethnographic accounts often relate the symbolic and mythic importance of stones. We like to think that Avebury's sarsens held similar status, leading to their use in monumental constructions.

Longstones enclosure

It was the discovery of an apparent enclosure at Beckhampton that led to the project's first excavation in 1998. A tentative curving line appeared in a 1999 geophysics survey, and then more clearly from the air in 1997 (both surveys were conducted by English Heritage). By 2003, our excavation sampling had defined a slight ditch enclosing a flattened oval of about 1.25ha, with a 45m wide entrance to the east. The evidence (including soil micromorphology analysis) suggests a rapid sequence of ditch excavation, use, silting and backfilling, probably by levelling the bank, of which there was no direct sign.

Most of the few finds consisted of animal bones on the ditch bottom, sometimes articulated, usually of cattle and pig. This typical later neolithic assemblage was confirmed by the presence of Grooved Ware sherds, perhaps from n omore than three pots, one of them about a third complete. Consistent with this pottery style, four radiocarbon dates suggest the ditch was created around 2820–2660BC.

Now invisible, this enclosure was surely important. Perhaps several generations after its construction, it was obliterated to make way for a monumental feature that linked its site to the Avebury henge.

Beckhampton Avenue

William Stukeley has long been associated withAvebury, his book (published in 1743) and his many manuscript drawings recording aspects of the monuments since destroyed. Our new work on Stukeley's largely unpublished archive has further emphasised its importance, not least regarding the presence of megaliths west of Avebury. The Beckhampton Avenue, as he named it, had all but disappeared by the time of his visits, and more recent archaeologists had often dismissed Stukeley's claims that it had existed at all. Our excavations, however, proved him right. The rediscovery of the Beckhampton Avenue must rank as one of themost dramatic developments in British prehistoric archaeology.

Encouraged by geophysics surveys, we excavated four trenches beside the enclosure and the two standing megaliths, and a fifth close to Avebury Trusloe further east. We found evidence for missing stones in all of these excavations, or, in four cases, the stones themselves, buried in large pits. Including Adam and Eve (two of the largest surviving stones in the Avebury complex), the former existence of 17 megaliths is now proven. Six of these formed separate structures, but the others were undoubtedly part of an avenue that joined the Avebury henge at its western entrance, as Stukeley had claimed. Stone destruction pits and a few buried stones observed in recent service trenches near Avebury village, can now also be seen as deriving from this monument.

The avenue's western termination is perhaps less certain. Stukeley believed it continued beyond Eve across the downs, but we found nothing to support this. A large area excavated south-west of Adam revealed no stone pits, and neither did a further excavation in 2002 to the south. Geophysics within Trusloe, however, showed its continuation there, where a pair of stones appears to be accompanied by an arrangement of five or six pits: this site remains unexcavated. Extending for 1.3km, if the entire avenue consisted of paired, regularly-spaced stones (albeit unproven), there would have been around 100 megaliths – about half the number once projected for the West Kennet Avenue.

Longstones Cove

Eve is now confirmed as the sole standing survivor of the Beckhampton Avenue, its pair (a relatively small stone) having been burnt and broken up around 1720. Adam, however, estimated at a massive 63 tonnes, was, as Stukeley observed, part of a separate arrangement, which he named the Cove. John Aubrey in the 17th century and Thomas Twining in 1723 referred to what remained of this as the Devil's Quoits. There were only two upright stones here in the 18th century (those now known as Adam and Eve), but Aubrey drew three.

We can now see those three megaliths as part of an original group of four, consisting of Adam and three now missing stones, set in a compact ring. When Adam was re-erected in 1913, after falling two years before, archaeologists found an exceptional 150 packing stones in its pit. Likewise, when we excavated what was left of the pit that once held its facingmegalith, which with others had been burnt and broken up, we found 80 such stones, small sarsen boulders thrown in to help keep the upright in place. These were truly monumental structures.

The greatest surprise in our excavations here was the discovery of two further stone pits that had been backfilled before the creation of the Cove. Together with what was to become the south-western cove stone, the megaliths in these pits had formed a line of three, 40m across. Both this and the later Cove settingmarked the end of the avenue.

When were these structures erected? Sadly we found no direct dating evidence (antlers were surely used for the excavation of the pits, and would be ideal for radiocarbon dating: perhaps their burial was deliberately avoided). The megaliths seemto have appeared after the levelling of the enclosure (built before 2660BC); after or at the same time as the only well-dated event at Avebury itself, the digging of the presently visible henge ditch (recently radiocarbon dated to around 2630–2470BC); and before someone was buried with a Beaker pot at the foot of Adam around 2250–2000BC. In other words, the Longstones Cove, its predecessor and the Beckhampton Avenue were erected some time between 2600 and 2000BC.

Other stone settings

Given its similarity in design and construction to the Beckhampton Avenue, the West Kennet Avenue was probably conceived at the same time: but it too has yet to be directly dated. The existence of this avenue has never been in doubt. It was clearly described by earlier antiquarians such as Aubrey and Stukeley, who saw it terminating at the Sanctuary after 2.3km. Its northern end was fully excavated and restored in the 1930s by Alexander Keiller.

Our excavation nearer the southern end of the avenue, however, suggests it may not have been as straightforward a monument as we think. We cleared a large area in 2002–3, yet found only one stone (buried in the 1920s). Further excavation is needed (preferably not hampered by a condition to hand excavate heavy clay ploughsoil, which compromised the quality of our observations). But on the face of it, the West Kennet Avenue was not the two continuous lines of megaliths it is always assumed to have been. Having found a lost avenue at the start of the project, now we had lost part of the other.

