Exploring Avebury’s History: Pagans, Rituals, Stone Circles and Things To See

  • Post category:England
  • Post last modified:May 16, 2021
  • Reading time:8 mins read
Large-Sarsen-Stone-In-Outer-Cricle-Avebury
Large Sarsen stone in the outer circle at Avebury

Avebury is a complex archaeological site in Wiltshire. As well as containing the world’s largest megalithic stone circle, it features ancient henges, prehistoric tombs, and lies near West Kennet Long Barrow. 

Given it was constructed over 12,000 years ago, much of our knowledge about Avebury still relies on speculation. However, archaeological research suggests that ancient Britons used the site for ritualist practises, feasts, and possibly human sacrifices. 

So, what structures can curious visitors find at the site? And why do so many modern pagans visit the site during the yearly solstices? 

Another-View-of-Northern-Outer-Stone-Circle-Facing-Village-Avebury
Another view of the northern outer stone circle

The Origins of Avebury’s Stone Circles

The Avebury henge is Neolithic and was constructed in Britain’s Stone Age (around 5,000 years ago). However, the circles have been changed and altered throughout the years, making it difficult to date back to a specific year. 

Avebury’s outer stone circle is the largest in Britain (331.6 metres in diameter). The original circle contained 94 sarsen standing stones, although now only 27 remain. Some of the larger stones weigh in excess of 40 tonnes, making it all the more mysterious how ancient Britons managed to extract, move, and configure them in circular shapes.

The site also features two inner stone circles (98 metres in diameter). While the Northern circle still exists at the site today, the Southern circle has been buried under the buildings in Avebury Village. 

Unfortunately, many of the circle stones were lost throughout the 13th to 17th centuries. This was largely down to Christian settlements looking to eradicate pagan religions by toppling and burying many of the stones. Additionally, local farmers, unaware of the site’s importance and looking to expand farmland, disturbed and destroyed many of the stones. 

The stones that have been preserved are thanks to a handful of archaeologists. 

In the 20th century, Alexander Keiller took an interest in the ancient site and, using his wealth, purchased the 950 acres of land surrounding the stones. He both protected and excavated the site, kickstarting much of what we know about Avebury’s henge and stone circles today. 

view-of-northern-inner-stone-circle-Avebury
View of northern inner stone circle at Avebury

Why Were the Avebury Circles Built?

Researchers and historical enthusiasts have queried the purpose of Avebury’s stone circles for centuries. Some evidence suggests that the site was used for feasting and congregations, given the large number of animal bones and pottery pieces dug up around the stones. 

Additionally, many renowned archaeologists, such as Aubrey Burl, believe that Avebury’s past is strongly connected to spirituality. Peoples of the time may have used the stones in rituals, intending to pacify natural forces like the weather. Burl says in this book,

“…the people devised elaborate ceremonies designed to appease the malevolent powers of nature” (Prehistoric Avebury).

At an age where cold, dark nights could be deadly, and a poor harvest could result in starvation, the natural world may have become god-like.

However, wild theories have been no stranger to Avebury’s origins. Many people have constructed their own hypothesis from visiting aliens to Native American builders, as eccentric as they may be. 

View-of-Northern-Outer-Stone-Circle-Avebury
View of northern outer stone circle at Avebury

Things to See Around the Avebury Henge

Avebury is a World Heritage Site and currently managed by the National Trust and English Heritage. Visitors are welcome to roam around both Avebury village and the stones themselves. However, respect for the site is key. 

If you are interested in visiting Avebury, take a look below at the area’s most loved historical sites!

The Avebury Stone Circles

The Avebury ring of stones is something to behold. Some of the ancient outer rocks are staggeringly tall at 4.2 metres high and feel imposing during the walk around the site. Visiting at sunrise or sunset is particularly worthwhile, as the formation of rocks cast long shadows on the grassy earth.

For the best aerial view of the Avebury circles, follow the path through the trench up to the hill. Here you can view the entire Northern circle of rocks, both inner and outer, as well as Avebury Village.  

Avebury Village

While in the area, visiting Avebury village is a must. Here you’ll find the Alexander Keiller Museum, a great source of information about Avebury. It also houses interesting artefacts found on the site, including prehistoric pottery and a Neolithic skeleton. 

