Avebury Henge, Largest Megalithic Stone Circle in the World

Avebury Henge, a Neolithic henge monument, surrounds the village of Avebury in Wiltshire, southwest England. It boasts the world’s largest megalithic stone circle.

It attracts tourists and holds religious significance for contemporary pagans.

Builders erected the monument in the third millennium BC during the Neolithic era. The structure includes a large henge, a massive outer stone circle, and two smaller inner circles.

Its original purpose remains a mystery, but archaeologists suggest it was for rituals or ceremonies. Avebury forms part of a larger prehistoric landscape. This landscape features the West Kennet Long Barrow, Windmill Hill, and Silbury Hill.


Avebury Henge a World Heritage Site

By the Iron Age, people had abandoned the site. However, there was some Roman period activity. A village started to develop around the monument in the Early Middle Ages.

It eventually spread into the structure. In later years, locals removed many stones for religious and practical reasons.

Largest Stone Circle: Avebury contains the largest stone circle in Europe.
Largest Stone Circle: Avebury Henge contains the largest stone circle in Europe.

In the 17th century, antiquarians John Aubrey and William Stukeley documented the site. Their work preserved details before much destruction occurred.

The 20th century saw renewed archaeological interest. Alexander Keiller led a project that restored large parts of the monument.

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The National Trust now owns and manages Avebury. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a World Heritage Site. In this role, it’s part of the Stonehenge, Avebury, and Associated Sites prehistoric landscape in Wiltshire.

Avebury sits about 6 and 7 miles from Marlborough and Calne, at grid reference SU10266996. This World Heritage Site encompasses roughly 8.7 square miles. Located in the chalky Upper Kennet Valley, Avebury contributes to the River Kennet’s catchment. It is owned and managed by the National Trust.

Radiocarbon Dating

It supports local springs and seasonal watercourses. The monument, perched on a chalk ridge, stands at 160 m above sea level. To the east lie the Marlborough Downs, an area of lowland hills.

Avebury lies at the heart of a cluster of Neolithic and early Bronze Age monuments. In 1986, it joined the Stonehenge monuments, 17 miles south, as a World Heritage Site.

Avebury has been a significant site for archaeological discoveries related to Neolithic Britain.
Avebury Henge has been a significant site for archaeological discoveries related to Neolithic Britain.

It’s now part of the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites World Heritage Site. These monuments offer insights into prehistoric peoples’ interaction with the landscape.

LiDAR topography reveals a massive bank and ditch surrounding the stones. Radiocarbon dating, along with pollen and insect analysis in buried soils, indicates environmental changes in lowland Britain around 4250–4000 BC.

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During the Neolithic period, clayey brown earths dominated the landscape. These soils became chalkier due to woodland clearance and human activities.

The history of the site before the henge’s construction remains unclear. Modern archaeological digs have provided little datable evidence. Before the 4th millennium BC, activity in the region was scarce, hinting at minimal human occupation.

Mesolithic Period

The Mesolithic period in Britain, from around 11,600 to 7,800 BP, was a time of dense forests. During this era, Britain connected to Europe through Doggerland. Inhabitants were hunter-gatherers, moving in small groups for food and resources.

Avebury site using LIDAR imagery with gradient shading.
Avebury site using LiDAR imagery with gradient shading.

Evidence shows these groups were active around Avebury in the Late Mesolithic. Archaeologists found flint tools dated between 7000 and 4000 BC. A significant find was a collection of flints 300 m west of Avebury, suggesting a temporary flint-working site.

Archaeologists Mark Gillings and Joshua Pollard proposed that Avebury might have gained ceremonial importance in the Late Mesolithic.

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They pointed to a posthole near the southern entrance, once supporting a large wooden post. Although undated and excavated in the early 20th century, its position seems unrelated to the henge.

