John Aubrey: The Man who ‘Discovered’ Avebury

On 7 January 1649  John Aubrey  wit, raconteur and sometime antiquary was out hunting with friends when he chanced upon a north Wiltshire village. What he stumbled upon there – and more importantly recognised – were the remains of an ancient earthwork containing a series of stone circles and settings.

John_Aubrey[1].jpg

John Aubrey

 Today travellers from across the planet have little difficulty in recognising Avebury henge and stone circles as ancient. But it was far from easy in Aubrey’s day. A thriving village had grown up around and between the stones.

Fields, houses, gardens and even inns had been laid out within the bank and ditch and many stones that we see upright today lay buried (it would be another three hundred years  before Alexander Keiller revealed and re-erected them).

If truth be told John Aubrey wasn’t actually the first person to recognise the antiquity of Avebury. John Leland in his, ‘Itineraries,’ based on journeys he made through England and Wales between 1535 and 1543 made a passing reference to both Avebury and Silbury Hill.

And of course there had been a settlement at Avebury since Saxon times – and some at least of the generations of its residents must have pondered  the origins of the gigantic stones and earthworks that framed their daily lives.

But Aubrey went further than Leland, he not only recognised Avebury’s significance he was  captivated by it, famously declaring that Avebury, ‘does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stoneheng (sic) as a cathedral doeth a parish church.’

Avebury by John Aubrey 1663 plan

Aubrey’s Plan of Avebury

In fact he was so smitten that  in 1663 he produced the first plan of the henge and stone circles in his Monumenta Britannica . The plan was created using a simple surveying device known as a plane table and its an astonishingly accurate record of the monument as it  then was.

Its a lasting and fitting tribute to the painstaking work of the man who, ‘discovered,’ Avebury that three and a half centuries after Aubrey drew his plan (now housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford) researchers endeavouring to unravel Avebury’s secrets continue to consult it.

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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)

7 thoughts on “John Aubrey: The Man who ‘Discovered’ Avebury

  1. Dean Wiegert

    We have much to thank Aubrey for, he should be more remembered. Thanks for this “anniversary” post. I enjoyed it.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: John Aubrey: The Man who ‘Discovered’ Avebury | FragmeNTs | First Night History

  3. milliethom

    John Aubrey was certainly a man of vision and, as the comment above says, we have much to thank him for. His plan of the site is impressive. I visited Stonehenge earlier this year but, unfortunately, didn’t have time to visit Avebury. That’s on the agenda for next year! I believe Avebury is the more impressive of the two sites, primarily because of it’s size, and I’m really looking forward to visiting. I enjoyed reading your anniversary post about Aubrey very much.

    Reply
    1. Dean Wiegert

      Millie Thom, I agree with you that Aubrey’s plan of Avebury is impressive. Especially for the time. I have visited both Stonehenge and Avebury and while I’ve heard people say Avebury is more impressive, i think they are both amazing places and both inspire awe. I think Avebury because of its size handles the crowds of visitors a little better – more room to spread them all out. But Stonehenge always gives me chills and I have visited 3 times and can’t wait to visit again soon now that they have a new visitor center.

      Reply
  4. Aishwarya

    Found my way here through Barb’s reblog of this article. Thoroughly enjoyed the read. cheers and have a lovely day. Looking forward to more of your work.

    Reply

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