Archaeology Magazine Archive

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New Stones at Avebury Volume 53 Number 1, January/February 2000
by Chris Hellier

A new series of slabs at Avebury stone circle in western England, discovered under a farmer's field, probably formed a causeway linking the circle, or henge, to a contemporary burial site at Beckhampton, a mile to the southwest. University of Leicester and Southampton archaeologists now believe that the complex, whose main circle was last excavated in 1930, covered a much larger area than originally thought and was probably built in several stages.

The existence of buried avenues was first suggested in the 1720s by the English antiquarian William Stukeley, although many dismissed his theories as guesswork. Some years ago, however, an avenue was uncovered leading from Avebury to nearby West Kennet, and the latest find appears to confirm Stukeley's beliefs and the notion that Avebury was connected to other ceremonial sites.

Avebury, constructed between 2800 and 2700 B.C., includes the world's largest stone circle (1,401 feet in diameter), numerous barrows, and the 130-foot-tall Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe. Evidence of a "woodhenge" has also been unearthed at the site. Large holes, six feet deep and arranged in circles, are thought to have supported giant wooden pillars up to 17 feet tall. While the pillars might have formed part of a ritual building, they are much larger and closer together than necessary to support a roof and are more likely to have been a free-standing wooden henge, possibly one of 40 similar structures in Wessex, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that in the late ninth and tenth centuries included much of southern England. The latest discoveries have major implications for Stonehenge. If there were other wooden structures in the region, then Stonehenge may not be as unique as was once thought. Henges, in stone or (more usually) wood, were simply part of the religious landscape of the period.

The idea of henges dotting ancient Britain is reinforced by the discovery of the so-called "Seahenge," a remarkably well-preserved timber circle, on a remote Norfolk beach in November 1998. Comprising 55 timber posts, with an upturned oak stump in the middle, it was exposed by winter gales that swept away a peat dune covering it. Seahenge is the first circle to be found with an intact oak stump at its center. Other sites have revealed hollows in their centers but until now no one knew what had caused them. Seahenge is extremely fragile and was only preserved thanks to its peat covering. This past summer archaeologists from the Norfolk County Council's Archaeological Unit excavated and dismantled the circle. Once cleaned, studied, and treated, it may be reconstructed near its original site.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America