Online Review: Book


Mike Pitts


By Mark Gillings and Joshua Pollard (Duckworth Archaeological Histories). Pp. xi + 211, fig. 1, pls. 24, tables 2, plans 15, maps 2. Duckworth, London 2004. £16.99. ISBN 0-7156-3240-X (paper).

Avebury, a small Wiltshire village in the rural English countryside, an hour-and-a-half drive west of London, is hardly remote. Its stunning prehistoric remains are popular with picnickers who can drive freely into the center of the complex. Yet, if physical travel is at the command of a credit card, vast areas of mystery (or, if you prefer, gaps in knowledge) still surround the world’s most spectacular ancient ruins. The visit to Avebury that every archaeologist should make at least once is still an expedition. Remains sprawl in apparent confusion. Trained to seek explanations for growth and decay, archaeologists will struggle with the help of what seem to be surprisingly few excavations and an incomplete chronology. Prehistoric Avebury is an intellectual challenge.

Gillings and Pollard are your perfect guides. They write in an easy style that focuses on contemporary ideas and research rather than on antiquarian beliefs that sometimes muddy the understanding of locations with a long history of study. This is an innovative work that seeks to understand what Avebury was, and how it became what it is today, accurately reflecting current thought and work.

That is not to say the authors are able to answer all the questions they pose. There has been much significant fieldwork: by Gray and Keiller between 1908 and 1939; by Atkinson, Piggott, Smith, Evans, and others in the 1950s and 1960s; by Evans again in the 1980s, who created a pioneering landscape history through study of soils and microfossils, and Whittle in the same decade, as well as Gillings and Pollard themselves, with colleagues including Wheatley and Peterson, in the first decade of the 21st century. This is a roster of some of the key excavating British prehistorians of the past century. Yet, such is the scale and complexity of Avebury that it still feels as if the task of documenting its story has barely begun.

Gillings and Pollard freely admit the difficulties. They use a framework chronology (23–4) that starts beyond 4000 B.C.E. (calibrated), with sparse evidence of hunter-gatherers in a wooded landscape, and culminates around 2000 B.C.E., with the completion of the megalithic and earthwork monuments constructed by transient farmers whose ancestors had turned much of the forest to arable and permanent grassland.

At the apparent center of this monumental vision was an earthwork ring, 420 m across, with a bank enclosing its quarry ditch broken by four entrances at the approximate compass points. Following the inner edge of the ditch was a ring of 98 or so stones, some still standing up to 4 m high. Inside were two further rings, each 100 m across and containing 27–30 stones. Within those were yet more stones, including perhaps the two largest in Avebury, one of which, at the back of an arrangement of three known as the Cove, the authors recently discovered weighed around 100 tons, making it perhaps the largest megalith in Britain.

From the southern entrance, two parallel rows of megaliths (the West Kennet Avenue), ran 2.5 km to the Sanctuary, which consisted of concentric rings of oak posts and stones. The existence of the Beckhampton Avenue running to the west was proven only by the authors’ excavations in 1999, which revealed that several megaliths had been buried out of sight in recent centuries. They returned the stones to their graves). At the base of the “triangle” created by these avenues was Silbury Hill, the largest mound in prehistoric Europe. To its east were two massive oak palisade enclosures, the only location to have produced, in excavation, significant amounts of artifacts and animal remains (pointing to feasting on pigs).

Most of this was known to early antiquarians. Perhaps more was known, as both Aubrey and Stukeley saw much that was destroyed in the 17th and 18th centuries. We await the detailed chronology, but there has been a significant change in approach in recent years, and this book cements that.

It is often said that Stonehenge took 1,000 years to build—a misleading claim that conceals the likelihood that what most people think of as Stonehenge (i.e., the stones) was built within a generation or so (albeit preceded by a rich history of now imperceptible earthworks, posts, and smaller megaliths). Nearby Avebury, however, was long assumed to have been a huge planned entity; there might have been transitional stages along the way, but rings, avenues, and Silbury Hill were essentially one.

By contrast, Gillings and Pollard argue that Avebury “came together through a protracted process of piecemeal and inventive working of earthen and stone architecture” and thus “cannot be contained within a single narrative” (83). Limited radiocarbon dates bolster the case, but some of the evidence (such as that for a two-stage construction of the great earthwork ring) has been around for many years. Wherever archaeologists excavate, they uncover further information on sequence. The authors’ work on the Beckhampton Avenue, for example, shows its terminal to have been a short line of massive stones that were subsequently rearranged into a box-like “cove,” and a newly discovered earthwork enclosure had been partly flattened when the avenue was first built.

These multiple narratives lead to interesting discussions about the meanings of posts and stones, and of trees and outcrops, in which Gillings and Pollard emphasize the individuality both of actors and of architectural components—the concern is with individual stones as much as the rows or rings that they form, and with the often overlooked artifacts buried around them (61–83).

The other major change that has occurred in our engagement with prehistoric Avebury relates to what happened later. Traditionally, archaeologists have sided with Stukeley and others in decrying historic destruction of more ancient remains, but now such actions are attracting interest in their own right. The rewards of this study are proving to be strong.

The authors begin this part of the book (exactly halfway through) with an inspired analysis of a Roman road (92–100). The essence of Neolithic Avebury, they argue, was about defining paths and controlling access within restricted areas of the landscape. Bypassing Avebury and its associated routes, the Roman road became a basis for new alignments of fields, tracks, and settlements that subverted the old order.

The accepted story is that the medieval toppling and burial of many megaliths was instigated by the Church, objecting to pagan activities. Gillings and Pollard say, however, that this is based on “received orthodoxies and stories that have gained authority largely through repetition” (132). Their analysis suggests stone burial was more protracted and haphazard.

Around 1700 C.E., the act of burial was replaced by destruction. Thanks to Avebury’s then recent discovery by antiquarians, this practice is well documented. Current work is creating a new narrative, different from the traditional one of greed-driven landowners. The devastation is now linked to local Christian dissenters who might even have been reacting against the interest shown by outside Anglican antiquarians (149–52).

Much of the recent work (including a fruitful new study of Stukeley’s manuscripts) has yet to be fully published, and more fieldwork is planned. Anyone wishing to understand ancient Avebury today should start with this book, move onto the many new reports in the bibliography (not least J. Pollard and A. Reynolds, Avebury: The Biography of a Landscape [Charleston] 2002), and find their way out to Wiltshire. Some who make that trip find it difficult to leave.

Mike Pitts
11 Silverless Street
Marlborough SN8 1JQ
United Kingdom

Book Review of Avebury, by Mark Gillings and Joshua Pollard

Reviewed by Mike Pitts

American Journal of Archaeology Volume 111, Number 1 (January 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1111.Pitts

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