Avebury: A Late Anglo-Saxon Burh?

Article excerpt

Re-assessment of the Anglo-Saxon archaeology of Avebury, North Wiltshire, suggests that a fortified settlement, or burh, was established on the western side of the henge during the 9th century AD. A sub-square enclosure, internally divided into regular plots, can be discerned from the recent RCHME survey (FIGURE 1) of Avebury's earthworks and the modern form of the settlement (FIGURE 2).


A town plan?

The RCHME plan shows a sub-square enclosure with a central street, termed a herepad (Old English `army road'), running west--east through the settlement, which in turn overlies an elliptical plan form discernible on the RCHME plan (FIGURE 1). From east to west the proposed burh measures 270 m, the western side is 300 m in length, whilst the eastern side is shorter at 200 m. Individual plots within the enclosure are perpendicular to the main street. A radiocarbon determination, from a pit filled with grain from the school site excavations of 30 years ago, of 1200 [+ or -] 80 BP (HAR 760454) c. 830 cal AD shows occupation within the confines of the burh in the 9th century, whilst a further radiocarbon date of 1160 [+ or -] 80 BP (OxA 1220) c.886 cal AD has been obtained from deposits outside the west entrance to the burh (Evans et al. 1993: table 1) (FIGURE 1). The suggested defensive circuit remains undated.


The closest parallels are the planned fortified towns built or refurbished particularly by the West Saxon kings from the late 9th through to the early 11th century in England and documented in the Burghal Hidage list. The place-name Avebury is best read as `fortified place by the Avon'. Indeed, other English forts are known from place-name evidence, incidental documentary references and topographical inference at places like Newark, Nottinghamshire and Witham, Essex (Kinsley 1993; Rodwell 1993) that compare well with Avebury in terms of scale and layout.

A remarkable status for the Avebury settlement in the Late Anglo-Saxon period is further suggested the presence of a substantial masonry church dated to c. 1000 AD. The northwest corner of the present nave is formed of side alternate megalithic quoins with an ex situ incised slab with a floral design forming an integral part of the west wall, suggestive of a yet earlier church. It could be suggested that the displaced sculpture belongs to the period of burh construction and that the standing fabric represents reconstruction or rebuilding before the decline of the settlement to one of a more rural character. The scale of the building exceeds the size of a typical `estate'-type church, where nave dimensions are rarely more than c. 8 m x 4 m; St James' nave, by contrast, measures 13 m x 6.7 m (Semple forthcoming). Domesday Book records only the church and its holding of 2 hides at Aveberie, but this reveals that St James was very likely of minster status, at least by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period.

Although the classic burhs, such as Wallingford, Cricklade and Oxford, are of a comparatively large size, certain of the settlements listed in the Burghal Hidage are significantly smaller. …