National Gazetteer (1868) - Avebury

"AVEBURY, (or Abury), a parish in the hundred of Selkley, in the county of Wilts, 6 miles to the W. of Marlborough. Calne and Chippenham are its post towns. It lies on the small river Kennet, not far from its source, and contains the tythings of West Kennet and Beckhampton. The living is a vicarage* in the diocese of Salisbury, value with that of Winterbourn Monkton, £245, in the patronage the lord chancellor. The church is dedicated to St. James. There is a free school, endowed by Holford and Martin with an income of £10 a year.

Avebury, in itself a mere ordinary English village, with pleasant rural environment, stands on ground which was once the site of one of the vastest and most extraordinary structures of a primitive age and race existing not alone in England but in Europe. In its attractive interest for the historical inquirer and archaeologist, and in its power to stir the imagination, it stands on a level with the mounds of Nimroud and Koyunjik, the sepulchres of Etruria, and the temples of Carnac and Luxor. That here a stupendous structure did once exist is certain, though the gentle touch of nature and the ruder hand of man have long been, and are still destroying, covering, or taking away its visible remains, and the stony testimonies of its existence. What it was is all uncertain, and must probably continue so.

The belief most readily takes hold of us that it was one of those "greatest works of mind or hand", which the poet sees are in every age "done unto God", and we call it a temple. That it has existed from a period remoter than our faltering history has run back to is certain; and we conclude that it was the work of the primitive inhabitants of this island. From the investigations of various inquirers, among whom the principal are Aubrey, who visited the scene in 1648; Stukeley, who examined it in 1720; and Hoare, who followed them in 1812, we are furnished with a tolerably distinct and full conception of the vast monument as it was.

On an extensive tract of level ground, bounded on all sides but the north by gentle hills, stood a circle, probably a double circle, of huge stones, varying in height from 5 to 20 feet, the circle having a diameter of 1,400 feet. Within it stood two lesser double circles, not concentric with it, nor with each other, nor in contact, one of them having a single tall stone near its centre, and the other enclosing three similar stones. A deep ditch surrounded the whole, and outside the ditch was a lofty rampart of earth. The area within the rampart was equal to nearly 29 acres. On the southern half of the work were two spaces left open for entrance. The approach was by two avenues formed of double rows of upright stones, sweeping in long graceful curves, one towards the south-east, the other towards the south-west. The former was above a mile in length, and terminated in a small double oval of stones, at Overton Hill; the latter was a mile and a half long, and terminated in a single stone, of larger size than the rest.

These approaches varied in width from 35 to about 55 feet. At the distance of about three-quarters of a mile to the south of the site of the great circle, and nearly midway between the two stone avenues is a conical mound of enormous dimensions, measuring in height 170 feet, and in circumference above 2,000 feet, and covering a space of more than five acres. This mound is called Silbury Hill, and is the largest tumulus in Europe. One interesting fact in proof of its great antiquity is, that the Roman road between Bath and London bends round the south side of the hill. Remains of cromlechs, circles, and tumuli, are scattered over the neighbouring downs. Near Silbury Hill are numerous blocks of sandstone irregularly strewn over the ground which from their resemblance at a distance to a flock of sheep, are called the "grey wethers".

The successive inquirers who have visited the site of these marvellous structures, have found the remains and visible evidences of their existence continually diminishing. The number of stones in the great enclosure in 1648 was 63, in 1720 it was reduced to 29, and in 1812 there were only 17 left. They were broken up for the construction of fences, or for use as road-metal; and would probably in a few years have disappeared altogether, had not the present proprietors interfered and put a stop to any further demolition. The number of stones now remaining are not above 20, out of 660 stones which formed the two circular temples and long avenues. The stones which are said to have encircled Silbury have long since been removed."

"BECKHAMPTON, a tything in the parish of Avebury, hundred of Selkeley, in the county of Wilts 6 miles to the W. of Marlborough. It lies near Beckhampton Downs, and contains some ruins of an ancient chapel, with a monumental brass of a knight."

"EAST KENNET, (and West Kennet) tythings in the parish of Avebury, hundred of Selkley, county Wilts, 5 miles W. of Marlborough. They anciently formed a distinct parish, and are mentioned in Domesday Book as Chenete. The village, which is situated on the road to Bath, is noted for its celebrated Kennet ale, which is brewed from a limpid spring of soft water, slightly impregnated with magnesia. At Silbury Hill, a little to the W. of the village, is a large barrow, and the sources of the Kennet."

"SILBURY HILL, an artificial mound in the parish of Avebury, county Wilts, 5 miles S. W. of Marlborough. It is the largest barrow in the British Isles, measuring 1,680 feet round at the base, and 170 feet high, and was supposed to be a monument of great antiquity; on its being opened by the Archæological Institute in 1849 nothing of interest was discovered."

[Description(s) from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868) - Transcribed by Colin Hinson ©2003]