7th January 1649 The Re-Discovery of Avebury

Avebury Stone Circle today: with its ditches excavated, unsightly cottages demolished, and unnecessary enclosures removed, it’s difficult to imagine the snarl of 17th-century domestic chaos that greeted John Aubrey’s visionary gaze that January morn.

Today, we must celebrate John Aubrey’s dramatic rediscovery of Avebury – the world’s largest prehistoric stone circle – whilst out hunting with fellow royalists during the English Civil War, exactly 373 years ago. For Aubrey’s heroic retrieval of this vast but (by then) long forgotten Stone Age temple confronted the then-accepted notion that only the coming of the Romans had forced a degree of culture upon the barbaric Ancient British, and also confounded the then-popular 17th-century belief – propounded by the highly influential Scandinavian antiquaries Olaus Magnus and Ole Worm – that all such megalithic culture had its archaic origins in Europe’s far north. Indeed, so rich were the cultural implications of John Aubrey’s re-discovery that – come the fall of Oliver Cromwell’s 11-year-long Commonwealth and the subsequent Restoration of the Monarchy – even the returned King Charles II would himself insist on taking one of Aubrey’s celebrated tours of the Avebury area. But how could the world’s largest stone circle have suffered such a total cultural extinction in the first place? Why, the Avebury standing stones themselves must average at least ten feet in height apiece, while the temple’s enormously bulky northern and southern entrance stones rivalled even nearby Stonehenge’s celebrated trilithons. And how could Avebury’s vast 400-metre-diameter earthen embankment and the equally deep ditch that encircled these huge monoliths have for several centuries become invisible even to local historians? Ironically perhaps, the initial blame for this pagan temple’s centuries in cultural oblivion goes not to scheming Christians but to the 5th century arrival from Germany of another group of pagans – the invading Saxons – who, recognising Avebury’s possible use as a defended settlement, broke with the traditions of the previous Roman and Romano-British occupiers by setting up their homes and farmsteads directly within the mighty earth banks of the temple itself. Blasphemers! Thereafter, many centuries of harsh day-to-day living within the Avebury henge conspired to obscure then finally obliterate all physical traces of this vast Earthen Temple. Saxon ploughing within the henge tumbled soil into the deep ditches, which silted up considerably and became repositories of household refuse. Residents fearful of disturbing the ‘Devil’s work’ incorporated the Avebury megaliths into the hedges of their allotments, gardens, fields, and even saved energy by employing those monoliths most vertically aligned as supporting walls for their stone cottages. And when villagers lost their fears of the stones, deep pits were dug into whose depths several of the most intrusive monoliths were unceremoniously tumbled. Thereafter, the magnificent geometric shape of this robust 4,500 year-old landscape temple became lost in the chaos of domesticity; until that fateful day, that is, when John Aubrey and his friend Dr. Walter Charleton joined their hunting party and galloped westwards across Fyfield Down along the chalky London-Bath ‘rode’. Aubrey himself recounts in his posthumously published two-volume tome Monumenta Britannica:

“The chase led us at length through the village of Avebury, into the closes there: where I was wonderfully surprised at the sight of those vast stones: of which I had never heard before… I observed in the enclosures some segments of rude circles, made with these stones; whence I concluded, they had been in the old time complete.”

It’s been my experience that no story about Avebury ever concludes without some vicious act of destruction by some pious know-it-all or other; this On This Deity entry is no different. For, despite King Charles II’s fascination with the Avebury stone circle, it was his return to the English throne that prompted the temple’s most vivid and desperate period of destruction. For in their determination to stamp out the Non-Conformism of Cromwell’s time, Charles II’s paranoid Restoration Government in 1665 passed the Five Mile Act (or Non-Conformist Act 1665), which specifically forbade all itinerant Non-Conformist preachers from speaking within five miles of their old parishes. Avebury stone circle is nine miles south of Swindon, eight miles north-east of Devizes, five miles west of Marlborough and six miles east of Calne. Non-conformist preachers throughout northern Wiltshire looked to the ancient pagan temple and regarded the Five Mile Act as a divine sign: let us make our new home here, and every pagan stone we break we’ll make righteous by incorporating it into our Non-Conformist church. And so to Avebury they did come and such destruction so they did: the church remains at the circle’s centre even to this day, self-effacing and easily overlooked but engorged nevertheless with as many splendid sarsen stones of that former 4,500 year-old monument as those Non-Conformist preachers could muster. Our hero John Aubrey would, for his pains, die unpublished and in penury. Today, however, his legend burns with an unquenchable fame due to that pioneering archaeological tome Monumenta Britannica, that gossipy biography of his many contemporaries Brief Lives, and – most of all – for that splendid vision of Avebury. To John Aubrey – Culture Hero and how!

[Written by Julian Cope]

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