Thirty kilometers (18 miles) north of world-famous Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, is its lesser known, but larger cousin, Avebury.
Built at the same time as the second phase of Stonehenge, around 1600-2000BC, the stone circle at Avebury is the largest in the world.
Neolithic inhabitants of Britain built the first phase of Stonehenge about 500 years earlier. The second phase and the henge at Avebury were the work of the “Beaker” people, immigrants from continental Europe who may have introduced the idea of sun or sky worship. They were named after their habit of burying pottery-drinking vessels with their dead.
The Beaker people quickly established dominance over the indigenous tribes, partly due to their facility with metal, the main source of which was in Ireland. To maintain a supply of these metals they established trade routes, one of which followed the south coast of Wales. This probably accounts for the Beaker traders’ familiarity with the Pembrokeshire bluestone, which they selected for use at Stonehenge
The stones at Avebury which, unlike those at Stonehenge, have not been dressed to shape are a very hard sandstone occurring naturally on the local downs. They are called Sarsen Stones, possibly from the word “Saracen” meaning heathen.
In its original form the main circle of 98 stones surrounded two smaller circles of about 30 stones each, and there were still smaller arrangements of stones within these. The banks and ditches form a circle nearly one mile in circumference. The ditches, before thousands of years of erosion, used to be twice as deep and the bank, made up of chalk rubble from the ditches, was considerably higher and deeper. Originally, the henge would have been encircled by a startling white bank and ditch.
People without machines or the wheel carried out the great task of building Avebury. Ditches were dug with picks and rakes made of antlers, bone shovels and wooden tools. The chalk was moved in baskets.
The great stones themselves, from the Marlborough Downs, five kilometers (three miles) away, were probably dragged with leather ropes, wooden levers, tree trunk sledges and considerable manpower. As many as 100 men would have taken several days to drag one stone to Avebury.
The largest stone still standing weights about 67 tons. The Devil’s Chair, standing by the road to Marlborough, is the second largest at about 56 tons.
There has been far more destruction of the stones at Avebury than at Stonehenge. Most of the wrecking was done in the 18th-century, either to clear the ground for cultivation or to use the stone as building material. The stones were broken up by lighting fires beneath them and then pouring water over them.
In the 14th-century some of the stones were buried. In fact one man, a barber or surgeon, was killed when one of the stones he was attempting to demolish or bury fell on him. A pair of scissors and a lancet were found next to his skeleton and the stone is now called the Barber’s Stone.
The henge at Avebury is now a National Trust property and boasts an information center, a National Trust shop, the Alexander Keiler Museum and a restaurant. In the village of Avebury itself, encircled by the henge, good food and ale is available at the local pub. To get there from London, take the M4 west and turn south on the A4361 just past Swindon, a distance of about 140km (85 miles). Bristol is 50km (30 miles) due west on the old A4.