The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian


Stone Circle



In Past 34 we reported on the excavation, during 1999, of a newly-discovered Neolithic enclosure near Avebury, Wiltshire, and the rediscovery of a second megalithic avenue (the 'Beckhampton Avenue') leading from the Avebury henge. Undertaken by a team from the Universities of Leicester, Southampton and Wales (Newport) with generous funding from the AHRB, work on these monuments continued during 2000 and 2002. (Like so many projects, our plans for fieldwork during 2001 had to be curtailed due to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth.) Further sections of the avenue and enclosure were investigated, including what we believe to be the avenue's original terminal (or beginning, depending on your orientation) - a massive and largely unparalleled box-like megalithic setting known as the 'Longstones Cove'.
Our excavations have focussed on an area 1-2 km to the south-west of Avebury near the village of Beckhampton. The sequence of Neolithic activity here is a long one, beginning with limited occupation and cultivation during the earlier 4th millennium BC, as revealed by John Evans' earlier work on the nearby South Street long barrow (Ashbee et al. 1979). This in turn was followed by the creation during the mid-4th millennium BC of the South Street barrow and the nearby Beckhampton or 'Longstones' long mound. We now know from radiocarbon dates and finds of Grooved Ware on the base of the ditch that our oval enclosure was constructed early in the later Neolithic, around 2900-2700BC. This puts it more or less contemporary with the Avebury henge enclosure (Pitts & Whittle 1992). However, the Beckhampton enclosure and Avebury henge were very different monuments. In stark contrast to the truly monumental scale of Avebury, the Beckhampton enclosure was a slight and ephemeral monument that was to leave little tangible trace in the landscape. The ditch was no more than 0.9m deep and showed no evidence of recutting. It appears to have been systematically backfilled perhaps a century or two after being dug. The circuit of the ditch was interrupted by frequent causeways, with a major entrance (of the order of 40m wide) on the east. It is highly significant that the style of the monument is more akin to earlier Neolithic causewayed enclosures than it is to contemporary henges. The enclosure's builders may deliberately have set out to create an anachronistic monument, perhaps out of respect to earlier sacred traditions, as a process of emulation, or as an intentional act of recreation.
Trenches dug within the interior of the enclosure failed to reveal any prehistoric features, nor were any visible on geophysical surveys of the site undertaken by the Ancient Monuments Laboratory of English Heritage. Finds from the ditch were few. A scatter of pig, cattle and sheep bones on the base near the eastern entrance could relate to a brief episode of feasting following on from the construction of the enclosure. Other finds of bone and antler came from the base of the later backfill. Set within grazed grassland, perhaps the enclosure was visited infrequently, if at all, once constructed. In this context it was probably the act of construction that was important, rather than an intention to create a lasting statement within the landscape.
Despite the excavation of 150m of its length (comprising 13 individual stone settings), the chronology of the avenue remains imprecise. It is almost certainly secondary to the enclosure, and may come at the end of the Neolithic sequence in the region, that is around 2500-2300BC. A further pair of stone settings was investigated during 2000, both stones having suffered the common fate of fire-setting and breaking in the early 18th century. We also explored the area immediately around one of the two surviving Longstones ('Adam'). This massive block of sarsen stone was recorded as the sole survivor of a megalithic 'box' or 'cove' by the antiquary William Stukeley; who recorded much of the avenue during a concerted period of stone destruction between 1700-1725. Our excavations showed this setting to incorporate two distinct phases. The first comprised a linear setting of three stones 40m across, forming a simple 'T-shaped' terminal to the avenue immediately to the south-west of the earlier enclosure. Two of the stones were then taken down and their sockets carefully backfilled with chalk. The central stone (set on the centre axis of the avenue) was left in place to form the south-eastern side of the cove. With splayed sides, the cove enclosed an area of c.15 x 10 m; the individual stones standing 2.5-3.5 m above ground and weighing up to 60 tonnes each. Unfortunately, all the stone sockets had been extensively disturbed during the phase of stone destruction recorded by Stukeley, but sufficient survived of one to show that the stones were held in place by a packing of small sarsen boulders. From the stone sockets and fills of later destruction pits came several thousand of pieces of worked flint, much of it debitage from rather ad hoc working.
Almost invariably associated with henges and stone circles, cove settings are known elsewhere, for example at Stanton Drew in Somerset, Mount Pleasant in Dorset, and locally within the Avebury henge (Burl 1988). However, none of these approach the scale of the Longstones Cove, nor do they form 'closed' four-sided settings of this kind. The Longstones Cove might, as Burl has suggested for others, reference the format of earlier megalithic burial chambers (ibid., 7). Alternatively, its closed format could have drawn upon memory of the earlier enclosure - a transformation from earth to stone that would parallel the lithic conversion of certain late Neolithic wooden monuments, such as the Sanctuary at the end of the West Kennet Avenue. Either way, themes of time, transformation and a desire to make reference to the past, seem to be deeply implicated in the Beckhampton monuments.

In tracking the course of the Beckhampton Avenue from Avebury to Longstones Field, Stukeley's observations have proved extremely reliable. He was convinced that the avenue continued beyond Longstones Field to the south-west, eventually terminating on a low hill at Fox Covert ('a most solemn and awful place': Stukeley 1743, 36). His projected course seemed to be supported by the discovery in 1968 of a large sarsen buried in a pit alongside the present A4 (Anon 1969, 127). Wishing to confirm or refute this south-western extension of the avenue, we returned to the field during Easter 2002. We were again aided by a geophysical survey undertaken by the Ancient Monuments Laboratory. However, this and another geophysical survey further along the projected line failed to detect any buried stones or stone destruction pits. Excavation likewise drew a blank. Did the avenue really extend this far? We think not. Re-analysis of Stukeley's field notes suggests his identification of this stretch of the avenue was based on the presence of only a small number of recumbent stones, all of which could be naturally occurring sarsens. His records for this section were clearly quite speculative. Technically the case is 'not proven' and many ambiguities remain. However, our opinion would favour a termination of the avenue in Longstones Field, at or just beyond the cove. From the end of one avenue to the end of the other, this makes Avebury an impressive 4km long.
Mark Gillings,
University of Leicester
fitzcoraldo Posted by fitzcoraldo
7th February 2003ce

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