SACRED and Ancient Celtic  SITES

AVEBURY, Wiltshire


Avebury is the largest stone circle in the world: it is 427m (1401ft) in diameter and it covers an area of some 28 acres (11.5 ha). Although not so immediately impressive as Stonehenge, it is an extraordinary site formed by a huge circular bank (a mile round), a massive ditch now only a half of its original depth and a great ring of 98 sarsen slabs enclosing two smaller circles of 30 stones each and other settings and arrangements of stones.

The outer bank, still very impressive, was originally 17m (55ft) high from ditch bottom to bank top. The stones, each weighing about 40 tons or more, were left rough and not dressed as were the Stonehenge blocks. They were obtained from the same place, the nearby Marlborough Downs. Now there are only 27 in place, because a few hundred years ago many of the stones were broken up by lighting fires beneath them and pouring cold water over them. They were used to construct the present village which grew up within the earthwork (one of the buildings of the village houses the tiny but very interesting Alexander Keiller Museum, with many of the archaelogical finds of the site: it is well worth visiting).

In the 14th century some of the stones were buried. In that period, a man was killed by one of the stones falling over unexpectedly in the pit which was being prepared for its burial. No attempt was made to extract his body. A pair of scissors, a lancet and three silver coins were found next the poor skeleton and the stone is now called the Barber's Stone. Other remarkable stones are the Swindon Stone, the largest (it weighs about 60 tons), the Devil's Chair (local legends attribute mystic powers to the stone such as the ability to summon the devil if you run round it 100 times anti-clockwise) and the Repaired Stone, that has been reconstructed in an odd shape.

The two smaller circles within the great ring were probably the heart of the ritual or ceremony. Of the northern one, only few stones can be seen. Two of the central ones are called The Cove and may have been erected first, even before the great circle. Shortly before mid-summer 1996 they were daubed with graffiti, but they have been promptly cleaned by a sculpture restoration team, being the megalithic monument in care of the National Trust.

There were two ceremonial avenues of standing stones departing from the main ring. Only one survives, the West Kennet Avenue, that was originally 2.5km (1.5 mi) in length and connected Avebury to the small stone circle called The Sanctuary on Overton Hill. Always leading south there are two other interesting sites:
West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill.



Bryn Celli Ddu (the mound in a dark grove) is the best passage grave in Wales. It started as a late Neolithic henge or ritual enclosure, with a stone circle surrounded by a bank and internal ditch. A later passage grave was built inside the ditch; the north-east entrance to the burial chamber is retained by a kerb of stones, which with the dry-stone walling of the outer passage, creates an elaborate forecourt. The narrow passage (a torch may be useful) is 8.2m (27ft) long and 0.9m (3ft) wide with a low shelf along its north (right) side. This leads to a higher, polygonal burial chamber, 2.4m (8ft) wide, covered by two capstones. In the chamber is a tall, rounded, free-standing pillar, whose purpose is unknown. The spiral carving on the first stone on the left of the chamber entrance may be not authentic.

The whole passage was covered by a cairn, but the existing mound is a partial reconstruction, kept small so that three stones from the old stone circle and two other features behind the chamber, at the centre of the henge, can be seen. These other features are a pit (in which excavations revealed charcoal and a human ear-bone) and an upright stone carved on both faces and across the top with zigzag and spiral lines. The original pillar is now at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, but a replica has been set up in its presumed original position.

The site was visited from 1699, and excavated in 1865 and 1927-31. In the passage and in the chamber excavations revealed both burnt and unburnt human bones, a stone bead, two flint arrowheads, a scraper and mussel shells. Outside the entrance and the ditch, a small, unusual ox burial was found. On the ridge to the north of the site (on the right of the lane as you return) is a tall standing stone.




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