The secrets of Avebury's stones

Paul Morrison discovers the secrets of Avebury's stones and reveals why they're better than Stonehenge

4 mins

There have been some strange goings on in Avebury for the past few millenniums. And today is no exception.

Picking his way between snoozing sheep and neolithic stones, a warmly-dressed figure walks slowly across the frosted grass, arms outstretched and clasping an L-shaped metal rod in each hand. Looking like a schoolboy playing at daleks, this peculiar sight raises smiles from the other early morning visitors and knowing looks from the resident sheep. Then suddenly, without any visible assistance, the rods begin to move.

They swing slowly inwards from their previously parallel position, until, as the man nears a three-metre monolith, they cross over completely. A broad grin spreads over his face as he looks up, hoping to impress the smirking visitors with his new-found powers.

But they’ve moved on, leaving him alone with the sheep and the stones. He doesn’t care – audience or not – this is fun, out of the ordinary, and just the right kind of introduction to one of the most mysterious places in Britain.

I was that dowser at dawn. I had been persuaded by Wendy at the visitors centre to try my hand with the rods. And I had wondered at first if this was a form of local practical joke... Until they moved. Then I was hooked.

Strolling around this neolithic conundrum, with its mediaeval settlement inside, I discovered a force that defies conventional explanation. But it goes some way to explaining the perennial attraction of this seemingly quiet corner of the Wiltshire countryside.

“Most people can do it,” claimed Wendy, when I returned the rods. But she couldn’t tell me why. Ley lines, underground streams, earth energies emanating from the stones. They’re all theories that prompt more questions than they raise. Which just about sums up the whole of the Avebury area. A series of puzzles and mysteries that nobody seems in a hurry to explain.

Take Silbury Hill, just a twenty minute walk to the south. When it was finished, some 5000 years ago, it was the tallest manmade object in Europe. It took 200 years to complete, and at one time, with great steps running up its sides of bare chalk, it must have looked like an Aztec pyramid rising out of the woods and clearings.

These days, with its smooth grassy slopes, the locals refer to it as the “green Christmas pudding”. But nobody knows why it was built.

Archeologists have drilled to the core from the top and from the sides, and found nothing of interest but the buried seeds and insects that have enabled its dating. So it’s left to the theorists, and you can take your pick, from King Sil’s burial mound to the folly of some passing Egyptians.

First arrivals

There was clearly something special about this area. Long before there was an English channel, let alone a tunnel beneath it, people had walked across from western Europe and settled on Windmill Hill, just to the north of Avebury. There they began a settlement that was to become a neolithic metropolis.

The bones and tools that have since been unearthed give some clues as to the lifestyle of its inhabitants, who it seems were the first people in Britain to settle down and farm on a permanent basis. But if the archeological detectives can deduce this from the inconspicuous remains of the settlers, the more visible legacies of their existence has still left them baffled.

We know that they were prosperous for their day. We know that they were warlike, farmed sheep and buried their honoured dead in great burial mounds – the ‘long barrows’. But we don’t know why they spent 200 years building a chalk and gravel mound that has nothing of value inside. And we don’t know why after 1200 years of settlement they disappeared, leaving their homes and tombs to meld back into the earth.

The great enigma

I find all this ignorance quite refreshing. In a world where science provides so much certainty, it’s comforting to know that there are no ready answers to the riddles of Windmill Hill. Everyone likes a mystery, and as if the questions of Silbury Hill were not puzzling enough, there is more to follow – the great enigma of the stones themselves.

The people who built the Avebury stone circles came along after the abandonment of Windmill Hill. Maybe they were descendants – who knows? Whoever they were, these new inhabitants felt the customary urge to build, though they weren’t going to be content with a patio and a rock garden. Somehow, for whatever reason, they hauled hundreds of massive stones – sarcens – from the downs, ten kilometres away, and constructed the largest stone circle in the world.

Inside the Great Circle they built two lesser rings of stone, around it they dug a huge circular trench, and leading away from it they created two “avenues” of stones leading out across the plain. When it was finished – and it took them centuries – the site that we now know as Avebury would have been one of the great wonders of the ancient world. Fourteen times larger than Stonehenge, and 500 years older, it remains one of the great under-discovered attractions for the modern-day traveller.


