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  • Writer's pictureDee Crute

Set in Stone - Secrets of Wiltshire

I guess we all have heard of the Stone Age.
But how much do we know about it?
Recently, by chance events, I discovered that I knew very little!

Stones at Avebury Image ID:1625686249

Last Tuesday, I dropped my dad off at the airport. And when I say "dropped off," I mean driving 180 miles in one way at crazy wee hours - it was around 6:30 a.m. when we said our goodbyes.


I needed a break before driving back to Wales, and some adventure after calling off the Ascott visit that very day due to their cancellation because of weather damage to the grounds.


Avebury Sarsen Stones by Dee Crute

But it was still early and dark, with nowhere to stop, research, or get my bearings.

So, I continued on the M1 through the M25 to stop at the M4 services - or whatever motorway I drove along.


At this time of the day, the only 'open' National Trust site was Piggledene on the outskirts of Lockeridge in Wiltshire. Since this was my only choice, I left the research for later and navigated south from the motorway.


The Piggledene


Once past Marlborough, Google Maps directed me left and into a narrow lane where I almost crashed whilst driving less than 20 miles per hour...

Ex-cop advice? Don't drive and gape at buildings. You won't see much, or at all, if you die.

Stopping in the middle of the road wasn't a good idea either, as when I was staring in wonder at the Lockeridge House - Grade II Listed Building from 1740, a small queue of cars gathered behind me.


Slightly embarrassed, I moved on, glancing sideways at the lovely bridge over Kennet River and picturesque thatched-roof houses along the road.


Suddenly, an Inn sign sprang to my right:

"The Who'd a thought it"

Who, indeed!


Avebury Henge and Stone Circles, Wiltshire, England Image ID: 1113843734

Some hundred yards later, my Sat Nav threw a tantrum - or maybe it was me? I can't tell, but neither of us knew where we were now. So, I parked behind a random car at the end of the hamlet to check what was going on...


Ah, no signal whatsoever.


Right. That's why I prefer paper maps - I'm not sure why I don't have one in my car! Not so clever after all!


Luckily, the National Trust site was just behind me. It was barely past 7 a.m., and I was gleefully alone!


Piggledene Hamlet by Dee Crute

I looked over the fence onto a... What am I looking exactly at? A grazing field? I guess so, but a very small one, and sheltered by a high bank.


But then this! The most wondrous cottage I have ever seen! Tiny windows underneath the fringe of an undulating thatched roof, colourful stone, and a brick porch.


I was so captivated that I completely missed the rather incongruous sight - the field was strewn with boulders - not just a few! The whole pasture was dotted with them!


How could I have missed that?!


Intrigued, I retraced my steps and found the National Trust information board - and this is how the historical* or prehistorical - no wait, Prehistoric Adventure began!


Sarsen stones at Piggledene, Wiltshire, Image ID:1357364690

Stranger Things


Those bizarre rocks are locally known as 'Grey Wethers' because they are often mistaken for a flock of sheep in misty weather.


But their other name has an even more fascinating origin!


These geological features are officially known as Sarsen Stones. Most likely deriving from Wiltshire vernacular for 'Saracen'. Historians think Knight Templars named them as such because they were alien to the soft chalk of the North Wessex Downs.


But the name has a more sinister meaning. It stems from the Crusades against Islamic rule, during which they called Muslims Saracens. This word was also used for anything that was 'foreign'.


Thus, I will stick to 'Grey Wethers', albeit it is correct that they do not belong to chalk bedrock. These very tough and dense rocks are the remains of a cap, or an overlay, on the chalk that has been eroding away for 2.5 million years.


But the fun begins here!

'Grey Wethers'  were used for building in the Neolithic Age!

And thus, it is time to fall into the prehistoric rabbit hole as deep as 6000 years!


According to The National Trust information board, these stones were used to erect Stonehedge and Avebury! Well, there is nothing for it - I must continue this adventure!


Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, England Image ID: 1113846020

The Coward


Google Maps still struggled with a lack of signal. Still, I decided to brave it and followed a country lane, hoping it would take me to my destination or at least somewhere with reception.


