Just three weeks before the head of Charles I was to fall on the Whitehall scaffold in 1649, John Aubrey "discovered" Avenbury for the learned world. The author of Brief Lives had lived only 15 miles from this gigantic stone monument yet knew nothing of it until fox-hunting took him there. He declared it to "excell Stonehenge, as a Cathedral does a Parish church."
In Aubrey's time the Avebury complex was far more spectacular than it is today -- even after considerable restoration during the excavations of the 1930s. Many of the huge sarsen stones (the name is probably a corruption of "saracen," meaning heathen) had been thrown down and buried in the 14th century, probably as a result of the mounting hostility of the church towards works of the devil that still attracted awe and ungodly practices. A maccabre discovery of the modern excavations was the skeleton of a man killed by the fall of a monolith before the stone's burial party was ready for it. The money in his wallet dates from the 1320s. The locals, probably already fearful of hostile spirits, appear hastily to have buried corpse and killer sarsen together, and may from this moment have ended the stone felling. It was not until the later 17th and 18th centuries that another, much more drastic, assault was made on the stones -- which were no longer reverentially buried but used as building material for the village then being extended into the great circle.
Yet although Aubrey saw Avebury in much of its ancient grandeur, it is doubtful whether most people at any time would have agreed with him in setting it so far above Stonehenge. In the vast area covered, in the elaboration of its parts, in the number of its standing stones and probably in the untold hours of labor demanded by its building, it is indeed the greater, but it lacks concentration and architectural power. One can (nowadays, alas, only with a permit) stand "in" Stonehenge as in any great building, while the stone circles, avenues, and vast earthwork of Avebury were a composite ceremonial center. It appears to be, and was, the more primitive construction.
These two extraordinary monuments are the finest examples of a form rather unhappily named "henges" after Stonehenge itself. Their essential feature is a circular embankment, contrasting with defensive earthworks in a ditch almost always dug inside the bank. Most were constructed by simple farmers and pastoralists towards the very end of the Stone Age in Britan (c. 2000 B.C.), though many had a long history and were added to by later peoples -- including those much speculated-on "Beaker folk" who have become something of an archaeological joke, although they were real enough as immigrants and pioneers in the use of metals.
Avebury lies in the rolling chalk country of the Marlborough Downs in Northern Wiltshire. Long before the henge was begun, the local people had shown exceptional enterprise and ambition. In the immediate neighborhood there are the remains of the largest neolithic enclosure, the greatest chambered long barrow, and Silbury Hill, the biggest artificial mound in Europe. There was also a large circular wooden building, possibly a charnel house, on nearby Overton Hill.
It seems that the creators of Avebury began by setting up the two inner circles, dragging the colossal sarsen slabs from where they lay naturally exposed on the surface a few miles away. At the center of one circle they raised a towering pillar-stone and, in the other, three 20-ton slabs known as "the Cove." Aubrey would date this first outburst of building to about 2600 B. C. Probably the next great undertaking was to surround the circles with the henge embankment, by far the largest of its kind in existence. From an inner ditch some 10 meters deep more than 90,000 cubic meters of chalk were quarried and piled into a bank six meters high. There were four causewayed entrances. By calculations as unreliable as all such estimates must be, this may represent a million-and-a-half man-hours for laborers with antler picks and ox shoulderblades for shovels. Not satisfied with what they had done, the megalomaniac people of Avebury sledged in another hundred massive sarsens and raised them inside the ditch, following its slight irregularities to make a rough circle over 350 meters across. The largest stone now standing weighs 60 tons and almost certainly had a fellow of about 90 tons -- double the weight of the largest blocks later used at Stonehenge.
Although not beyond dispute, this appears to have been the sequence of construction for the main sanctuary: Burl allows a century for its completion. The final additions were two avenues made from double lines of standing stones -- one, now vanished, running from the west entrance of the henge, the other, from the south entrance for a mile and a half to Overton Hill where the ancient wooden round house was to be replaced by concentric stone circles. This West Kennet Avenue was finished by about 2300 B.C. at which time Beaker folk were settling round Avebury and played some unknwon part in the cultic life of the sanctuary, several of their dead being buried on the course of the southern avenue.
From the outset of his book, Aubrey Burl makes clear that for him the beliefs and practices inspiring the builders are the most significant of all the questions that need to be answered. Here I must declare a personal interest. I have remained entirely skeptical about the recent mathematical-cum-astronomical interpretations of our prehistoric henges and stone circles, believing them to be an illusion of our "scientific" age. I was therefore delighted to learn from his excellent earlier book, The Stone Circles of the British Isles, that Aubrey Burl, with his far more exhaustive knowledge, shares my skepticism. We cannot believe in the elite of geniuses dominating neolithic Britain, calculating solar and lunar eclipses and other abstruse movements of heavenly bodies, offered to us by Professor Alexander Thom and Dr. Euan MacKie.
Burl begins his chapter, "The Purpose of Avebury," with a declaration: "Death and regeneration are the themes of Avebury." Here and throughout he develops his belief in a fertility cult with its seasonal rites and deep concern with sex, mortality, ancestors and all the hopes and dreads of darkly superstitious lives. He writes well of these things, seeking ethnological analogies -- most tellingly among the American Indians of the mound-builder and other woodland cultures. While doing justice to the religious implications of Avebury, Burl also brings out telling evidence against Professor Thom's readings of the site. Some of these are almost as incredible as the notions of the ley-line addicts -- who believe in mysterious alignments among ancient monuments -- and other fantasists.
Prehistoric Avebury is generally readable, for the author, though a professional archaeologist, is never afraid of personal responses or of descriptive writing. It must be said, however, that his book is poorly constructed, with subjects appearing, disappearing and returning to the confusion of the reader. Still, it is well worth having, and with its splendid illustrations good value for money.