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

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

A description of the great avenue from West-Kennet, a mile off, which is the forepart of the snake proceeding from the circle. Observations on the vallum and ditch. On the proportion between the breadth of the avenue and the side interval of the stones. The avenue broader in that part, which is the belly of the snake, than the neck. Its whole length ten stadia of the ancients; 4000 cubits, an eastern mile. The Hakpen an oriental word, signifying the snake's head. The temple on Overton-hill. Such another temple described by Pausanias in Bœotia, called the snake's head.

THE Druids, by throwing outwards the earth dug out of the huge circular ditch environing the town, demonstrated to all comers at first sight, that this was a place of religion, not a camp or castle of defence. They prevented its ever being used as such, which must have ruined their sacred design. Moreover it adds to the solemnity of the place; it gives an opportunity for a greater number of people to assist at the offices of religion.

This further great convenience attends the disposition of ditch and vallum, that the water falls off the area every way, and keeps it dry, which provides for the stability of their work, and convenience of the priests in their ministry. I observed the earth that composes the vallum was laid a small distance from the verge of the ditch, so as to leave a parapet or narrow walk between. This was as the podium of an amphitheater, for the lower tire of spectators. The ditch and rampart are each 60 feet, or 35 cubits broad. And now the whole is an agreeable terrace-walk round the town, with a pleasant view upon sometimes corn-fields, sometimes heath; the hill-tops every where covered with barrows; and that amazing artificial heap of earth called Silbury-hill in sight. The great belgic rampart, the Wansdike, licks all the southern horizon, as far as you can see it, crowning the upper edge of that range of hills parting north and south Wiltshire. Part of this pleasant prospect I have given in plate XXIII, as seen from Abury church-steeple.

Let us then walk out of the confines of the temple properly, by the southern entrance of the town. Passing the vallum, the road straight forwards leads to Kennet and Overton, that on the right hand to the Bath. But our present way lies straight forwards, which is south-eastward, and may properly enough be called Via sacra, as being an avenue up to the temple; besides, it forms one half of the body of the snake, issuing out of the circle. There were but two gates or entrances into the temple originally; this was one. And this way I call Kennet-avenue

Table XV. View of the Cell of the Celtic Temple at Abury. Augst: 16. 1721. The Cove [Map] of the Northern temple.

By repeated mensurations, by careful attention and observations, by frequently walking along the whole track thereof, from one end to the other, I found out its purpose, its extent, the number of stones it is composed of, and the measures of their intervals. It extends itself from this southern entrance of Abury town to Overton-hill, overhanging the village of West-Kennet. There was another double circle of stones, which made the head of the snake. All the way between there, and this southern entrance, which is above a mile, was set with stones on each hand, opposite to one another, and at regular distances. This was the avenue, and formed the forepart of the snake.

The Druids, in laying down this design, that it might produce a magnificent effect suitable to so great and operose a work, studied the thing well. As this was to be a huge picture or representation of an animal, they purposed to follow nature's drawing, as far as possible. A snake's body has some variation in its thickness, as slenderer toward the neck, than at its middle. This the Druids imitated in making the avenue broader toward this southern entrance of Abury; and drawing it narrower as it approached Overton-hill. Again, when a snake is represented in its sinuous motion, the intervals of the stones sideways must have a variation, as set in the inner or the outer curve; so as to make them stand regularly opposite to one another: yet this necessarily makes some little difference in the intervals, and this too is properly regarded in the work.

The whole length of this avenue consists of a hundred stones on each side, reaching from the vallum of Abury town, to the circular work on Overton-hill. Measuring the breadth of it in several places where I had an opportunity of two opposite stones being left, I found a difference; and the like by measuring the interval of stones sideways; yet there was the same proportion preserved between breadth and interval; which I found to be as two to three. So that here by Abury-town, in a part that represented the belly of the snake, the breadth of the avenue was 34 cubits, 56 feet and a half, and the intervals of the stones sideways 50 cubits, the proportion of two to three; twice 17 being 34, thrice 17 50. These 34 cubits take in the intire space of two intervals of the stones of the outer great circle of the temple of Abury within the ditch, together with the intermediate stone, which is the entry of the avenue to the temple. A most ancient manner, a double door with a pillar in the middle. Such was that of the Mosaick tabernacle: and such very often of our cathedrals. When we mount up Overton-hill, the avenue grows much narrower. And this observation helped me in the discovery of the purport and design of the whole figure of the snake; and in the nature of the scheme thereof. Of which wonderful work we may well say with the poet; elsewhere,

Nec rapit immensos orbes per humum, neque tanto [Nor does it sweep immense orbs across the ground, not so much]

[Saxeus] in spiram tractu se colligit anguis ie Saxeus gathers himself in a coil of snakes. Virg. Geor. 2.

