In the words of the immortal Nigel Tufnel (lead guitarist and singer of Spinal Tap) when describing Stonehenge in song, “No one knows who they were or what they were doing…”
Perhaps we might not be able to explain why the ancient people of the Salisbury plain in England put up Stonehenge, or even how they moved these stones miles across this landscape and up into place; but we can say that there is hardly a person alive that is not familiar with the image of Stonehenge. The internet, books, popular culture and our memories are full of stories and images of this iconic stone circle. It is one of the best known archeological sites in the world even if few can say much more about it than it is very old and mysterious cluster of big heavy stones. Many could locate it in England and some might associate it with Druids, ritual and even the solstice. Fewer still are familiar with another larger stone circle just 27 miles to the north in Avebury.
I visited both sites in the span of two days and was struck by the similarities in terms of archeology and the differences that a bit of notoriety can make in the experience of the two. Both are managed by quasi-governmental organizations (quangos) who preserve them on behalf of the public and the state. Avebury by the National Trust, Stonehenge by English Heritage (I am grateful to that organization for the management and the free passes to all their sites in the Salisbury plain during my visit).
First, the similarities: both are neolithic and thought to be over 4000-6000 years old; both had fallen into disrepair over the intervening centuries and needed restoration starting in the late Victorian Era; both are part of a larger landscape of burial mounds and other ritualistic sites surrounding them; both are made of enormous sarasan stones and smaller (relatively) bluestones hauled from great distance to be deliberately placed in circles with specific orientations to astronomical events such as the rising and setting of the sun during the solstice; both are thought to have been used for rituals; and both are located on the Salisbury plain to the west of London, England. Both are simply amazing to see and contemplate in terms of structure, construction and significance, but they are very different in reputation and thus in experience when you visit them. These differences are largely due to the broader public awareness and tourism of each site and thus worthy of some consideration in a comparative study.
Stonehenge is crowded! Millions of visitors come every year to see the site. There is a well developed museum/tourist center and a 20 euro entrance fee for each visitor. There is a shuttle bus to take you from the visitor center to the site (although you can walk the 2km trail through the countryside). Even in the middle of the week in the cold of early November we had a crowd.
Avebury, lesser known, is relatively free of tourists. We might have encountered a dozen people at the entire site the day before we visited Stonehenge. It is free to visit and has a modest museum and visitor center with interpretive signs to orient your stroll around. The largest crowds are sheep.
The paths to Stonehenge are paved to manage the traffic of tourists and minimize their impact on the landscape.
The paths to Avebury and around the site are not paved and could use a bit more management to protect the tourist from the sheep (Watch your step!).
Tourists are not allowed to interact with or approach the stones of Stonehenge and there are ropes and signs to keep them at a safe distance.
There are no restrictions to approaching the stones of Avebury unless they are on private land. The visitor are able to encounter the massive stones and see up close the scale and texture of the features.
Stonehenge was part of an estate when it was restored. Heritage England can maintain it isolated from modern development because it was one large piece of land when put into the public trust as a site. It sits alone and can be seen without interruption as you approach from a distance. It is a site suitable for drone flights and imagination of an earlier time.
By contrast, the town of Avebury grew up in the middle of the massive stone circle. Modern roads (following earlier footpaths and dirt roads) transect the site breaking up the experience and straining the imagination to picture how it looked in days gone by.
Because of the development of the town of Avebury in the middle of the site it is necessary to use interpretive signs to help one see the site as it was designed and as it has been changed by the development. The following two images show a “before and after” map of the site as well as provide some detail about its origin and restoration efforts.
One could argue that Stonehenge is more impressive because they lifted the massive stones on top of each other to create the iconic arches we know today in our images of the site.
But from an engineering standpoint the Avebury site is much larger and completely surrounded by a ditch, dug by hand. It is the largest stone circle site in England and much larger by size than the standing stones of Stonehenge.
The stones may not be stacked, but they are still enormous! Moving them in place, still quite a feat.
Sometimes the scale gets swallowed in the open landscape, so I asked my faithful companion Erin to stand next to a few of the stones for comparison. The house in the background was built long before the site was restored and adds to the sense of scale and the dynamic nature of the landscape.
I am not arguing that one site is “better” than the other, that is for the reader or visitor to decide for themselves. What I am suggesting is that two very similar cases of stone circles “diverged in a wood” to use a line from Robert Frost. One a well-known iconic protected site with high volumes of tourism and the source of active imaginations; the other, a circle “less traveled,” that has a much more intimate feel even as it has more development of houses and roads that interrupt the site.
The old and the modern come together in Avebury in an interesting way. I thought this thatched roof house with a modern SUV in the middle of the original circle site is a fitting symbol of the paradox of dynamic landscapes at once very old and still living.
By way of contrast, I thought this picture of the plain where Stonehenge sits “undisturbed” and “preserved” for all time, seemed a fitting symbol of a landscape that has been set aside to remember one particular moment in that landscape. The dynamic interaction between humans and landscape that has taken place in this space for millennia is frozen by an imagination that no longer sees humans as dwellers in the land, but merely visitors to be managed lest we disturb the preferred imagination. The only visible sign of human impact on the plain of imagination is the fence and gate keeping us in our “proper” place.
Stonehenge is carefully preserved so no one can change the landscape except the expert archeologists and planners. They set the stage at the visitor center to frame your experience and understanding. Then the stones stand timeless before you to be viewed as if they had never changed.
Avebury is a dynamic and interactive landscape. Old like these trees but changing like the color of their leaves and the ribbons tied onto them by New Age patrons who want to add their own presence and prayer to the sacred site.
A series of quotes on the wall of the Stonehenge Visitor Center museum brings us back to the realization that what seems unchangeable as stones in place over a long period of time is indeed in flux. The stones may not move, but our imagination does. It brings me back to the definition of landscape in the European Landscape Convention. Landscape is “an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors” (ELC, 2000, Article 1) In the end they are right we get the Stonehenge (or Avebury or other landscape) we deserve – or desire.