Located in the rural heart of Wiltshire is one of the oldest and most mysterious ancient monuments in Britain. Older than Stonehenge , the Avebury Neolithic Stone circle is also the largest in the world and is also one of the most accessible. The central feature consists of a large henge enclosed by a bank and a ditch. A huge outer stone circle surrounds at least three separate smaller stone circles – two of which partially survive today. Two significant megalithic routes lead to the henge. One, the West Kennet Avenue is still partially intact (above). The site has been the subject of study since the 17th century but still remains an enigma. Here are ten of the most interesting Avebury mysteries:
1. MYSTERY OF THE STRANGE HOLES
Visitors to Avebury quickly notice that many of the stones have unusual holes that seem to disappear deep into the interior of the megaliths. Some of these holes have been measured at over a metre in length and there have been mentions of chalk or pebbles lodged far inside. Views differ as to how these holes were created and what they were for. Some believe that they are channels where natural energy from the rocks has found its way to the surface and over millennia the energy has changed the composition of the rock which has weathered faster leaving these micro-shafts. Some reports claim that dowsing rods tend to focus on the openings.
A more down-to-earth explanation is that when the rocks were formed there were tree roots in the sedimentary material. These roots lasted long enough to leave cavities while the rock was being formed. While this theory sounds both scientific and plausible it has its own problems. The common assumption is that Sarsen Stone was originally formed in valleys and the root structure was probably from prehistoric palm trees – except that the root structure doesn’t match. Mangrove roots do match but are coastal trees found in shallow salt water. Other sources claim that the holes were made by burrowing insects – possibly even giant worms. Until science provides definitive and conclusive proof the origin of these unusual holes will remain a mystery.
2. AVEBURY LICHENS & CELTIC ART
The megaliths at Avebury are well known for their complex patterns made from generations of rare lichens. A recent survey identified up to 32 species on a single Sarsen stone. Given that some of these lichens are specialised for habitation on the rare cases of exposed hard rock, It might even be possible that these colonies of tiny plants may be descended from the original organisms that grew on the megaliths when they were first erected by their Neolithic builders several thousand years ago.
It is interesting to note how many of these lichens resemble the patterns seen in various styles of Celtic art. The striking similarity of the circular patterns with interlinking whorls and spirals is clearly obvious. Naturally this has raised the question as to whether the lichen patterns that would have formed on the stones may have been seen as symbolic of both divinity and other sacred beliefs. It’s an easy connection to assume that craftsmen (and women) would wish to replicate these patterns in their art and jewellery. It’s also worth noting that lichens were used by ancient Celts to produce dyes which were considered somewhat magical in their own right.
3. THE STONE FACES OF THE AVEBURY MEGALITHS
Many visitors to the Avebury Neolithic Complex notice what appear to be faces carved into the Sarsens. Some archaeologists believe that these could represent the people who built this ancients monument while others claim that this phenomena is nothing more than a trick of the eye.
According those who believe that the faces exist by design there is significant evidence of stone carving. Given the hardness and durability of these silica-based stones it is unlikely that the faces are the result of any recent process of vandalism, weathering or erosion.
The main faces can be found on the Great Cove Stone (said to feature four faces), stone 206, stone 98, stone V and 19b.
For most people looking for the ‘faces’ is little more than entertainment but for others it’s a serious business. They argue that the large number of faces indicates that the original builders saw the stones as either living entities or the representation of the same.
4. THE SUN SERPENT OF THE AVEBURY STONES
Given the name and layout of the Avebury Neolithic Complex a question that is often asked is, ‘was this a temple dedicated to a sun god snake cult?’ Many people point out that the arrangement of the avenues and the stone circles creates a distinctive serpentine shape. In particular, the West Kennet Avenue definitely follows a curving form out of keeping with the most direct route from one feature to another. An interpretation of the name Abury or Au-bury can, according to some experts, be translated to mean Serpens Solis or Sun Snake. The connection with serpents was first recognised by William Stukeley in or around 1740. He believed that the landscape and avenues represent a snake passing through a ring or sun.
This symbolism was later adopted by the science of alchemy to represent fusion or catalytic change. Some theorists have taken this concept even further an believe that the snake represent masculinity and the sun or ring represents the fertile and life giving female. This would be an interesting reversal of popular perceptions where the snake (earth) fertilises the sun (female) as opposed to the other way around. If one starts to pursue this allegory then a wide range of quite perplexing ideas become evident.
5. THE MALE & FEMALE STONES OF AVEBURY
The megaliths of Avebury can be divided into two distinct types – those that are diamond shaped and those that resemble pillars. This has led various archaeologists to speculate that the stones represent the male and female sexes. In particular, the stones of the West Kennet Avenue are set out in matched pairs so that a ‘pillar’ (male) is always placed directly opposite a ‘diamond’ (female). It’s important to point out that not even the best archaeologists can be certain why the monument was constructed. The generally accepted belief is that Avebury and Stonehenge were probably sacred sites with strong links to both fertility and the cycle of life, death and birth. The Sarsens (megaliths) at Avebury were not fashioned by its builders but were selected for their natural forms. It is also very likely that this Neolithic complex was constructed over many years. According to some experts, it is possible that the events held at Stonehenge and Avebury were symbolic weddings between deities. Every year an extra pair of stones may have been added to mark the event. The reality is that nobody knows for sure. The stones may have nothing at all to do with the sexes and could well represent something else altogether. In fact, no figurines of fertility gods or goddesses have ever been found.