When I abode here for some time on purpose, for several summers together; I was very careful in tracing it out, knew the distinct number of each stone remaining, and where every one stood that was wanting; which often surprized the country people, who remembred them left on the ground or standing, and told me who carried them away. Many of the farmers made deep holes and buried them in the ground: they knew where they lay. Lord Winchelsea with me counted the number of the stones left, 72, 30 anno 1722. I laid it all down in the nature of a survey, on large imperial sheets of paper, and wrote a detail of every stone present, or absent. But it would be very irksome to load the press with it. I shall recite no more of it, than what I think most useful and necessary.

Standing at the southern entrance of Abury, one stone the first, lies on the eastern side or left hand, close by the ditch: its opposite stood where at present a sycamore tree is planted. The next stone on the right hand is standing, by the turning of the Bath-road. Twenty four stones on both sides, next following, are carried off. At about 20 intervals going along the road to Kennet, which is the same as the avenue, we descend a gentle valley, and then lose sight of Abury. There you discern the curving of the avenue, many stones being left together on both sides. Here two stones are standing opposite to each other. I measured them near 60 feet asunder, which is 34 cubits. Then we ascend again a little hillock, where a good number of stones remain on both sides.

In a close on the left hand of the avenue, or east of it, not far from Abury town, is a pentagonal stone laid flat on the ground, in the middle of which is a bason cut, always full of water, and never overflowing. The country people have a great regard to it: it proceeds from a spring underneath, and for ought I know, it may have been here from the foundation of our temple. Coming out of Abury, you observe the line of the avenue regards Overton-hill before you, but soon you find it leaves it, and curves to the right hand a little. At the number of 65 stones on each side, you come to a hedge belonging to the inclosures of West-Kennet. In the year 1720 I saw several stones just taken up there, and broke for building; fragments still remaining and their places fresh turfed over, for the sake of pasturage. Where the corn-fields or pasturage have infringed upon the sacred ground, our work generally goes to wreck. Where the heath remains, 'tis still perfect enough; of which we say with the great poet,

Nec nulla interea est inaratæ gratia terræ. [And in the meantime there is no unsaid grace of the earth.]

so that the covetous farmer and grazier have conspired to abolish this most magnificent monument; and that just about the time I was there. Charles Tucker Esq; late of East-Kennet a gentleman of sense, used to be very angry at the ruin of these stones, and prevented it as much as he could.

As to the stones that composed this avenue, they were of all shapes, sizes, and height that happened, altogether rude. Some we measured 6 feet thick, 16 in circumference. If of a flattish make, the broadest dimension was set in the line of the avenue, and the most sightly side of the stone inward. The founders were sensible, all the effect desired in the case, was their bulk and regular station. All the hill tops, especially the Hakpen, are adorned with barrows as we go along. When the avenue comes to the inclosures aforementioned of West-Kennet, it passes through three of them, crosses a little field lane, and the common road from Marlborough to Bath, just after the road makes a right angle descending from Overton-hill. We must note that we have been a good while ascending again. In this angle the Roman-road from Marlborough coming down the hill, enters the common road. This is the via Badonica aforementioned.

John Fowler, who kept the alehouse hard by, demolished many of these stones by burning. The alehouse (the white hart) and the walls about it, were built out of one stone.

Table XVI. Part of the South Temple from the Central Obelisk [Map] 10 July 1723.

As before, the avenue coming out of Abury town bended itself to the right, now 'tis easily enough discernible, that it makes a mighty curve to the left, the better to imitate the creature it's intended for.

Fit lapis, & servat serpentis imagine saxum [He becomes a stone, and preserves the rock in the image of a serpent]. Ovid. Met. XII.

Passing the Roman road, it traverses an angle of a pasture, and falls into the upper part of the same road again, and marches through two more pastures, all along the quickset hedge-side: so that the quick is planted in the very middle of it. Many of the stones are seen lying in their proper places, both in the pastures and in the road. These stones are all thrown down or reclining, and very large. We measured one by the style 12 feet long, 6 and a half broad, 3 and a half thick.

