Trying to date Avebury with the help of Stonehenge

by Edward Pegler on 4 December, 2013

This post gives me a chance to compare the radiocarbon dating of Avebury with the dating of Stonehenge and to see if Stonehenge’s new dates can help solve the dating mystery of Avebury.

The currently proposed sequence of events at Stonehenge and the neighbouring riverside stone circle of 'Bluestonehenge'

The currently proposed sequence of events at Stonehenge and the neighbouring riverside stone circle of ‘Bluestonehenge’

Stonehenge – current radiocarbon dating results

So as far as anyone can tell, the ages of the stone circles and earthworks at Stonehenge are now known (though not, sadly, the woodwork). Repeated excavation and re-excavation, coupled with some very good recent archaeology by the Stonehenge Riverside Project, has established a reasonable set of results. These are:

Stonehenge phase 1

Around or just after 3000 BC a circular ditch was dug with most of the spoil placed on a bank inside the ditch. About 56 holes (‘Aubrey holes’) were dug just within this bank and (probably) 56 pieces of Welsh igneous rock (‘bluestones’) were stuck vertically in the holes to make a nice stone circle of the classic British ‘rough’ kind. During this time various cremated people were buried around and in these stone holes. A second, small circle of bluestones (called by the excavators ‘bluestonehenge’) was put up around the same time a little way to the east, by the River Avon.

Stonehenge phase 3 (no 2)

Almost 500 years later, around 2500 BC, a set of shaped sandstones (‘sarsens’) were erected in a much smaller, but admittedly more spectacular, temple (‘Stonehenge’) at the centre of the earthwork. The bluestones around the edge and in the small riverside circle were dug out and moved to be incorporated into this temple.

Stonehenge tinkering

Somewhere around 2300 BC (give or take a hundred years) various earthworks were undertaken, including the cutting of ditches to form a rather bent avenue (‘The Avenue’) leading from Stonehenge to the river. Also, a circular ditch was dug around the emptied ‘bluestonehenge’, and the spoil placed in a bank on the outside of the ditch. This type of rounded earthwork with a bank on the outside is, confusingly, known to archaeologists as a ‘henge’.

The bluestones were moved into a new circle within Stonehenge around 2100 BC. Finally, two rings of pits were dug around the outside of Stonehenge (the ‘Y and Z holes’) around 1600 BC.

So much for Stonehenge.

Avebury  – the radiocarbon desert

The largest stone circle in the country, Avebury is not as well understood as Stonehenge and has always been a bit of a mess when it comes to giving it a set of construction dates. This is for a number of reasons: a shortage of datable material, a lack of excavation, and the effects of more recent local digging and destruction.

The components of Avebury

Avebury consists of a number of different earth and stone features. In no particular order these are:

1) A 2.5 metre high earth bank, sometimes known as ‘phase 1’, remains of which has been found in patches to the south of the monument. This bank was perhaps roughly circular.

2) A large earth bank and ditch, sometimes known as ‘phase 2’. This is also approximately circular and, unlike the bank and ditch at Stonehenge, is a ‘henge’, having the bank on the outside and ditch on the inside. As this bank overlies the bank of ‘phase 1’ this is clearly younger than phase 1.

3) A large circle of sarsen stones just inside the ditch of phase 2.

4) Two relatively small (100 metre-ish), round, sarsen stone ‘temples’ inside the large circle. Unlike Stonehenge these are classic British, rustic affairs, unshaped and without any fancy extras.

5) Two avenues, lined by sarsen stones, running south (‘West Kennett Avenue’) and west (‘Beckhampton Avenue’) from the large circle. Neither avenue is straight.

6) A few stones running NNW-SSE across the bank and ditch.

7) A second stone circle with a wooden structure on the same site (the ‘Sanctuary’) at the eastern end of the West Kennet Avenue.

Avebury’s few radiocarbon (and OSL) dates

There have been several documented excavations at Avebury. These were carried out by (amongst others) Henry Meux, Harold Gray, Alexander Keiller, Stuart Piggott, Faith and Lance Vatcher, Joshua Pollard and Mark Gillings, W. E. V. Young and Mike Pitts. All of these have, sadly, produced only a small amount of dateable material. Of this material (antler, bone and charcoal) a fair amount was destroyed for use in radiocarbon dating the monument in the 1980s. This was before dating methods were improved to use smaller samples and better statistical techniques.

