A surprising and charming Avebury discovery

Avebury Underhill.jpg

Long ago when I was curator of the museum in Avebury, I came across a pencil sketch in the museum in Devizes that showed a section through the great henge bank around Avebury’s stone circle. It’s an extraordinary document of an excavation in 1894, that was never published at the time. Something quite unexpected has come to light that seems to show us a little more of this important, but mysterious dig.

We have two records, the first being an account of a tour by the Wiltshire Archaeological Society to Avebury in 1903, nearly a decade later. Lord Avebury had promised to be there but was too busy in parliament, so they had to settle for the Reverend Goddard. He told the party that some years before, Mr Trepplin had dug a section through the bank and the ditch for Sir Henry Meux, then owner of Avebury Manor. He refers to deer horns, British pottery and worked bone, and that’s about it. Harold St George Gray quoted this in 1935 when he was describing his own excavations, but he has much more detail, including measurements. Critically Gray describes “what appeared to be the grass surface line of an inner rampart, defined by a curved band of vegetable mould.” Where did he get this? He had the “rough diary” of Mr Thomas Leslie, who, he says, actually supervised the work.

hengeworld.jpg

I was looking for this diary (without success) when I found the sketch in Devizes. I redrew it in ink for Hengeworld, where I emphasised the significance of the buried turf line: it is top right, above, with Gray’s schematic ditch section on the left and the two combined as a single section at bottom right. It seems to show a clear, lengthy break in time between a lower bank and the present one, which hides a smaller version within. A reasonable assumption would be that the extended bank was achieved by digging an existing ditch deeper, meaning the radiocarbon dates that we have for antler picks from the ditch probably date the extension, not the original earthwork. Which means for now we can only guess when the original was built.

There would be enormous gains from re-excavating Leslie’s trench, a relatively simple task (involving a lot of shoring!).

Anyway, Gray could see where the trench had been, and mapped its location. You can still see it today, a slight but distinct depression in the bank occasionally picked out by varied plant growth. Recently I saw an online archive of photos and hand-painted glass slides at the ADS, created originally by HMJ Underhill and depicting the “Megalithic Monuments of Great Britain,” dating to 1897–1905. To my great surprise, among them are two images that almost certainly show Leslie’s bank trench, as a white stripe in the distance.. They were, according to the archive records, made in 1895 (the photo) and November 15–18, 1895 (the painting): the year after the excavation. I’ve put a white disc above each image where the trench crests the top of the bank.

Who knows what else might turn up?

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4 thoughts on “A surprising and charming Avebury discovery

    1. Rough diaries and their ilk are such treasures, and it seems there are always some out there (in some respects, Hengeworld was about an amazing archive hunt). Could it be in the Gray archive the National Trust now has in Avebury museum? Gray curated his own stuff well enough, you’d think he would have looked after that diary. I can’t remember if we know how Devizes got the sketch section?

  1. I would think that the re-build to increase the height of the bank (NOT to deepen the ditch; that’s just incidental) ought to coincide with a change in the climate and biome conditions in that area.

    The reason I say this is because of the observation of the general distribution of henges and stone circles in the landscapes of Britain. These are roughly contemporaneous monuments, thus likely both stem from the same religion doing the same thing. That same thing was observation of things astronomical; in those times, astronomers, scientists and priests were the same people.

    If you’re up a hill in grassland, you can stick up a stone circle and record observations pretty easily. If you’re in the lowland, then stuff like hazel scrub tends to interfere with the rising and setting sightings of various bodies; a henge is a reaction to this and the bank gives you a sharp artificial horizon to observe against.

    So, the extra-height bank at Avebury likely was a restoration to full function of a bank that had ceased to fulfil its proper function, due to scrub out beyond the environs of the henge.

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