Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine 1866 V10 Pages 209-216

Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine 1866 V10 Pages 209-216 is in Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine 1866 V10.

Excavations at Avebury [Map]. Under the Direction of the Secretaries of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, September 29th,— October 5th, 1865.

Note. [In preparing the following account, I have had the advantage of comparing the notes which Mr. King and Mr. Cunnington also took of our daily work as it proceeded, and from the three several accounts I have compiled this paper. Alfred Charles Smith]

On September 29th of last year, Mr. Cunnington and I, on behalf of our Society, began some considerable researches within the area of the temple at Avebury, sinking holes in many places, running trenches across certain spots, and tunnelling the large external mound, and tapping it at several points, with the view of thoroughly examining its structure and materials; and in every case digging down to the chalk or clay which forms the natural substratum of the district.

In these explorations we were materially assisted by the respected Vicar of the parish, the Rev. Bryan King (age 53), who very kindly directed and superintended the workmen, whenever neither of us was able to be on the spot, and otherwise furthered our operations. We were also most kindly and zealously aided by those true friends of archaeology, Mr. George Brown and Mr. Kemm, who not only sanctioned our somewhat unceremonious disturbance of their land, but abetted us to the utmost of their power, by providing the labourers and all the materiel required for carrying out the work.

To these gentlemen as well as to Mr. Robert Smith, who suffered us to dig an extensive trench across one of his fields, we beg at the outset to tender our hearty thanks, as without their permission and assistance, we could of course have done nothing.

The main object of our excavations was not so much the expectation of making any new discoveries, or of bringing to light any hidden archseological treasures, as the desire to thoroughly ascertain the sites of certain of the great sarsen stones which had been removed in former days, and whose position was as yet more or less defined by depressions in the ground where they once stood: and more particularly to set at rest the question of late years rashly (as we think) ventured on by certain writers, and advocated by Mr. Fergusson in a recent number of the Quarterly Review,1 that the area of Avebury was a vast burial ground, and that human bones would be found in abundance by any one who would take the trouble by digging, to examine the ground below the surface.

Note 1. No. 215, July, 1860, p. 209.

Excavations at the Northern Circle.

We began our operations at the north of the area in the meadow just beyond the "Cove" of the northern circle, and dug a trench on either side of the great stone marked "e" in Mr. Long's map, (see Wiltshire Magazine, vol. iv., p. 18) but there were not any traces of any burial deposit whatever. In the mould just under the turf were two or three fragments of British pottery, bones of sheep, and a small piece of burnt micaceous sandstone — not sarsen.

Our next point, and one of considerable interest, was at the Cove [Map], within the circle: here we sunk four large holes, within the rickyard: Mr. Brown in the most obliging manner having a small straw rick removed which stood in our way. The first hole was sunk at the foot of the large massive western stone of the Cove (marked "a" in the map), on its eastern side. Here we discovered a layer of blocks of sarsen stones, varying in size from a few inches square, to fourteen or eighteen inches in length, by eight or nine inches in diameter. These were evidently placed there, and rammed in for the purpose of propping the massive stone in its upright position. On digging on the other (the west) side of the same stone, we found a continuation of the same layer of sarsen blocks. The next hole was dug close to the tall upright stone ("b" in the map); this disclosed the same sarsen foundations as in the other instance. The fact that these stones were thus supported, has not, as far as I am aware, been hitherto observed.

In digging near the large stone, we noticed at a spot about a foot below the surface, a quantity of black charred matter. This discovery induced us to extend our operations by digging a large trench from this spot in an east north east direction, ten feet from the great western stone: and throughout this distance we found numerous large flakes and chips of sarsen, covered with black charred matter and burnt straw, or other material; but beyond this it ceased, and the ground appeared undisturbed as in other parts. But again we came upon more burnt matter and more charred stones in a hole we dug farther on in the same direction, viz., E.N.E., from the great western stone. Here there apparently stood the third stone of the Cove, exactly equidistant from the inside centre of the remaining two; and the fire of destruction having been lit (as was customary) beneath it, it fell towards the western stone, where again other fires were lit for breaking up the upper portion, and hence the chippings or flakes and burnt matter in that immediate spot. At first I was inclined to attribute these flakes to the remains of an " Altar stone," which might have once stood in the centre of the three stones of "the Cove," and since have been destroyed, but this theory is not supported by any tangible facts. We now sunk another hole due east of the large western stone of the Cove, on the supposition that the tall stone standing due south, might have been flanked by large stones east and west, but we came upon no trace of any stone having ever stood in that position. A good deal of British pottery, and many animal bones; sheep, horse, ox, and dog, were found in ail of these holes, more especially in the latter, but no human bones whatever. I should add, that above the natural soil within the Cove, now a rick-yard, an accumulation of chalk rubble covers the surface of the ground to the depth of above a foot.