Additionally, visitors will find other historical sites of interest, such as Saint James’ Church. Thought to be built in the 11th century by Christian Anglo Saxons, the building actually sits within the Avebury stone circles. A fascinating reminder of how religious sites often coincide with each other.

Other buildings worth noting are Avebury Priory and Manor.   

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Outside view of the St James’ Church at Avebury

West Kennet Long Barrow 

West Kennet Long Barrow is a prehistoric tomb, likely constructed around 3700BC. Like other burial sites in the area, it is largely made out of dirt formed into an earthen mound and supported by sarsen stones. However, archaeologists consider it the most sophisticated site, given its size. 

The remains of men, women, and children have been found in the tomb, as well as ceramics and flint. The site is only a 30 minute walk from the Avebury circle and is still a popular site of worship for modern pagans. 

Silbury Hill

Right next to the Avebury circle of stones is Silbury Hill. The huge chalk mound is 39.3 metres high, making it difficult to miss. It’s also the largest prehistoric, human made mound in Europe and one of the world’s largest. 

Some archaeologists suggest that it would have taken 18 million hours to build, although its purpose is still unclear. It’s possible that the site is a ritual monument where those with great authority conducted ceremonies at the hill’s top.

Other folklore suggests that the mound was a pile of dirt carried by the devil, who intended to cover the town of Marlborough. However, he was stopped by the priests of Avebury, and the mound of dirt is now Silbury Hill. 

front-view-Wayland's-Smithy-Avebury
Front view of the Wayland’s Smithy Avebury

Places to Visit Near Avebury

Wiltshire is full of interesting Neolithic monuments; a few include Wayland’s Smithy, Uffington White Horse, and Barbury Castle. All of these sites are within an hour’s car journey, making it very convenient to spend a day or two exploring the local history. 

Also close by is Stonehenge, arguably the most famous Neolithic structure in the world. Although Avebury is an older site, Stonehenge has become a cultural icon. Many people flock to the sarsen stones during the year’s solstices. 

Avebury-village-signpost

How to Get to Avebury Stone Circle

How to Get to Avebury by Car

The SatNav postcode you need to get to Avebury stone circle is SN8 1RD.

This will take you to the main car park, just a short walk away (500 yards) from the stones. The Pay & Display car park costs £7 per day or £4 after 3pm and is open from 10am – 5pm. Both National Trust and English Heritage members can park for free.

How to Get to Avebury by Train

There are no train stations in Avebury, and the most accessible station to Avebury is probably Swindon (Wiltshire).

It is fairly straightforward to get to Avebury from Swindon train station, which is just 11 miles away. From Swindon, you could take a local taxi or bus to Avebury (see How to Get to Avebury by Bus below).

How to Get to Avebury by Bus

From the main bus station in Swindon, you can get the Stagecoach bus number 49 direct to Avebury Stone Circle.

Facilities at Avebury Stone Circle

There are public toilets, including accessible and baby changing facilities in the Old Farmyard open from 10am – 4pm.

The Circles Restaurant providing hot and cold food and drinks is open from 10.30am – 4.30pm and there is a picnic area in the Old Farmyard. You could also choose tempting refreshments from the Coach House cafe too.

The National Trust shop is also open from 10am – 5.30pm and rather uniquely there is Cobblestones second hand bookshop on site too.

Final Thoughts on Avebury’s Stone Circles

Avebury’s Neolithic history is mysterious. In fact, it’s a corner of England where folklore and mysticism are cultivated by the local people.

In modern times, Avebury is still a sacred place for pagans, a movement that is, in fact, growing. According to the 2011 UK census, around 11,000 people identify as Wiccan, and around 52,000 people identify as Pagan in England. 

Religions such as Witchcraft and Druidry see the Avebury stones as ‘living temples’, a spiritual place where they can reconnect with their ancestors and commune with spirits. This is most evident at the Summer and Winter solstices, where pagans and visitors gather to welcome the changing season. 

Hopefully, as we become more technologically advanced, we’ll only learn more about Avebury and Britain’s Neolithic past.

Avebury Photo Gallery

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