Avebury – the Neolithic Goes Large

There’s no denying there are some astonishing feats of prehistoric engineering in the Stonehenge Landscape, but if you want to ‘Go Large’ in the Neolithic then Avebury is your place. Now size isn’t everything but sometimes it’s tempting to wonder whether the communities who created and used the monuments here were engaged in some monumental game of Top Trumps.

The giant bank and internal ditch of Avebury henge look pretty enormous at 1.3km in circumference. But when you realise that the much-silted-up ditch you see today is a mere fraction of its original depth of 9 metres it really starts to make you think.

Silbury Hill is Europe’s biggest prehistoric mound, and the outer circle – the largest of the 3 stone circles that lie within the henge – is the largest stone circle in the world. And then there’s the back-stone of the Cove – the stone setting named by Stukely that lies within the northern inner circle. Excavations carried out a few years ago by Dr Josh Pollard and Dr Mark Gillings enabled an estimate to be made of its minimum weight. It weighs in at a breath-taking 100 tonnes making it the heaviest prehistoric standing stone in the British Isles. When we tot up the number of stones that would have made up the various stone circles and stone settings and the West Kennet and Beckhampton Avenues we think there were somewhere between 400 and 600 standing stones in the Avebury landscape originally.

The Cove, Avebury - the stone on the left weighs 100 tonnes

The Cove, Avebury – the stone on the left weighs 100 tonnes

It would be a feat of organisation and engineering to put these things in place with 21st century earth-moving equipment, but the people who built these monuments were subsistence farmers. All of this was done with simple antler picks, ropes they made themselves and timbers hewn using stone axes. So when you next visit Avebury spare a thought for the people who climbed deep into the earth to dig the near-vertical sides of the ditches, hefted basket after basket of chalk into place to create the banks and laboured to raise the mighty stones.

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About Dr Nick

Dr Nick Snashall is Archaeologist for Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. She is fascinated by prehistoric stones, large and small, and their potential for unlocking the secrets of our past. Nick is co-director of Living with Monuments (an AHRC funded research project aiming to address our lack of knowledge of Neolithic settlement and non-monumental activity through targetted fieldwork and archival research into the Avebury region) and Ground -Truthing Stonehenge’s ‘Superhenge’: excavations at Durrington Walls (Current Archaeology's 2017 Research Project of the Year)

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