We now left the Cove, and to the S.E., and outside the rickyard, opened out a recumbent sarsen, which showed its head above the soil, but which Mr. King rightly conjectured to possess a huge body buried beneath. It proved to be of considerable size, about eight feet in length, as near as we were able to judge by digging. This we believe to have been one of the stones of the inner circle surrounding the Cove? From hence returning into the meadow hard by, we directed the workmen to dig a hole in a cavity where an upright stone of the northern circle stood, N.N.E. of the Cove. Here too we found a quantity of burnt and blackened chipped sarsens, as also many fragments of old-fashioned flat glass bottles, one nearly entire, of about the date 1700. This latter discovery was by no means remarkable, as an inn formerly occupied the spot where the farm house now stands in the yard adjoining, and jovial spirits may have demolished empty bottles a century and a half ago, as they sometimes do now: or Tom Robinson, so well denounced by Stukely as the Herostratus of his day, and whose name is not endeared to the Wiltshire archseologist, may have been a thirsty soul.

In the same meadow, and at the S.E. portion of it there stands a low embankment, raised some two or three feet above the general level. The object of this embankment is wholly unknown, and with a view to its investigation, we cut right through it from west to east, but we found nothing, with the exception of a portion of stags horn and some fragments of pottery. In the same meadow, due east and a little to the north of this embankment and near the old Down road, we sunk a hole, but without finding anything.

Excavations at the Southern Circle.

We now crossed over to the south circle, and found the exact centre, by careful measurement from the still standing stones of the outer circle: since (together with perfectly distinct traces of cavities where others stood) enough of these stones remained to enable us to obtain an accurate segment of the circle. Here then, at a distance of 163 feet from the outside stones of the circle, we sunk a large square hole; and our measurements had not deceived us: for in the exact centre, we found large quantities of burnt sarsens, including chips, flakes, and much charred matter, proof positive that this was the site of the -large central stone, and the scene of its destruction. And now starting from this centre we cut a long trench very nearly due west, in a straight line towards the westernmost of the great stones still standing in the outer circle. This was a work of considerable time, for the trench was extended to a distance of sixty feet from the centre, as we thought thus to ascertain the possible existence of any inner circle, but nothing was found. Subsequently we cut other short trenches from the centre: one towards the north, another towards the south, and a third towards the east; in all of which large quantities of burnt sarsens, flakes, chips, and burnt matter were exhumed, and all doubtless belonging to the ponderous mass which once occupied the centre of this southern sanctuary.

Excavations in the surrounding Agger.

Hitherto we had confined our attention almost exclusively to the two inner circles, which were probably the great centres of attraction and of devotion, when this famous temple was in use: but now we resolved to examine carefully the great mound which encloses the sacred area. With this end in view we first dug several minor trenches, tapping it in various places, and always running our trench down to the original undisturbed soil. Thus E.N.E. and within the mound, or on its western face, we made a deep trench, but found nothing. Then on the south-western end of the mound, where a considerable gap had been cut, the material having been removed, and the ground levelled for the convenience of the modern village, we selected the centre of the section as the point from which to run our trench, and then dug a large and deep cutting into the very middle and down to the undisturbed chalk; but the only reward of our labours was one fragment of pottery. Farther to the east, and on the outside or southern face of the mound, we dug a small perpendicular hole down to the original soil, but again found nothing. These were comparatively trifling probings of the great mound, only slight and random tappings in its mighty sides: but now we prepared for a thorough examination of its materials, and to this end having already sufficiently examined the southern end, we selected the W.N.W. side of the gap, behind Mr. Keram's rick-yard, in a field called "Barclose," where the mound is thickly planted with trees, and near the locality where quantities of animal bones had once been found.1 Here we made a considerable opening, cutting our trench or tunnel many yards into the centre, and at such an incline downwards that we reached at length the original level of the ground, which proved to be a stiff clay soil of a deep red colour.2 (We subsequently examined the soil of the meadow adjoining, and at about two feet below the turf found it to be of a similar clay, though in that spot scarcely so stiff.) This excavation occupied our labourers the greater part of two days, but it proved wholly unremunerative, as we disinterred nothing but the chalky rubble of which the whole of the mound was made; not a bone, not a fragment of pottery, nor even of sarsen.

Note 1. Stukeley's Abury, p. 27.

Note 2. This clay is probably "loess," or a local drift.


Our workmen had now been carrying on the excavations for a week, and we had examined all the spots of special interest, so that it was time to bring our labours to a close: but it was with no little reluctance we gave directions to desist, and fill in all the holes and trenches we had made. For although we had found no hidden treasures, and made no fresh discoveries, the result of our work was on the whole highly satisfactory to us: for we considered we had fairly settled the question mooted by Mr. Fergusson, but which neither of us ever entertained for one moment, that Avebury was a vast grave-yard, and that human bones would be disinterred, if search were made.

"We had made excavations in fourteen different spots within the area, some of them of no trifling dimensions, but not one single human bone had we found: quantities of bones of the sheep, the horse, the ox, we had disinterred, many of which, not far from the surface, were of comparatively recent date: glass and pottery too, near the surface, told their tale of modern times; but the fragments of pottery which we brought to light from our deeper cuttings were invariably of the British type. Thus we flatter ourselves that our exertions have not been thrown away: we trust we have once for all disposed of the novel theory as to the great charnel house of the ancient Britons; while on the other hand we have unmistakeably proved the sites of several of the most important stones long since broken up, and carried away: and we have probed the great surrounding embankment to its very core, laying bare the original surface, and closely examining all the materials of which it is composed.

