What is the Avebury landscape?

by Edward Pegler on 14 November, 2011

Does Avebury’s collection of vast monuments represent ritual space, a failed civilisation or cosmic ordering?

Terry Dobney guarding Silbury Hill

A few months ago I was asked by my old FE College boss to give a talk to the Swindon Philosophical Society about the origins of civilisation. I spent the next few months obsessing over something I discovered I didn’t know much about. Of course it didn’t stop me having plenty of conclusions but that’s for another post when I pluck up the courage. I gave the talk a week ago to a small audience who were perplexed that I didn’t mention morals or existentialism once.

This weekend I took a walk with my partner Steph in the landscape around Avebury. It’s not the first time we’ve been there. Living in Swindon I think we must have passed it or walked through it a hundred or more times. But this time, coming from the Kennett valley into view of Silbury Hill, that massive mound of earth and sweat, I couldn’t help thinking once again about what it all meant and coming to conclusions I’d never really allowed myself to before.

Avebury’s remnants

The Avebury landscape, as seen now, is a mass of earthworks and erected stones. It’s beautiful but a little eerie. Archaeologists have dug over it with little intensity for the last hundred or so years. They have found pots, of course, as well as a few bodies, an assortment of flints and quite a few postholes. They have also given rather vague dates (which I hope will be improved) of around 2600-2200BC ish. All of these lack the spark of interest that the burial of a golden king would evoke. But unfortunately, much that could rot has rotted in the mildly alkaline soils of the chalk downland.

All of this gives Avebury a weird feeling – something that doesn’t make sense to us now. When you find a complex of big buildings, such as a shopping centre, you expect evidence of the great mass of people who passed through it – if nothing else all their litter. You also expect a Taylor-Woodrow or a king to have organised the building program. Avebury’s landscape seems to lack all that.  So people have tried to make sense of this weirdness.

Avebury story 1

The prevalent Avebury story is one of a small number of egalitarian, mythical ancient beings, on a higher religious plane from us. These strange and mysterious people carried out rites to control cosmic and earthly forces in this site of higher energy. They created a landscape of harmony with the Earth.

This idea is not new, I suppose. People have always looked for an Arcadian and better past. The only problem is who put in all the effort digging the ditches, stacking the mounds, moving and erecting the stones? Only the most extreme in their views would evoke the cosmic forces themselves to do the work.

Avebury story 2

Archaeologists are, of course, more rational in their outlook. Using the evidence of the pots, the bones and the stones they have evoked a slightly different world. Here was a strange and mysterious people. Theirs was a ritual landscape, one where people came to the area seasonally to worship whatever gods they had and to hold ceremonial feasts.

In this landscape they built great ritual enclosures from wood, then burnt them down in symbolic acts to do with life and death and rebirth. Their society was a form of chiefdom or ‘priestdom’, one with an unbroken tradition extending back to the Mesolithic and changed forever by the advent of the Bronze age.

Again, very nice, but who did all the work?

Avebury story 3 (mine)

The Avebury complex’s short peak on this Earth and its impressive monuments tell a simple story, repeated in many other centres throughout the world. Such monumental architecture, built over a short space of time, needs massive manpower to build. That manpower needs to have been highly organised, with division of labour to organise seasonal food supplies and food distribution. This is the basis for all civilisations around the world. In that respect Avebury is no exception. And that division of labour requires some form of wealth to initiate it.

What makes Avebury perhaps more interesting is that it was also a failure. This complex society never reached the crucial point of goods manufacture which turned such sites as Uruk in Mesopotamia or Erlitou in China into lasting civilisations. Why I don’t know.

How one chooses to read the past

The West Kennet Enclosures from the air (borrowed from English Heritage website)

The major argument against Avebury being a form of proto-civilisation is the lack of houses, the lack of burials of any kind, either wealthy or not, and the lack of fine art. In fact the buried evidence seems quite impoverished. Certainly their pots are not very exciting. I suspect that there’s much to be dug up and, preservation willing, more buildings still to be found. However, I don’t think it will necessarily improve the case.

But if we can’t see the large numbers of people that made the monuments of Avebury and we can’t see their wealth (whatever it was) that’s not because it wasn’t there. People’s methods of disposing of the dead vary from culture to culture. Likewise, sometimes they bury their wealth but often they recirculate it. Whatever, if archaeologists choose to interpret the huge wooden West Kennet enclosures just to the south of Avebury as being a ritual space and not an urban setting then I’m unlikely to persuade them of an alternative anyway.


Pollard, J. 2012 Living with Sacred Spaces: The Henge Monuments of Wessex, In: Enclosing the Neolithic: Recent studies in Britain and Europe (ed A. Gibson), pp93-107.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Carter December 3, 2011 at 5:31 pm

I have said about the Pyramids that the issue was not whether the workers were slaves or free, but that the resources were directed to the material and spiritual benefit of an individual.
I am not going to argue about the dating of Avebury, or Stonehenge, my issues are strictly to do with the architecture; these large buildings are Bronze Age, however the sites may derive their significance from structures built on the site in the neolithic.
Stone circles are an Atlantic Neolithic tradition, only connected to buildings like Woodhenge, Stonehenge, and Durrington Walls by being circular in form, and occupying similar or the same enclosed sites. Stonehenge and the Sanctuary was built to hold stones of some significance, but they could be war booty.

I admit I was winging it with the dating of BRBs, and there is perhaps room for less aggressive models, and you point about pointy red hats is is important. There is plenty of room archaeologically invisible value in the past.

My key point is that Agriculture is a good idea for elites and hard work for every one else, We plough and scatter, they hunt and fish for entertainment.
I think it not reasonable to assume that the LBK were slave-owners, and well enough organised to displace or enslave any other groups they encountered.

