Still crazy about stones

A few of the remaining standing stones at Avebury, in England. Most of the original 600 stones...
A few of the remaining standing stones at Avebury, in England. Most of the original 600 stones are gone. Photos by Liz Breslin.
I grew up with a father crazy about megaliths, monoliths and "stupid old rocks put here a trillion years ago so Dad could bore us with them today".

So it's a mystery to me how I could have reached the tender age of never-you-mind without being aware of Avebury.

Actually, that's not strictly true.

I'd seen the Red Lion pub and a bunch of '70s rockers tripping around the stones in a film called Still Crazy.

But I'd assumed they were a movie set.

I mean, if there was a site older, larger and more megalithically monumental than Stonehenge, surely I would have been dragged there as a child?Apparently not.

Avebury came up in conversation on my last visit to the UK.

There we were, driving around the dire metropolis of Milton Keynes; I casually wondered aloud where the names of the horizontal and vertical roads came from.

Avebury, Silbury and Midsummer Boulevards.

My father nearly crashed the car in his gesticulating excitement.

The alignment, the significance, the pagan possibilities!Next thing I knew we were heading down the A4 to Wiltshire.

Silbury Hill was first on the itinerary.

And on the horizon, as it happened.

Silbury Hill appears to have been built up in layers of incredible precision.
Silbury Hill appears to have been built up in layers of incredible precision.
It was, no surprises, a hill.

But I wasn't prepared for quite how artificial it looked - some comparisons are made to the pyramids in Egypt.

It isn't a true burial mound like the nearby West Kennet Long Barrow, and nobody is really sure of its purpose, but one thing is for sure - it has been built up in layers of incredible precision.

In, like, the olden days.

Without, like, measuring stuff to help them make all the right angles.

How did they do that? Being a 21st-century girl, I needed an interactive information board to help me put it into historical context, but all I had was an open road, with green paddocks sprouting sheep, bumps and barrows.

Next stop Avebury.

We arrived early.

No ageing rock stars in the Red Lion, right on the corner of the main through road.

White walls, thatch and a Fish and Chips sign next to the picnic benches in the cobbled courtyard: it was everything an English pub should be.

A road of rambling bungalows ran towards the bus park.

And then there were the stones.

Tall thin stones.

Male, apparently.

Short fatties.

The females.

How bizarre to build a village around such a site.

How did this happen? And how do we even know?Well, according to the font of wisdom (aka my Dad), you can find a lot out about mega Neolithic treasures by analysing ancient pollen and snail fossils.

In Avebury's case, we also have written records and maps left by John Aubrey and William Stuckley.

These chart a sad decline.

Once the largest stone circle in Britain, and, unlike its more famous cousin, a true henge (with the ring bank outside the ditch - such knowledge, my father would be proud), the site has been degraded over the years by ignorance in various guises.

In the 14th century, religious do-gooders decided to literally bury the evidence of paganism.

How do we know this? When Alexander Keiller bought the area in the 1930s, he commenced excavations.

Human bones were found under one of these toppled totems, now called the Barber stone, due to a pair of 14th-century scissors (thought to be for hairdressing) found preserved near the body.

The majority of the 600 or more stones have been irretrievably lost - about 70 now remain standing, with concrete markers to show where others stood.

Where did they go, these stones? As usual, Dad had the answer.

Locals used them in building their houses.

In fact, the sign outside the Avebury Chapel proudly states, "Founded in 1670, the Avebury Chapel Centre is situated in a unique location, inside a stone circle and a World Heritage Site and is possibly the only one like it in the world.

It was built using Sarsen stone from the circle itself".

And they're proud of that now?The Museum at Avebury is named after Mr Keiller, whose family fortunes had been made in marmalade.

A keen archaeologist, he was responsible for some of the first aerial surveying work in England.

From the early 1930s Keiller undertook excavation projects each year at Avebury.

Work was halted by World War 2, but when he sold the site to the National Trust in 1943 it was worth far more than the 12,000 of land value he asked for it.

He must have been more of a megalith nerd than my father.

Avebury - still crazy after all these years.

• Liz Breslin lives in Hawea Flat.


Add a Comment