Avebury: Stonehenge's big brother
September 24, 2012
AVEBURY, England -- A blood red moon glared down from the heavens, its pale light gleaming on the mammoth stones starkly etched against the night sky.
As I stood staring at a tableau that had remained virtually unchanged for five millennia, it seemed I could feel the unseen eyes of eons past staring out at me from the abyss of time.
Melodramatic as that may sound, one visit to Avebury will change your mind. Situated in the heart of Wiltshire County in England, this gargantuan Neolithic site dwarfs its more famous cousin, Stonehenge. Predating Stonehenge by 500 years, archeologists theorize that Avebury may once have been the most important stone circle in Great Britain.
I had come to Avebury on a whim, goaded on by a small blurb on the back of a faded map citing, "the largest stone circle in Europe." During my time in merry ole England, I'd combed countless castles, marched across medieval battlefields, and stood in awe by the majesty of Stonehenge. But the enormity of this place, and the proximity of other Neolithic sites, makes Avebury unique.
Avebury is enclosed by an impressive 20-foot high wall of dirt, covering more than a mile of ground. Wind, weather and time have reduced it to less than half its original height.
Inside, the colossal stones rear from nine foot in height to an awe-inspiring 20. They are rough and unfinished, devoid of the capstones so prevalent at Stonehenge. They spread as far as the eye can see, comprising three concentric circles. An avenue of paired stones disappears into the distance. Once, two such avenues stretched in opposite directions with Avebury as the center. The one remaining, known as the West Kennet Avenue, leads to another stone circle called "The Sanctuary" about a mile and a half away.
While tourists at Stonehenge are held back from the stones, here people frolic among them freely. A family picnicked between two stones, while a group of modern-day druids chanted around another. Swept up in the magic, I placed my hand on the cold stone, half expecting to feel something. What I felt was awe.
At 40 plus tons apiece, the labor involved in raising over 130 sarsen stones with primitive tools and virtually no technology is mind-boggling. Why was this done? How? And what purpose did it serve? Archeologists are still struggling with those questions.
Barely a third of the original stones remain. During the Middle Ages, the village of Avebury sprang up around and within this prehistoric site. Many of the stones were demolished and used for building materials. But, as interest in the ancient circles grew in the 1800s, many of the houses were likewise destroyed to preserve the site.
One of those remaining is the tiny Alexander Keiller Museum, which offers a fascinating collection of archeological finds from the circle. Another surviving structure that deserves a visit is the Red Lion Inn, the only pub in the world to be located within a sacred stone circle.
Cooling off in the pub over a pint of Stonehenge Ale, some friendly locals filled me in on a few of the legends surrounding Avebury. Four stones within the outer ring are said to rotate on their axis on certain evenings. The Butcher's Stone once resisted efforts of villagers who attempted to bury its pagan symbols by toppling over and crushing the digger. And the Devil's Chair, sporting a seat-like alcove in its center, is reputed to be used to summon Satan by running counter-clockwise around its girth 100 times.
Leaving the pub, I stood alone among the stones as the moon rose, casting its cold glow on these silent sentinels as they have stood for centuries uncounted. Rather than feeling distanced from the past, I felt a strange kinship with the countless others through the millennia -- people just like me -- who have stood in this same spot and shared my wonder. And maybe that's the real magic of Avebury.