Of the dated material, the charcoal pieces were probably lying around for some time before they were buried at Avebury. Since these were also ‘bulk samples’ (i.e. not neat individual pieces but a collection of bits), there’s also the potential for a range of dates from the samples. Furthermore, they come from wood which could have grown over a long period of time before being felled. The best that can be said is they give dates which will be older than the layer that they’re buried in.

Of the three bone samples, one was also a bulk sample of bits, meaning that its dating probably indicates an older date than the layer it was buried in. The other two bone samples (from a pig and a person) and the antler samples should give good dates (although even these have the potential to have been ‘curated’, or kept for a while – though let’s face it, would you keep a pig bone?)

Even here there’s a complication, as Fran Healy has recently pointed out. The original 1980s sample dating was done at Harwell.  However, more recent re-dating of some of the left over fragments of one antler from the original 1980s radiocarbon samples (HAR-10502) suggested that the Harwell date was perhaps 300 years too old. This appears to be a general pattern for the Harwell dates, many of which could be in error by 300 years either way. Luckily, this one redating has given an improved date for one key sample.

The only date added to this list more recently is some quartz grains analysed using a relatively new method called optically stimulated thermoluminescence (OSL). However, this has large potential errors and no-one is quite sure how reliable it is.

Of course there’s undoubtedly more datable material still in the ground… only this hasn’t been excavated yet. In the mean time, the evidence that’s been gathered and dated has to do.

A summary of what’s ‘known’ about Avebury’s dates

Avebury’s phase 1 bank was piled up some time after 3600 BC – this is based on charcoal two samples (HAR-10063 and HAR-10325), with the youngest given ‘oldest confident dates’ (I know that’s confusing) of 3300 BC. Adding the 300 year potential error of the Harwell dates gives the value quoted.

Avebury’s large ditch was very likely dug in the period 2630-2460 BC – this is based on re-dating of an antler sample (HAR-10052, new dates OxA-12225/6) from the bottom of the ditch, as well as good dating of another antler sample (OxA-12227) low in the ditch fill. As the phase 2 second bank was almost certainly built at the same time as this ditch was dug then it is probably the same age.

Avebury’s outer stone circle appears to have erected after about 2900 BC and probably a little later. This is based on the date of a pig bone sample (HAR-10327) from a stone hole called ‘41’, with earliest confident age of around 2580 BC, allowing again for a 300 year error.

A very loose date of around 3000 BC is given for a ‘Cove’ stone at the centre of the north inner circle, based on OSL dating (X1559) of quartz grains below the stone. However, there’s a large quoted error for this value of 350 years either way (this error could well be more).

The West Kennet avenue appears to have been constructed at some time after 3300 BC, based on material from beneath the avenue (HAR-9695 and HAR-10501) of a youngest ‘earliest confident age’ of around 3000 BC, again allowing for 300 year error.

The far end of the Beckhampton Avenue appears to have been constructed at some time around or a little later than 2500BC. This is based on a good (but unfortunately single) articulated pig bone date of 2660-2460 BC from the Longstones enclosure, which underlies the west end of the Beckhampton Avenue. This enclosure didn’t seem to last long and appears to have been demolished to allow the end of the avenue to be completed.

So the only confident dates are the digging of the ditch and, arguably, the completion of the west end of the Beckhampton Avenue, both of which lie around 2500 BC. Frankly, it’s not much to go on.

Avebury - A simple dating model

Avebury - a simple one phase history

Avebury – a simple one phase history

The simplest model possible is that the whole of the Avebury complex, ditches, stones and avenues, was constructed in one short burst of activity around 2500 BC. The only date which doesn’t allow this is the rather problematic OSL date from the centre of the northern circle and there aren’t many archaeologists I’d guess would put money on that date.

However, the evidence of an extensive build-up of turf between the first phase of bank building and the second indicates that this probably isn’t right. So is there an alternative?

Avebury – A ‘Stonehenge’ type model

Avebury - a three stage history involving a final 'closure'

Avebury – a three stage history involving a final ‘closure’

In the absence of anything to pin the Avebury dates down, a ‘simple’ alternative is to use the Stonehenge dates as a guide, comparing banks, ditches, stone rings and avenues to see if Avebury could be squeezed to fit these.

This would mean that at least one bank and ditch, and the large stone circle, would have an early date of around 3000-2900BC. The big ‘phase 2’ ditch at Avebury is clearly younger than this. However, the phase 1 bank (and any ditch that it might once have had) could fit this date. Perhaps archaeologists should be having another look for such a ditch, but on the outside of the phase 1 bank (as is the case with Stonehenge’s ditch being on the outside its main bank).