We also found three stones not mentioned by recent writers. Ten yards to the east of the standing stone, nearest on the left hand side of the south entrance to Avebury, is a stone, which is not laid down in Hoare's map. The dry summer of 1864, and the heat of some part of 1865, had killed the turf over the stone, and it now shows above the surface. Twenty yards in a north westerly direction from the next standing stone, ("m" in the map) another stone may be found under the turf, and ten yards again from this is yet another.

It is most probable that others may in a similar manner, lie concealed beneath the turf in other parts of the temple. They should be sought for, and laid doivn on the map.

It is a somewhat curious coincidence that scarcely had our explorations at Avebury been brought to a close, and before it had been possible to prepare any record of them, a brisk correspondence took place in the pages of the Athenaeum (though it did not meet my eye at the time), between Mr. Fergusson and Sir John Lubbock, Professor Tyndal and others, on the object of Avebury and on the Roman road and its connection with Silbury, wherein Mr. Fergusson in his first letter dated December 23rd, 1865, repeats his opinion "that Avebury was a burial place, and that Silbury Hill was situated on the Roman road, and was therefore post Roman;" and he continues, "one great object I have in view is to attract the attention of local antiquaries to the subject, as it is mainly on them that the proof or disproof of these views must rest. Above all, it is in the hope that some diggings may, before long, be undertaken at Avebury. If I am not very much mistaken, two of Arthur's generals of division lie buried, one in each of the stone circles inside the inclosure: and that the £ menu peuple ' who fell in the fray are laid beneath the so-called 'vallum,' which however is nothing but a long barrow of circular shape. There I feel convinced their remains, it may be only their ashes, will be found, whenever they are looked for."

Again in a subsequent letter, (Athenaeum, January 27th, 1866) Mr. Fergusson writes, " I hope the Members of the Wilts Archaeological Society and other local antiquaries will perceive that a distinct issue has been raised, which may either wholly, or at least in part be settled by diggings at Avebury, by a survey of the ground round Silbury Hill, &c.; " and he adds, " In conclusion allow me to express a hope that these several explorations may be undertaken before next winter comes on, and thus this much mooted question be finally set at rest: what the result must be I have the most perfect confidence."

In reply to this challenge, I need only add that what Mr. Fergusson here calls upon our Society to do, in digging at Avebury, it had, even when he wrote, though of course unknown to him, just accomplished, as detailed above: and the result was the exact opposite to that which he anticipated; while with regard to the theory that Silbury is post Roman, as situated on the Roman road, I will occupy no further space than by referring to my arguments on that subject, stated somewhat fully in my paper on Silbury in the 7th Volume of the Magazine pp. 145 — 191: as well as to the corroborative testimony and additional reasons adduced by Sir John Lubbock (Athenaeum Jan. 6th, 1866, et seq.) and Professor Tyndall. (Athenaeum, Feb. 17th. 1866.)

Alfred Charles Smith. Yatesbury Rectory, Calne, June, 1866.

Wessex from the Air Plate 36. Literary References

John Aubrey, Mon. Brit. (Bodleian Library, Oxford); plan of Avebury made 1663; reproduced in facsimile in W.A.M., vol. vii.

Willaim Stukeley, Abury, a temple of the British Druids, 1743.

William Long, ‘Abury Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine, vol. iv (January 1858), pp. 309-63. (This is by far thebest existing account of Avebury.)

Facsimiles of Aubrey’s plans of Avebury, and corrigenda of preceding paper; W.A.M. vii (December 1861) ,pp, 224—6.

The Rev, A, C. Smith, 'Excavations at Avebury W,A.M, x (January 1867), pp. 209-16. (An account of excavations made there by Mr. Smith, associated with Messrs. W. G. Lukis, W. Cunnington, and King, 29th September to 5th October 1865. Excavations were made in the Northern Inner Circle, near and also within the Cove itself, in the mound or embankment to the south-east, in the Southern Circle, and through the Great Outer Bank.)

William Long, 'Abury Notes’, W.A.M. xvii (March 1878), pp. 327-35. (Valuable notes on lost, buried, or destroyed stones in the circles and avenues, especially the Kennet Avenue.)

The Rev. Bryan King, Vicar of Avebury, ‘Avebury— The Beckhampton Avenue’, W.A.M. xviii (November 1879), pp.  377-83. (A vigorous defence of the Beckhampton Avenue, supported by evidence.)

Mrs. M. E. Cunnington, ‘The Re-erection of two fallen stones, and discovery of an interment with drinking-cup (beaker) at Avebury’, W.A.M. xxxviii (June 1913), pp. 1-11.

‘A buried stone in the Kennet Avenue’, W.A.M. xxxviii (June 1913), pp. 12—14.

H. St. George Gray, Reports on Excavations at Avebury; published in the Reports of the British Association for the years 1908 (401-11), 1909 (271-84), 1911 (141-52), 1915 (174-89), 1922 (326-33).