Nearer Avebury, we investigated the site of a small ring said to have been recorded in 1840 of which but one small stone remains, Falkner's Circle. Again aided by geophysical survey, we found three possible stone holes and a large destruction pit. What is still not clear, however, is to what extent this was a complete "circle", or whether it consisted of a combination of natural sarsens and erected megaliths.

Finally, we conducted small excavations at the foot of the two stones of the Avebury Cove. Like the Beckhampton Cove, this was first seen as an arrangement of three huge stones; confused antiquarian reports suggest there may have been at least one other stone, but the full form of this monument remains to be discerned. The National Trust, concerned the leaning stones might fall, had arranged to have them straightened, and we investigated the ground that would have been disturbed by this. Prehistoric deposits against the south-eastern stone had been removed in the building of walls that once ran close to it, but the trench against its south-western partner was enlightening.

This visibly massive stone was found to expand irregularly below ground and to be in a pit some 3m deep, and was left alone: it emerged as the largest megalith in Avebury, probably in Britain, weighing 100 tonnes. Quartz grains from deep in this pit produced an OSL date of 3120±350BC (see News, May 2004) The result's precision is low, but even at the youngest extreme of 2770BC, it suggests this stone may be one of the earliest components of the monumental scheme. OSL's validity has been proved, and may hold the key to the future dating of the Avebury megaliths.


The rediscovery of the Beckhampton Avenue has offered a sense of the true megalithic scale of Avebury. We have also gained an understanding of the tempo of monument building, which, as at other complexes on the Wessex chalk such as those around Stonehenge and Dorchester, Dorset, looks to gather pace around the middle of the third millennium BC. This is an important time in British prehistory (see features, Jul/Aug). The appearance of early metalwork and renewed links to continental Europe are processes that could have encouraged social manoeuvring, enhanced display and the reaffirmation of sacred traditions through even greater monumental feats. Yet the response to changes was always local or regional. Though they share common sequences, each of the major Wessex complexes featured varied monumental architecture. Inter-regional emulation and competition – competing claims over religious pre-eminence – could have driven events around Avebury, Stonehenge, Knowlton and Dorchester.

Stone destruction

A striking aspect of our excavations was the quantity of medieval and post-medieval archaeology we encountered. While historic stone destruction had long been recognised in Avebury, its archaeology had been little considered. Our analysis has been able to draw not only on new historical research, and Keiller's detailed unpublished archives for Avebury, but also on our excavation of both buried and fire-broken megaliths. For one of the Beckhampton Avenue stones, we retained and studied the entire assemblage of burnt stone debris.

The conventional, oft-repeated story is that many stones were buried in the 14th century, and many of those that escaped this were broken up in the 18th century. The first episode was motivated by a mixture of superstitious fear and triumphant Christianity, and the second – as argued passionately by Stukeley – by the profit to be gained from land clearance and building material.

The reality is more complex. Firstly, both burial and breakage continued over extended periods. The coins that Keiller found with the skeleton of a man beside stone 9 in the Avebury ring still offer the earliest date for stone burial (AD1320–1350). However, a radiocarbon date from a buried Beckhampton stone suggests burial continued for at least a further two centuries (AD1510–1690), and on the West Kennet Avenue we confirmed OGS Crawford's observation that a stone had been buried there in the 1920s. Stukeley recorded stone breakage in 1700–20. New study of clay smoking-pipes kept by Keiller takes that back to 1660, and at Falkner's Circle we radiocarbon dated a burning event to AD1420–1670.

Secondly, the reasons behind the dismantling of the stone monuments are both varied and difficult to discern. There is no evidence at all for the engagement of paganism or the Christian church in stone burial, when we would expect to find it if this had been the case. It would seem that field clearance in areas of intensively used land was one major factor.

Megaliths book cover

Landscape of the Megaliths by Mark Gillings, Joshua Pollard, David Wheatley, Rick Peterson
Oxbow Aug 5 £40 pp416 HB ISBN 9781842173138, reviewed on p53 of printed magazine

Stukeley's records of stone breaking (occurring in front of his eyes) are confused. He seems to have accused men he called farmers, and praised gentry, but another way of viewing it is to emphasise the role of non-conformists (notably John Griffin and Thomas Robinson). Avebury was accidentally pitched into a new role after the Five-Mile Act of 1665, which placed it just within the bounds of religious non-conformists from all the neighbouring towns. While local men built a chapel (from broken megaliths) and engaged in the godly practice of agricultural improvement, establishment outsiders – such as the Anglican antiquarian William Stukeley and Charles II, who visited Avebury in 1663 – lavished interest in the pagan monuments. While far from a complete explanation, these opposing concerns may have fuelled the destruction of several megaliths.

The future

The Longstones Project has contributed greatly to knowledge of Avebury's megaliths, in prehistory and after, but much still remains to be done. We know little of neolithic and early bronze age settlement in the region, and of other non-monumental activities including the burial of individuals under large sarsens. Even with the Avebury henge itself there remain numerous questions relating to the sequence of stone erection and the form of the original earthwork that could be answered through targeted excavation. Let us hope this work will happen.

The project is described in Landscape of the Megaliths (see Books, this issue p53). It was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Prehistoric Society and the Society of Antiquaries. The National Trust, local landowners and English Heritage provided much support and assistance. The authors are all senior university lecturers in archaeology, Mark Gillings at Leicester, Josh Pollard at Bristol, Rick Peterson at Central Lancashire and Dave Wheatley at Southampton.

See also: Negotiating Avebury project at Leicester, Southampton and Kennet District Council with Longstone Project documents.

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