Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites: Britannia's Prehistoric Wonder

To speak of Stonehenge is to speak of a myth as universal as ancient. It would seem that it has always been there, ever since man learned to look around him, and over the centuries the mystery of its origins has given rise to the most diverse interpretations, from magic to science fiction. The existence of many other similar monuments in the region shows, however, that it is not an isolated work, but the mature fruit of a culture, or rather a succession of cultures, that flourished in western Europe before the dawn of history.

Stonehenge in Wiltshire (UK) as of today

5000 years ago, southern Britain was a densely populated area. It is not easy to know who these men were and where they came from. It can be assumed that they came to England in several successive waves, over many millennia, and it is likely that the first ones came on foot, following the mammoth and reindeer herds, when the English Channel had not yet been formed. Even after becoming an island, Britannia was never as remote and isolated as the Romans had imagined it to be. It had excellent conditions for hunting, herding, and mining, which is why it attracted the attention of Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Metal Age men. And although the culture developed by these first inhabitants can be considered autochthonous, they never ceased to maintain relations with the continent, from where they received numerous influences that have been reflected in their monuments. 

Traces of these ancient cultures - circles of huge standing stones, burial mounds, and the remains of buildings - are particularly abundant in the Wiltshire area, and for centuries have attracted the attention and puzzled the curiosity of amateur researchers. As far back as 1130, Henry of Huntingdon mentioned Stonehenge, the most striking of these monuments, as one of the four wonders of Britain. Shortly thereafter, in 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded in his "History Of The Kings Of Britain" a curious legend linking it to King Arthur. In the 17th century, the architect Inigo Jones carried out the first excavation at Stonehenge, and in 1663 Charlton attributed its origins to the Danes.  In contrast, his contemporary John Aubrey, who excavated both Stonehenge and the huge Avebury circle in those years, believed that both were Celtic Druid temples. This theory prevailed for a long time and was subscribed to by William Stukeley, a physician and amateur archaeologist who also excavated both monuments, and some burial mounds in the region, between 1719 and 1725.

A reconstruction of Stonehenge (Bronze Age, Britain)

The collecting of antiquities, which was all the rage in 18th and 19th century Europe, led to the discovery of many other prehistoric sites, which were excavated with scarcely scientific methods or simply looted. Professional archaeology would not make its appearance until late in the period when Sir Flinders Petrie took up Stonehenge in 1880. From this moment on, and throughout the 20th century, a steady process of site recovery began through the purchase of land and its legal protection. New excavations, and increasingly precise methods of interpretation and dating, have simultaneously made it possible to unravel part of the mystery surrounding the first cultures of Britain.

Traveling Stones

A circular embankment 97.5 m in diameter, surrounded by a moat, was probably the first construction of Stonehenge, around 3100 BC, still in Neolithic times. It corresponds to the oldest of the three phases into which archaeologists divide its history, as do the 56 "Aubrey pits", which surround the inner perimeter of the embankment, and perhaps the four Stones of the Seasons, located according to the rising of the sun at the summer solstice, which implies that the monument already had, at such an early date, the ritual or perhaps the calendrical character that would be perfected in later times.

Stonehenge was built before the wheel was invented

At the end of the third millennium, the second phase began, extending the entrance to the embankment in an avenue of 500 m that led to the so-called heel stone. At the entrance to the complex were erected several sandstone monoliths, a quarry located about 45 km from the site, and inside were arranged two parallel semicircles of bluestones brought from the mountains of Preseli, in Wales, more than 200 km away, a feat all the more surprising if we consider that the authors of Stonehenge did not yet know the wheel or metal. 

However, this phase was not even completed. At the beginning of the second millennium, the complex was entirely remodeled according to a grander plan that included the main circle of 30 monoliths covered by as many lintels, to which they were joined by a "tenon and mortise" joint, and another inner circle formed by five triliths arranged in a horseshoe. The authors of this phase were the men of the Wessex culture, which flourished in the southeast of England during the Early Bronze Age. Good navigators, they maintained commercial contacts with the Greeks of the time, from whom they may have learned the techniques used in the walls and cyclopean tombs of the great Mycenae. It is evident that the society that built Stonehenge III was populous and strongly hierarchical since only an enormous availability of manpower and great coordination can explain the immense effort of its construction.

The Avebury Complex

Many other monuments in the vicinity of Stonehenge reveal the vitality of the region during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. The earliest is the so-called "Robin Hood's Ball," an assemblage of two earthworks dated between 4000 and 3000 BC. To the third millennium belong the remains of two circular buildings, surrounded by an embankment 470 m in diameter, excavated at Durrington Walls, as well as Woodhenge, a set of six concentric circles of wooden posts around an infant tomb, and the Cursus, an alignment of embankments with moats extending for almost 3 km. The complex is completed by numerous Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds. Also in Wiltshire is the great circle of Avebury, which is the core of the largest Neolithic ceremonial complex in Europe, although it is so deteriorated that it has been impossible to reconstruct its structure entirely. 

The Avebury Circular Complex (aerial view)

It consists of an embankment with a moat enclosing an area of 11.5 ha, occupied by a large outer circle of standing stones and two smaller inner circles. Although not as thoroughly investigated as Stonehenge, it seems to date from the second half of the third millennium, at the end of the Neolithic. Two of the four entrances leading to the embankment extend into avenues flanked by large monoliths. That of Beckhampton, to the west, has almost completely disappeared, although it was written in the 18th century by Stukeley; on the other hand, that of West Kennet, to the south, has been partially reconstructed. It extends for 2.4 kilometers, forming a ceremonial road leading to Overton Hill, where the Sanctuary is located, a wood and stone structure whose origins seem to be much earlier than the rest, and which has been related to funerary rites. 

A flock of sheep in Avebury Stone Complex

The first steps of the complex seem to be located in Windmill Hill, where three concentric wells have been found dated around 3700 B.C. 1000 years later Silbury Hill was erected, the largest artificial hill in the history of Europe, whose construction required 250,000 m³ of earth and stones. The complex is completed by the great mound of West Kennet, the largest domed mass grave in southern England. For more than 1000 years, between the fourth and third millennium, its five chambers of large stone blocks housed the remains of 46 individuals, perhaps the leaders of this unknown people who were then laying the foundations for the great cultural flowering of the second millennium, the time of Stonehenge and the navigators of the Wessex culture.