This suggests it could predate the henge by centuries. Gillings and Pollard compared it to similar posts in southern Britain’s Mesolithic sites, like Stonehenge and Hambledon Hill. These sites, like Avebury, later saw large Neolithic monuments’ construction.

Early Neolithic

Around the start of the Neolithic period in the 4th millennium BC, British society experienced drastic changes. These changes coincided with the arrival of domesticated animals and plants, and new materials like pottery.

Consequently, hunter-gatherers began to settle and produce their own food. As agriculture expanded, people cleared land and built the first monuments, marking a shift in their worldview.

“the Avenue carefully orchestrated passage through the landscape which influenced how people could move and what they could see, emphasizing connections between places and maximizing the spectacle of moving between these monuments.”

Anthropologists Gillings and Pollard note that forests, clearings, and stones held symbolic importance in Neolithic culture. Avebury, combining these elements, was a significant site.

Evidence of Neolithic activity at Avebury includes flint, animal bones, and early 4th and 3rd millennium BC Peterborough ware pottery.

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Researchers have identified five areas of Neolithic activity within 500 m of Avebury. One notable area is the West Kennet Avenue, linking Avebury to The Sanctuary. According to Pollard, these activity areas became important landscape markers.

The Late Neolithic

During the Late Neolithic, British society experienced more significant changes. Between 3500 and 3300 BC, these early Britons stopped expanding into new lands.

Instead, they focused on settling and farming in fertile areas like Orkney, eastern Scotland, Anglesey, the upper Thames, Wessex, Essex, Yorkshire, and the river valleys of the Wash.

Avenue of Stones: The site includes the West Kennet Avenue, a ceremonial avenue of paired stones.

Their religious beliefs also evolved. They stopped building large chambered tombs, which many archaeologists link to ancestor worship. Instead, they started constructing large wooden or stone circles. Over a thousand years, they built many hundreds across Britain and Ireland.

Its Construction

The construction timeline of Avebury remains unclear. It evolved from various projects across late prehistory, not as a single design.

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Aubrey Burl proposes dating: 3000 BC for the central cove, 2900 BC for the inner stone circle, 2600 BC for the outer circle and henge, and around 2400 BC for the avenues.

The creation of large monuments like Avebury shows a stable agrarian economy in Britain by 4000–3500 BC. The builders had to be secure enough to invest time in these grand projects.

The design of the bank and ditch (with the ditch built on the inside) has led to speculation that the bank might have served as a viewing platform, allowing multitudes of people to observe events inside the henge, without allowing them entry.
Photograph of St. George Gray’s excavation near the south entrance remains one of the most spectacular and revealing images ever made at Avebury.

Avebury was part of a cluster of monumental sites in this region during the Neolithic. Its monuments include the henge, long barrows, stone circles, avenues, and a causewayed enclosure. These monument types also appear elsewhere, like at Stonehenge and in Dorset.

Caroline Malone, an expert with English Heritage and curator of Avebury’s Alexander Keiller Museum, believes these monuments might have been ritual centers.

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Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson observes that adding stones to the henge coincided with Silbury Hill’s construction and major works at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls. He speculates this could indicate a “religious revival,” prompting massive investment in ceremonial monuments.

Aaron Watson, another archaeologist, suggests that constructing the Avebury monument with large banks of earth symbolised turning the land “inside out.” This act might have been seen as creating a space on the frontier between the worlds above and beneath the ground.

The Avebury Henge Itself

The Avebury monument is a henge, featuring a large circular bank and an internal ditch. This henge isn’t perfectly circular, measuring 347.4 meters (380 yards) across and over 1,000 meters (1,090 yards) around.

Radiocarbon dating indicates its creation around the middle of the third millennium BC.

The bank’s top is irregular. Archaeologist Caroline Malone attributes this to the uneven work by excavators in adjacent ditch sectors. However, later archaeologists like Aaron Watson, Mark Gillings, and Joshua Pollard suggest this irregularity was an original Neolithic feature of the henge’s design.

