Well, we finally got a brief sunny window in the wet weather on Wednesday morning this week (30th Dec) so my husband John and I went out for a post-Christmas walk around the Sanctuary and the West Kennett Avenue at Avebury. It was a gloriously clear morning, so a great time to see the views around the landscape and to take some record photos for when I start the virtual reconstruction. My plan at the moment is to construct a virtual representation of part of the Avebury complex from the Sanctuary, along the West Kennet Avenue and including the Avebury henge itself. It would be really interesting to try to simulate the wider Avebury landscape in a square roughly 3 miles by 3 miles, with Windmill Hill in the north west corner and East Kennet long barrow near the south east corner. But that would be a mammoth undertaking and not really necessary for the purposes of my research. As my research interest is in how groups of virtual landscape users interact with each other and with the environment in virtual reconstructions, I’m going to concentrate upon a section of landscape that I can reasonably create in the time I have available for the research.
Firstly though, what is the Sanctuary? In trying to answer that question we encounter a range of different opinions, as is almost always the case in prehistoric archaeology. All Neolithic monuments were built predominantly from earth, wood and/or stone and what is left to us today can vary from stains in the ground and holes in the chalk from wooden posts, to large banks and ditches and standing stones. The difficulty in interpreting these ancient sites is compounded by the changes that were made over approximately 1,000 years of use from around 3,000 to 2,000 BCE. Over that time period their use would be likely to change and their meaning would also evolve, so it is probably not appropriate to ask what sites like the Sanctuary were for as a single question, but as a series of questions at different time periods. So, as I am interested in the Avebury complex close to the time it was constructed, my questions relate to circa 2,500 BCE.
The Sanctuary is a particularly confusing site. It was first excavated by Maud and Ben Cunnington in 1930 (cited in Pollard 1992), and from their excavations and those carried out subsequently (the last excavation was in 1999 by Mike Pitts [Pitts 2001]) it appears that the earliest structures on the site were concentric rings of wooden posts, first erected around 3,000 BCE. Since the discovery of these post holes there has been split opinion as to whether they supported a roof or whether they were stand-alone posts. In either case, standing stones were later added to the monument finally resulting in a stone circle approximately 40 metres in diameter, possibly still containing wooden circles but definitely containing a concentric stone circle within it. This latter phase of stone construction appears to be contemporary with the construction of the West Kennet Avenue and Avebury henge (i.e. around 2,500 – 2,400 BCE). The Sanctuary appears to have fallen out of use in the early Bronze Age around 2,000 BCE. From human bone and pottery remnants discovered at the site it seems to have been associated with mortuary practices, but its uses, and how those uses evolved over time, is unclear.
Whatever its purpose, it appears that the Sanctuary had considerable significance, as it was incorporated into the Avebury complex as the end point of the West Kennet Avenue. The photographs below show the views of the surrounding landscape from the Sanctuary today. The land rises to the north and east and the view is blocked by the rise of Overton Hill as you can see in the picture of my husband above, so the visual emphasis is very clearly to the south and west. Standing in the Sanctuary you can see how the land drops away to reveal clear views of the East and West Kennet long barrows, Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Avenue to the south and west. We spent around 20 – 30 minutes there, and I became very conscious just in that short time of how my gaze was constantly drawn to the open landscape and the monuments I could see from there. At the time the Sanctuary was in use these monuments would be even more striking in the landscape, particularly if the surrounding woodland had been predominantly cleared by that time.
These pictures give me a good start for planning the virtual reconstruction and I’ll post my progress on this blog.
Pitts M (2001) Hengeworld. Arrow Books.
Pollard J (1992). The Sanctuary, Overton Hill, Wiltshire: A re-examination. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, vol 58, pp. 213-226.