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My Favourite Planet > English > Europe > United Kingdom > England > Avebury
Avebury History of Avebury - Part 1 page 2
West Kennet Avenue, Avebury, Wiltshire

West Kennet Avenue, Waden Hill. View northwards towards Avebury.
Avebury has a very long history, and we are continuing work on a brief version.

Part 1 (version 1) takes us from the Ice Age to Roman times.

Part 2 will deal with the fate of the Avebury monuments during the Middle Ages, their rediscovery from the 16th century and more recent research.

1. Introduction

2. Early inhabitants of Britain, 30,000 - 10,000 years ago

3. Neolithic culture at Avebury, 3000 - 2100 BC

4. The demise of Avebury, Bronze Age Britain, around 2100 - 750 BC

5. Iron Age Britain, Celts and Romans in the Avebury area, 800 BC - 500 AD
1. Introduction  
"Although Stonehenge is mentioned so frequently and so copiously
by our early chroniclers, history is silent as to Avebury."

John Timbs, 1872 [1]

The complex of Neolithic monuments at Avebury was built in several phases of development between 3300 and 2400 BC, during a period in which similar structures were appearing at many places across Europe. The relatively good state of preservation, the enormous size, extent, complexity and refinement of the structures and the remaining evidence of the various development phases all contribute to Avebury's exceptional importance as a historical site.

The sheer size and number of the stones and earthworks which mark the complex suggest the collective labour of many people from the area and perhaps beyond, and indicate that the place was of significant cultural importance for at least a millenium. It is thought that Avebury began to lose its importance from around 2500 BC, and that at some point, perhaps around 2200 BC, it was abandoned. Thereafter it remained forgotten, neglected and in danger of destruction until a few scholars began to take an interest in the monuments from the 16th century.

Many of the histories of Avebury and its surrounding prehistoric monuments have been justly described as histories of the history, since they mainly consist of discussion of their modern rediscovery in the 16th century and the subsequent explorations, speculations and theories about their age, origins, forms and functions by topographers, antiquarians, historians, archaeologists and archaeo-astronomers, not to mention geomancers, astrologists, new age astronomers, neo pagans and many others.

As in the case of histories of the much younger monuments at Stonehenge, with which Avebury is inevitably always compared (often mentioned in the same sentence), scholars of various periods have interpreted the available evidence according to the intellectual trends of their age, or even to fit their own personal beliefs and pet theories.

"It is remarkable that whoever has treated of this monument has bestowed
on it whatever class of antiquity he was particularly fond of."

Horace Walpole, 1786 [2]

Unfortunately, such indirect history and speculation are unavoidable, since the builders of the Avebury monuments left few significant artefacts and no written or pictorial records of their lives, deeds or beliefs; there are no records by foreign visitors or contemporary cultures; and by the time the Romans brought writing to Britain at the end of the 1st century BC it is thought that Avebury had already been abandoned as a cultural or religious centre for over 2000 years.

The lack of direct material and written evidence means that all dates and sequences of prehistoric events concerning Avebury's monuments remain approximate.

What remains of Avebury's ancient history lies in the place itself, in the landscape; among and beneath the megaliths, barrows and other man made features. Systematic archaeological investigation of Avebury began in the 20th century. Modern techniques and technologies used by archaeologists and the wealth of information and material gathered from comparative prehistoric sites throughout Europe have revealed much about this enigmatic place. However, so much still remains a mystery, and it is partly this which makes Avebury so attractive and awe-inspiring to us today.
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2. Early inhabitants of Britain

30,000 - 10,000 years ago
During the end of the last ice age (the Devensian Glaciation 40,000 - 10,000 years ago) Britain was still a peninsula of northern Europe, and people and animals were able to move to and from the continent. With the melting of the huge ice sheets which covered much of Britain, northern Europe, Asia and America, the sea level rose, eventually forming the English Channel (around 8,500 years ago) which separated Britain from the continent. [3]

The first Homo sapiens (modern humans) arrived in Britain about 30,000 years ago [4] and stayed for around 3,000 years before the climate became too cold to support humans or the animals they hunted for food. These Upper Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) people, who migrated to Europe from the Near East, are said to have been "as handsome and as wise as us" [5] and had developed new types of stone, flint, bone and wooden tools and weapons and had begun by at least 22,000 years ago to create engraving, sculpture and painting.

