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

Winterbourne Bassett

Stone Circle


More on the doubts about the site, gleaned from the article 'A family chapel.. to an Archdruid's Dwelling' by David, Field & others in WANHM vol 96 (2003).

The NMR officially places the site at SU09367552. So why was it thought to be here? and why not?

We have to go back to Stukeley's original description of the site, in his 'Abury'.

"At Winterbourne Bassett, a little North of Abury, in a field NW of the church, upon elevated ground, is a double circle of stones concentric, sixty cubits in diameter. The two circles are near one another, so that one may walk between. Many stones have of late been carry'd away. West of it is a single, broad, flat, and high stone, standing by itself. And about as far northward from the circle, in a ploughed field, is a barrow set round with or rather composed of large stones. I take this double circle to have been a family-chapel, as we may call it, to an archdruid dwelling near thereabout, whilst Abury was his Cathedral."

Hoare later used Stukeley's 1743 description to trace the site, and plumped for a spot which was consequently accepted by the OS for their maps: the one on the NMR. Hoare didn't describe what he found - neither the number of stones nor their positions. He just said there were 'a few inconsiderable stones' remaining.

As Stukeley said, people were always carting off stones and there are sarsens in the local church and manor for example, which could be from the circle (or just from the fields). So if Hoare found just a few stones he might have assumed that that was all that was left, and that yes he was in the right place.

AC Smith and the Rev. WC Lukis looked in 1880, finding only 3 or 4 stones lying on the surface. By probing about they found about a dozen more. They also strangely found a central stone, unmentioned by Stukeley. And the circle seemed to be much bigger than 60 cubits. And then there was an outlying stone.. It all seems a bit dodgy in retrospect. They didn't find any stones actually standing.

Geophys. studies were done in 1998. They confirmed the buried stones found by Smith and Lukis, but also found a whole load more, which were distributed well beyond the 'circles' and apparently quite randomly. There was nothing really to convince of a prehistoric stone circle. The stones are probably natural sarsens.

Stukeley actually made a sketch of the site, now at the Bodleian library (it is reproduced in the magazine). It does differ a bit from his later description - he wrote on the 1724 sketch that it had a 100ft diameter which is rather bigger than 60cubits (and if you want to be picky, says it has 60 stones though he only drew 49). However, the number and arrangement of the stones make it look like a proper circle, a manmade thing rather than a natural collection of sarsens.

Crucially, he drew the landscape in the background - it has the church at Avebury, Silbury Hill, and Tan Hill in it. None of these are visible from the scheduled site. It's possible he was tweaking the truth to be artistic. But perhaps such an explanation isn't necessary - if you move just 50m south, to the summit of the ridge (SU 09307535), you can see this panorama.

Unfortunately today there's nothing to actually see there. By 1840 the field was being used for crops, and the circle was probably long gone even by then. But - at least if the site can be surveyed one day with geophys., perhaps some evidence of the stone settings can still come to light, and we'll really know if this is the right spot.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
6th January 2004ce

Comments (0)

You must be logged in to add a comment