That’s the mystery that bugs me the most. Why is it that just half an hour away there are people who are prepared to shuffle through a turnstile and pay for the privilege of gazing at a sanitised circle of stones that English Heritage have turned into Wiltshire’s version of the Lenin mausoleum.

Stone circles are meant to be viewed, or rather experienced from within, and the magic of Stonehenge is totally lost amongst the barbed-wire and crass commercialism. Here, in Avebury, you can wander free and to your heart’s content. The stones beckon to be touched, and the enormity of the site absorbs even the most vocal of school-parties.

That’s the beauty of Avebury. It’s open and accessible and alive. Every rock and mound and hollow seems to have meaning, and the riches of its past have not been relegated to stuffy museums and vague marks in the ground.

It’s a place where you can stroll for hours along ancient tracks and breathe in the same air that these enigmatic people would have drawn as they walked between huts and hills and barrow. Except perhaps alongside Silbury Hill, where the neolithic lungs are likely to have missed out on the pleasure of carbon monoxide from the A4.

Major highways aren’t new to this area, where ley lines, trunk roads and ancient pathways all come together. Just east of Silbury Hill, the A4 passes the start of the Ridgeway, a 5000-year-old trail that takes 5 or 6 days to walk its full length of 136 km – a much more satisfying pace than that offered by the modern equivalent.

Starting at Ivinghoe Beacon, in Buckinghamshire, the trail along hilltop and river bank ends at ‘The Sanctuary’, thought to be the site of a neolithic temple, and just a stroll away from Silbury Hill and another great construction of the Windmill Hill people – West Kennet Longbarrow.

The ancient dead

Whilst we can only guess why the people built the stone circles and huge mound, we know for certain what longbarrows were for. For longbarrow read ‘tomb’ – stone-walled chambers, encased in a long mound of earth. Over 50 skeletons have been found inside the West Kennet site, one of the largest longbarrows in Europe. The largest is nearby – East Kennet Longbarrow – which has never been thoroughly examined and remains closed to the public.

They found bones in these tombs – as you might expect. But there were a few surprises when they studied them closer. The fractured bones and even an arrow head in the neck suggested a violent life, but also one plagued by arthritis and, even, quite common it seems, spina-bifida.

Another more puzzling conclusion was that the arrangement of the bones suggested that they weren’t left in peace once interred, but brought back out for special occasions. It sets the imagination reeling again: “Hey - remember gran? Not looking so good these days!”

The disappearance

When the people of Windmill Hill left, they sealed up their tombs for good. In time, the people who raised the great stones also disappeared. For all its power and attraction, the great settlement of Avebury was abandoned.

The Romans found little to comment on, and left the area largely untouched. It wasn’t until an Anglo-Saxon settlement grew up that Avebury was put back on the map. Today’s village dates from these times, and after centuries of fortunate neglect, the worst time for the stones began.

Symbols of the devil

Pagan stones are a symbol of the devil. Natural enough thinking for the god-fearing churchmen of the fourteenth century, who encouraged the removal of the stones. This was a rather tall order for stones of this size – so they settled for their toppling. One such action led to tragedy.

An itinerant barber-surgeon joined in one day, as the villagers began to work on felling a stone by a combination of digging and pushing. It fell all right. Right on top of the unfortunate visitor, snapping his neck and leaving him wedged beneath so they had to build his tomb around him. And there he lay for six centuries, until rediscovered by a team working to re-erect the stones. Perhaps the devil was making a point.

Today’s circles and avenues are sorely depleted. A more destructive period began in the seventeenth century, when the stones were broken up for building material – you can see them to this day in the walls of the older houses. And, ironically, many of the stones that remain managed to survive because of the previous vandalism.

Those stones toppled in mediaeval times lay hidden and forgotten in the ground, until more diligent twentieth century discoverers unearthed them. Even today there are others that remain buried in the fields around the village.


Whilst the vandalism continued over the last few centuries, various, more enlightened men had tried to protect the archeological treasures of the Avebury area. Eventually, it was a marmalade baron from Dundee who ensured their survival and put an end to the destruction.