I reached East Kennet hamlet, where I learnt I am only two miles from Avebury! I also discovered something else and needed to make one more stop!


I joined the main road, and there it was! A massive hill to my right!


I was looking at Silbury Hill, standing over 30 metres tall and 160 metres wide! It is the largest artificial prehistoric mound in Europe, and along with Windmill Hill, Avebury Henge, West Kennet Avenue, The Sanctuary, and Long Barrow, forms the Avebury World Heritage Site.


It is over 4000 years old, and its significance remains unknown!

Some established facts are that it is made of half a million tonnes of chalk and must have been enlarged over generations.

Despite many archaeological surveys involving digging three tunnels into the centre, no burials or tombs were found.


You can't climb the Hill as the site is protected, and public access is prohibited.


But fret not! I will take you somewhere else!


On the main road (A4), behind the lay-bye, there is a footpath... Leading through fields and across the Kennet River.


But the weather was awful, with wind-driven rain, and I could barely see ahead.


I was growing wary - had I lost my way again? And trust me, I am proficient at getting lost!

But with a few more steps, I could see a long earth bank ahead of me.


It must be it!


And sure it was! The West Kennet Long Barrow!

One of the longest extant barrows in England!


But what precisely long barrows are?


They are stone or wooden houses of the dead, covered by chalk and earth. These Neolithic communal tombs were used for no more than a few generations and were located away from the first settlements.


First? Indeed!


It was precisely at this moment in prehistory that the Neolithic population brought farming, new tools, pottery and funerary rites to our shores, marking the beginning of the New Stone Age in Britain.

The new civilisation mixed with the local nomadic hunter-fishing-gatherers until the latter culture faded.



The West Kennet Long Barrow image ID: 768851533

The question is, who was buried in the West Kennet Long Barrow?


Archaeologists found the remains of at least 36 people inside the five chambers, along with pottery, beads and daggers dated between 3000 and 2600 BC, suggesting the new Neolithic people were laid there. Still, nothing is known about the relationship between people buried inside the burrow.


Speaking about 'the inside'... The human remains have been removed, and

you can walk in on the proviso of acting with utmost decorum for the dead.


I was standing there, facing four enormous Sarsen stones. It seemed to me they were blocking the entrance, but when I got closer, I realised they were meant to look like this. There is a side entrance to a forecourt leading to the Barrow.


No.


I can't.


I am not going in.


It is dark in there, and I do not know who could be there. I returned to the English Heritage information board and had a conversation with myself - I don't want to join the bones inside!


Well, for starters, there are no bones left, and secondly, it would be improbable for a drug user to want to hide there. What? Erm, I have quite a few stories to tell from my former career as a police officer - perhaps not today...


But curiosity prevailed over fear, and I went in!



West Kennet Long Barrow Image ID: 593153771

The core of the chamber is made of the very 'Grey Wethers,' and I could see some fresh flowers left on the boulders. It was the day before Ostara, a pagan celebration of the spring Equinox, so I was not surprised by this sight.


I saw two chambers on both sides of the central corridor, and the next two were drowned in darkness. The corridor ended with the fifth and the largest chamber.


I was fascinated by the place, but my inner coward swiftly trotted outside.


The Barrow is 100 metres long and 20 metres wide, but little is still known about its significance. There are many speculations about its shape, especially since the chambers take up only one–eighth of its length.


We know that the bones were moved from one chamber to another. After the last burial, the chambers were filled with chalk rubble, and the entrance to the Barrow was sealed.


Many years ago, this chalk burrow would have stood out on the Wessex Down, but today, it is covered by grass and wildflowers.


The Henge


Despite struggling to walk, I swung my walking aids so vigorously that I got back to my car in no time. I was soaked and cold, dreaming about a hot cuppa.

But I still had over an hour until the tea rooms opened at Avebury National Trust visitors centre...


This should suffice to explore another site - the most magnificent and largest Henge in Britain.


I do not know about you, but I always thought that 'henge' was just a circle of stones!

The name was indeed coined and based on Stonehenge, but it refers to Neolithic earthwork featuring a round area encircled by a bank and internal ditch. Some, did contain stone circles, like here in Avebury.


