The camper van continues to explore in 2019! The purpose of the project started last year is explained below:
I often zoom past Stonehenge while travelling on the A303, and haven’t visited this famous monument close-up since childhood. So I decided to spend some time in this part of Wiltshire, enjoying not just Stonehenge itself, but also nearby Silbury Hill and the stone circles at Avebury – important historic sites that combine to form a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The textbook inspiration for the location in this blog came from an image of Silbury in the ‘Landforms’ book by Ian Galbraith and Patrick Wiegand, and a picture of Stonehenge from a more recent publication used at the end of my teaching career – the Oxford Geography AQA GCSE textbook.
Silbury Hill is part of the sacred landscape of Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial sites centred on Avebury. It is the world’s largest prehistoric chalk-built mound, constructed between 2450 and 2350 BC. Although it is only 31 metres high, the whole of Stonehenge would fit on the flattened top with plenty of room to spare. A huge ditch surrounds the feature, and digging it provided the soil and chalk to build the mound. Although it is not possible to climb Silbury, it is easily accessible from a nearby car park and viewpoint. However, the best way to approach this unusual historic feature is a two mile stroll along a footpath from Avebury village.
Just a short walk from Silbury is another significant Neolithic site – the West Kennet Long Barrow. This is one of the largest and best preserved examples of a chambered tomb in South England. Believed to have been constructed around 3650 years BC, it is around 100 metres long and inside there are chambers that once housed the bones of 36 individuals. It is possible to enter the first part of the barrow and visit these chambers by passing through giant sandstone pillars that form the entrance. The barrow is constructed from local sarsen stone and limestone, and is topped with chalk dug from two side ditches that have since become silted up
Not far from Silbury Hill is the impressive henge and stone circles of Avebury. The circular earthwork of the henge is around a quarter of a mile in diameter, and consists of giant bank and ditch. The ditch was originally 2 or 3 times deeper than it is today – as deep as 30 feet – and would have been excavated using just deer antlers as tools. Chalk from the ditch was piled up to form the bank which is curiously on the outside of the ditch, rather than the more common position of being inside of the ditch. Perhaps the builders were trying to keep something inside rather than outside of the earthwork?
The henge has 4 entrances at each of the cardinal points of the compass – all in their original positions. Inside of the henge is the largest stone circle in Britain – originally consisting of 100 giant monoliths. In turn, there are two smaller stone circles located within the main one. The stone circles at Avebury were constructed and then altered in Neolithic and early Bronze Age times roughly between the years 2800 BC and 2000 BC. The standing stones of the circles survived largely intact until Medieval times when some were toppled and eventually buried. In the early 1700s, many were destroyed when they were felled into pits and heated by fire before being split by pouring on cold water. Few stones remained standing in the 1930s and at this time the owner of Avebury – Alexander Keiller (who later sold the site to the National Trust, and after whom the Avebury Museum was named) – excavated many of the fallen and buried stones and re-erected them in their original positions. Where stones have been destroyed, their places have been marked with modern concrete pillars.
To explore the stone circles, one should walk clockwise, following the movement of the sun – or ‘sunwise’ – as opposed to anti-clockwise (or ‘widdershins’), which is deemed to be unlucky.
Many of Avebury’s monuments make use of the local sarsen stone – an extremely hard form of sandstone. 40 million years ago, this area was a tropical wetland, and thick sand sediments accumulated in some of the lagoons. As the sand dried out and broke into slabs, it absorbed dissolved silica and became as hard as granite. Large drifts or ‘scatters’ of sarsen stones were once common in the Avebury area, but have since disappeared as they became used as a building material. However, about 3 miles away from the village, the ‘Valley of Stones’ still exists, with a drift of around 2000 sarsen stones.
The present settlement of Avebury stands in the middle of the giant henge, and this is the only place in the world where you will find a pub and a chapel inside a historic stone circle!
From the southern entrance to the Avebury henge runs a double row of standing stones known as the West Kennet Avenue. The stones visible today were restored in the 1930s and extend as a row for around half a mile – although it may originally have continued for several more miles beyond this. This feature is well worth exploring on a short walk from the village.
Stonehenge forms the central and best-known part of this extensive World Heritage Site. Indeed, it is probably the best-known prehistoric site in all of Europe. A modern visitor centre provides a number of additional attractions such as a cluster of recreated Neolithic houses to explore, a 360 degree audio-visual presentation, a museum and also the obligatory shop and café. On the day I visited, it was extremely busy – with between 8 and 10 thousand visitors enjoying the sights. It was interesting listening to the wide range of languages represented – this would have made for a great day of student questionnaire work!
The highlight is obviously the stone circle itself. It can be reached using a shuttle bus service from the visitor centre, but it is a much better experience to walk the 20 minutes or so along a footpath and watch the stones gradually come into view as you make your approach. Once you have reached your destination, a walk around the Stone Circle is the centrepiece of the visit to Stonehenge.
Stonehenge consists of a ring of standing stones, with each stone measuring around 13 feet (4.0 m) high, seven feet (2.1 m) wide and weighing around 25 tons. Stonehenge is a unique prehistoric monument, and there are many different ideas about who built it, when it was built, and why. Theories about its origin and purpose include a coronation place for Danish kings, a Druid temple, an astronomical computer for predicting eclipses and solar events, a place where ancestors were worshipped, or a cult centre for healing. Today, it is generally accepted that Stonehenge is a prehistoric temple aligned with the movements of the sun. Archaeologists believe it was constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC. The surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first bluestones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC, although they may have been at the site as early as 3000 BC.
Stonehenge is a masterpiece of engineering, and building it would have taken huge effort from hundreds of well-organised people using only simple tools and technologies. Despite this, the stones were dressed using sophisticated techniques, and were erected using precise interlocking joints – unseen at any other prehistoric monument. Stonehenge is actually the only surviving lintelled stone circle in the world, and the stones themselves were brought from very long distances – the bluestones from the Preseli Hills, over 150 miles away, and the sarsens probably from the Marlborough Downs, 19 miles to the north.
Stonehenge contains more than 350 burial mounds and major prehistoric monuments such as the Stonehenge Avenue, the Cursus, Woodhenge and Durrington Walls. The landscape here is a vast source of information about the ceremonial and funeral practices of Neolithic and Bronze Age people – the earliest stage of the monument is one of the largest cremations cemeteries known in Neolithic Britain.
A great visit – where will the camper van take me next?