Point two is that metals allow for specialist weapons and this changes the balance of power – further. Again, stone axes not withstanding. Killing becomes a more specialist skill, not simply about numbers, and further strengthens the hand of elites in the BA.
In addition Bronze tools, axes, palstaves, saws, make carpentry a lot easier; making a mortise hole in a timber is the key technology to focus on.

All the above may be applied at different times and places to the wheel and the horse,perhaps compound bows, and of course the nature and extent of any elite will be culturally dependent.


Geoff Carter November 30, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Hi Ned,
Not ranty at all; try this for a spin; wealth and power in the neolithic, however distributed, had fewer methods of expression, as it would have consisted in control of basic agricultural resources and therefor manpower. If you control the food supply you can then direct labour, and this is one of the few expressions of power available.
By the Bronze Age, mineral wealth and metals allow expressions and power which do not require large work forces and agricultural resources.
So, notwithstanding archaeological invisibility of most artifacts and materials, as a Neolithic power, I can only express my power by direction of earth moving etc., [- I can eat more and the best food, but there is a limit!], however, with metals I can express my wealth, power and dominance in new and different ways.
Better and more efficient tools [including weapons], offer more technological solutions to the expression of power, most of which are invisible to archaeologists, in particular timber architecture.

PS; the massive ditches at Avebury, enclose the stones, restricting access to what are often perceived as open and communal monuments, [like Long Meg & her daughters], this prefigures Stonehenge, where the mystery [Bluestones] is executive and exclusive, enclosed within the building.

None of this addresses your point about civilization/ culture that is not apparently aggressive; Pre-ceramic Peru I can accept, but I am not sure about Ubaid period Eridu or Early Uruk.
[I have forgotten the name of the grain measuring beakers used in this period- but it’s slavery looks like a form slavery to me!].


Edward Pegler December 1, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Dear Geoff

I like your explanation of the difference between Neolithic and Bronze Age. It’s clear and explains a lot. Of course (and not just to be contrary), my view would be that Avebury and Stonehenge are Chalcolithic/Bronze-Age, not Neolithic, but I don’t see how I’m ever going to prove or disprove that.

However, also not to forget that Western Europe during the Neolithic did have prestige items in circulation, such as Italian or Lakeland polished axes and Danish amber, as well as (making it up), Irish pointy red felted hats, Dutch basketwork, etc etc. But what’s great about metals is their endless divisibility.

I do like your explanation of the mystery of the Bluestones. That makes complete sense.

As for aggressive behaviour and slavery, this is a complex one and always depends on your evidence, or lack of it. Clearly something nasty was going down in Tell Brak from 3800 BC. Likewise in Tepe Gawra, both in northern Mesopotamia. Nothing of this kind has yet been found in southern Mesopotamia, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

The poor-quality BRBs (bevel-rim bowls) of the Uruk Period (3800-3100BC) are certainly abundant throughout this time (something similar appears around 3200BC in Egypt), and mass production is clearly in evidence. However, this is all later than the ‘Ubaid Period that I’m talking about. Furthermore, the written evidence, when it finally arrives, indicates a ration system and slavery only for women, children and the lame (which is alright then!). I suspect that the most you could reasonably argue for is corvee labour for the great masses. Personally I’m inclined to see it as more feudal.


Geoff Carter November 23, 2011 at 6:22 pm

I think that since Britain is an island, there is no easy room for expansion and conquest; ‘Civilization’ relies on having fresh sources of manpower and wealth to sustain it.
Also, the arrival of the Beaker people and the Bronze Age, marks a change of emphasis; Woodhenge and buildings like it, would have been some of the most impressive timber architecture in Ancient Europe, and represents a much higher level of technology than digging ditches and placing large stones in an upright position.


Edward Pegler November 28, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Dear Geoff

I’d agree with you upto a point. It’s easy to draw a ‘civilisation line’ and say that Avebury and Stonehenge are on the wrong side of it. That’s fine by me – this is clearly not Dynastic Egypt. Ultimately, civilisations do expand and conquer due to a desire or need to control access to resources. However, their initial ‘proto-civilisation’ success is economic, highly localised and not expansionist, examples being ‘Ubaid period Eridu or Early Uruk Tell Brak and Arslantepe or, indeed, the cultures of Cotton Preceramic coastal Peru. These early cultures probably didn’t rely on manpower gathered through conquest or slavery because there’s no evidence that they conquered or enslaved anyone.

Any build up of manpower at such sites must either be due to explosive birth rates or through immigrants to that site seeing an advantage in being involved. Where such immigrants to Avebury or Stonehenge would have come from is anybody’s guess. Possibly from across southern Britian but perhaps also from France and northern Europe. The change of emphasis of the Bronze age shows that it was still economically worthwhile to be in southern Britain at this time but the kind of centralised power seen in the late Neolithic seems to have disappeared.

As for levels of technology you could certainly point to Woodhenge and Stonehenge as needing high levels of technological development, and such technological development is not obvious in the Avebury area. However, what I’m talking about is not technology but the man-hours involved in the building of Avebury, the digging of the ditches, the erection of Silbury, the putting up of the palisades around the enclosures (though not forgetting the similar effort involved at Stonehenge, the movement and shaping of Sarsens particularly). All of these require a level of division of labour. Those people need to be fed somehow, and that’s a complex business. This is not just people having spare time between sowing and harvesting. It depends on an infrastructure and administration and farming improvements to manage and feed the large workforce required. Such things are the basis of civilisation.

I hope that didn’t sound too ranty

best wishes Ned


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