At the bottom of these pastures on the right, runs the virgin stream of Kennet, just parted from its fountain by Silbury-hill [Map]. One stone is still standing by a little green lane going down to the river. Now our avenue marches directly up the hill, across some ploughed fields, still by the hedge of the Marlborough road, where yet stands another stone belonging to it. Then we are brought to the very summit of the celebrated Overton-hill, properly the Hakpen or head of the snake, which is 7000 feet from the vallum of Abury town. 400 cubits, according to Herodotus II, was the stadium of the ancients, our furlong; a space that Hercules is said to run over at one breath. Had the side-interval of the stones of this avenue been the same throughout, 50 cubits, that repeated 100 times the number of the intervals, would produce 5000 cubits. But because, as I said, they lessened this interval proportionably, as they came to the neck of the snake, it amounts to 4000 cubits, which is ten stadia, an eastern mile in Dr. Arbuthnot's tables, amounting to 7000 feet, as Mr. Roger Gale (age 50) and I measured its whole length.

We may observe the proportion between the diameter of the great circle of Abury town, which was 800 cubits, two stadia, and the length of the avenue, which is five times the other. Observe farther, they carryed the avenue up the side of the hill, so sloping as to make the ascent gradual and easy.

This Overton-hill, from time immemorial, the country-people have a high notion of. It was (alas, it was!) a very few years ago, crowned with a most beautiful temple of the Druids. They still call it the sanctuary [Map]. I doubt not but it was an asylum in Druid times; and the veneration for it has been handed down thro' all succession of times and people, as the name, and as several other particulars, that will occasionally be mentioned. It had suffered a good deal when I took that prospect of it, with great fidelity, anno 1723, which I give the reader in plate XXI. Then, about sixteen years ago, farmer Green aforementioned took most of the stones away to his buildings at Bekamton; and in the year 1724 farmer Griffin ploughed half of it up. But the vacancy of every stone was most obvious, the hollows still left fresh; and that part of the two circles which I have drawn in the plate, was exactly as I have represented it. In the winter of that year the rest were all carryed off, and the ground ploughed over.

The loss of this work I did not lament alone; but all the neighbours (except the person that gained the little dirty profit) were heartily grieved for it. It had a beauty that touched them far beyond those much greater circles in Abury town. The stones here were not large, set pretty close together, the proportions of them with the intervals, and the proportions between the two circles, all being taken at one view, under the eye, charmed them. The great stones of the great circles at Abury were not by them discerned to stand in circles, nor would they easily be persuaded of it. But these of the sanctuary they still talk of with great pleasure and regret.

This Overton-hill, whereon was the elegant temple we are speaking of, is a very pleasant place. 'Tis the southern end of that ridge called the Hakpen, broken off by the river Kennet. All the water that falls in that plain wherein the whole work of Abury stands, descends this way. It is a round knoll with a gentle declivity to the east, west, and south. The Kennet, as it were, licks its feet on all those sides. The whole hill has its name from this end.

To our name of Hakpen alludes אחים ochim called doleful creatures in our translation, Isaiah xiii. 21. speaking of the desolation of Babylon, "Wild beasts of the desert shall lie there, and their houses shall be full of ochim, and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there." St. Jerom translates it serpents. The Arabians call a serpent, Haie; and wood-serpents, Hageshin; and thence our Hakpen; Pen is head in british.

עכן acan in the chaldee signifies a serpent, and hak is no other than snake; the spirit in the pronunciation being naturally degenerated into a sibilation, as is often the case, and in this sibilating animal more easily. So super from υπερ, sylva from υλη, sudor, υδωρ. So our word snap comes from the gallic happer, a snacot fish from the latin acus, aculeatus piscis. And in Yorkshire they call snakes hags, and hag-worms. Vide Fuller's Misc. IV. 15.

The temple that stood here was intended for the head of the snake in the huge picture; and at a distance, when seen in perspective, it very aptly does it. It consisted of two concentric ovals, not much different from circles, their longest diameter being east and west. By the best intelligence I could obtain from the ruins of it, the outer circle was 80 and 90 cubits in diameter, the medium being 85, 146 feet. It consisted of 40 stones, whereof 18 remained, left by farmer Green; but 3 standing. The inner circle was 26 and 30 cubits diameter, equal to the interval between circle and circle.

The stones were 18 in number, somewhat bigger than of the outer circle, but all carried off by Green aforesaid. Every body here remembers both circles entire, and standing, except two or three fallen.