Avebury Village and neolithic Stone Circle Image ID: 1736035109

But, before taking a stroll around the site, I familiarised myself with its plan and the graphic reconstruction of how it may have been 4600 years ago.


The site is so vast that otherwise, it would be difficult to put what you see into perspective, as the Henge encircles a large part of the village for almost a mile.


I entered the circle from the southwest entrance and was astonished by its scale! The main road (A4361) runs through it, yet it seems like a small lane compared to the Henge.

The Sarsen Stones are so tall and imposing, making me feel quite insignificant!


The banks and ditches are out of bounds due to erosion, but the theories about this place suggest it was always forbidden for people to enter the banks and even the circles.


There are many hypotheses about why the Avebury was built, but there is no way to answer this question.


There are views that the circles were instrumental in observing celestial bodies and celebrating the year's cycle.


Other theories speak of celebrating death, making contact with ancestors or even the supernatural.


Another supposition, my favourite and most mysterious, is that the enormous scale of Avebury Henge suggests something significant and even dangerous.

This idea points out that those steep and narrow nine-metre-deep ditches (as they were before erosion), surrounded by four-metre banks, kept a powerful force inside (as nebulously suggested by historians).


And lastly, there is a view amongst some historians that Henge was constructed for the dead to walk in and stay inside, being separated from the living.


Which theory speaks to you most?


And what about the stones?

Many cultures throughout the centuries saw stones as a symbol of permanence and used them to remember the dead. Would this also explain the way the stones were positioned here?


100 stones ran the length of the bank and ditch, and within them, two smaller circles with 30 stones in each:


The Southern Circle housed a rectangular setting of chest-high stones with the Obelisk - a tall sarsen in the centre. The Obelisk was damaged in the XVIII Century and is now marked by a pyramid concrete marker.


The Northern Circle is now buried, but two of its three large central pillars still stand and are known as the Cove.


Despite much research, there are still so many questions, making it a fascinating place!


I was too weary and hungry to explore beyond the circles, but I will definitely return here!

The Avebury World Heritage Site is a perfect destination for an adventure steeped in history. You can park at the National Trust car park in Avebury village and start your visit with a cuppa in Circles Restaurant or go straight to Alexander Keiller Museum.

After exploring the Henge, take one of the remaining Avenues and walk to The Sanctuary—what used to be a Bronze Age round barrow known as Overton Hill. Better still, take a circular walk (find here) that will take you to all six locations of the Avebury World Heritage Site.


Stones at Avebury in misty morning , Image ID: 246431014

Before driving away, I couldn't stop thinking about what I saw today: building Avebury Henge, Silbury Hill, or the Long Barrow would be a serious undertaking even today, and yet our ancestors did it without any machines and with rudimentary tools—what drove them?

Isn't this evidence that we are capable of anything?



 


Further Reading and Dee's brain process


  1. Avebury, English Heritage. Available at: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/avebury/ (Accessed: 26 March 2024).\

  2. History of Avebury Henge and stone circles, English Heritage. Available at: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/avebury/history/ (Accessed: 26 March 2024).

  3. National Trust Avebury Map. Available at: https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/binaries/content/assets/website/national/regions/wiltshire/places/avebury/pdf/avebury-map.pdf (Accessed: 26 March 2024).

  4. Sarsens (2023) National Trails. Available at: https://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/en_GB/top_50_sarsens/ (Accessed: 26 March 2024). *Did you know the confusing distinction between historical, historic, and prehistoric? This one scrambles my brain, and I always have to check which one to use: Historic is an adjective that always denotes something important in history. Historical is for anything relating to history, including historical crimes. But! In criminal law, historic offences refer to a 'current' investigation into crimes committed long ago. In such cases, evidence is based on long narratives of witnesses and 'third party material', like doctor's notes, etc., to gauge the veracity of the statements. Sometimes, in law enforcement jargon, historic offences also refer to older offences on someone's record. Interestingly, the Cambridge Dictionary completely missed its legal definition, which left me rather nonplussed! So, following this logic, you would think, anything relating to prehistory would be prehistorical? But no, it is prehistoric!

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