Landscape setting of the Avebury Stone Circle

The landscape setting of Avebury Stone Circle: it is a visually contained enclosure

The landscape setting of Avebury Stone Circle: it is a visually contained enclosure

Avebury is a more appealing place than Stonehenge. It is more beautiful and, to me, it has a greater sense of ‘spiritual mystery’. The Unesco summary is that “Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world” and that “Avebury prehistoric stone circle is the largest in the world. The encircling henge consists of a huge bank and ditch 1.3km in circumference, within which 180 local, unshaped standing stones formed the large outer and two smaller inner circles.”

I wonder if the reason for my being more attracted to Avebury is that, because of the remaining trees and the  high earth bank, it is still an enclosure. As noted in a previous post on Stonehenge, I believe it must have been an enclosure in woodland. Avebury more-or-less retains this condition and it is highly significant. It was a sanctuary: a sacred place in the sense of a place which was ‘set apart’ from, yet related to, the wider landscape. The  photographs, above, show the site of Avebury from Windmill Hill (top). The church steeple can be seen in the centre of the top photograph and on the right of the middle photograph. The road and the barbed wire in the third photograph are an absolute screaming disgrace, equivalent to using  Rome’s Forum as a coach park. I am very pleased that they are going to deal with the roads around Stonehenge but, first, they should implement a much cheaper and very much more important project by closing the wicked road through Avebury to motor vehicles.

We can view Stonehenge and Avebury in the light of  Ken Dowden’s comment (European paganism 2000, p.27 ) “If there was an Indo-European homeland, there were no temples there, only landscape. Sacral area must therefore in origin be identified by geography, not buildings. The buildings we have today, where they do not represent long-standing religious tradition, continue a geographical sense of sacrality. In this sense ‘nature’ inevitably underlies the choice of place in which to perform ritual”

8 thoughts on “Landscape setting of the Avebury Stone Circle

  1. Christine

    It would seem that the serpent re-occurs at many ancient sacred sites. This certainly makes you wonder if they are in any way connected? And how?[See also my comment on ‘Stonehenge as landscape and garden’ on the cave in Botswanna.]

    “In the early years of the 18th century, however, the general outline of the Avebury temple was still visible. Dr. William Stukeley, an antiquarian who frequently visited the site in the 1720’s, watched in dismay as the local farmers, unaware of the cultural and archaeological value of the ancient temple, continued with its destruction. For over thirty years Stukeley made careful measurements and numerous drawings of the site, drawings that are today our only record of both the immense size and complexity of the ancient temple. Stukeley was the first observer in historical times to clearly recognize that the original ground plan of Avebury was a representation of the body of a serpent passing through a circle and thus forming a traditional alchemical symbol. The head and tail of the enormous snake were delineated by 50-foot wide avenues of standing stones, each extending 1 and 1/2 miles into the countryside. One of the avenues terminated at another stone ring known as the ‘sanctuary’. Continuing his explorations and mapping of the countryside surrounding the stone serpent, Stukeley gathered evidence that the sacred complex of Avebury included many other massive earth and stone monuments.” []

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    Stukeley’s attractive theory does not seem to have much support from archaeologists. There is a BBC2 Timewatch programme on Stonehenge (9 pm next Monday and probably available on the iPlayer thereafter) which is likely to claim that Stonehenge was healing centre. The reconstructions they did last year do not support my (not yet shaken) belief that both sites were woodland clearings. See

  3. Christine

    I suppose Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of the origin’s of Stonehenge (History of the King’s of Britain 1136) has even less support? In ‘Material Culture – Critical Concepts in the Social Sciences’ (ed Victor Buchli) in an essay on Contested Landscapes by Bender is the following;

    “In Monmouth’s account, Aeneas, arriving from Troy, conquered the giants that inhabited ‘Albion’. Later a Celtic king, Emrys (Ambrosius), brother to Ythr (Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur), intent on establishing a memorial to kinsmen killed at Amesbury by Saxon treachery, enlisted Merlin’s help in transporting great stones from Ireland and erecting them at Stonehenge. According to Monmouth, these stones had originally been brought by giants from Africa to Ireland. In a matter-of-fact way, he cites Merlin’s description of the magical power of the stones:

    ‘Whenever they fell ill, baths would be prepared at the foot of the Stones; for they used to pour water into baths in which the sick were cured. What is more, they mixed the water with herbal concoctions and so healed their wounds. There is not a single stone among them which hasn’t some medicinal virtue.’

    Apparently the medieval church forbade the empowering of the stones.(p32) I wonder if mention of this might be found in the Vatican archives?

  4. Christine

    It seems there are a number of ‘prehistory'(Stone)henges[]. Monmouth’s account would be considered to be ‘history’ (and both an historical and contemporary account of Stonehenge)?

