We arrived at Avebury in the afternoon and met Graham’s sister and her husband there (they live not far away) and with Tom as our guide we walked round the site and looked at the stones and ditch.  


Avebury map Old stone map dig

At the heart of pre-historic Avebury is THE HENGE. Compared with other henges it is massive and though erosion and vandalism have reduced it considerably it still remains an impressive spectacle. Its construction was spread over several centuries beginning about 3000 BC when the Cove and the earliest stage of the Sanctuary were built. It would be another 600 years before the final form was achieved when the avenues were added about 2400 BC.

The area covered by the circle is about 28.5 acres and the circumference is approximately 0.8 of a mile. Around the outside of the circle once stood 98 large sarsen stones some of which weighed as much as 60 tons and perhaps more. Within this large outer ring are the remains of two smaller stone circles one of which originally consisted of 27 stones and was about 320 feet in diameter (northern circle) and the other which was about 340 feet in diameter and consisted of 29 stones (southern circle). Both of these inner circles are each much larger than the circle of stones at Stonehenge.

The ditch and bank formation that surrounds the Avebury Henge has to be one of the most amazing products of stone age engineering in the world. As can be seen from these early photographs taken when the ditch was being excavated near to the south entrance it originally was enormous...4,500 years worth of erosion and silting have reduced it to only a third of its original depth which was around 30 feet....Correspondingly the bank was considerably higher which has been estimated at between 20 to 25 feet. The distance from the bottom of the ditch to the crest of the bank could have therefore been a massive 55 feet in places. With a total length of over a kilometre it almost defies belief that the whole thing was dug out of solid chalk using such basic tools as antler picks and shovels made from ox shoulder blades. Nothing tells us more that the available labour at Avebury must have been considerable and capable of good organisation.

The ditch and bank were excavated in the early years of the 20th.century by Harold St. George Gray who was the curator of Taunton museum. He found evidence that their construction had occurred in two phases. Initially a much smaller bank had been built around 2800BC.  the final, much larger form which is believed to have been started a century or so later. However, due to the amount of time taken by their construction, precise dating is difficult to achieve.

When visiting Avebury today the size of some of the stones is the feature that leaves a lasting impression on most visitors,but when the circle was first constructed the most awesome feature must have been the ditch and bank which had been dug from the solid chalk of the Wiltshire landscape.


Barber Stone  When Alexander Keiller was carrying out his excavations in the 1930s under one stone (no.9 in the south-west quadrant of the henge) was found the skeleton of a man. He is believed to have been an itinerant barber-surgeon or tailor who had suffered various injuries when the stone had fallen and trapped him, though a recent re-appraisal of the evidence seems to indicate that the unfortunate man may have already been dead before being placed in the hole that was dug for the stone. Whatever the truth this sad incident has allowed archaeologists to date a period when stone-burial was taking place, for with the skeleton they found the remains of a leather purse containing a pair of scissors, a probe and some coins. The scissors are believed to be among the earliest examples to have ever been found and the coins were a French sterling and two early 14th.Century pennies belonging to the reign of Edward 1 or 11 depending on sources.

Like the stones of the cove those of the avenue are of male and female types and had been deliberately erected in pairs with a male stone facing a female stone and vice versa along the length of the avenue. Female stones are crudely diamond shaped, male stones are more pillar-like.

THE COVE - Anyone who knows Avebury Henge well must be very familiar with the two cove stones contained within the remnants of the northern inner circle which are amongst the largest and finest stones of the whole monument. It has long been accepted that the stones of Avebury represent male and female characteristics with the two surviving cove stones being perfect examples of the types chosen. At the north side there once was a third stone which completed the cove and faced the existing slender "male" stone. This fell in 1713 and was destroyed.

John Aubrey, William Stukley and Alexander Keiller

JOHN AUBREY is historically acknowledged to be the first antiquarian to recognise the true importance of Avebury when he came across it by chance in the January of 1649 whilst out fox-hunting and is accepted as being responsible for bringing it to the attention of the world at large.  He made drawings of what he found at Avebury which are now invaluable to modern researchers. They reveal the presence of stones which had disappeared by the time Stukeley was to study the megaliths, thus confirming that the period between the two men's visits was one of major destruction to the monuments.

WILLIAM STUKELEY (1687 - 1765) became the antiquarian who devoted his time to Avebury and so much of what is known about the more recent history is attributable to him. Not only did he chronicle his visits he also drew much of what he saw.  It is his illustrations and records that have proved so valuable in helping us realize what a magnificent and extensive undertaking the Avebury monuments were. During his visits to Avebury he had to witness much of the unforgivable destruction that took place at that time. His contribution has been vital to the history of the monuments for without it researchers would have great difficulty in interpreting what is there now.

 The appearance of Avebury to-day is largely due to the efforts of ALEXANDER KEILLER who purchased the monument in the 1930s his wealth coming from the family marmalade business. In a way it is also due to the fact that a good number of the stones were buried for whatever reason during earlier centuries which was to save many from the predations that were to come later.

After clearing the parts of the site which nature had re-claimed and emptying the ditches of the accumulation of rubbish they contained Keiller commenced a careful investigation of the henge. Then, using modern equipment and materials, he excavated and re-erected the surviving stones in their original holes mainly on the western side of the circle and along the West Kennet Avenue. Where stone-holes were found but the stones were missing he marked with concrete plinths.

Our visit ended back at the carpark, but not before several members of our group discovered the joys of ice cream from the local shop.

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Stuckley’s drawing of the stones

Click to see diagram of stones’position

Raising a stone The Stones dig

A 1908 image of St. George Gray's excavations at the southern entrance  reveals the underlying chalk with startling clarity



Slide mouse over picture to see a magnified version