The ancient megaliths of Stonehenge and Avebury have stood mute for thousands of years but they speak clearly to the engineering skills and mysterious ritual beliefs of those who built them.
The Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples who inhabited the chalklands of Southern Britain built bank-and-ditch “henge” complexes, improved with stone and arrayed with an eye to celestial schedules, with considerable effort for purposes still largely unknown to us.
Stonehenge began about 3000 B.C. as a circular earthen bank and adjacent ditch. It was improved over thousands of years with timber and later (circa 2600 to 1600 B.C.) with stone.
The circle utilizes blocks weighing over 45 tons and towering up to 24 feet (7.3 meters) high. Some were moved 150 miles (240 kilometers) from the Preseli Hills in Wales, and only a sophisticated society could have accomplished such a feat.
The engineering and architectural skills employed in the actual construction of Stonehenge are mirrored by the ceremonial sophistication evident in the greater site’s overall design. Famously, for example, the Stone Circle and Avenue leading 1.8 miles (3 kilometers) from Stonehenge to the River Avon is built on the axis of the midsummer sunrise. Whether this alignment was constructed for sun worship, calendar keeping, or other purposes remains a matter of much debate.
The Stonehenge World Heritage site includes far more than the iconic circle. It sprawls over 10 square miles (26.6 square kilometers) and includes avenues, settlements, some 350 burial grounds, possible healing centers, and other sites all skillfully designed to blend into a larger pattern of landscape design.
Stonehenge may be the world’s most famous prehistoric megalithic monument but its famed circle of stones is not the largest. That distinction belongs to nearby Avebury, which is also home to the biggest prehistoric mound in Europe—Silbury Hill. The 130-foot-high (39.5-meter-high) mound is made up of half a million tons of chalk that was piled up around 2400 B.C.
Avebury’s circle consists of an enormous henge, an ancient earthwork embankment, and an adjacent ditch with a circumference of about half a mile that was cut by impressive causeways.
The site retains a scattering of massive stones that once formed a massive stone circle inside the henge, as well as remnant interior circles and monuments including avenues of paired, pillar-like stones. Sadly, many of the site’s stones were destroyed by residents of Avebury itself, which lies inside the henge. In an attack on pagan monuments villagers began to topple and bury the ancient stones as early as the 14th century. In the 18th century a far more efficient process saw them systematically broken up and destroyed.
Archaeologist Alexander Keiller set some of this right by excavating and re-erecting many stones in the 1930s. He founded an archaeological museum on the site.
How to Get There
Stonehenge is located about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Salisbury. It’s accessible by road or via public tour buses, which depart from Salisbury’s rail and bus stations. Avebury is about 25 miles from Bath and 11 from Swindon—from which bus service is available. Trains also service Swindon and Pewesey (10 miles from Avebury).
How to Visit
A walkway surrounds Stonehenge’s famed circle, but due to conservation concerns the public is no longer generally let inside the ring. However, many compensations await. The iconic circle is surrounded by a vast expanse of fields and country cover, perfect walking country dotted with associated earthworks, burial grounds, and other monuments. At Avebury it’s possible to walk a half-mile circuit along the ancient earthwork henge and wander among the stones at will.
When to Visit
Stonehenge and Avebury are open year round. In fact, Avebury’s intimate stones remain open to investigation by history-loving visitors at any time. Stonehenge keeps more regular hours, but there is nothing at all regular about summer solstice observations at the site. Tens of thousands of hippies, Druids, and thrill-seekers of all stripes flock to the site for a raucous annual festival.