Avebury - The Core Avebury Complex

The henge is surrounded by Neolithic and Bronze Age sites forming a “core” landscape, which, along with the henge, is usually referred to as the “Avebury Complex”. Looking primarily at the Neolithic landscape, there is a rough circuit around the henge that encompasses Windmill Hill to the north, Overton Hill and the Sanctuary in the east, East and West Kennet long barrows on the south and long barrows (“South Street”) around Beckhampton to the west. This almost coincides with the visual sweep of the landscape as viewed from Avebury, which, however, effectively extends to glimpses of downs a few miles further away to the east and south, and to the bulk of Oldbury Hill and its camp on the western skyline. There are also two megalithic avenues – double rows of standing stones – that enter (or exit) the henge: West Kennet Avenue to the south and Beckhampton Avenue to the west (though very little remains visible of this avenue).

Windmill Hill (SU 087714).

This natural hill is just over a mile north-northwest of Avebury henge can be considered the ‘grandmother’ of Avebury’s sacred landscape – the Neolithic use of it had commenced by or before 3,700 BC, long before the henge and some other features of the Avebury complex had been built.

Beckhampton Avenue and the Longstones.

No clear evidence of this avenue is now visible, but following 18th century observations by the antiquarian William Stukeley, recent field archaeology (1999-2003) identified its course as far as the Longstones (aka Long Stones).These two surviving megaliths are known as Adam and Eve, and Stukeley considered them to be a cove (a box-like arrangement of large megaliths). That has been approximately vindicated by the modern investigations. Specifically, Adam is the sole survivor of a cove arranged in a splayed setting of four massive sarsen stones. (Eve is a survivor of the actual avenue.)’Adam’ is the larger stone of the two Longstones and weighs over 30 tons. The modern investigations indicate that the cove had been built over an earlier line of stones set at right angles to the course of the avenue.

West Kennet Avenue

Running from (or to) the south entrance of Avebury henge are two lines of stones. This avenue of standing stones averages 50 feet (15m) in width and is believed to have originally linked the henge with the Sanctuary (see below) on Overton Hill. The avenue was first recorded by John Aubrey, but Stukeley paid much attention to it, making a record of the stones extant at his time, which proved valuable to later archaeologists. The course of the avenue southwards has a distinct kink near the henge entrance, and then proceeds to the top of a ridge where two of the tallest surviving stones still stand. From there it drops downhill in a curving course (formed by straight sections connected at slightly different angles), with the east slope of Waden Hill to the west and the lane (B4003), linking the village of Avebury with the A4, on the east. It seems that the course of the avenue ran more or less south to the recently discovered West Kennet palisaded enclosures and then struck eastwards up Overton Hill to the Sanctuary from there. The stones of this southerly segment are either still buried or missing.

Silbury Hill (SU 100685)

This site, a bare mile south-west of Avebury henge, was the tallest artificial mound in Neolithic Europe. Built in alternating layers of clay and chalk, it stands 130 feet (40m) high, contains over 12 million cubic feet (339,600 cu m) of chalk and covers over 5 acres (2ha) at its base.

It has a platform-like flat summit, about 100 feet (30 m) across. It sits in the Avebury landscape like a giant Christmas pudding, silent and enigmatic, immediately west of Waden Hill (a natural ridge) and east of the Winterbourne stream.

The mound was built in phases over centuries, starting around 2,400 BC. The bulk of the mound was built in stepped sequences; these were smoothed by a covering of soil, but the top ledge is still distinguishable, perhaps never having been smoothed originally. Over recent centuries Silbury has been subjected to various excavations into its interior, and the latest (and possibly last) major conservation and excavation programme culminated in 2008, though post excavation analysis work continues. In this programme, a new tunnel was dug into the heart of the mound. Nothing was found in the interior of the mound other than some large sarsen stones, similar to the sort used in the megalithic monuments in the complex. There is speculation that these might have symbolised the ancestors. The sides of the carefully-engineered tunnel, presenting a view of the layering of the mound, were intricately photographed for further analysis, and the tunnel was carefully filled in to prevent the sort of subsidence which had become evident in recent years – subsidence due variously to earlier tunnelling and to recent vandalism. Among other observations, archaeologists in the new Silbury work came to the conclusion that the summit had originally been rounded, but had been flattened in Roman or later times. Similarly, it seems that the top ledge had been re-cut in Norman times, when the mound was pressed into service as a motte-and-bailey fortification. This doubtless would have helped preserve the profile of the top ledge.

West Kennet Palisaded Enclosures (SU 110682)

Although there are slight hints in earlier air photographs and archaeological explorations, it is only in recent years that the foundations of two great circular ditch enclosures have been confirmed, located on either side of the River Kennet close to West Kennet Farm on the A4, and less than a kilometre north-east of West Kennet Long Barrow (see below). “Palisade Enclosure 1” has been confirmed as having two concentric ditches enclosing an approximately circular area over 200m across. Test trenches have revealed that these ditches held oak posts forming a dense timber palisade. They rotted in situ, and may have been burned. Animal deposits had been placed at the bases of some of the posts. An intriguing feature of this enclosure is that the River Kennet cuts right through its centre – it was built over the river.

