Ten o’clock on a misty and distinctly chilly late March morning in the middle of the week and Avebury’s car park is already filling up. It is, Dr Nick Snashall says, the remains of a Saxon settlement lurking underneath the car park that helps to make Avebury such a complex site:
“The fascinating and enchanting thing about Avebury is that we have a sense that it’s a living community – not just prehistoric. It’s got Roman, Saxon and medieval signs of life. It’s a wonderfully rich story – wherever you turn there’s the evidence of the people who lived here.”
Dr Snashall is the National Trust’s archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury UNESCO World Heritage Site and on April 12 she’ll be telling the Avebury Society about ‘Avebury – The Story So Far’. We met in the National Trust’s re-vamped café near the Avebury barn – over a warming hot chocolate.
Although now hidden under assorted people carriers and muddy saloons, the Saxon remains are just one important symbol of Avebury’s past: “There is no one story – the story is continually changing – we’re discovering new parts of it – and sometimes discovering things we thought were true are not.”
Which perhaps leaves recent claims by a television documentary to be the final ‘true version’ of Stonehenge’s beginnings as just another theory along the way.
Dr Nick Snashall’s role involves archaeology in the Stonehenge landscape and Avebury. At Stonehenge the Trust owns more than 2,000 acres which includes monuments around the great stone circle – which is itself owned by the State and cared for by English Heritage.
The National Trust monuments there include round and long barrows, much of the Stonehenge Avenue and one of the best preserved cursus monuments in Britain. The cursus is a long thin monument with parallel banks and ditches.
Dr Snashall calls this cursus “One of the great remaining mysteries” – no one knows why it was built or what it was used for. It is 1.8 miles long, pre-dates Stonehenge by 300-600 years and probably had banks that stood 1.5 metres high.
A recent archaeological investigation at Avebury re-discovered the ‘Beckhampton Avenue’ which runs west roughly along the current High Street and has one extant standing stone to mark its way (the much more obvious West Kennet Avenue runs south.)
Dr Snashall is co-director of the current archaeological programme at Avebury. It is entitled ‘Between the Monuments’ and is intended to place the people back into prehistoric Avebury. As Dr Snashall puts it: “Was the area inhabited – or were people living there temporarily or just visiting the site to build or use the monuments?”
Investigating Avebury’s long past is a very serious business: working alongside Dr Snashall on this major fieldwork project are Dr Josh Pollard (leader – from Southampton University), Dr Mark Gillings (Leicester University), Dr Mike Allen an environmental archaeologist, and Dr Ros Cleal (the curator of Avebury’s Alexander Keiller Museum and an expert on prehistoric pottery.) Dr Nick specialises in ‘lithics’ – the study of stone tools.
In these straightened times, money for such investigations is hard to find – analysis of finds may take ten or twenty times as long as the fieldwork itself. Projects are getting more costly as more scientific analysis is possible.
“We live,” says Dr Nick, “in incredibly exciting times. Radio carbon dating is now accurate to within twenty-five years on samples as much as 6,000 years old. ‘Absorbed residue analysis’ can detect different kinds of fats trapped in a prehistoric pottery vessel – and so tell us what food was being eaten. ‘Stable isotope analysis’ on bones and teeth can tell us where a person or animal was from the take up of water-borne remnants of the geology.”
However, there’s still much fascination in what visitors to Avebury normally see, can walk around and can read about. The henge ditch used to go down nine metres from the level on which the stones now stand and its sides were almost perpendicular – all worked with stone tools and antler picks.
Many of Avebury’s stones are so heavy the effort and organisation taken to transport and erect them would have been immense. The biggest Cove stone weighs about 100 tons. Even the Swindon Stone – the one you think you may hit as you drive north towards Swindon – weighs sixty tons.
Maintenance of such a popular site is a constant task. Some parts will be closed off in rotation to allow grass to regrow: “Each year we have a lot of feet walking on the main monument, which is why we put so much work into conservation all year round.”
On the Avebury site even replacing a fence post has to be overseen by an archaeologist in case something important is dug up or disturbed.
“In your head, after a while, you can begin to see what it was like when this great Cove stone was first hauled into position. Sometimes your image changes quite suddenly after talking to another archaeologist or after a find. You have to be flexible and be prepared to throw out earlier images.”
Make a date to hear much much more about Avebury’s past and its people at Dr Nick Snashall’s Avebury Society Annual Lecture – for details of time, place and tickets click 12 April on our What’s On calendar.
Avebury Henge, the restored part of West Kennet Avenue and Windmill Hill are owned by the National Trust and in English Heritage guardianship. They are managed by the National Trust on behalf of English Heritage and the two organisations share the cost of managing and maintaining them.
The Sanctuary, which is owned by the nation, and West Kennet Long Barrow, which is owned privately, are also in guardianship and are managed by the national Trust under an agreement with English Heritage. Silbury Hill is owned privately, is in guardianship and is managed by English Heritage.
The Alexander Keiller Museum is also in guardianship, the majority of the collections are owned by the nation, while the National Trust own the buildings and manages the museum on behalf of English Heritage.