The Avebury Alternative Stonehenge Too Crowded? Just Head 20 Miles North, Where the Stone Circles Are 200 Years Older, 10 Times Larger and 100 Times More Rewarding

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeff Miller Daily Herald Correspondent

For those who want to experience the haunting power and mystery of England's huge Neolithic stone circles, Stonehenge isn't the best place to go anymore. Go instead to nearby - and lesser-known - Avebury, where the stone circles are 200 years older, 10 times larger and 100 times more rewarding.

While Stonehenge's 3,500-year-old enigmatic stone circles are certainly impressive, the entire site has been overwhelmed by a flood of tourists - 700,000 in 1994 alone. In the past, some visitors were even caught chipping souvenirs off the stones.

To protect the ancient site, the National Trust has had to build an obtrusive car park, install a concrete tunnel under a busy road, and fence off the magnificent monoliths. Now, most people plod along a set trail as commentary tape players drone in their ears. Few find the spiritual experience they had hoped for.

While the mystical qualities have definitely been beaten out of Stonehenge, at the Avebury Stone Circles (only 20 miles north of Stonehenge), visitors can still touch and walk among the giant stones in pastures filled with grazing sheep. Or contemplate the day away sitting on the high mound that rings the stone circles.

And while there are other people wandering about (less than 50,000 in 1994), they actually add to the experience, not detract from it. At Stonehenge, because the stones are fenced off, people are just things to bump into. At Avebury, because everyone can commune with the stones in their own way, they don't intrude on personal musings. They become part of them.

Discovered by farmers

Avebury, a hamlet in the middle of the main stone circle, sits at the intersection of two small roads. Visitors park in a lot that's outside the circle and hidden from view by stands of trees. The path from the car park leads to an unobtrusive tourist area that includes a restaurant, shops and the Barn Museum (somewhat hokey dioramas of ancient life). At the back of this area is the excellent, but small Alexander Keiller Museum, a first-stop-must for anyone wanting a full appreciation of the ancient site.

This archaeological museum gives a good history and overview. Visitors learn that the Avebury stones were raised more than 4,000 years ago by farmers who hadn't yet discovered the wheel and only had stone, bone and wood tools. They dragged more than 100 giant boulders (many weighing 40 tons) from three miles away and created the largest stone circle in Europe (encompassing nearly 29 acres).

The monoliths - some as tall as 19 feet - are made of a hard sandstone and called Sarsen Stones from the term "Saracen," meaning heathen. The main circle, with two smaller ones within, is ringed by a massive ditch and an earthen mound 18 feet high. Two "avenues" - lined by giant stones - lead from the center of the circle outward; the longest, West Kennet Avenue goes for 1/2 mile.

Theories behind the circles

While the exact use of the circles has been lost to time, educated speculation includes astrological timekeeping, religious/fertility rituals and burial ground. Unorthodox ideas include the possibility it was a landing site for alien spacecraft.

In medieval times, Christian farmers viewed them as pagan stones and buried some while breaking up others for new buildings. The stone circles were nearly lost. In 1629, however, a man named John Aubrey "discovered" them while hunting. Even in their ruined state, he wrote to King Charles II, "It doeth as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge, as a cathedral doeth a parish Church."

In the 1920s and 1930s, Alexander Keiller, a wealthy Scot, bought most of the Avebury land and began excavating. He re-raised the buried stones, rebuilt others (reattaching fragments he found) and placed concrete posts to mark missing stones. …