Books, Prehistory, Avebury A Temple of British Druids, Avebury Chapter III

Avebury Chapter III is in Avebury A Temple of British Druids, With Some Others, Described by William Stukeley.

Abury, the most extraordinary work in the world, being a serpentine temple, or of the second kind, described. Now was the critical time of saving the memory of it. Account of the place. Natural history. The gray weathers, called Sarsens, a phœnician word, meaning a rock. Whence the name of the city of Tyre. Their weight and texture. The wear of the weather, more apparent here, than at Stonehenge, an argument of its being a much older work.

WHEN we contemplate the elegance of this country of Wiltshire, and the great works of antiquity therein, we may be persuaded, that the two atlantic islands, and the islands of the blessed, which Plato and other ancient writers mention, were those in reality of Britain and Ireland. They who first took possession of this country, thought it worthy of their care, and built those noble works therein, which have been the admiration of all ages. Stonehenge we have endeavoured to describe; and we are not more surprized at the extraordinary magnitude of this work of Abury, than that it should have escaped the observation of the curious: a place in the direct Bath-road from London. Passing from Marlborough hither, 'tis the common topic of amusement for travellers, to observe the gray weathers on Marlborough downs, which are the same kind of stones as this of our antiquity, lying dispersed, on the surface of the ground, as nature originally laid them. When we come to this village, we see the largest of those stones in great numbers, set upright in the earth, in circles, in parallel lines and other regular figures, and a great part inclosed in a vast circular ditch, of above 1000 foot diameter. And what will further excite one's curiosity, the vallum or earth, which is of solid chalk, dug out of that ditch, thrown on the outside; quite contrary to the nature of castles and fortifications. The ditch alone, which is wide and deep, is a very great labour, and the rampart very high, and makes the appearance of a huge amphitheatre, for an innumerable company of spectators; but cannot possibly be designed for offence or defence. This is twice passed by all the travellers: and its oddness would arrest one's attention, if the stones escaped it.

Table VIII. A Scenographic view of the Druid temple of Abvry in north Wiltshire, as in its original. Præhonorabili Dño. Dño. Philippo Dño. Hardwick, summo magnæ Brittanniæ Cancellario tabulam. l.m.d. W. Stukeley. The image shows Windmill Hill Causewayed Enclosure [Map], Horslip Gap [Map], the Long Stones Cove aka Devil's Quoits [Map] aka Devil's Quoits, Beckhampton Avenue, West Kennet Avenue, The Sanctuary [Map], West Kennet Long Barrow [Map]. The hill referred to as Windmill boll is now called Woden Hill.

The mighty carcase of Stonehenge draws great numbers of people, out of their way every day, as to see a sight: and it has exercised the pens of the learned to account for it. But Abury a much greater work and more extensive design, by I know not what unkind fate, was altogether overlooked, and in the utmost danger of perishing, thro' the humor of the country people, but of late taken up, of demolishing the stones. Mr. Camden the great light of British antiquities, took Kennet avenue to be plain rocks, and that the village of Rockley took its name from them. It is strange that two parallel lines of great stones, set at equal distance and intervals, for a mile together, should be taken for rocks in their natural site. As for the town of Rockley, 'tis four miles off, has nothing to do with this antiquity, tho' probably had its name from the adjacent gray weathers, whence our stones were drawn.

Dr. Holland, his annotator, writes thus of it. "Within one mile of Selbury, (by which he means Silbury-hill [Map]) is Abury, an uplandish village, built in an old camp, as it seemeth, but of no large compass. It is environed with a fair trench, and hath four gates, in two of which stand huge stones, as jambs; but so rude, that they seem rather natural than artificial: of which sort, there are some other, in the said village." In the time, when this was wrote, all the circles of these great stones, within the village of Abury, were nearly perfect; two of about 150 foot diameter, two of 300 foot diameter, and the great one of above 1000: which merited a higher notice. The largeness of the circles hindered an incurious spectator from discerning their purpose.

I persuade my self the intelligent reader, by casting his eye over the plate in the frontispiece, being the village of Abury, will see enough to excite a vast idea of the place: more so, if they conceive that the two avenues of Kennet and Bekamton, going off at the bottom, to the right and the left, extend themselves each, above a mile from the town.

Dr. Childrey likewise, in his Britannia Baconica, takes these stones about Kennet to be mere rocks. Thus if our minds are not properly disposed for these inquiries, or we believe nothing great in art, preceded the times of the Romans, we may run into Munster's error, in cosmograph. iii. 49. who believes, plain celtic urns dug up in Poland, to be the work of nature. Harrington in his notes on Orlando furioso speaks likewise of Abury.

Just before I visited this place, to endeavour at preserving the memory of it, the inhabitants were fallen into the custom of demolishing the stones, chiefly out of covetousness of the little area of ground, each stood on. First they dug great pits in the earth, and buried them. The expence of digging the grave, was more than 30 years purchase of the spot they possessed, when standing. After this, they found out the knack of burning them; which has made most miserable havock of this famous temple. One Tom Robinson the Herostratus of Abury, is particularly eminent for this kind of execution, and he very much glories in it. The method is, to dig a pit by the side of the stone, till it falls down, then to burn many loads of straw under it. They draw lines of water along it when heated, and then with smart strokes of a great sledge hammer, its prodigious bulk is divided into many lesser parts. But this Atto de fe commonly costs thirty shillings in fire and labour, sometimes twice as much. They own too 'tis excessive hard work; for these stones are often 18 foot long, 13 broad, and 6 thick; that their weight crushes the stones in pieces, which they lay under them to make them lie hollow for burning; and for this purpose they raise them with timbers of 20 foot long, and more, by the help of twenty men; but often the timbers were rent in pieces.