A temporary improvement in the climate allowed animals and people to return to Britain from around 16,000 to 12,000 years ago. [6]

From around 10,000 years ago, the earth warmed up, the enormous ice sheets melted and woodlands and grasslands developed. This was the beginning of modern climactic conditions (the Holocene epoch). Animals such as red deer and wild horses and cattle found their way further north and into Britain, bringing late Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers after them with their clubs, spears, bows and arrows.

The new conditions and increased availability of food boosted the population and also encouraged more people to migrate to Britain. It has been estimated that by 9,500 years ago the population may have been around 10,000.
3. Neolithic culture at Avebury

3000 - 2100 BC
Lightly skipping across 6 millenia we arrive in Avebury around 5500 years ago - 3500 BC. Further migrations and contacts between peoples have brought new skills, technologies, ideas and ways of life to Britain. The greatest change is that people are starting to settle down and take up farming.

A spur to the development of agriculture was the reduction of larger prey animals such as deer. Scientists are uncertain whether this was due to over-hunting, climate change or some other cause. The clearing of oak forests around Avebury for agricultural use itself altered the limited the habitats of such animals. This meant that people would have to travel ever further to find quarry. Already during the Palaeolithic period it had been common for people to travel 70 kilometres (43 miles) on hunting expeditions [7]. But increasing population also meant that hunting areas were limited by the territorial boundaries of neighbouring peoples. In order to avoid conflict and ensure a regular supply of food, communities had to learn to domesticate cattle and grow crops such as wheat, barley, peas, beans, lentils and flax.

And while they were waiting for their crops to grow, Neolithic people had to stay around to tend them and guard them from birds, animals and other humans. They started to build more permanent homes and villages and spend more time making and trading tools, weapons, clothing, baskets, pottery, jewellery and other objects which made Stone Age life more comfortable. Trade and contact between communities led to the exchange of technologies and ideas.

While the spread of agriculture, handicrafts and hut building is understandable in terms of survival, more complex ideas and activities were also entering a boom phase throughout Europe. Over a comparatively short period of time ditch-enclosed compounds, collective stone-chambered tombs and henges began appearing throughout Europe. Over the next 1000 years such structures were made larger and more elaborate, with the use of enormous stones (megaliths) as a common feature.

The monuments at Avebury, built between 3300 and 2400 BC, present several phases of this development, which makes them individually and collectively important to efforts to understand Neolithic culture.

Read about Avebury's prehistoric monuments on Page 3: sights and sites of Avebury.

Further details of individual sights and monuments at Avebury
can be found with the corresponding photos in the Avebury photo gallery.

We do not know the reasons for this sudden pan-European craze for building such structures or whether they had the same significance for the various communities who built and used them. Did they share a common religion or cosmography? Were there European classes of priest-scientists comparable to the later Celtic druids, or itinerant henge-building specialists such as the builders of medieval cathedrals? Were the sites the prestige objects or facilities of individual areas, comparable to the temples of Classical Mediterranean city states or modern sports centres? Or where they part of a larger common system analogous today's international network of astronomical observatories or other information exchange programmes (e.g. the World Wide Web)?

Many theories have been developed in attempts to explain the structure and functions of the Avebury complex of ancient monuments, some supported by complicated geometrical and astronomical calculations, others based on comparisons with subsequent cultures about which we know more (ancient Greek, Native American, Australian Aborigine, etc.). None of these theories seem to be completely satisfactory, and they seem to present more questions than answers. But perhaps by making a few reasonable general assumptions we can at least approach some of the questions which make Avebury so fascinating.

The communication, coordination, planning and long-term commitment as well as the expenditure of human and natural resources necessary to build such enormous structures as Avebury Henge indicate that the enterprise was very important to the communities which constructed them.

As humans developed their agricultural skills they needed to know the best time of year to plant and harvest various crops and the breeding cycles of domesticated animals. Curiosity and a need to explore and understand things is a development of basic human instinct. As hunter-gatherers, early humans had already learnt ways to analyze, sort and classify phenomena in their environment.

At some point people began using these cognitive skills to measure the movements of the sun, moon and stars and relate them to seasonal changes. The first henges, which were circles of upright wooden poles, may have had a primarily pragmatic function as a calendar marking the relative positions of heavenly bodies. But the rebuilding of the circles using megaliths, whose transportation and erection required enormous collective effort, indicates a desire for permanence and grandeur. Was this desire a matter of mere practicality, an assertion of power and prestige (showing off), a token of submission to a deity, the symbolic expression of some other set of ideas, or all these rolled into one?

