One of Britain’s most famous prehistoric monuments – Avebury in Wiltshire – may be substantially more ancient than previously thought.
Investigations within the UNESCO World Heritage designated stone circle – the largest in Britain – have revealed a hitherto unknown, and probably very early, series of ancient standing stones, are arranged, not as a circle, but as a 30 metre by 30 metre square.
It is believed to be the first prehistoric “stone square” ever discovered – in Britain or continental Europe. It is conceivable that the newly discovered monument, which would have originally consisted of around 17 standing stones, was built up to a thousand years before both Stonehenge’s and Avebury’s surviving stone circles.
Most of the newly discovered stones (or in some cases the holes they had stood in) had been buried (or, in the case of stone holes, filled in) at some stage in prehistory – or, more probably, in mediaeval or early modern times.
What’s more, at the centre of the square, archaeologists, re-analysing pre-war archaeological records, have discovered the remains of a substantial Neolithic timber building – constructed in mid-fourth millennium BC style.
That would make the ten metre long, six metre wide building the oldest feature yet found at Avebury. It would also raise the possibility that the stone square, constructed around it, is equally old or was built slightly later but while the building was still standing (i.e., up to a few hundred years later). The sides of the building and the sides of the stone square are aligned with each other – so a relationship between the two is likely.
If the building does indeed date from some five and a half thousand years ago, the discovery helps push back the date of the origins of Avebury by up to a thousand years.
One off the newly discovered stone square also dates back to the fourth millennium BC, then it would potentially be the oldest standing stone complex in England – and around the same age as the oldest ones in Scotland.
What’s more, the square shape of the newly revealed early Avebury standing stone enclosure is totally unique – indeed without parallel anywhere.
It is likely that both the rectangular building and the stone square surrounding it were of religious or ceremonial significance – but so far the archaeologists have found no clues as to the precise nature of any ritual or ceremonial activities that may have taken place there.
The early date for the stone square (and the building it appears to enclose) is also supported by two other pieces of evidence from Avebury. Both the site of the timber building and the stone square itself were located in the centre of a 100 metre diameter stone circle (in the southern half of Avebury) which was probably built at a later date – perhaps in or by the mid-third millennium BC.
A second identical stone circle was erected, presumably at around the same time, in the northern half of Avebury. [….]