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.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.’
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.