Alexander Keiller turned his attention to a different kind of preservation in 1924, when, fearing further destruction of a site he saw as unique, he bought Windmill Hill and began to excavate. Later on he purchased Avebury Manor and much of the land in the village, including the stone circles, and set to work to uncover and restore the remaining stones. Trees were cut down, buildings demolished, even the local petrol station was moved. He was passionately resolved in his intent, and it’s the results of his work that we see today.

The stones that remained, or were restored to position, are enough to convey the magic of the place. The stones create an aura that evokes something ancient, something almost hypnotic. Small wonder the mediaeval churchmen felt threatened. They evoke a strange sense of power and presence that brings out the pagan in the most ecumenical visitor.

I’m not sure how the locals would have taken to the restorations. Clearly those who found their barns and homes removed by Keiller’s restorations would not have been so impressed. But the villagers have always had an ambiguous relationship with the stones.

The village

I like the village. I like that it is there, within the circle, giving it life. And English Heritage can’t put a turnstile on the edge of town, nor encase the stones in perspex. This isn’t some relic of the past standing lonely on a windswept plain. The stones and the village are one, just as they originally were.

Thankfully, for all its star attractions, Avebury is unspoilt by the combination of mainstream and “alternative” commercialism, with its dreaded selection of craft and tea-rooms, that has blighted every other tourist centre around the country.

Avebury’s only new-age shop stocks the obligatory crystals, corn-circle bulletins and ceramic dragons. The National Trust shop will sell you the usual selection of quaintly packaged teas that you’ll never drink or will foist off on the neighbours for looking after the cat. But neither are obtrusive and they are certainly not competing with the attractions themselves. The village remains small, just a hundred or so people living within the circle, with its one church, one pub and a local post office.

In truth, whilst the village inside the stones was the cause of much of its destruction over the centuries, it is precisely the fact that there is a living community inside that now makes its survival more certain. In turn, the stones ensure that the village will be spared the conventional rural alternatives of decay or ugly expansion.

The villagers themselves regard the tourists with the usual mixture of welcome income and nuisance. But if the nuisance factor is dominant, it doesn’t show. Eric, the landlord at the nearby New Inn, certainly has time for his guests. Especially those, like the young American who stayed there this summer, who don’t need their sheets changing. “He slept amongst the stones,” said Eric with a shrug, as if this happens all the time.

A host of attractions

Other visitors seek a more conventional break. And though many just come for a day trip, there are plenty of other attractions in the area. The pretty little villages nestled in the Marlborough Hills are worth exploring and there’s a total of seven white-horses cut in these and other hillsides nearby – virtually a herd. Fyfield Down Nature Reserve is just a few miles away and the towns of Marlborough and Bath are within easy reach.

Then of course, in summer, there’s the corn circles to puzzle over and debate. All in all a place to spend a long time in or visit again and again. But for me, the star attractions lie around the village, and even when the days are short and the corn circles long since lost to the harvester, the stones remain as compelling as ever.

Sex and the stones

“There’s two types of stones,” I was told, “the tall, column-shaped ones are phallic symbols,” (surprise, surprise), “and the shorter, rounder ones are the moon goddess.” (I wouldn’t have guessed that one so easily). Symbols of fertility – the usual explanation.

And most probably right. It’s easy to understand why the church saw them as a threat. The stones hint at powers long forgotten, and of knowledge scarce remembered.

Dabbling in dowsing, we can maybe start to understand why it was that these people thought the place so special. And special it certainly is.

At sunrise, while the village sleeps, the stones cast their long shadows across the frosty ground and the sheep emerge from their neolithic windbreaks to stretch their chilly limbs. It’s a time of day when the stones seem awake, and with only a pinch of imagination you can picture the figures of the people who raised them, shuffling their aching bones along the avenue to Silbury Hill.

When they disappeared, they took with them a knowledge and purpose we can only guess at. We can wonder at their creations and theorise as to their meaning, but we’ll never really be able to unravel the secrets of the stones. Somehow, for all its frustrations, I prefer it that way.

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