From an excavation carried out at the Avebury stone circle and henge by Harold St George Gray in 1922 (
From an excavation carried out at the Avebury stone circle and henge by Harold St George Gray in 1922

Within the henge lies a great outer circle, one of Europe’s largest at 331.6 meters (1,088 feet) in diameter. It’s also Britain’s largest. This circle was either contemporary with the earthworks or built four to five centuries later. Experts believe it originally had 98 sarsen standing stones, some over 40 tons.

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These stones ranged from 3.6 meters (12 feet) to 4.2 meters (14 feet) high, as seen at the north and south entrances. Radiocarbon dating of some stone settings suggests they were built around 2870–2200 BC.

The Southern Entrance features two large stones with unusually smooth surfaces. This smoothness likely comes from being polished with stone axes.

Inner Stone Circles of Avebury Henge

Closer to the monument’s center, there are two additional, separate stone circles. The northern inner ring measures 98 meters (322 feet) across. Only two of its four standing stones remain upright. A cove of three stones, facing northeast, once stood in the middle.

Based on experiments at Orkney’s Ring of Brodgar, archaeologists Joshua Pollard, Mark Gillings, and Aaron Watson believe sounds inside Avebury’s Inner Circles would echo off the stones.

Part of the South Inner Circle of Avebury in Wiltshire, England.
Part of the South Inner Circle of Avebury in Wiltshire, England.

The southern inner ring, once 108 meters (354 feet) in diameter, was destroyed in the 18th century. Its remaining sections now lie under village buildings.

A single large monolith, 5.5 meters (18 feet) high, once stood at the center, accompanied by a line of smaller stones.

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In 2017, a geophysical survey by teams from Leicester and Southampton Universities uncovered a unique square megalithic monument within Avebury’s circles, potentially one of the site’s earliest structures.

The Avenue

The West Kennet Avenue, consisting of paired stones, extends from the henge’s southeastern entrance. A second avenue, the Beckhampton Avenue, starts from the western entrance.

Archaeologist Aaron Watson, adopting a phenomenological approach, believes the Avenue’s placement relative to Avebury, the Sanctuary, Silbury Hill, and West Kennet Long Barrow was deliberate.

He notes, “The Avenue orchestrates passage through the landscape, influencing movement and views. It emphasises connections between sites and maximises the spectacle of traveling among these monuments.”

But Why Was Avebury Henge Built?

The purpose of the Avebury monument, as speculated by many archaeologists, remains a mystery. Some believe the henge served as a gathering place for local festivals and ceremonies.

People might have watched rituals from the earthen banks. The lack of pottery and animal bones suggests restricted access to the henge, hinting at its sacred nature.

Beckhampton Avenue
The stone in the foreground forms part of the stone row and the one beyond part of a setting. The double row once extended from here to the henge at Avebury. Image Credit: Sandy Gerrard

Many stones at Avebury had prior uses, like polishing stone axes or being heavily worked. Archaeologist Aubrey Burl theorised that Neolithic rituals at Avebury aimed to appease nature’s threats, such as winter, death, and disease.

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Colin Richards, studying Orkney’s circles, proposed they symbolised the world’s center. Aaron Watson considered this theory for Avebury too. The stones’ morphology, either tall and slender or short and squat, sparked theories about gender roles in Neolithic Britain. The stones’ natural shapes were left unaltered.

Human bones found by Gray suggest a funerary role, possibly linked to ancestor worship. This theory doesn’t exclude potential gender-related rituals.

Despite its boundary-like appearance, the henge’s inner ditch suggests a non-defensive purpose. Astronomical alignments are a popular theory for the stones’ placement.

The complex, including the stone circles and West Kennet Long Barrow, is often called a “ritual complex” due to its interconnected religious functions. The Windmill Hill enclosure’s scale and archaeological finds, like abundant animal bones, indicate it was a major regional hub for gatherings and feasts.