What is the significance of a circle? Continuity, completeness, infinity? If you build a giant ring from earth or stone, do you harness these qualities?
At Avebury, a prehistoric site not far from its more famous cousin, Stonehenge, two inner rings and one huge outer circle of stone are surrounded by a ditch and “henge” or circular mound. It’s as if the creators of the monument were attempting to concentrate the power of the circles by multiplying, amplifying and diversifying them. Or perhaps not… nobody knows why they are here but the reasons are presumed to be spiritual.
Avebury is one of the largest stone circles in Europe. It was built around four and a half thousand years ago and apparently used for a thousand years after that, which I think demonstrates how important it was at the time.
(Above is a nineteenth century sketch attempting to approximate the original layout of the monument).
Having spent the morning wandering around Stonehenge and absorbing or imagining the power, magnetism and historical significance there, I wasn’t too excited about the approach to Avebury. It looked like just another little English town, and I hadn’t heard of it. But one of the incredible things about England (that we are not really used to in Australia) is that there are layers and layers of history all piled on top of one another. Intertwined amongst this are the ever changing attitudes to cultural heritage and conservation. Avebury is a really interesting example of this.
After hundreds of years of neglect, the area became a sort of tourist attraction in the Roman era. During the Middle Ages, stones were toppled by villagers who believed they were associated with the devil. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many other stones from the rings were used as building materials for the village, which now encroaches into the circle itself. Only more recently, since the 1870s, have attempts been made to retain or restore what remains of the original circles, and many were reinstalled in the 1930s.
So when I stood by the tall stones, looking towards the village itself, the shadows of the monoliths that were cast before me might have represented a long shadow of history. I was looking at a very quaint, very old village that had been built literally on top of and using the materials from an ancient artifact. Instead of feeling regretful about what had been lost I was intrigued by the way that progress is often just practical and pragmatic.
Avebury is an open-air museum now, and also features an on-site visitor’s centre with all sorts of information and interactive displays. If you’re taking the time to visit Stonehenge then Avebury is likely to interest you too. The continuity of the circle has been broken but the stories contained here are infinitely compelling.