If the large stone circle at Avebury also dated from this time, this could (at a push) be accommodated by the single radiocarbon date of pig bone. This is taking the date to its earliest limit but is just feasible.

On this scheme, the other stone ‘temples’ within Avebury would be similar in date to Stonehenge itself, around 2500 BC. Again, this would contradict the single piece of dating evidence, the OSL date from the northern circle, but this is a date of low confidence. Alternatively, these inner stone circles, which are not shaped like those of the temple at Stonehenge, could be part of the suggested 3000-2900 BC phase.

The Avebury avenues, in this version, would be slightly later, say somewhere around 2450 BC, something which fits comfortably with the evidence available.

Discussion – the significance of that ‘henge’ bank

Perhaps the most interesting problem with the second model is that there is no equivalent to Avebury’s large earthwork henge (the ditch with phase 2 bank on the outside) at Stonehenge. This is the only thing with a really good date fix (around 2500 BC) at Avebury. There are similar henges of this type near Stonehenge (e.g. at Durrington Walls, Woodhenge and Bluestonehenge) and all of these are dated to around 2400 BC, so the dates match reasonably well with Avebury’s henge.

Perhaps it’s worth turning to an interesting comment, passed over quickly by Mike Parker-Pearson in his recent book on Stonehenge, about the significance of ‘henge’ earthworks.

“Henges, with their inward-facing earthworks, were built as memorials to something that had already happened rather than to signal what might still be to come. They are backwards-looking and commemorative” (p225)

MPPs point here was that all of these henges appear to mark the closing off of a done thing. So Durrington Walls bank overlies the suburbs of Durrington and Bluestonehenge was dismantled before the henge was put up. The reasons for this may be superstition, but who knows.

If this is true, then perhaps much of Avebury’s circle, stones and all, was made obsolete by the emplacement of a large, inward-facing bank and ditch, say around 2450 BC, at the time that Stonehenge was at its height. This would be a little earlier than when the nearby Silbury Hill was constructed.

Now my personal fancy is that Stonehenge and Avebury may have been rival centres. If true then the group controlling Stonehenge could have been the ones who ‘closed’ Avebury. Of course this is all without evidence and is likely to be wrong. Sadly, finding out what kind of timescale is, in fact, right for Avebury will have to await further excavation… and who knows when that will happen.

References

Parker-Pearson, M. 2012 Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery, Simon & Schuster, pp406.

Pollard, J. & Reynolds, M. 2002 Avebury: The biography of a landscape, Tempus, pp288.

Pitts, M. 2000 Hengeworld, Random House, pp409.

Gillings, M. & Pollard, J. 2004 Avebury, Duckworth, pp221.

Bayliss, A. et al. 2012 Radiocarbon Dates from samples funded by English Heritage between 1981 and 1988., English Heritage pp363.

Healy, F. 2012 Scientific Dating, from ‘The Stonehenge and Avebury Revised Research Framework (SARRF)’, Wessex Archaeology Report, pp15.

Anon. 2004 Avebury older than Stonehenge – and the ring gets bigger, News Section, British Archaeology 76

Unseen but probably useful references

Pollard, J. and Cleal, R. M. J. 2004 Dating Avebury, in: R.M.J. Cleal and J. Pollard (eds.), ‘Monuments and Material Culture. Papers in Honour of an Avebury Archaeologist: Isobel Smith’, Hobnob Books, p120–29.

Rhodes, E. and Schwenninger, J.L. 2008, Optically stimulated luminescence dating, in: M. Gillings et al. (eds), ‘Landscape of the Megaliths.Excavation and Fieldwork on the Avebury Monuments, 1997–2003’, Oxbow Books, p 164–65.

 

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Carter December 13, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Good research – glad you are keeping up the good work, like the use of the word ‘temple’ – “A Building dedicated to the presence or service of God/s”[Oxford Popular Dictionary!]. Brave.

Not looked for buildings at Avebury, but why compare it with Stonehenge?

Happy with the early Stone circle; however, it is clear to me that the big change was the construction of a timber building in the centre, later replaced by the Sarsen /timber temple. [I cannot imagine how you date robbed postholes {X & Z} and where are the Q & R].

