The village of Avebury in Wiltshire has given its name to one of the greatest stone circles in the British Isles. Located in the midst of a rich prehistoric landscape, the village lies a few miles away from the Ridgeway and in close proximity to Silbury Hill, the Sanctuary, the West Kennet Long Barrow, and the long barrows of East Kennet and Beckhampton.
The story goes that while returning from a day's hunting one winter's evening in 1648, John Aubrey, on passing through the village of Avebury, recognized in the earthworks and standing stones around him an ancient temple, which he attributed to the Druids.
In the early 18th century, William Stukeley visited the site on several occasions and witnessed, to his great distress, the destruction of numerous stones by farmers intent on clearing the land for fields. Stukeley agreed with Aubrey's identification of the site and in 1743 published his book "Abury, a Temple of the British Druids".
Mostly dating to around 2,600-2,500 B.C.E., the Avebury complex, which covers about 28 acres and is partially overlapped by the village, comprises a huge circular earthwork ditch, originally about 30 feet deep, and bank about a quarter of a mile in diameter which encloses an outer circle of standing stones. Within this outer circle are two inner circles, both about 340 feet in diameter. The northern inner circle, of which only a few stones remain, apparently consisted of two concentric circles; an inner one of 12 stones and an outer one of 27 stones. At the centre of the northern circle stood a trio of very large stones, two of which survive, called "the Cove." At the centre of the southern circle stood a tall stone over 20 feet in length called "the obelisk." It had already fallen when William Stukeley saw, and drew it, in the 18th century, and is now gone altogether (its site, as with the other missing stones at Avebury, is now marked by a concrete pillar).
The northern and southern inner stone circles are believed to have been built first, around 2,600 B.C.E., and the outer circle and the earthworks added about a hundred years later, around 2,500 B.C.E.
The outer circle is breached at four points - roughly at points north, south, east, and west - to form entrances. From two of these originally ran two great avenues of whichonly the one, leading from the south entrance, the so-called "West Kennet Avenue", survives for a short way in reconstructed form with stones lining its course on both sides.
Originally, according to Stukeley, the West Kennet Avenue stretched all the way to the Sanctuary on Overton Hill, while the other, the Beckhampton Avenue, of which very little survives, terminated near the Beckhampton Long Barrow. Stukeley interpreted the avenues as representing a great stone serpent passing through a ring formed by the Avebury circle.
William Stukeley's "great stone serpent" (left), and a plan of 'Abiri' (19th century)