Squaring the Circle? New discoveries by the Living with Monuments project.
In its first year, the AHRC-funded Living with Monuments project has made a critical discovery that may explain the origins of the world-famous Neolithic henge monument at Avebury, writes University of Leicester project lead Dr Mark Gillings.
Research undertaken during April 2017 revealed unsuspected traces of a 30m-wide square megalithic setting in the heart of the monument that originally surrounded a massive standing stone known as the Obelisk and the site of a much earlier house.
The work highlights significant connections that existed in prehistory between settlement and monumentality, and of the processes that led to places becoming sacred and monumentalised.
The Living with Monuments project aims to redress a critical imbalance in our knowledge of life and cultural landscapes during a key period of British prehistory - the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (c.4,000-1,500 BC). The archaeology of this period and, critically, our accounts of it are dominated by the legacy of ceremonial and funerary monuments, which form the most tangible part of the archaeological record.
By contrast, our knowledge of everyday settlement and other non-monument focussed activity lags behind. Living with Monuments seeks to redress this imbalance through a programme of targeted fieldwork and a reassessment of existing data within one landscape that is famed for its monumental architecture: the Avebury region in Wiltshire.
The aim is to develop a detailed understanding of the extent, scale, density, character and tempo of human settlement in the core area of the Avebury landscape during the Neolithic and early Bronze Age, and to determine the relationships that existed between landscape occupation and monument building.
This is both in terms of how monument building impacted on the scale and composition of settlement (e.g. drawing people and resources into the region), and the way that settlement imparted a history to places that could lead to subsequent monumental marking. It is this second connection that structured the work at the Avebury henge.
Avebury is a massive monument, largely created during the 3rd millennium BC. Its perimeter is a 420m diameter earthwork. Inside this is the world’s largest stone circle, a ring of around 100 standing stones, which encloses two smaller, yet still colossal, inner circles constructed around huge megalithic structures. These are known as the Cove (a three-sided ‘box’ of large stones) and Obelisk and they are set in the northern and southern inner circles respectively. The Obelisk was recorded in the 18th century as the largest stone at Avebury, but it was later destroyed.
Wrapped by the earthwork and circles, the structures inside the inner circles likely represent the most sacred components of the monument. They might also be the earliest features. Excavations in the 1930s showed the Obelisk was flanked on its west side by a curious linear arrangement of smaller standing stones called the ‘Z-feature’. This work was halted in 1939 and since then there haven’t been any further large-scale excavations. Until now, it has made little sense.
Careful re-evaluation of records from the 1930s fieldwork revealed a concentration of early and middle Neolithic (4th millennium BC) pottery and worked flint – a typical signature of settlement – concentrated in the area immediately around the former Obelisk. What was especially significant was the realisation that a square setting of foundation trenches and postholes, which had been interpreted by the original excavator as a medieval shed constructed against the fallen Obelisk, are in fact traces of an early Neolithic house.
Such buildings are rare in themselves in mainland Britain, but our excitement was further piqued when it was observed that the building lay in the very centre of the southern inner circle, with the linear arrangement of Z-feature stones running parallel to it.
Was the architecture of the Z-feature mimicking that of the earlier house; marking, memorialising and monumentalising its former presence?
To explore this the project has carried out a Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) programme and a soil resistance survey adjacent to the area excavated in 1939 (Figures 1 and 2). The results have confirmed that the Z-feature alignment was one side of a 30m-wide square setting of standing stones surrounding the Obelisk and house.
It is clear that some of these stones are still largely in situ, having been carefully buried. Others have been broken up and destroyed, their positions evident from scatters of smaller packing stones originally used to hold them in place.
And there is more: radiating out from an unusually small standing stone discovered in 1939 south of the Obelisk, are two lines of substantial megaliths extending out beyond the investigated area like the spokes of a wheel. One of these lines cuts through the centre of another circular feature 23.5m in diameter nestled between the southern inner circle and square setting (Figure 3).
Despite more than 350 years of study, Avebury can still surprise and there is a certain irony not lost on the project team that attempts to understand aspects of routine life in the Neolithic have drawn us back to its monuments.
The surveys have revealed unimagined complexity: a dense pattern of circles, squares and alignments that in turn suggest more than one phase of monumental activity. What is most critical for the aims of the project is that this burst of activity seems to have radiated out from the location of a much earlier dwelling.
Why did the location of the house take on such significance that later generations wished to mark its former presence in such an enduring way? Was this perhaps identified as a founding residence, was it associated in real or fictive terms with an individual ancestor or lineage that rose to prominence? Only further work will help elucidate.
Avebury is a core component of the Stonehenge, Avebury and associated Sites World Heritage Site. The fieldwork was undertaken by researchers from the Universities of Leicester and Southampton in collaboration with the National Trust. Thanks are extended to Dom Barker, Kris Strutt and Jeremy Taylor for assisting with the survey.