Britannia's Magical History Tour
Stop 2: Avebury, Wiltshire
If you're paying attention, while driving west on the A4 out of the town of
Marlborough, you will begin to see things you've never seen before. First, you'll begin to notice many large grass-covered mounds on both sides of the road (round barrows). A bit farther on, if you look up the hill on your left,
you will see an above ground mound fronted on the east side by enormous upright stones (West Kennett Long Barrow). Farther on, to your right, you will see a huge (132 ft. high), upside-down, flat-topped, cone-shaped, man-made mound. If you haven't stopped your car, yet, go another half mile or so and turn in at the Wagon and Horses Pub on the right side of the road, just before you get to the roundabout. This is a picture perfect country pub, straight out of Charles Dickens.|
Go on in and order a pint of Old Timer or Farmer's Glory, rich "real
ales", made and delivered daily by Wadworth Brewery in nearby Devizes.
Have a bite to eat while warming yourself by the roaring fire, and the
landlord, if he's not too busy, will tell you what he knows about the local
area. Pay attention to what he says, because you've just entered some of
the most archaeologically-rich real estate in the world and you should not
leave the area until you've explored it, thoroughly!
The landlord will tell you that the round barrows are single burial mounds
of very ancient vintage. The eighteenth century antiquarian and field-archaeologist, William Stukeley, said of them, "they are assuredly the single sepulchres of kings, and great personages, buried during a considerable space of time, and that in
peace. There are many groups of them together, and as family burial places."
West Kennett Long Barrow is a burial mound of a different kind. Called a chambered barrow, it is internally divided into sections and was found to accommodate the remains of 46 individuals. Standing a full hundred meters long, It is believed to be at least 4,000 years old and represented quite an engineering project. The stones which mark the entryway to the barrow are large sarsen stones, weighing 7-10 tons each.
Easily visible from West Kennett Long Barrow, to the north and slightly
to the west, is the enigmatic construction known as Silbury Hill. When excavated,
it was found to be a multi-tiered chalk hill, covered with earth. It was
originally thought to be a more elaborate kind of burial mound, but no trace
of any human remains have ever been discovered. Its purpose is lost to us,
now, but many ancient workers must have found their thrill building Silbury
Hill. Where did the chalk and earth come from to build it? We have only
to look to the north about a mile or so to find the answer.
The source for the material to construct Silbury Hill must be the product of the massive
earthwork surrounding Avebury, the greatest of all the ancient stone circles of Britain. Millions of tons of earth had to be moved to create Avebury's bank and ditch (the henge), and they had to go somewhere. The best guess is that Silbury Hill is where they went.
The standing stones of Avebury form, by far, the largest of Britain's stone
circles, with a diameter of nearly three-fourths of a mile. In addition,
it is the only circle with a town inside it. Many of the stones that used
to stand are missing, now, according to Stukeley: "fallen a sacrifice
to the wretched ignorance and avarice of a little village unluckily plac'd
within it." Apparently, the villagers used whatever was convenient
to hand to build their roads or houses or barns or whatever.
Enough of the original stones are left standing to convey the impression
that this was a site of major importance to the ancient peoples who lived
in that area 4 millennia ago. Intersecting the southern margin of the circle
is a double line of stones, known as the Avenue, presumably a processional
way leading back to another stone circle, now vanished, known as the Sanctuary.
Another avenue, known as the Beckhampton Avenue, leads away to the west.
These are but the best known sites in the Avebury area. There are many other
sites and phenomena worth investigating in this area that are beyond the scope of this article, such as ley lines, dolmens, quoits, white horses, wood henges, wells, sacred groves, barrows, altars, avenues, hills and earthworks. Together, all of the sites
and structures in the area, formed a vast and impressive complex. No doubt,
the individual monuments had a specific purpose and meaning and were intentionally arranged in such a way as to facilitate some larger practical or ritual
purpose, important to the lives of the people long ago.
While we can't know exactly what was on the minds of the ancients, we can
see that they were fully capable of performing amazing feats of planning,
organization and engineering and were adept at design and architecture.
For that, they are to be applauded, and we should be glad that we can still
appreciate their handiwork, if only in part.
While in Avebury, there's no need to get completely lost in pre-history.
You should visit the parish church of St. James, situated within the stone
circle in a very pleasant district of town. It is a good example of the
blending of architectural styles from different time periods. Portions of
the windows have been dated to the first half of the eleventh century, before
the Norman conquest. Parts of the nave and chancel are thirteenth century
while the tower seems to be fifteenth century. The whole church was restored
in the late nineteenth century, to its present fine condition. The neighboring
manor house has several white peacocks in residence, and they will jump
out at you when you least expect it. They're harmless, though, and add some
spice to your visit.
Well, you've probably run the poor landlord dry of information, by now,
so when you leave, remember to take along a Jar of Ale, a screw-topped,
plastic jug that holds 4 pints of your favorite brew, freshly drawn from
the barrel. Don't let it stand too long without refrigeration, though, because
the "real ales" have no preservatives and you'll wind up with
salad dressing in a day or, at the most, two.
Next stop: Malmesbury, Wiltshire
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