While SH as building is mathematically fairly certain, I appreciate this is irrelevant in faith based narrative; sadly, when they look at the landscape through the eyes of dead people they don’t see any buildings; I blame the artists.
Sometimes, because its called an Ancient ‘Monument’ people look for meaning and messages in things like circularity, this being almost the only common denominator between ‘monuments’. They also ignore the concept of a hedge, a not uncommon feature of a bank and ditch.

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Edward Pegler December 22, 2013 at 7:01 pm

Dear Geoff

Thanks for the comment. The reason for using Stonehenge is it’s got good dating (of the stones and ditches, anyway) and there’s an easily bought book published on it. Whether everybody will always agree with the dating (and I guess all those other holes are a point of contention) is another matter. Deep down I suspect that I like Avebury because it takes me half and hour on the bus to get there. But it ain’t Stonehenge.

Either way, what interests me (and this is definitely different from your main interest) is the economic and historical background to the building of two ‘temples’ in these rather bizarre locations. Why there? Is it simply the perversity of people to build a dysfunctional capital in slightly the wrong place from where the economic action was (e.g. Persepolis, Jerusalem, Mecca, Amarna) or was it actually of some significance as a real meeting point of people, a place that just became bigger (c.f. most other cities)?

Ho hum

Ned

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Josephine January 13, 2014 at 9:56 am

Hi Ned, I read in Vol 94/ 2001 edition of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, that the human bones found by the Cunnington’s at The Sanctuary had been sent for C14 dating…there was a hint that results would be posted in the next edition of the magazine. So far I’ve not been able to find any kind of follow up of the results! I wondered if you may have more fortitude and luck than I in seeking out this information…

But regards Wessex as a ‘dysfunctional capital in slightly the wrong place from where the economic action was’ I think I may have to disagree with you. I too am British, therefore I can’t believe that Britain was ever that significant, but it looks to me as if we are wrong to dismiss Wessex.

Bronze and Bronze Age ‘bling’ warrior culture began in Wessex circa 2200 BC (my version of a quote from Barry Cunliffe)…I personally think that artefacts such as The Nebra sky disc and Stonehenge are a kind of ‘cargo cult’ level of awareness of Mesopotamian astronomy, sky and stars and kingship resulting from trade routes that transmitted ideas and artefacts from Minoan/Mycenaean cultures across Europe to Britain.

I know that sounds like a rehash of an old theory that was around in the 1960s..

:)

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Dan H. January 24, 2014 at 11:30 am

To understand any of these sorts of monuments, you need to have a vague idea of what they were used for, and what sort of landscape they were in. So, let the handwaving assumptions begin!

Firstly, let us assume that right across Britain the religion was broadly the same everywhere.

Secondly, let us assume that the religious rites involved observing the rising and setting of the sun and moon, and that the religion demanded some precision to this observation.

Now, let us look at where various sorts of monuments are (leaving aside Stonehenge, as it is the only one of its kind remaining). Henges mostly occur in valley bottoms, and in fertile lowlands. Stone circles mostly occur in uplands, specifically near to but not on the tops of hills. You do occasionally get stones inside henges, but you don’t get henges built up on hillside stone circles.

The essential difference here is very simple: a henge is an artificial horizon. The ditch isn’t the important bit; the top of the bank is the important bit and would have been constructed such that across the monument, it was horizontal. Down on the scrubby lowlands you needed an artificial horizon to give precise sunrise and sunset times.

Up in the hills, even if there was some scrub on the hillsides, the natural horizon was usually clear to see, and thus you didn’t need an artificial horizon. The sizing of stones wasn’t important, save for religious vanity. Over where I live in Lancashire, the circle builders mostly went in for tiny stones save in a few places; down in Wessex they preferred the big, impressive stuff.

Stonehenge is, I assume, a stone version of what one of the very common wooden circles would have looked like. A key feature of Stonehenge is that the circle of lintel stones is, on the top surface, horizontal accurate to less than an inch, and this on an undulating site that slopes in two directions, using stones of unequal heights. This horizontality was absolutely not accidental.

There’s something interesting going on here, and I’d wager that it is once more something to do with sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset times across the year (and other, longer cycles). Stonehenge isn’t precise enough to make star observations with; there are no clearly defined sightlines or sighting stones present, so I’d guess that it is just sun + moon observations going on. Stonehenge was probably one of the best-constructed examples of its type; the mistakes, cock-ups and shoddily-built examples were all done in wood, so we don’t get to see the neolithic equivalents of the Egyptian bent pyramid and similar foul-ups.

