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From Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales, Their Legendary Lore and Popular History, by John Timbs, Volume II, re-edited, revised, and enlarged by Alexander Gunn; Frederick Warne and Co.; London; pp. 28-39.



Avebury, Stonehenge, and Silbury Hill.

In 1869, the history of these celebrated remains received very interesting illustration, in a communication from Mr. A. Hall to the Athenæum, which we quote here, as it affords a special view intelligible to those who are at all acquainted with them: — “Those centres of interest, Avebury and Stonehenge, serve to make the district in which they stand a very shrine for the antiquary; and, as investigated by me for the first time, a most gratifying treat. 1. As to the names: I would suggest that the v in Avebury is a u, and should be read as ‘Au,’ quasi Auld-bury — i.e. ‘old burrow’; barrows here are called burrows, and the terminal ‘borough’ in English names has been held by antiquaries to indicate remote antiquity. Here, however, we have a village old, as a residence, among boroughs — older, for instance, then Marlborough, Woodborough, and other places in the neighbourhood. The word Stonehenge ahs been frequently explained; it refers to the raised stones, henge, from A.S. hon, hen, gehengon, ‘to hang.’ Here we find massive uprights, with huge imposts hung or supported upon them. Henry of Huntingdon says, ‘Stones of wonderful magnitude are raised in the manner of doors, so that they seem like doors placed over doors.’ This feature is no longer apparent, but the fallen stones 29 show clearly this was the case at one time: the wonder being that such immense blocks should be so raised — a feeling that has descended with the name that recorded the fact.

“2. The first position I wish to lay down is, that there is one great marked distinction between Avebury and Stonehenge — viz., that while the latter gives in its structure indisputable proof of design, by the removal, shaping, elevation, and superimposition of the stones, the former was not so formed by man; but that the stones at Avebury are still in situi.e., in their rough, unhewn, natural state, as placed there by Dame Nature herself, and that man has since located himself there and entrenched the spot for habitation.

“3. It must, I think, be conceded that Avebury is the older, probably very much older, place of the two. Stonehenge has no name as a habitation, but it adjoins Amesbury, an old town, whose name, however, dates from subsequently to the Christian era; it is, therefore, necessarily posterior to Avebury, the name of whose founder is lost in the mists of ages. The Avebury stones are unhewn; this must be held to prove great antiquity. It is clearly understood that the Romans introduced the art of working in stone — an art lost to us by the withdrawal of their legions and the consequent invasion of Saxon barbarians, but restored by Norman influence under the later Saxon kings. With this fact before us, I should hesitate to believe there had been a previous introduction of this art from other than Roman sources, and also a previous loss of it. I am, therefore, driven to the conclusion that Stonehenge is a work of post-Roman time. The labour of collecting and transporting these huge masses must have been great, but nothing as compared to the fitting and fixing of them, which is very complex. Each upright has been reduced into the shape of a round tenon at top, to match with a round mortice-hole in the impost; besides which, the lower end of each upright has been worked with a lateral projection to bite the earth underground, like an ordinary post for a wooden gate; then, being placed in a prepared hole, the cavity has been filled in with rubble. Further, all the imposts round the outer circle, when complete, fitted closely together, each one being jointed or grooved into its neighbour by the process called match lining; the rough, weather-worn outline of this dovetailing may still be perceived. I cannot believe that the rude Celts whom Cæsar found here could have done this; they may have chipped flints and rounded celts, but if they could have dealt thus with huge blocks of stone, they would have had stone habitations, for the material is plentiful; but Cæsar saw none such.

“4. Stonehenge is therefore clearly within the historical era, and, as I 30 think, was erected for a Memorial, the object being to produce a conspicuous mark in the landscape, at a particular spot. The first we know of it is quoted from Nennius, in the Eulogium Brittanniæ, who, though sufficiently fabulous in other things, ascribes Stonehenge to the fifth century A.D. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote three or four hundred years later, partly confirms this conjecture. Moreover, when Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, excavated the area in 1620, he brought to light some Roman remains.

“5. Viewing Stonehenge as comparatively modern, I consider Avebury is greatly older, and that its existence has most probably suggested the idea that we see carried out at Stonehenge. The latter has now about 95 blocks left; Avebury, so far as I could ascertain, only 25, and has no evidence of the use of imposts.