The recognition of the power of sun and moon and the effect their perceived movements had on the earth and our own lives still fills humans with wonder, awe and dread. Ascribing supernatural causes to astronomical phenomena and including them in religious belief systems is also common to nearly all known human societies.

The rationalized distinctions we draw today between the sacred and the profane, between religion, ethics, magic, art and science, myth and history were likely unknown to Neolithic people. The will of the god(s) or goddess(es), the changing of the seasons, the movements of the heavens, good fortune in life, health, childbirth, harvests, lawsuits, personal and intercommunal relations and choices of action and inaction have all been known to have particular interconnectedness in the minds of humans throughout history and up to present times.

The complex of henges and other structures at Avebury appear to have been an important cultural centre of the late Neolithic and early Bronze ages, and there is evidence of large gatherings, particularly huge quantities of animal bones, as well as pottery and other objects brought from distant parts of Britain. Again we do not know the status of the persons who visited or used this site or what they did here - apart from eat a lot of meat. Was it a goal of pilgrimage, a centre of intellectual and religious power (such as Delphi or Samothraki in Greece), or a place of intercommunal gatherings for social, political and religious purposes (such as Olympia)? How solemn were their gatherings and did they include religious processions and rituals? And was there music, song, dance, story-telling, competitions and sporting events?

It has been suggested that the building of collective megalithic tombs such as West Kennet and East Kennet Long Barrows indicates the practice of ancestor worship and a belief in an after-life.

Although Avebury seems to have been in continual use for at least a thousand years, so far no sign has been discovered of individual houses or domestic settlements there from this period. Where did the people who managed and took care of the complex live? Did they have quarters within an enclosure such as those at Windmill Hill and West Kennet, or at some settlement outside the complex? This raises questions about whether the complex itself was a sanctuary, a holy of holies accessible only to select persons such as priests. This idea has been mooted for Stonehenge.
4. The demise of Avebury

Bronze Age Britain, around 2100 - 750 BC
From around 2500 BC a new culture begins to arrive in Britain. The Bell-Beaker culture is named after the type of pottery vessels used throughout western Europe around 2500 - 1800 BC. Although it is not clear whether the spread of this new culture was due to migration and colonization by or integration of people known as the Beaker people, or diffusion through trade and cultural contact, the adaptation of the new culture seems to have been rapid and peaceful with signs of cultural continuity.

The new culture brought the production of hard, durable bronze from the softer metals copper and tin. The copper came from various places including the Great Orme in North Wales, while tin from Devon and Cornwall was exported throughout Europe. British tin has been detected in bronze made by the Minoan culture in Crete.

Social and cultural changes during the Bronze Age include the increasing complexity of societies and the introduction of hierarchies as well as a shift from collective tombs (long barrows) to individual burials (round barrows such as those on Windmill Hill) and cremation.

At the end of the 3rd millennium BC Avebury seems to have lost its importance as a cultural and spiritual centre to Stonehenge and was eventually abandoned.

Around 2200 BC the collective tomb West Kennet Long Barrow was sealed up with chalk and rubble and the entrance blocked by sarsen stones. Did this mark the end for Avebury? The building of Stonehenge, just 32 km (20 miles) to the southeast, is thought to have started at the same time as the later phase of construction at Avebury. Was Stonehenge conceived as a new improved version of Avebury, based on what had been learnt during the building of it and other henges, or was it set it set up in competition? Was the shift of activity to Stonehenge due to its new improved design or location, or as a result of changes in religious and cultural thinking or leadership?

Whatever the reasons, the lights went out at Avebury and it lay forgotten by the world for over 3000 years. Its fate seems similar to that of the Sanctuary at Delphi, which for the Greeks was the centre of the world and on which they had lavished great wealth, but which by the 5th century AD had been abandoned. The famous surgeon Oribasius, sent as an emissary to Delphi by Roman Emperor Julian around 362 AD, is said to have returned with the following message:

"Tell the king the splendid hall has fallen to the ground.
No longer has Phoebus [Apollo] a shelter, nor a prophetic laurel,
Nor a spring that speaks; the water of speech itself is quenched." [8]
5. Iron Age Britain

Celts and Romans in the Avebury area
around 800 BC - 500 AD
The beginning of the early Iron Age in Britain is dated to around 800 BC at a time when not only the use of the metal but also many other cultural changes were taking place throughout northern Europe.