Finally, to clarify, I am not implying that there was any great sophistication to how stone circles were made. They were purely solar/lunar temples, and I’m certain that if we knew how they were supposed to work then we’d find many bodge-jobs in existing stone circles; this was not some lost super-race but people just like ourselves.

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Reiner Wilhelms February 10, 2014 at 3:20 am

I like your elaborate pieces and the speculations that go with them – also because you stay on the ground of evidence (and I like that you stay away from stories about aliens being behind anything that is wondrous and not yet explained).

I wonder if you have something to say about these relatively recently found structures in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, a site that’s been dated older than 10,000 BC, and has been described as earliest neolithic sanctuaries. There too it must have taken hundreds of people cooperating to carve out those big monoliths, giving them a smooth form and carving intricate animal figures in them, and to erect them in circular structures, reminiscent of temples. Even though they are so old, they aren’t much weathered because they had been buried for millenia. What is the most amazing there is that their builders were still hunter-gatherers, even though they had already some form of use for wild cereals, but probably not as main food supply. There are a few archaeologists who speculate that perhaps the use of cereals was not first for food but to make some kind of brew that could give a nice buzz. I was immediately intrigued by that idea. When they started gathering wild cereals there is no way they could live on that stuff. But drinking beer or other horrible stone age brews must also then have been a way to create community, a situation for story telling, and to invent religion to explain the cosmos. It should have taken many centuries to figure out how to get higher yields out of grains, and so perhaps it was initially really just for having a great drinking and dancing party from time to time, or, as some excavations suggest, meet for a funeral (- and have a party ;-) My guts feeling is that the building of these structures must have been predated by less organized meetings at the sites; it could have even resulted in creating some kind of cult that later called for being expressed and eternalized as stone structures. There is also a certain parallel to your suspicions that Avebury was in the process of being left behind while Stonehenge was the new fashion of the neolithic folks: Göbekli Tepe consists of several structures with differing quality and age, and what is the most fascinating finding is that it was buried deliberately in a mound (that is partially eroded now) as if they wanted to hide it, and the people left the place behind after that. – I’m simplifying here. Some of this can be found in wikipedia, and there was an interesting talk I found on Youtube given by one of the main archaeologists who is involved in the ongoing excavations, Klaus Schmidt.

I mean, we’re always hear this story that civilization started somewhere 4-5000 BC, and we hear that it was all about farming and the development of a more complex society, and that culture and religions evolved out of that. But could it also be that it started with religious cult plus drugs derived from early shamanism that soon could serve an elite to keep larger groups of the population in line to work for them?

And what would the elite have to offer them, could it be otherwise forbidden drugs reserved for the privileged and only available for some integrative cultural events? Sorry, that’s just me fantasizing. …

(I don’t have a clue about archaeology, I’m just a bread and butter physics guy, but I would probably study anthropology if I had the choice now. So I bookmarked your site).

Reiner.

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Edward Pegler August 5, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Dear Reiner
Better late than never.

You know, I’ve always steered clear of Gobekli Tepe because it doesn’t make much sense to me yet.
It’s clearly a temple, in as much as people have gone to more trouble than they need to (capital outlay) for little return. That means it’s probably done as a dedication to higher spirits/gods/ancestors etc, with the benefit that everybody involved has a sense of community.

Likewise, from what you say it was ‘closed’ which suggests that descendants of the builders viewed it differently.

What I’ve never quite got to grips with is that, as I understand it, it’s PPNA or thereabouts, making it part of the first steps in farming on a purely dating basis. That’s not to say that people lived of agriculture, but that they were starting down that road already. This means they weren’t purely hunter-gatherers.

Whatever, my belief (as was when I used to write this blog) is that the increased density of population caused farming, not the other way round, as is generally assumed. And why the increased density of population? My guess is still that it relates to lines of communication through the landscape and to bottlenecks where lines of communication converge. Think summer holiday destinations. Everybody wants to go to the same destinations in summer. It becomes worthwhile for some people to live in those destinations all year round because they can make such a killing for the two summer months when the holiday makers are there.

So I don’t subscribe to people drinking to much or getting stoned as great reasons for the birth of agriculture. In that case all that would happen is that people would sit around having great ideas, but spend far too much time sleeping in between to actually get anything done.

If you read this, please let me know what you think.

best wishes

Ned

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