“Although Stonehenge is mentioned so frequently and so copiously by our early chroniclers, history is silent as to Avebury. The antiquary, Aubrey, is the first writer who describes it. In 1648 he found 63 stones; Stukeley, in 1743, describes 29. The imagination that can magnify this trivial quantity into 650, without any evidence whatever, is bold, but dangerous. I decline to believe in circles or avenues. The whole district teems with these stones. Take an area of four or five miles, and we may count them by thousands; but there is no proof that any vast quantity was ever concentrated at Avebury. As they are now found, they were evidently dispersed or deposited by a natural process. The line may be traced southward, from Marlborough Downs, along a sloping valley which crosses the regular coach-road about Fyfield. Down the Lockridge, towards Alton, there they lie — called wethers at one place, large stones at other places. At Linchet’s, otherwise Clatford Bottom, we have the Devil’s Den: a cromlech, apparently. They have been forced along this route by the agency of water or ice, and appear to consist of primary rock and a soft oolithic sandstone that crumbles into dust. Finding them so freely scattered in the immediate neighbourhood, I infer that those found at Avebury have been lodged there as a freak of Nature. Accordingly, I look upon devil’s dens, serpent avenues, charmed circles, and high altars as just so many myths. That Avebury was entrenched at an early period, and inhabited by primitive Britons, seems very clear. Their rude imaginations may have prompted them, from lack of knowledge, to venerate — yea, to worship — these huge fantastic blocks, weather-worn into all sorts of queer shapes, placed there by a power which they could not divine, and thus found in possession of the land before themselves.”


The soil of Abury rendered the great Druidical temple an incumbrance upon its fertility. For two centuries we can trace the course of its destruction. Gibson describes it as ‘a monument more considerable in itself than known to the world. For a village of the same name being built within the circumference of it, and, by the way, out of its stones too, what by gardens, orchards, enclosures, and the like, the prospect is so interrupted that it is interrupted that it is very hard to discover the form of it. It is environed by an extraordinary vallum, or rampire, as great and as high as that at Winchester; and within it is a graff (ditch or moat) of a depth and breadth proportionable. . . . . The graff hath been surrounded all along the edge of it with large stones pitched on end, most of which are now taken away; but some marks remaining give liberty for a conjecture that they stood quite round.’ In Aubrey’s time sixty-three stones, which he describes, were standing within the entrenched enclosure. In Dr. Stukeley’s time, when the destruction of the whole for the purpose of building was going on so rapidly, still forty-four of the stones of the great outward circle were left, and many of the pillars of the great avenue; and a great cromlech was in being, the upper stone of which he himself saw broken and carried away, the fragments of it alone making no less than twenty cartloads.” In 1812, according to Sir Richard Hoare, only seventeen of the stones remained within the great inclosure. Their number has since been further reduced.

It must have been a proud day for John Aubrey, when he attended Charles II. and the Duke of York on their visit to Abury, or Aubury, which the King had been told at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1663, soon after its formation, as much excelled Stonehenge as a cathedral does a parish church. In leaving Abury, the King “cast his eie on Silbury Hill, about a mile off,” and with the Duke of York, Dr. Charlton, and Aubrey, he walked up to the top of it. Dr. Stukeley, in his account of Abury, published in 1743, probably refers to another royal visit, when he notes: “Some old people remember Charles the Second, the Duke of York, and Duke of Monmouth, riding up Silbury Hill.”

We subjoin a few of the more striking and generally received opinions upon the origin of Avebury and Stonehenge; — “The temples in which the Britons worshipped their deities were composed of large rough stones, disposed in circles; for they had not sufficient skill to execute any finished edifices. Some of these circles are yet existing: such is Stonehenge, near Salisbury: the huge masses of rock may still be seen there, grey with age; and the structure is yet sufficiently perfect to enable us to understand how the whole pile was anciently arranged. Stonehenge 32 possesses a stern and savage magnificence. The masses of which it is composed are so large, that the structure seems to have been raised by more than human power. Hence, Cboirganer (the ‘GiantsDance,’ the British name of Stonehenge) was fabled to have been built by giants, or otherwise constructed by magic art; and the tradition that Merlin, the magician, brought the stones from Ireland, is felt to be a poetical homage to the greatness of the work. All around you in the plain you will see mounds of earth, or ‘tumuli,’ beneath which the Britons buried their dead. Antiquaries have sometimes opened these mounds, and there they have discovered vases, containing the ashes and the bones of the primæval Britons, together with their swords and hatchets, and arrow heads of flint or of bronze, and beads of glass and amber; for the Britons probably believed that the dead yet delighted in those things which has pleased them when they were alive, and that the disembodied spirit retained the inclination and affections of mortality.” — Palgrave’s History of England.

The investigations of the nature of the stones employed in these wonderful monuments present some curious points, of which the following are specimens: —

Mr. Cunnington, quoted in the History of South Wiltshire, says: “The stones composing the outward circle and its imposts, as well as the five large trilithons, are all of that species of stone called sarsen, which is found in the neighbourhood; whereas the inner circle of small upright stones, and those of the interior oval, are composed of granite, hornstones, &c., most probably brought from some part of Devonshire or Cornwall, as I know not where such stones could be found at a nearer distance.” Sir R. Colt Hoare says: “What is understood by sarsen is a stone drawn from the natural quarry in its rude state. It is generally supposed that these stones were brought from the neighbourhood of Abury, in North Wiltshire, and the circumstance of three stones still existing in that direction is adduced as a corroborating proof of that statement.”

