Avebury in the ages of copper, Iron and steel

I knew of Avebury for stone circles and avenues, for its Neolithic wonders, I hadn’t realised the wealth of barrows and earthworks from more recent times. ‘Recent’ used loosely.

The Age of Metals (2400 BC — 50 AD) ushered in the end of the great monuments such as Windmill Hill, Knap Hill, the stone circles of Avebury and the Sanctuary. Earth continues to be moved, but increasingly in defensive ways and the relationship with the dead changes. We see new forms of burial in single graves with goods, distinctive Beaker pottery and the first items of metalwork.

But of course there is still much continuity. Many graves were built on top of older graves, into older graves. The last identifiable act of deposit into the Avebury henge ditch probably took place in the first quarter of the 2nd millenium, and it contained worked flints, sherds of vessels in two fabrics, a sheep/goat metatarsal and a carved chalk ball. I love these miscellaneous sacred items identified more with the earlier period and a very different system of value…because of course people will continue their traditions, will have memories of older ways. I wonder what this change felt like.

Individuals were now buried, not left to become fragments of bone in a collective tomb. Several of them were buried crouched at the base of the standing stones with bowls and beakers.

Burials in such locations could have been undertaken with full respect for earlier sacred traditions for which these monuments stood. But whether intended or not, these actions did bring about a change in meanings. Certain monuments were becoming ‘personalised’, in the sense that they now had close contextual relationships with particular individuals or social groups. (129)

Thus we have the beginning of round barrow mounds for 1 to 12 people. There are over 300 in the Avebury area, and having walked so many miles of it they are the most distinctive apart from Silbury hill. But even the giant mound of Silbury is oddly hidden, only visible here and there in this great rolling landscape. Here it is peeking above the horizon in the dead centre between the barrows.

Barrows line the hills, particularly along the ridgeway. Left unplowed amidst the vast arable, they are now even more visible as stands of trees, but still they would have been distinct across the horizon in ways in few long barrows were.

Here the Overton hill barrows without trees:

Few of them are wealthy individuals, only one such ‘Wessex’ burial has been found of an older woman with gold and bronze. Pollard and Reynolds write:

The peripheral situation of the Manton Barow in relation to Avebury might even bespeak of the unacceptability of ostentatious funerary displays in the zone surrounding the earlier monument complex. (134)

I know others have noted this shift from an openness and collective humility to a hierarchical display. Carolyn Merchant, for example, writes of it as taken for granted in the collection I’m working through now, Uncommon Ground. Still, to experience the materiality of this in such a place is quite something.

These stands of trees are quite beautiful.

Much has also been written, of course, about how this hierarchy connects to permanence in the landscape, and we begin to see extensive field systems and the establishment of permanent settlements on Marlborough Downs. These do not encroach on older neolithic sites and archaeologists have encountered few remains there. This is also the time of hill forts, which include Oliver’s Castle, Oldbury, Rybury and the Martinesell/Giant’s Grave complex, but we remain unsure what they really mean. Oldbury at least was occupied, but Cherhill Down where it sits had been occupied on and off since the Mesolithic. This is the one we visited but there is little left beyond a hint of ditch. A good sign about livestock though.

The builders oriented all houses and barrows south-easterly.

Marlborough downs have a patchwork of old systems that we struggled a bit to see ourselves, but have been subject to extensive excavation and documentation.

It seems to have become an oppidum or regional centre, but By the arrival of the Romans, this was most likely ‘a bit of a backwater‘. There is much here about the shifting fortune of place.

The Romans (43-450AD)

Their material culture appeared before them — arriving over a century before the conquest of Claudius. Likewise it seems that the ‘the influence of Late Iron Age tribal geography upon the Roman administrative districts is probably considerable‘ (150). This area seems to have remained a bit of a backwater, though villas and settlements are known to have been built at Windmill Hill, East Kennett, Cherhill, Oldbury among others, with a small town at the foot of Silbury Hill. A number of settlements were tied to the Ridgeway, while others sat alongside the Roman road of ‘Yatesbury lane’. They form a highly ordered landscape, through alternation between cultivation and pasture. Though I like the note that their domestic waste was spread across fields (hence the scatter of shards and things) so not too orderly.

We traveled the old Roman road for a way.

It runs into the A4 at Silbury, it’s interesting that that is where the Romans chose to settle. We climbed Waden Hill, and there is nothing left now to see.