    I wonder if that means that the site has been used in numerous ways by numerous groups of people?


    Monmouth speaks of Trojan’s arriving in ‘Albion’ and conqeuring ‘giants’.

    Wikipedia says of ‘Albion’:

    The early writer (6th century BC) whose periplus was translated by Avienus at the end of the 4th century AD (see Massaliote Periplus) does not use the name Britannia; he speaks of nesos ‘Iernon kai ‘Albionon: the islands of the Ierni and the Albiones. Likewise, Pytheas of Massilia (ca. 320 BC) speaks of Albion and Ierne. But Pytheas’ grasp of the νῆσος Πρεττανική nesos Prettanicé (Britanic island) is somewhat blurry, and appears to include anything he considers a western island, including Thule.[2]

    By the 1st century AD, the name refers unequivocally to Great Britain. The Pseudo-Aristotelian text De mundo (393b) has:

    Ἐν τούτῳ γε μὴν νῆσοι μέγισται τυγχάνουσιν οὖσαι δύο, Βρεττανικαὶ λεγόμεναι, Ἀλβίων καὶ Ἰέρνη
    “the largest islands they reached were two, called the Britannic [isles], Albion and Ierne.”
    Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (4.16.102) likewise has:

    “It was itself named Albion, while all the islands about which we shall soon briefly speak were called the Britanniae.”


    In his book Climate Change in Prehistory William James Burrows (p257)says;

    “This treasure trove is testament to the scale of economic activity at the end of the Bronze Age. It also lends support to the thesis of the Trojan War is a memory of the conflict between the armies of Mycenae and the Hittites, who fought over Troy, as the city would have exerted control over trade in and out of the Black Sea. This booming economy ground to a halt in a period of globally disturbed climate. The climatic upheaval, which appears to have had widespread ramifications for ancient civilisations, occurred during 3.5 and 2.5 kya. Across Europe colder wetter conditions set in around 3.4 kya and the glaciers in the Alps started to expand. In northern Scotland their is a distinct and widerspread shift to wetter climatic conditions. The transition appears to have occurred abruptly, possibly over decadal to century timescale. Broad correlation with deep sea sediment records suggest that the transition may reflect colder surface sea temperatures in the North Atlantic. At the same time the Eastern Mediterranean cooled markedly, initially in the form of colder winters, which probably lead to an increasing incidence of drought in the region and issued in the next Dark Age.

    These changes appear to have triggered large scale demographic movements that are usually associated with the name ‘Sea Peoples’, in spite of the fact their major advances were overland.”

    Wikipedia says about the existence of Troy and the Trojan War:

    “The Ancient Greeks thought the Trojan War was a historical event that had taken place in the 13th or 12th century BC, and believed that Troy was located in modern day Turkey near the Dardanelles. By modern times both the war and the city were widely believed to be non-historical. In 1870, however, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated a site in this area which he identified as Troy; this claim is now accepted by most scholars.

    That most Achean heroes did not return to their homes and founded colonies elsewhere was interpreted by Thucydides as being due to their long absence.[212] Nowadays the interpretation followed by most scholars is that the Achean leaders driven out of their lands by the turmoil at the end of the Mycenean era preferred to claim descendance from exiles of the Trojan War.”

    Interesting supposition? Does this say something the relative stature of the Trojans and the Bronze Age people inhabiting ‘Albion’ perhaps?

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    British archaeologists used to think that Stonehenge was inspired by Mycenean culture. Radio-carbon dating proved this wrong: Stonehenge is much older. But the name is confusing. ‘Henge’ meant ‘hanging’ (so that Stonehenge = Hanging Stones) but the term henge is now used for an older generation earth-banked enclosure made by throwing the earth outwards (ie to make an inside ditch) and in this sense Stonehenge is not a ‘true henge’! The fact that they were made by throwing the earth outwards fits with my idea that henges were clearings in woodland – and also that they are an aspect of the history of landscape architecture, conceived as the art of composing landform, vegetation, water, buildings and surfaces. The current Stonehenge Riverside Project is looking at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls in relation to the River Avon, because both had avenues leading to the river.
    Re the comparison with Aboriginal culture in Australia, Steven Mithen (in After the Ice) argues that the early Australians lived a healthier, better, life of luxury compared to the back-breaking life of farmers (in New Guinea, West Asia and Europe). So Australia was always the Lucky Country!

  6. Christine

    Briton 55BC-10AD prior to Roman conquest as mapped by Julius Caesar(?)…Does anyone know about the history files site and its contributors etc? []

  7. Peter

    Christine, I know about the History Files web site and its contributors (which happens to be anyone who is interested in contributing!). Do you have a question regarding it?


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