Once again changes are associated with a particular culture, and this time it is that of the Celts. As with the Beaker culture it is not certain whether the adoption of Celtic languages and ways of life by Britons was due to migration and colonization or assimilation.

The Celts had a reputation as an aggressive, war-like people who migrated, raided and plundered their way through Europe, and it has been long thought that they arrived in Britain in a series of invasions from around 600 BC. However recent archaeological and genetic evidence has been used to argue that there was considerable continuity of British populations and culture during this period, suggesting not only cultural integration but even common ancestry.

Much of the Celts' notoriety may be due to negative propaganda used later by the Romans to justify their invasion and subjugation of these "barbarians". The Celts were probably no more grim or brutal than any other people past or present, and certainly not more bloodthirsty than the Romans themselves.

Aspects of the Celtic druidical religion have become well known. Roman writers report that their rituals took place in remote places and sacred groves. There is no evidence that the Celts ever used henges such as Stonehenge for religious purposes.

There appears to have been no activity at Avebury itself during the Iron Age apart from farming.

Many of the names of local rivers, hills, villages and towns still bear traces of Celtic settlement. The name of the River Kennet is thought to derive from the Celtic Cynnit and that of the nearby town Calne from col-aun (meeting of waters).

Julius Caesar first visited Britain in 55 BC and liked it so much that he came back the next year to conquer it. Much of England and Wales were brought under Roman control during and after the reign of Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD). The Romans set about building military posts in newly taken territories and constructed a network of roads connecting them.

Roman engineers always built their roads in sections which were as straight as the landscape would allow. While building their road between London (Londinium) and Bath (Aquae Sulis), which followed a similar route to the modern A4, it seems they made a bend to avoid Silbury Hill. A roadside settlement grew here, and its site along with the remains of a nearby building, thought to have been a Roman villa, are still being investigated by archaeologists.

Some time before the Romans arrived, the area around Avebury was settled or invaded by a group of Celtic or Germanic tribes called the Belgae, who arrived from northern Gaul (which became the Roman province of Gallia Belgica, now Belgium). Caesar believed that the Belgae had migrated to Gaul from east of the Rhine, though this did not necessarily mean they were Germanic.

To be continued ...

Notes, references and links  
1. John Timbs, Abbeys, castles and ancient halls of England and Wales, their legendary lore and popular history, Volume II, Page 30. Re-edited, revised, and enlarged by Alexander Gunn. Frederick Warne and Co., London, 1872. At
2. Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting, 1786. Quoted in Rodney Castleden, The making of Stonehenge, chapter 2, page 5. Routledge, London, 1993.
3. See "How the Channel was formed" on the Transmanche Heritage website.

4. Parts of Britain had been occupied much earlier by Neanderthals and their ancestors Homo heidelbergensis. However this is outside the scope of this brief history.

See The Ice Age in the Midlands and the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain on the University of Birmingham's Shotton Project website.

5. Stuart Piggott, Ancient Europe from the beginnings of Agriculture to Classical Antiquity. Edinburgh University Press, 1965.

Winston Churchill, in his inimitable way, phrased it quite differently:

"... there is no reason to suppose that this remote Palaeolithic ancestor was not capable of all the crimes, follies, and infirmities definitely associated with mankind."

Winston S. Churchill, A history of the English speaking peoples, Volume 1, The birth of Britain. Cassell & Company, London, 1956.

It is tempting to read Piggott's description of this same ancestor, written less than nine years after the publication of Churchill’s history, as a gentle repost to such cynicism. Or was Piggott himself being ironic?
6. James Owen, "Humans sped to U.K. after Ice Age, study says". National Geographic News, 2003.
7. J. G. D. Clark, Archaeology and society (1st edition, 1939, page 178; revised paperback edition, 1960, page 25).

8. Oribasius at Delphi

There are several varying translations of this quotation, originally a poem of three hexameter lines. It is first known from Church History, Book 7 by Philostorgius (368 - circa 439 AD) and repeated by later authors including the 11th century Byzantine historian George Cedrenus (Georgios Kedrenos) in his A Concise History of the World. Some scholars believe it to be a fabrication by Christians opposed to attempts by Emperor Julian II (also known as Julian the Apostate, 331-363 AD, reigned 361-363 AD) to revive paganism.

Philostorgius: Church History. Translated by Philip R. Amidon, S.J. (2007). Society of Biblical Literature.
Articles and photos: © David John, except where otherwise specified.

Many thanks to Mark Mallett, my host and guide in Wiltshire.

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