In Wiltshire, the Avebury Stone Circles are one of Britain’s greatest Neolithic monuments. The World Heritage Site includes the largest prehistoric stone circle in the world.
Stonehenge is the prehistoric star of England, but the Avebury Stone Circles are in some ways a better place to visit. Like Stonehenge, Avebury a remarkable Neolithic landmark, but unlike that more famous monument it’s typically not overrun with tourists.
About 4500 years ago, the stone circles were created by farming communities in the region. They built a huge stone circle surrounded by a bank and ditch, a type of prehistoric monument called a henge.
Archeologists say that 98 stones once stood in a great circle at Avebury. Only 27 remain, with the position of another 19 marked by concrete posts. Another 100 stones were once arranged in two inner circles: the southern one was formed from 29 standing stones, of which five remain, and the northern one had 27 stones. To give you an idea of the size of these inner circles, each of them is larger in diameter than Stonehenge. When it was created, the henge ditch would have been up to 29 feet deep.
The stones, some weighing as much as 60 tons, were dragged from nearby hillsides and then set upright in shallow holes with enormous effort, likely using wooden poles as levers. The stones range in height from 12 to 18 feet.
Through the centuries, many theories have been advanced to explain how this landmark was used. The enormous effort involved in its creation indicates its importance to the people who built it. It’s estimated that as many as 1.5 million man-hours were needed to construct the landmark. As at Stonehenge, most believe that the arrangement of stones was used for ceremonies and rituals.
By the end of the prehistoric age, the site was abandoned. After a brief occupation during the Roman Era, during the Middle Ages a village grew up among the stones, with people using some of them for building materials. Some were destroyed because people thought they were associated with paganism and devil worship.
We owe a great debt to Alexander Keller, an archeologist who was heir to a family fortune made courtesy of Dundee Marmalade. In the late 1930s he bought the site, cleared away modern buildings, and re-erected many of the stones. Without his intervention, even more of the site would have been lost.
The modern village of Avebury continues to exist in and among the standing stones, which makes for quite an odd juxtaposition. But the great glory of Avebury is how accessible it is to visitors, who can wander among the stones as they wish. If the weather’s nice, pack a picnic lunch and plan on spending a delightful afternoon at this remarkable prehistoric landmark.
A car park at the entrance to Avebury village is managed by the National Trust. After parking, head to the main visitor reception, which is in a seventeenth-century threshing barn in the village.
It’s easy to combine your visit to Avebury with a tour of Stonehenge, which is about 45 minutes away by car, and with the West Kennet Long Barrow, a Neolithic tomb that’s within a half-hour walk.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.