Prehistoric Avebury

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, most archaeologists and scholars in related fields have been absorbed with the archaeology of the Near East and Mediterranean regions, for it was believed (and still is, with considerable justification) that these areas were the cradles of civilization. Essentially ignored were hundreds of sites in northern Europe and in the British Isles. It is only during the last twenty-five years that an interest in these sites has been growing, resulting in an increased appreciation of the technical and artistic achievements and advances in religion and economic and social organization that took place there in prehistoric times. A major contributor to our growing appreciation of prehistoric Britain, and also of Stone Age cultures in other areas of the world, is Aubrey Burl, Senior Lecturer in Prehistory at Hull College of Higher Education. Burl, a British archaeologist, has participated in and led numerous excavations in Great Britain, and, in 1976, he published an epochal work on the subject, The Stone Circles of the British Isles. In this book he treated in depth the subject of the origins of stone circles and described and analyzed megaliths in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. His work can serve as an introduction to his richly detailed study of the largest and, at one time, the most impressive of these megalithic monuments: Avebury.

“Nowhere,” Burl asserts, “was there so big a mound made by man higher than many of the hills around it, nowhere else . . . a stone tomb and barrow so long, nowhere . . . a hilltop enclosure so large, and nowhere . . . a ditch so deep inside a bank so vast around a stone circle so enormous.” Nevertheless, until the appearance of Prehistoric Avebury, the site, although approximately five thousand years old, has been almost ignored as a subject of archaeological literature. It was not until 1695 that any serious note was taken of Avebury. In that year, John Aubrey, better-known as a witty biographer through his Brief Lives, published an account of the site in the first general guide to British antiquities, the Brittania, which was derived from his manuscript “Monumenta Brittanica.” Aubrey, “the first great English fieldworker and archaeologist,” visited and worked at the site between 1649 and 1670. His work is important because it created interest in Avebury and because his drawings included many features later obliterated.

In 1719, the second important archaeologist came to Avebury and continued to visit and work there over the next decade. This was William Stukeley, to whom Burl dedicates this book. Although Stukeley was wrong about the Druid origins of the site, he did contribute greatly to our knowledge of Avebury. He published a series of notes, plans, and watercolors, and his book, Avebury, a Temple of the British Druids with Some Others Described, which Burl considers definitive, is of real archaeological value. He was more precise than Aubrey, and he made additional archaeological discoveries. He also contributed to an appreciation of the former impressiveness of the site by condemning the wanton destruction that was going on during his time mainly for the purpose of securing building materials for new houses. As a result of the work of Aubrey and Stukeley, we do at least know, although we cannot precisely see, what the megalithic structure looked like in prehistoric times. Their works and later excavations have contributed to a growing appreciation of Avebury’s importance. Burl’s book, however, is the first to deal with the subject of Avebury in its totality, including not only a description of the site but also an explanation of how it was constructed, a judicious evaluation of the purposes of the stone circles, a discussion of the archaeological work done there, and a history of the destruction, much of it wanton, that has obliterated much we might have known about the distant past.

In the first two paragraphs, Burl clearly states his purposes in writing the book: first, to determine why Avebury has been “neglected by writers”; and second, to deduce the purposes of the stone circles to their prehistoric builders. The first query is the easiest to answer. For one thing, Avebury has been overshadowed by the much smaller, but better-known, nearby megalith, Stonehenge, although John Aubrey wrote that Avebury “’does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stoneheng[e] as a Cathedral doeth a parish Church.’” This is undoubtedly the case because Stonehenge enjoys an unparalleled topographical setting and is in a far better state of preservation than Avebury because of its relative youth and its geographical isolation from human habitation.

Indeed, just as some men built Avebury, others destroyed much of it. In Britain twelve years ago, the reviewer, after visiting Stonehenge, found Avebury disappointing in comparison. Undoubtedly this is not an isolated reaction. Avebury has fallen victim not only to the inevitable ravages of nature but to the thoughtlessness of man as well. Writing more than two centuries ago, Stukeley...

(The entire section is 2092 words.)