Only part of one ditch of Palisade Enclosure 2 has so far been located, but this, too, contained timber posts. Within the circuit of the ditch, however, there were two smaller concentric circular ditches belonging to a former timber building 40m in diameter. Air photos and magnetometer surveys show some straight crop markings associated with the second palisaded enclosure: these seem to have been linear palisades. One connects to another circular marking (‘Structure 4’) over 200m away.

An intriguing solar phenomenon involving Silbury Hill can be observed from the Palisades (see “Visual Investigations”).

Waden Mound (SU107683)

Between the Palisades and Silbury Hill, immediately alongside the A4 road, there is a small mound 11m tall. No one knew what this was – a road detritus dump? A Roman deposit? But in 2010-11 archaeological survey work indicated that it was prehistoric, perhaps as old as Silbury Hill. Observing from the Palisades, Silbury Hill and this mound are both visible. Now formally called Waden Mound, this is also known more affectionately by the nickname “Silbaby”.

West Kennet Long Barrow (SU 104677)

West Kennet Long Barrow (WKLB) is some 330 feet (100m) long and ten feet (3m)high. It is oriented east-west, its megalithic entrance facing the equinoctial rising sun. Within the east end of the barrow there is a stone-built passageway with two chambers at either side and a terminal chamber at its western end. This megalithic chambering occupies only a tiny part of the barrow’s total volume.

The first stage of the barrow was probably commenced sometime between 3700 and 3500 BC. It was thus contemporary with the activities on Windmill Hill– an association the present investigators consider to be important (see “Visual Investigations”). This early construction consisted of a core of sarsen boulders laid directly on the old ground surface, capped with chalk rubble from flanking side-ditches. When fresh, this feature would have created a stark white marker in the landscape, eminently visible from the summit of Windmill Hill. (There is some evidence that the original WKLB may have been shorter than what we see now. It may have had an earthen ‘tail’ added much later, around the time Silbury was built, extending its length westwards. This could be important – see ‘Visual Investigations’). The skeletal remains of 46 individuals were found in the barrow, and judging by their careful, selective placing the early usage of this site may have incorporated a range of mortuary practices and rituals.

East Kennet Long Barrow (SU 116668)

This is an even mightier barrow than West Kennet, being 345 feet (105m) in length and 14 feet (4m)high, and makes a noticeable tree-capped landmark. It is oriented south-east to north-west and has not been excavated, though in all probability it, too, contains stone chambering. It can only be assumed that its date is similar to that of West Kennet.

The Sanctuary (SU 118679)

Archaeologists have found evidence of six concentric rings of post and stone holes on this site atop Overton Hill, hard by the prehistoric Ridgeway track (and the A4 road) and in effect marking the eastern perimeter of the core Avebury Complex. These various holes are now indicated by concrete markers as nothing has survived from the site, which was finally destroyed in the 18th Century. Interpretation of the various holes is difficult. The post holes may have resulted from a sequence of circular timber buildings, with the stone circles enclosing the last of these, or the post holes may record arrangements of ritual poles, like totem poles. The consensus amongst archaeologists today, however, is that the postholes relate to a series of wooden buildings, the first, small, hut being erected around 3,000 BC. This may have been the dwelling of a holy person, a shaman perhaps. This was followed over succeeding centuries by three further phases of construction, in which stone settings began to be incorporated. The final phase was probably contemporary with the erection of the West Kennet Avenue, and consisted of a ring of 42 stones 138 feet (42m) in diameter acting as an outer limit or temenos of the site. Two rows of stones, presumed to be the West Kennet Avenue, formerly connected with the Sanctuary stone circle on its west side. A short alignment of stones outside the northwest quadrant intriguingly points to the Avebury henge, out of sight from this position. The function of the site is unclear, but many human bones and evidence for feasts have been uncovered there, suggesting that the buildings may have been mortuary houses of some kind, where ritual celebrations took place.

An Introduction to Avebury

The Henge
The Core Avebury Complex
Greater Avebury Complex
Select Bibliography

Simplified plan of the core Avebury Complex showing selected features plus the key topographical feature of Waden Hill. (Various sources; main elements of drawing R. Piggott.)

The two Longstones, ‘Adam’ (nearest camera) and ‘Eve’. Eve is the only surviving stone of the Beckhampton Avenue.

West Kennet Avenue, looking north

A general view of Silbury Hill. Note the ledge beneath the flat summit.

Silbury Hill (left of picture) from the south. On the right is the ridge of Waden Hill, a natural but key topographic feature that seems to have been incorporated into Avebury’s monumental landscape.

The tunnel excavation into the southern slope of Silbury Hill in 2007

Inside West Kennet Long Barrow’s main passage.

The east-facing entrance of West Kennet Long Barrow.