A Correspondent of Notes and Queries, No. 304, remarks: “The stones have not been quarried at all, being boulders collected from the Downs. It is supposed by eminent geologists that they belong to the tertiary formation, and that the strata in which they were embedded (represented in the Isle of Wight) have been swept away by some great catastrophe. The outer circle probably contained thirty-eight stones, of which seventeen are standing; and the number of their lintels in the original position is about seven or eight. Of the large trilithons only two are now complete.”


Another Correspondent says: “The stones for the great Temple of Abury were easily collected from the neighbouring hills; but, judging from the present state of Salisbury Plains, it must be supposed that the materials of Stonehenge were sought for on the Marlborough Downs, and transported down the course of the Avon. Still, it is not unlikely that even the largest of these stones might have been found near at hand; for, doubtless, many such were dispersed about at that time, which have since been used up for economical purposes.”

Sir R. Colt Hoare adds to Stukeley’s opinion: “A modern naturalist has supposed that the stratum of sand containing these stones once covered the chalk land, and at the Deluge this stratum was washed off from the surface, and the stones left behind. Certain it is that we find them dispersed over a great part of our chalky district, and they are particularly numerous between Abury and Marlborough; but the celebrated field, called from them the Grey Wethers, no longer presents even a single stone, for they have all been broken to pieces for building and repairing the roads.”

Mr. Loudon, when he visited Stonehenge, in 1836, formed this conjecture as to its origin: “On examining the stones we find they are of three different kinds — viz., the larger stones of sandstone, the smaller of granite; and two or three stones, in particular situations, of two varieties of limestone. This shows that they have been brought from different places: still, there is wanting that mathematical regularity and uniformity which are the characteristics of masonry; and we conclude by wondering how savages that knew not how to hew could contrive to set such stones on end, and put other stones over them. Upon further consideration, observing the tenons and the corresponding mortices, and reflecting on the countless number of years that they must have stood there, we yield to the probability of their having been originally more or less architectural.” Many persons have absurdly supposed that the stones are artificial, and formed in moulds.

Mr. Browne, of Amesbury, author of Illustrations of Stonehenge and Abury, considers Stonehenge to have been erected before the Flood; and Abury, a similar monument, to have been constructed under the direction of Adam, after he was driven out of Paradise, as a “remembrance of his great and sore experience in the existence of evil.”

Mr. Rickman, the well-informed antiquary, on June 13, 1839, communicated to the Society of Antiquaries an essay containing some important arguments, tending to show that the era of Abury and Stonehenge cannot reasonably be carried back to a period antecedent to the Christian era. After tracing the Roman road from Dover and Canterbury, 34 through Noviomagus and London, to the West of England, he noticed that Silbury Hill is situated immediately upon that road, and that the avenues of Abury extend to it, whilst their course is referable to the radius of a Roman mile. From these and other circumstances, he argued that Abury and Silbury are not anterior to the road, nor can we well conceive how such gigantic works could be accomplished until Roman civilization had furnished such a system of providing and storing food as would supply the concourse of a vast number of people. Mr. Rickman further remarked that the Temple of Abury is completely of the form of a Roman amphitheatre, which would accommodate about 48,000 spectators, or half the number contained in the Coliseum, at Rome. Again, the stones of Stonehenge have exhibited, when their tenons and mortices were first exposed, the workings of a well-directed steel point, beyond the workmanship of barbarous nations. It is not mentioned by Cæsar or Ptolemy, and its historical notices commence in the fifth century. On the whole, Mr. Rickman is induced to conclude that the era of Abury is the third century, and that of Stonehenge the fourth, or before the departure of the Romans from Britain; and that both are examples of the general practice of the Roman conquerors to tolerate the worship of their subjugated provinces, at the same time associating them with their own superstitions and favourite public games.

The mysterious monument of antiquity, Stonehenge, or as it has been called the “Glory of Wiltshire,” and the “Wonder of the West,” is situated on Salisbury Plain, about two miles directly west of Amesbury, and seven north of Salisbury.

Two authors suppose it to have been built for a very different purpose; one assuming it to have been a temple dedicated to Apollo, and the other a heathen burial-place.

The soil is excellent and fertile; and the harvest is made twice in the same year. Tradition says, that Latona was born here, and therefore, Apollo is worshipped before any other deity; to him is also dedicated a remarkable temple, of a round form, &c.

