Saturday, July 26, 2008

Avebury Stone Circle , England

The Avebury Stone Circle, covering around 28 acres (11 hectares), is the largest known stone circle in the world. It partly embraces the linear village of Avebury, 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of London in a part of England that is replete with prehistoric remains: Silbury Hill: the Sanctuary; and the long barrows of East Kennet, West Kennet, and Beckhampton. John Aubury, who accidentally discovered if while foxhunting in the winter of 1648, wrote that Avebury “does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge as a Cathedral doeth a parish Church.” Indeed, it is sixteen times the size of Stonehenge.
When the Avebury circle was intact, its complex, if rather irregular, geometry comprised a 30-foot-deep (9.2-meter) ditch inside a 20-foot-high (6-meter) grass-covered chalk bank 1,396 feet (427 meters) in diameter. One observer describes it as “a curiously amorphous ‘D’ shape.” The ditch, possibly once filled with water, enclosed an outer circle of about 100 enormous, irregular standing stones that varied in height from 9 to 20 feet (2.7 to 6 meters). Within the large circle, there were two inner circles, each about 340 feet (104 meters) in diameter. The northern one (now largely destroyed) seems to have comprised two concentric rings, one of twenty-seven stones and one of twelve; at their center stood three larger stones. The southern circle had a single 20-foot-high (6-meter) stone at its center. The inmost circles are thought to have been set up about 2600 b.c.; the outer ring and enclosing earthworks have been dated at a century later.

Its construction called for colossal effort on the part of the builders. The standing stones were quarried and dressed 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from their final position, dragged or perhaps sledded to the site—some weighed 45 tons (41 tonnes)—and set upright. The excavation of the vast surrounding ditch with rudimentary stone tools yielded an estimated
200,000 tons (203,200 tonnes) of spoil, mostly chalk stone. Some of the spare material may have been carried 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) to construct the mysterious 130-foot-high (39.6-meter) chalk mound known as Silbury Hill, just outside the village of Avebury. Many of the stones are now missing, possibly “quarried” by farmers or cleared for agricultural and even religious reasons since about the fourteenth century a.d., when villagers actually buried some of them. Only 36 of the original 154 megaliths remain standing.

The outer circle was broken to form four 50-foot-wide (15.3-meter) entrances, facing approximately north, south, east, and west. Two were the terminations of avenues of the same width, defined by standing stones and extending up to 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) across the surrounding countryside. According to the eighteenth-century antiquarian William Stukeley, the so-called West Kennet Avenue ran south to the Sanctuary, another stone circle on Overton Hill; the one named Beckhampton Avenue ran west to end at the neolithic tomb known as Beckhampton Long Barrow. Stukeley’s measured drawings, made before 1743, are the only surviving record of the former condition of the site. He interpreted the ground plan of Avebury as the body of a serpent passing through a circle—a traditional alchemical symbol—and whose head and tail were marked by the avenues.

Recent investigations have led some scholars to speculate that the Avebury circle was part of a network of sacred places that stretched 200 miles (360 kilometers) across southern England. Similar to Stonehenge and many other megalithic monuments in Britain, the Avebury Stone Circle formed part of at least a local complex of megalithic works. The whole complex probably continued to be used for around 2,300 years. That persistence and the very size of the Avebury Stone Circle give weight to the suggestion that it was “perhaps the most significant sacred site in all of Britain, if not the entire continent of Europe.” The renaissance of paganism in the West at the end of the twentieth century excited new interest in its elusive mysteries.

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