Stonehenge has seen a recent resurgence in research, which has unequivocally enhanced our understanding of the site (see, for example, CA 311, 334, and 344), but the same cannot be said of nearby Avebury, which has not had a major programme of excavation since the 1930s. This is slowly changing, though. A team from the universities of Leicester and Southampton recently re-examined previous Avebury excavations and conducted new surveying of the site (in a study published in the journal Antiquity), establishing a possible new chronology of the monument’s construction and shedding new light on its use.
The structure of Avebury is complex. Its outer stone circle measures 420m in diameter and has the village of Avebury passing right through its middle. On either side of the bisecting high street sit two inner stone circles, approximately 100m in diameter, within each of which is a central setting of megaliths – to the north a square setting of standing stones called the Cove, and to the south a large standing stone referred to as the Obelisk. Surrounding each of these central settings are hints of further megalithic structures.
The team was particularly interested in an unusual series of pits, post-holes, and gullies next to the Obelisk. This was originally interpreted in the 1930s as a medieval structure that had been built up against the fallen Obelisk. But this structure might in fact be far older. It is associated with a very localised spread of early Neolithic worked flint and pottery that is consistent with a domestic site, and there is a conspicuous absence of medieval finds. Additionally, the plan of the structure is very similar to small early Neolithic houses found across Britain and Ireland.
Assessment of these features using resistivity and ground penetrating radar further revealed that the house sat at the centre of a square setting of megaliths 30m in width that echoed the layout and orientation of the earlier stucture, albeit at a monumental scale. The team think it possible that this house was one of the first structures at Avebury, followed by the erection of the Obelisk, the square setting, and finally the Southern Inner Circle.
Based on these results, the researchers believe that Avebury may have originated as a way of commemorating a domestic building, and continued to be used for centuries as more and larger features were added. If this is indeed the case, it is possible a second house might be found in the centre of the Northern Inner Circle as well.