“It does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge as a Cathedral doeth a parish church.” Such were the words of John Aubrey, describing the megalithic complex which has now become integrated into the surrounding landscape of the area. Although its stones were of impressive size and spacing, the truly remarkable feature of Avebury was the enormous ditch and bank that surrounded it. This has since eroded and filled in, but is still fairly impressive; at its peak, excavations have revealed that the ditch was likely three times as deep as it is today. Cut into the white chalk of the area, this must have been a thrilling and brilliant sight, especially in full sunlight.
The henge at Avebury is incredibly large. It is composed of a main ring of 98 sarsen stones, with two inner rings, side by side, each comprised of around 30 stones. The stones comprising the henge were, like those of the more famous Stonehenge, originally of Marlborough Downs, and were transported the dozens of miles to their eventual destination. While these stones were not worked, they were placed with the least eroded side to the center, much like their counterparts at Stonehenge. There were likely originally over 600 stones that comprised the henge and related complexes, but for various reasons, the majority were destroyed or deposed.
In the late 1600s, the majority of the stones were destroyed for various reasons. The main culprit seems to be one Tom Robinson, who was apparently a housing speculator. He headed gangs that broke them up for building material in the nearby houses and other structures. Many of the houses, and especially Avebury Chapel, can be seen to have used portions of the megaliths as building material. As the various areas remained largely unprotected until nearly 1930, there was considerable destruction of the entire complex.
Today, there has not been very much archaeological research poured into Avebury henge and the related structures. Many of the stones’ original placements are now marked by concrete plinths, especially along the original stone avenues leading up to the henge. In modern diagrams of the henge, it is amazing how much of the original area is covered by modern-era structures, especially where the original center stone circles were.
I suppose that we should feel lucky, as modern archaeologists and tourists, that our predecessors didn’t have the change to completely demolish the henge, and that there were those who began to diagram it before the wholesale destruction began in earnest. The pervading lesson from Avesbury, though, is that once something is destroyed, it is very difficult to know exactly what it is we lost. We can only get a vague idea that it was something massively important to someone, at one point in time.