Mr. Aubury, in his manuscript notes printed with Camden's Britannia, mentions it, "a double circle of stones, four or five feet high, tho' many are now fallen down. The diameter of the outer circle 40 yards, and of the inner 15. He speaks of the avenue coming up to it, as likewise of our before-described avenue, from Abury to West-Kennet, set with large stones. One side, he says, is very nearly entire, the other side wants a great many." He did not see that 'tis but one avenue from Abury to Overton-hill, having no apprehension of the double curve it makes. And he erred in saying there was a circular ditch on Overton-hill.

The view here is extensive and beautiful. Down the river eastward we see Marlborough, and the whole course of the Roman road hence going along Clatford-bottom [Map]. We see a good way in the road to Ambresbury, and the gap of the Wansdike, where we pass thro'. Thence the Wansdike skims the edge of all the hill tops to Runway-hill. There we enter upon the view presented in plate XXI. The Roman road runs upon the edge of the hill, on the right hand of that plate, between the barrows there. It descends the hill, and runs to the left hand of Silbury, and close by it; and then up Runway-hill. Next we see Oldbury camp [Map], over West-Kennet village. Then we may view the whole length of the avenue hence to Abury, and observe the two great curves it makes, to imitate the figure of a snake, as drawn in the ancient hieroglyphics. Coming from Abury town it curves to the right-hand or eastward, then winds as much to the west, till it ascends this Overton-hill, full east.

Table XVII. A View of the South Temple July 15 1723. [Possibly the Avebury Ring Stone [Map] middle right.]

I observed the breadth of the avenue here is narrower than elsewhere, as being the neck of the snake. 'Tis 45 feet or 26 cubits, equal to the diameter of the inner circle here. And as it is narrower than elsewhere, they made the side-distance between stone and stone proportional, being two thirds of that in breadth. Mr. Smith, living here, informed me, that when he was a school-boy, the Kennet avenue was entire, from end to end. Silbury-hill answers the avenue directly, as it enters this temple, being full west hence. Here is a great number of barrows in sight from this place, two close by; and a little north-eastward that chain of barrows designed in plate XXIX. the lower part, looking toward Marlborough. Human bones found in digging a little ditch by the temple, across some small barrows there, and where there were no barrows. Mr. Aubury says, sharp and formed flints were found among them; arguments of great antiquity. They were of the lower class of Britons, that were not at the charge of a tumulus.

Thus we have conducted one half, the forepart of the snake, in this mighty work, up to Overton-hill, where it reposed its bulky head, and not long ago made a most beautiful appearance. I happened to frequent this place in the very point of time, when there was a possibility just left, of preserving the memory of it. In order to do it, I have laid down the groundplot thereof in plate XX. just as I found it for three years together, before it was demolished. I found that a line drawn between Overton-mill and the entrance of Kennet avenue in Abury town,is the ground-line of this avenue, from which it makes two vast curves contrary ways, to imitate the winding of a snake, and the hieroglyphic figures we see on Egyptian and other monuments. From Overton-mill is a most glorious prospect, overlooking the whole extent of Abury temple, and the sacred field it stands in, and beyond that, into Gloucestershire and Somersetshire.

Explicat hinc tellus campos effusa patentes, [From here the plains of the earth spread open,]

Vix oculo prendente modum [Hardly catching the eye]. Lucan IV.

As we descend Overton-hill by the neck of the snake, we discern the main part of the track of this avenue between here and Abury town, and may observe its huge curves both ways. And when we are near entring Abury town again, upon mounting the hill by the hedge-corner, at about eighteen intervals of stones from the vallum, you see a most advantageous prospect or approach to the temple, partly represented in plate XVIII. Windmill-hill, with its easy acclivity, fronting you directly, the northern end of Hakpen on the right and Cherill-hill on the left closing the horizon like scenes at a theater.

I observed many of these studied opportunities in this work, of introducing the ground and prospects, to render it more picture-like.

Pausanias in Bœotic. writes, that in the way from Thebes to Glisas, is a space fenced round with select stones, which the Thebans call the snake's head. And they tell a silly story about it, of a snake putting his head out of a hole there, which Tiresius struck with his sword. Just by it, he says, 34is a hill called the supreme, and a temple to Jupiter the supreme, and the brook Thermodon runs under it.

Can we doubt but this was an ancient temple, like what we are describing? It was built by Cadmus, or some of his people, of whom we shall talk more in chapter XIV.

I conclude this account with a verse of the poet's, which I believe was upon a work of the very same nature, as we shall explain by and by.

Quod caput antè fuit, summo est in monte cacumen, [That which was the head before is the top of the mountain,]

Ossa lapis fiunt [Bones become stone] Ovid. Met. IV.