Eighteen miles north of Stonehenge there lies the village of Avebury, less well known but spectacular in its own way. Avebury sits beside a tiny stream in a relatively flat landscape, nestled below the chalky Marlborough Downs to the East and perched above the clay lowlands to the north and west.
Four thousand five hundred years ago there was no village here. Instead Avebury was a slightly domed arena, about three hundred metres across, containing, amongst other things, two rough stone circles, each the size of Stonehenge. This arena was enclosed by a larger stone circle and this, in turn, was enclosed by a huge ditch and bank. Although many of the stones are now missing, much of the arrangement survives.
Viewed from the centre, there are four exits from the arena, each marked by a break in the ditch and bank. These are vaguely aligned to north, west, south and east.
It has long been known that an avenue of stones trails away from the southern exit, heading down to the headwaters of the Kennet River. More recently it has been confirmed that there was once a similar stone avenue leading away from the west exit, heading toward the (much younger) Old Bath Road. There may or may not have once been similar avenues of stones beyond the north and east exits.
Various suggestions have been put forward for the purpose of the avenues. Most suggest some sort of procession route. Current fashion is to suggest that they were paths along which dead bodies, or bits of dead bodies at least, were carried.
But why two (or three or four) avenues? This perhaps indicates differences of opinion amongst people of the time, or maybe different burial rites for different sections of the community. We’ll come back to this.
A mile to the north-west, within the same landscape, there is a gentle rise known as Windmill Hill. On top of this hill are earthworks perhaps a thousand years older than the stone circles of Avebury. They enclose the top of the hill in a way that might, at first sight, look like a form of defence. However there are so many breaks in the earthwork that it would have been difficult to defend.
Archaeologists currently see Windmill Hill’s enclosure as a kind of meeting place, for the exchange of gifts, or even as a market of sorts. This makes sense when you look at its location. Like Avebury it sits in a halfway place. It’s not down in the once densely forested valleys three miles to the north and west. Nor is it on the high chalk downs three or four miles to the south and east.
Just for a moment I want to jump into archaeological theory. There are a number of ways that archaeologists think people might have traded or bartered goods in the past. One method is called “Central Place Market Exchange”1. It states that people A and people B will sometimes choose to come together to haggle and swap in a “safe area”, controlled neither by one group nor the other. This fits the description of Windmill Hill’s enclosure rather well and is a popular idea with many archaeologists.
But there is another known method. This is called “Central Place Redistribution”. It’s like the first method only another set of people, X, have now poked their noses in. In this method people A trade with people X then people X trade with people B then people X go back and trade with people A again. The net result is that people X take a cut of what peoples A and B are exchanging, leaving slightly less for peoples A and B. Presumably, People X need to be slightly scary, or at least, give off an air of nonchalant superiority to pull this one off.
I hope you’re coming with me here, because what I’m about to suggest is not how people like to see Avebury.
Windmill Hill went out of action as a meeting place shortly before a primitive form of Avebury came into existence. I’m suggesting here that Avebury was the new Windmill Hill enclosure… but different.
Why different? Because the big rock slabs of Avebury, the ditches and the banks, the avenues of stones: all are meant to impress. The whole thing shouts “See me and tremble, mere mortal.” This is not a cobbled together place of charming equality like Windmill Hill. This is a place run by one group of people. I suggest that those people were people X.
A version of Avebury’s history
Now I’ll return to those avenues I mentioned earlier. I have a scenario in my mind, probably wrong but hell, I’m blogging so here it is.
At certain times of year groups of people, whether A, B, C or D, come to Avebury. They come from the forested vale to the North and West or from the Kennet river to the South or from the Marlborough downs to the East. Leading or carrying their goods for exchange, they home in upon Avebury. They process up the avenues. They are let into the central enclosure by priests. They congregate in places decided on by the priests and they do not have contact with each other. They hand over their gifts to the priests. The priests in turn decide on the going rates for exchanges, conduct the exchanges and keep the remains for themselves and for sacrifices. These priests see themselves as providing a service: keeping the peace, giving a fair price, appeasing the gods, etc. The visitors, for fear or whatever reason, accept this.
There are some hints to suggest that people didn’t always accept it though. In the valley bottom, just to the south, there is evidence for a set of structures called the West Kennet Enclosures. These are of the same age as Avebury and seem to have been large areas enclosed by walls of oak tree trunks with tiny entrances. One current view suggests that these enclosures were symbolic. I suspect that they might have been quite defensive in their own way. At some point at least one of them was burnt down. By whom nobody can say.
I believe that the sheer scale of Avebury shows its power. It may have been one of the most important market places in the whole of southern Britain in its time. Certainly, Avebury lies on an obvious potential trade route between the Thames Valley in the East, heading out to the North Sea and Europe, and the Bristol Avon in the West, leading to the Severn and, perhaps, Ireland.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the people of Avebury weren’t religious. There’s plenty of evidence that they were. I’m just saying that they might have had their own less godly interests at heart too.
Gillings, M. & Pollard, J. 2004 Avebury, Duckworth, pp211.
1Renfrew, C. and Bahn, P. 2004 Archaeology: Theories, Methods & Practice, Thames and Hudson