Avebury and Stonehenge are two of the most well known prehistoric stone circles in England. As archaeological research continues, it is clear these two sites were part of more complex landscapes that include other intriguing sites. An avenue links Stonehenge to the River Avon; the West Kennet Avenue links Avebury and the Sanctuary. And there are other types of structures too, such as Silbury Hill near Avebury, Durrington Walls near Stonehenge. Both landscapes, two large areas of land separated by some 30 km, are listed as one UNESCO World Heritage Site: Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites. Over 700 archaeological features have been identified, of which 415 make up 160 separate Scheduled Monuments. Not all of the features that made up these landscapes have survived, and are no longer visible. In this guide to the Avebury and Stonehenge landscapes, we provide the information of some of the more well known and easily accessible sites.
The first farmers into Britain and their communal monuments at around 4000 BC are represented on the Avebury landscape by West Kennet Long Barrow and Windmill hill. These were constructed and used during the Early Neolithic. New kinds of monuments were being built in the Late Neolithic, the sacred landscape at Avebury being one of these. Many of these are marked (in red) on this map showing the extent of the Avebury World Heritage Site.
The various features indicated within the boundary are not all that have been documented. They are the principal features, those that are easy to get to. They make an interesting group of sites to visit in a day and learn something about the complexity of sacred landscapes in the later Neolithic in Britain. This map was produced by English Heritage, and can be found on the information panel at Silbury Hill.
Avebury is not only one of the best known prehistoric sites in England, it has the largest stone circle in the world. The megalithic circle is surrounded by a henge, and there were two smaller stone circles within the larger one. The monument was built over a period of time in the Neolithic period. Today, it is a popular tourist attraction as well as a place of ritual importance for contemporary pagans. Within the Henge monument is the village of Avebury, with few shops and a pub, the Alexander Keiler Museum and Avebury Manor.
Also called the Kennet Avenue, this Neolithic feature is made up of two parallel lines of standing stones about 25 m apart. It runs for 2.5 km, between Avebury Henge and the Sanctuary. Originally there were about 100 pairs of standing stones. Many have fallen over, some have disappeared altogether, and some archaeologists working on the Avenue have righted some. When excavated, archaeologists found burials underneath some of the stones, allowing the feature to be dated. Today visitors are able to walk along the Avenue.
Dating to about 5,500 years ago, this chambered tomb is one of the largest and best preserved in southern England. So it is well worth the short walk following the path from the car path that goes between fields to see it. This mound was a communal burial monument, and the remains of at least 46 individuals were recovered during excavations. It is thought the tomb was in use for about 1,000 years. Within the tomb there are five chambers, and it is still possible for visitors to enter. There is a great view of Silbury Hill from the barrow.
You will not be able to miss Silbury Hill. After all, it is the largest mound made by humans in prehistoric Europe. The purpose and function of this immense mound is unknown. But we do know it was built over a relatively short period of time sometime between 2400 and 2300 years BC using locally sourced chalk. Archaeological investigations, however, suggests it was constructed at once. Rather over a number of generations. The hill stands at 39.3 m or 129 ft high, and attracted the attention of the Romans and the later Anglo-Saxons.
The Sanctuary was a timber and stone circle that was connected to Avebury by the West Kennet Avenue. The timber posts and standing stones that made up the monument have long since disappeared, but have been replaced with concrete markers. These have been painted to give the visitor an idea where the wooden posts (red) and the stones (blue) stood. Built around 4,500 years ago, the site was probably in use for about 500 years. Maud and Ben Cunnington excavated the site in 1930, and found evidence for 58 stone sockets and 62 post-holes.
On the Stonehenge landscape communal monuments typical of first farmers into Britain at around 4000 BC are represented by the Stonehenge Cursus and the Lessor Cursus (yellow on the map). Durrington Walls and the Stonehenge circle itself with the Avenue (blue) were added to the Stonehenge sacred landscape in the Late Neolithic. This landscape certainly retained its significance into the Bronze Age given the many round barrows (orange) of that period there are. You will not miss these on the landscape.
This map shows there is so much more to Stonehenge than the iconic stone circle. As it would take about an hour to walk from Stonehenge to Durrington Walls, you can appreciate how vast and complex this sacred landscape is. This map is on the England Heritage information panels at a number of the various points of interest on map.
Stonehenge is one of the most well known of all prehistoric sites in the United Kingdom. These famous stones have touched all facets of the popular imagination, much of it fanciful. The location of these enormous stones has been an important place for prehistoric communities since at least 8000 BC. Around 5,000 years ago a ditch and bank henge was created. And there followed about 1,500 years of development. Given the site’s iconic status it is a very popular historical attraction, with people visiting in their millions each year.
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Durrington Walls started out as a settlement in the Late Neolithic, with perhaps 1,000 houses and an estimated population of about 4,000 people. Over the years a number of features were added, such as timber circles and a henge. What is visible today, and from which the site gets its name, are the ‘walls’ of the henge. The monument is 3 km from Stonehenge, and recent archaeological research has suggested they were complementary. Visitors can walk between the two (about an hour), and there are many other features on the landscape to see.
Woodhenge was a timber circle surrounded by a henge. If you know what you are looking for, you may be able to make out the low ditch and bank that make up the prehistoric henge. Otherwise what you see today is a series of concrete markers in the position of the timber posts as identified by archaeologists during excavations. Although initially thought to be a barrow, it was from aerial photographs that the respected archaeologist Maud Cunnington identified the henge and circle. She and her husband excavated the site in the late 1920s.
There are a number of museums in southern England and Wales that have material on display from the Avebury/Stonehenge area and periods. These include National Museum of Wales, Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The following three are the principal museums for these archaeological sites.
An interactive map of the Avebury landscape.
Right on the western edge of the henge are the stable and barn that are part of Avebury manor. Today these two buildings have been converted into two museums. The Stable displays the prehistoric artefacts collected by archaeologist and businessman Alexander Keiller, including many of the artefacts recovered at Avebury. The Barn has exhibitions that cover the history of Avebury and the research that has been conducted here over the years. On display is the skeleton of a child that was found in a ditch at nearby Windmill Hill.
The prehistory gallery at Salisbury Museum.
For the best permanent exhibition of the archaeology of Stonehenge and its period, head to Salisbury’s Cathedral Close where you will find the Salisbury Museum. The museum has many interesting exhibitions, but of particular relevance here is the Archaeology of Wessex gallery, which covers Salisbury and the surrounding area from prehistory to the Norman Conquest. On display are many artefacts from Stonehenge, as well as a reconstruction of the grave of the so-called Amesbury Archer; one of the most important Neolithic finds in Europe.
Founded in 1853 by the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, the Wiltshire Museum has a wide ranging set of permanent exhibitions covering the local history from the Palaeolithic through to the Roman, medieval and more recent periods. One of these exhibitions is Prehistoric Wiltshire: Gold from the Time of Stonehenge. Here you will see a number of spectacular artefacts from the time of Stonehenge. Including the Bush Barrow Lozenge; one of the gold objects recovered from a Bronze Age barrow near Stonehenge excavated in 1808.