13th December 2011

Stories of the Stones - recent news of Avebury

Josh Pollard, Research Fellow at Bristol University, has been involved in a number of research projects in the Avebury and Stonehenge areas for several years.

One attraction of Avebury over Stonehenge is that it easier to wander freely and engage with the landscape. For over 300 years it has been subject to archaeological investigation, mainly because of its colossal monuments. This prominent chalk landscape was probably the heartland of quite a widely scattered population in the British neolithic period.

Considerable work has been carried out in the area in the last 25 years. Windmill Hill, the Longstones, the Sanctuary, Silbury Hill and other sites have all received attention.

As Josh says: "stuff keeps turning up".

Until recently some major monuments had remained hidden. For example in the late 1980s some substantial palisaded wooden enclosures were revealed at West Kennet that were just over 4000 years old. The site included substantial evidence of feasting, with finds of flints, pottery and significant amounts of pig bones.

Even major megalithic monuments can disappear. One notable example is that of the Beckhampton Avenue which had been reported by the eighteenth century antiquarian William Stukeley as connecting two remaining stones to the west of Avebury with the henge itself. Encouraged by geophysics results, excavations were carried out by Josh Pollard and his colleagues which confirmed the existence of numerous buried stones or evidence of their removal and of the avenue itself. There may have been as many as 100 pairs of stones lining it.

Excavations were also carried out around the two remaining stones described by Stukeley and known as Adam and Eve. It appears that Adam formed part of a structure with three other stones (now missing) and that Eve was actually one of a pair lining the Avenue.

Josh suggested that there was every likelihood that there were other structures still out there waiting to be revealed.

One of the most prominent features of the Avebury landscape is Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric mound in Europe and amongst the largest in the world. Several attempts have been made to excavate Silbury Hill, one of the earliest by Edward Drax in 1776. In the late 1960s the BBC sponsored and filmed an excavation by Richard Atkinson in an attempt to find a supposed burial at the heart of the monument, but were rewarded by no more than some well-preserved ancient beetles and twigs! About eight years ago the Drax shaft opened up and revealed lots of poorly filled tunnels which were causing serious instability to the structure. Major work was undertaken to stabilise things.

In many ways Silbury is the most enigmatic of Avebury's structures. It actually consists of a series of building projects with the work having been begun in 2400BC and continuously reworked.

Its location close one of the sources of the River Kennet is likely to be important as rivers were viewed as potent natural phenomena. Such a massive structure became a permanent fixture in the landscape and the Roman road from Silchester to Bath passed nearby with a large settlement growing up at the foot of the hill. Continuity of use is further evidenced by its probable occupation and adaptation during the Anglo-Saxon period.

Downstream from Avebury and also close to the River Kennet lies the Marlborough Mound. This is now known to be another late Neolithic mound. Antler picks were revealed in early excavations and recent radiocarbon dates show that it is contemporary with Silbury Hill. Re-analysis of the mound and its environment are much needed and the removal of Marlborough High Street would be required to reveal what is probably a complex site!

On the subject of radiocarbon dating Josh reminded us that the last ten years had seen a quiet revolution in the interpretation of results. By applying complex mathematical modelling in a process known as Bayesian statistical analysis it was now possible to date sequences of results far more accurately. Whittle and Bayliss for example had re-dated some neolithic sequences and demonstrated 30 year spans of accuracy. This effectively tied things down to a human generation, and monuments which had once been considered to be long-lived in use could now be shown to have very limited lifespans. For example West Kennet Long Barrow, always considered to have been in use for hundreds of years, seems now to have been used for 10-30 years only, then abandoned, only to be re-used many generations later.

Contemporary with West Kennet was the causewayed enclosure of Windmill Hill which is composed of a series of circular banks, but with many gaps between them. Josh suggested that such enclosed spaces were a new concept at this time. In all probability they were built as places for people to congregate, which then raised the question of where the people might have come from.

Modern archaeology has a tool to help answer this question in stable isotope analysis. Variations in the geology of different areas produce variations in the amount of different minerals taken up in drinking water and foodstuffs. This technique has been applied to animal remains and it has been shown that many originated from the older geology further to the west, suggesting long distance movement of people with their livestock from as far afield as Devon, South Wales and even Cornwall.

This posed questions about the reasons for the origins of the Neolithic period in the area and where people actually lived.

Turning to Avebury circle itself Josh was suggesting that the monument was largely associated with the dead. It had been built up in a series of stages over a long period. Various features have recently shown up including a possible round barrow revealed by aerial photography which could in fact be the original source of the whole monument. There doesn't appear to be any evidence of domestic buildings and all effort was seemingly directed to tombs and burial structures. Any houses must have been very ephemeral and the only evidence for habitation is scatters of worked flint suggesting middens and such like. It seemed that people were not living in the more fertile valley bottoms but more on the hilltops, quite possibly so that they could keep a watch on others!

Scatters of flint contain a lot of arrowheads and the recent evidence from animal bones suggests that hunting was less likely a reason for this than previously imagined. The arrowheads might well be explained by high levels of interpersonal conflict.

"Between the monuments" is the name of Josh's new project, in which he is aiming to explore the issues of the largely empty landscape and explain problems such as the poor evidence for disposal of the dead in the late Neolithic. Were the dead cremated and their ashes disposed of in the rivers? To what extent was excarnation or the exposure of corpses to the elements practised? Does the discovery of odd bits of bone rather than whole skeletons suggest that they were being actively manipulated and carried around?

And what of the stones themselves, all moved and placed by these people for whom there is so little evidence? For it is the stones that make Avebury the extraordinary site that it is today. Some 500 stones have been found, some up to 100 tons in weight. They are composed of the local sarsen - a very hard form of sandstone. Whilst at one time they were spread around the landscape they have today mostly been cleared for agriculture. To the monument builders they would have been very distinctive features in the landscape, probably both a challenge and an inspiration. There are many questions around the selection and removal of the stones for the monuments.

The Stonehenge sarsens are geologically the same as those at Avebury and in all probability came from the Avebury landscape some twenty miles to the north. This raises the question of the relationship between the two sites.

If some of the scattered stones were used for monument building it seems likely that use was also made of quarries.

A recent discovery of Josh's suggests an intriguing interpretation of one of Stukeley's drawings. This shows a collection of stones that Stukeley had interpreted as a collapsed circle. The stones have been shaped as opposed to those at Avebury which are little worked. From features in the drawing - a barrow, a windmill and a line of hills - Josh believes he has identified the very spot on the present A4 road between Avebury and Marlborough. The stones were removed at the end of the eighteenth century but nearby is a sarsen-built farmhouse! Further evidence of this being a significant location comes in the form of a possible barrow nearby, identified by geophysics. This collection of worked stones may fit in with an interesting feature relating to Stonehenge. English Heritage have established that there are positions in the monument where stones might be expected but are in fact absent. Not only are they missing, but, because there are no postholes to accommodate them, it can be deduced that they were never erected in the first place. The suggestion is that they were in preparation at Stukeley's quarry but some event intervened which meant that they were never transported to their destined positions.

For more detail on Josh Pollard's work at Avebury he suggests the book he co-authored with Mark Gillings:

Avebury, Mark Gillings and Joshua Pollard (Duckworth Archaeological Histories) London 2004.

And did he really say that he would be happy to take us on a tour of Avebury? That really would be the icing on the cake!

Peter Johnson