They have sometimes used of these stones for building houses; but say, they may have them cheaper, in more manageable pieces, from the gray weathers. One of these stones will build an ordinary house; yet the stone being a kind of marble, or rather granite, is always moist and dewy in winter, which proves damp and unwholsom, and rots the furniture. The custom of thus destroying them is so late, that I could easily trace the obit of every stone; who did it, for what purpose, and when, and by what method, what house or wall was built out of it, and the like. Every year that I frequented this country, I found several of them wanting; but the places very apparent whence they were taken. So that I was well able, as then, to make a perfect ground-plot of the whole, and all its parts. This is now twenty years ago. 'Tis to be feared, that had it been deferred 'till this time, it would have been impossible. And this stupendous fabric, which for some thousands of years had braved the continual assaults of weather, and by the nature of it, when left to itself, like the pyramids of Egypt, would have lasted as long as the globe, must have fallen a sacrifice to the wretched ignorance and avarice of a little village unluckily placed within it; and the curiosity of the thing would have been irretrievable.

Such is the modern history of Abury, which I thought proper to premise, to prepare the mind of the reader. All this was done in my original memoirs, which I wrote on the spot, very largely. Tho' it was necessary for me then to do it, in order to get a thorough intelligence of the work; yet I shall commit nothing more to the press, than what I judge absolutely necessary to illustrate it.

In regard to the natural history of the stones, 'tis the same as that of Stonehenge, which is composed of the very same stones, fetched from the same Marlborough-downs, where they lie on the surface of the ground in great plenty, of all dimensions. This was the occasion, why the Druids took the opportunity of building these immense works in this country. The people call these great stones, sarsens; and 'tis a proverb here, as hard as a sarsen; a mere phœnician word, continued here from the first times, signifying a rock. The very name of Tyre is hence derived, of which largely and learnedly Bochart, Canaan II. 10. This whole country, hereabouts, is a solid body of chalk, covered with a most delicate turf. As this chalky matter hardened at creation, it spewed out the most solid body of the stones, of greater specific gravity than itself; and assisted by the centrifuge power, owing to the rotation of the globe upon its axis, threw them upon its surface, where they now lie. This is my opinion concerning this appearance, which I often attentively considered. 'Tis worth while for a curious observer to go toward the northern end of that great ridge of hills overlooking Abury from the east, called the Hakpen [Map], an oriental name too, that has continued to it from Druid times. A little to the right hand of the road coming from Marlborough to Abury, where are three pretty barrows, and another dish-like barrow, if we look downwards to the side of the hill toward Abury, we discern many long and straight ridges of natural stone, the same as the gray weathers, as it were emerging out of the chalky surface. They are often crossed by others in straight lines, almost at right angles. For hereabouts, it seems, that the chalk contracting itself, and growing together, as it hardened, thrust the lapidescent matter into these fissures. 'Tis a very pretty appearance. This is near that part of the downs called Temple-downs. There are no quarries, properly speaking, nearer Abury than Swindon, and those have not long been dug. In Caln they dig up a paltry kind of stone, fit for nothing but mending the highways. But our gray weather stone is of so hard a texture, that Mr. Ayloff of Wooton-basset hewed one of them to make a rape-mill stone, and employed twenty yoke of oxen to carry it off. Yet so great was its weight, that it repeatedly broke all his tackle in pieces, and he was forced to leave it. It may be said of many one of our gray weathers,

Est moles nativa, loco res nomina fecit. Appellant saxum, pars bona montis ea est. Ovid.

[It is a native mass, instead of things made names. They call it a rock, it is a good part of the mountain.]

Lord Pembroke caused several of these stones to be dug under, and found them loose, and detached. My lord computed the general weight of our stones at above fifty tun, and that it required an hundred yoke of oxen to draw one. Dr. Stephen Hales makes the larger kind of them to be seventy tun. Mr. Edward Llwyd, in his account of the natural history of Wales, Phil. Trans. abridged, Vol. V. 2. p. 118. writes, he found a strange appearance of great stones, and loose fragments of rocks on the surface of the earth, not only on wide plains, but on the tops too of the highest mountains. So the moor stones on the wastes and hill-tops of Cornwall, Derbyshire, Devonshire, Yorkshire, and other places, of a harder nature than these, and much the same as the Egyptian granite.

Table IX. The Roman road leading from Bekampton to Hedington July 18. 1723.

As to the internal texture of this stone, when broke, it looks whitish like marble. It would bear a pretty good polish, but for a large quantity of bluish granules of sand, which are soft, and give it a grayish or speckled colour, when smoothed by an engine. It consists, as all other stones, of a mixture of divers substances, united by lapidescent juices, in a sufficient tract of time. Sometimes in one stone shall be two or three colours, sometimes bits of flints kneaded amongst the rest. In one stone fetched from Bekamton avenue, near Longstone barrow [Map] (as commonly called) and which was broken and made into a wall, at the little alehouse above Bekamton, in the Devizes road, I saw several bones, plainly animal, part of the composition of the stone. This I admired very much, and concluded it to be antediluvian. The stone in general is shining, close, and hard, little inferior to common marble; yet the effect which time and weather has had upon it, far beyond what is visible at Stonehenge, must necessarily make us conclude the work to be many hundred years older in date. In some places I could thrust my cane, a yard long, up to the handle, in holes and cavities worn through by age, which must needs bespeak some thousands of years continuance.