Daytripper – Avebury…

October 12, 2012

One of Britain’s most significant pre-historic sites, the small village of Avebury in Wiltshire – to the west of London –  sits in the midst of a stunning series of standing stones, the remains of three vast stone circles built around 2,600 BC.

A World Heritage Site, the vast outer circle of stones – which contains two smaller circles of stones and other associated stones – is around 3/4 of a mile in circumference and about 1,115 feet across the middle. It stands inside a three to four metre deep ditch which despite, the millenniums of weathering, still looks impressive to the eye.

It remains a matter of speculation what the purpose of the ditch and the standing stones was, although some have suggested there was a religious purpose in their creation.

The stone circle (pictured) is now managed by the National Trust – see their website for opening times.

Stretching away to the south-east and south-west from the stone circle are two great “avenues” of pairs of stones, known as the West Kennet and Beckhampton Avenues – perhaps the last of what were originally four avenues. West Kennet is by far the best preserved of the two.

It’s worth having a car for there are several other Neolithic sites nearby including the stunning Silbury Hill (pictured below), located almost directly south of Avebury. At around 37 metres high it is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe (while you can’t access the site of the hill itself, you can get some stunning views from a carpark). Work on the hill is said to have started at about 2,400 BC but its not known conclusively when it was finished.

Further to the south (1.2 miles from Avebury village) is the West Kennet Long Barrow, one of the longest burial mounds in Britain. Dating from about 3,700 BC, remains of 36 people were placed in here soon after it was first built. The barrow is open for inspection. To the east stands The Sanctuary, once site of a double stone circle.

Back to Avebury village – which was originally founded in Anglo-Saxon times (a Romano-British settlement had stood further to the south) – and here, as well as exploring the stone circles, it’s worth taking the time to visit Avebury Manor.

The manor is the former home of Alexander Keiller, who was responsible for much of the excavation work that took place here in the early 20th century as well as the re-erection of many of the stones, and is also said to have once hosted Queen Anne for a meal. Now a National Trust property, it recently starred in the BBC series, The Manor Reborn. Check the National Trust website for opening times – an admission charge applies.

There’s also a museum, the Alexander-Keiller Museum, which was established by the man himself  in 1938 in the manor’s old stable to display some of his finds (it now also includes the threshing barn), and a cafe and National Trust shop.

While it is possible to reach Avebury by public transport, a car can be a good idea to get around to the various sites – particularly if under time constraints.

The oldest structure on the Thames foreshore is only a relatively recent discovery. It was in the spring of 2010 that archaeologists found six timber piles driven into the foreshore just in front of the spy agency MI6’s building in Vauxhall (pictured below with the river covering the site). 

The piles – no specific function for which has yet been identified – were up to 0.3 metres in diameter and were found to be more than 6,000 years old.

That date puts them in the Mesolithic period when the level of the river was lower – meaning the structure was probably built on dry land – and the landscape considerably different to what it is today. Radiocarbon dating suggests the trees for the structure were felled between 4790 BC and 4490 BC.

The site, which is at the confluence of the Thames and now largely underground River Effra, was initially kept secret while surveying was carried out. Nearby were found stone tools dating from a similar era to the piles – they included a tranchet adze for woodworking – and pottery fragments from the slightly later Neolithic era.

The discovery near the low tide line was made by archaeologists from the Thames Discovery Programme and the site then surveyed with the assistance of English Heritage and the Museum of London as well as the geomatics teams from Museum of London Archaeology.

The site is 600 metres downstream from a Bronze Age timber jetty (about 1,500 BC) found in the 1990s.