Beyond Stonehenge


Salisbury Plain

The Salisbury Plain is a flat, open, plateau-like area in the county of Wiltshire in southern England. Home to some of the earliest Neolithic settlements in Britain, it also claims the most renowned concentration of prehistoric monuments in the UK. Stonehenge makes its home here alongside the farmer's fields that currently cover most of the region. Nearby, lesser known but equally striking stone circles, henges, and barrows draw many archaeology aficionados but are refreshingly free of the gawking crowds and tourist trappings that plague their neighbor.


In the minds of many stone circle snobs, Avebury is the most impressive megalithic monument bar none. The Avebury Henge proper is a circular bank of chalk 1400 feet in diameter and 20 feet high, enclosing an area of almost 30 acres. Around the inner perimeter stands a ring of 27 sandstone blocks averaging 40 tons apiece, arguably forming the largest stone circle in the world. At one time the circle contained three times as many stones surrounding two smaller circles within.

Although it's not as crowded as Stonehenge, the encroachments of the modern world have descended on the Avebury Henge in a different way. Much of the quaint village of Avebury lies within the boundaries of the henge, including a nice pub and the Alexander Keiller museum, which houses a collection of the site's archaeological artifacts. Many of the homes in the village have foundations built from stones that once stood in the circle but were broken up by villagers hundreds of years ago. A road also runs through the village from one side of the henge to the other.

Two parallel stone rows form West Kennet Avenue, which stretches 1.5 miles from the henge entrance to Overton Hill and the remains of a small stone circle called the Sanctuary. Many of the avenue's megalithic stones are no longer standing, but enough remain to convey a sense of faded grandeur. Human remains found near many of the stones on the avenue indicate it was once used as a burial ground.

Beyond Overton Hill to the south, the West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill complete what many think of as the Avebury complex, though whether all of these landmarks were used in conjunction with each other is unknown. The West Kennet Long Barrow is an exemplary Neolithic burial chamber, consisting of a long, narrow stone chamber covered with earth and guarded at the entrance by towering standing stones.

At a height of 130 feet, nearby Silbury Hill is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. One legend has it that the mound contains an ancient king buried sitting on his horse; a variation suggests the mound hides not the king and the horse themselves but a life-sized solid gold replica of the two. A different story altogether claims a clever cobbler tricked the devil into dumping on the Silbury spot a giant shovelful of earth he had intended to use to bury the town of Marlborough. But after countless archaeological excavations, Silbury's real purpose remains a mystery.

Access: To reach Avebury, follow the A4 west from Marlborough about 6 miles. Go west at West Kennet. The road will take you directly into the village within the site.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 30 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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