It’s interesting thinking about how culture shifts and hybridises — and the nature of the relationships between one people and another. The Romans started building barrows too, and potentially started leaving coins and votive offerings at older long barrows. Of these ‘hoards’ it is hard to tell what was hidden, what lost, what sacramental. They also seem to have built a temple on Overton Hill inside of the hillfort, this continuity of religious spaces is well known elsewhere. They remained occupying the land until a generation into the fifth century. But I still wonder quite who ‘they’ were. They couldn’t have been all Roman or all Celt, couldn’t have had a completely unified culture. We look backwards and see so little.

The Anglo-Saxons (450-1100)

Avebury apparently initially flourished under the Anglo-Saxons and much has been excavated but little published (by 2006, I didn’t look up papers, they are often too much for me). The hillforts were probably first defended by the Britons against the Anglo-Saxons, and then some like Oldbury Castle later reoccupied. But there is this incredible structure — the Wansdyke, a great earthwork I had never heard of.

Watts writes that Wansdyke was probably built by the Britons to keep out the Saxons advance from the north in the late 5th century, that it probably existed by 778 as the quaddum vallum mentioned in a charter, and it is described again in 825 as the Ealden Dic (Old Dyke).

L.V. Grinsell described the Wansdyke as ‘…one of the most spectacular experiences in British field archaeology‘ (as quoted in Watts). I probably agree (though my experience is limited).

Here it crests the horizon:

This part of Wiltshire seemed almost always to have a strange haze, but even on warm yet grey day, the Wansdyke is a spectacular walk. We found it again in West Woods, but there it is diminished…

Watts argues it would have in the end been taken by the Saxon advance from the south under Cynric and Ceawlin in the 6th century. He also mentions the strategic point where the dyke crosses the Ridgeway, known as Red Shore. We walked through this point without realising. Gah. Perhaps because we were looking ahead to the great long barrow known as Adam’s Grave against the sky.

This is the site of at least one, probably more battles but it is those between the West Saxons and the ‘Upper Thames Saxons’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 592 describing that ‘In this year there was a great slaughter at Adam’s Grave, and Ceawlin was expelled’ by Ceolwulf. He died the following year, and Wessex was then ruled by Ceol. (As quoted in Watts, p 63). There was a second battle there in 715 between Ine and Ceolred.

The Saxons developed a new public way alongside the Roman Road (Yatesbury road) and the Ridgeway. It is called the herepath, or Green St, now known as the Wessex Way — also a lovely way to walk.

They built a settlement using the henge as a part of the defense, and possibly also used the henge to keep livestock at need. There seems to have been a minster here, making this a clear centre yet ultimately Avebury diminished. Pollard and Reynolds write:

it is possible to suggest that Avebury is a failed small-town of later ninth- or tenth- to early eleventh-century date (Reynolds 2001b). (207)

Damn. Apparently failed towns are a new area of research, and the more I think about it the more I see why…

This is an area of open-field (planned, champagne) countryside, which generally started around the 10th century — but it is hard to know quite when it happened here. The Overton charters reference headland, furlongs and yardland. No charter exists for the area of Avebury however. Saxon graves were inserted into the barrows on Overton hill, which was common practice among those not converted to Christianity.

There was also the execution field. They write

On a clear day, if one looks due south from in front of the Red Lion public house at Avebury, the location of the gallows can be seen as a faint ‘v’ on the horizon which marks a break in the short stretch of dyke visible from the henge. A human figure is surprisingly discernible, even from such a distance…(233)

We did try it while awaiting our bus back to Swindon, and the henge seems to get in the way…

Medieval period

The henge came into cultivation in 12th and 13th centuries, without seeming to damage the stones, but this changed in the 14th century. Up to 40, and perhaps more, of the stones in both henge and along the avenues were buried, though it is uncertain of over what stretch of time. Another wave came in the 18th century, this time better documented. Some of the stones were burned as well as buried. But why some and not others? There is speculation that it was the division of land into plots, with some owners doing so and others not, which makes sense I think.

There’s one last mad story about a graveyard found at the base of Sanctuary Hill by a Dr Toope, who wrote a letter in 1685 to antiquary John Aubrey about bones having been uncovered by workmen. No evidence has been discovered, but that may be because he removed ‘bushells’ of bones to make medicine.


Also a final observation on today’s parish boundaries still oriented to the neolithic landscape.

Watts also notes however, that parish boundaries in the area tend to cross the Wansdyke, which means they predate its construction, predate the Saxons…rather wondrous.

Pollard, Joshua, and Andrew Reynolds (2006) Avebury the biography of a landscape. Stroud: Tempus.

Watts, Kenneth (1993) The Marlnorough Downs. Bradford-on-Avon: Ex Libris Press.

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