The Rev. James Ingram considers it to have been destined as a heathen burial-place, and the oblong spaces adjoining, as the course on which the goods of the deceased were run for at the time of the burial; and this opinion, he thinks, is strengthened, from the circumstance of the vast number of barrows which abound in this part of the plain. Within a short distance, also, are two long level pieces of ground, surrounded by a ditch and a bank, with a long mound of earth crossing one end, bearing a great resemblance to the ancient Roman courses for horse-racing. 35 In the year 1797, three of the stones which formed part of the oval in the centre fell to the earth; and this appears to have been the only instance on record of any alteration having taken place in these remains of antiquity.

For whatever purpose it was erected, or whoever may have been the architects, the immense labour necessarily employed in bringing together the materials, and the amazing mechanical power that must have been used to raise the stones, some of which weigh upwards of 70 tons, to their proper situations, show that it could have been only constructed for some great national purpose, connected with religion or the government of the State.

The author whose description we have quoted concludes his remarks in this manner: — “Such, indeed, is the general fascination imposed on all those who view Stonehenge, that no one can quit its precincts without feeling strong sensations of surprise and admiration. The ignorant rustic will, with a vacant stare, attribute it to some imaginary race of giants: and the antiquary, equally uninformed as to its origin, will regret that its history is veiled in perpetual obscurity; the artist, on viewing these enormous masses, will wonder that art could thus rival nature in magnificence and picturesque effect. Even the most indifferent passenger over the plain must be attracted by the solitary and magnificent appearance of these ruins; and all with one accord will exclaim, ‘How grand! How wonderful! How incomprehensible’!”

The belief now appears tolerably settled that Stonehenge was a temple of the Druids. It differs, however, from all other Druidical remains, in the circumstance that greater mechanical art was employed in its construction, especially in the superincumbent stones of the outer circle and of the trilithons, from which it is supposed to derive its name: stan being the Saxon for a stone, and heng to hang or support. From this circumstance it is maintained that Stonehenge is of the very latest ages of Druidism; and that the Druids that wholly belonged to the ante-historic period followed the example of those who observed the command of the law: “If thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” (Exodus, chap. xx.) Regarding Stonehenge as a work of masonry and architectural proportions, Inigo Jones came to the conclusion that it was a Roman temple of the Tuscan order. This was an architect’s dream. Antiquaries with less of taste and fancy than Inigo Jones, have had their dreams also about Stonehenge, almost as wild as the legend of Merlin flying away with the stones from the Curragh of Kildare. Some attribute its erection to the Britons after 36 the invasion of the Romans. Some bring it down to as recent a period as that of the usurping Danes. Others again carry it back to the early days of the Phœnicians. The first notice of Stonehenge is found in the writings of Nennius, who lived in the ninth century of the Christian era. He says that at the spot where Stonehenge stands a conference was held between Hengist and Vortigern, at which Hengist treacherously murdered four hundred and sixty British nobles, and that their mourning survivors erected the temple to commemorate the fatal event. Mr. Davies, a modern writer upon Celtic antiquities, holds that Stonehenge was the place of this conference between the British and Saxon princes, on account of its venerable antiquity and peculiar sanctity. There is a passage in Diodorus Siculus, quoted from Hecatæus, which describes a round temple in Britain dedicated to Apollo; and this Mr. Davies concludes to have been Stonehenge. By another writer, Dr. Smith, Stonehenge is maintained to have been “the grand orrery of the Druids,” representing, by combinations of its stones, the ancient solar year, the lunar month, the twelve signs of the zodiac, and the seven planets. Lastly, Stonehenge has been pronounced to be a temple of Buddha, the Druids being held to be a race of emigrated Indian philosophers.

After noticing that a chief Druid, whose office is for life, presides over the rest, Cæsar mentions a remarkable circumstance which seems to account for the selection of such a spot as Sarum Plain for the erection of a great national monument, a temple, and a seat of justice: — “These Druids hold a meeting at a certain time of the year in a consecrated spot in the country of the Carnutes (people in the neighbourhood of Chartres), which country is considered to be in the centre of all Gaul. Hither assemble all, from every part, who have a litigation, and submit themselves to their determination and sentence.” At Stonehenge, then, we may place the seat of such an assize. There were roads leading direct over the plain to the great British towns of Winchester and Silchester. Across the plain, at a distance not exceeding twenty miles, was the great temple and Druidical settlement of Avebury. The town and hill-fort of Sarum was close at hand. Over the dry chalky downs, intersected by a few streams easily forded, might pilgrims resort from all the surrounding country. The seat of justice, which was also the seat of the highest religious solemnity, would necessarily be rendered as magnificent as a rude art could accomplish. The justice executed in that judgment-seat was, according to ancient testimony, bloody and terrible. The religious rites were debased into the fearful sacrifices of a cruel idolatry.


Sir William Gore Ouseley describes a Druidical circle, and a single upright stone standing alone near the circle, as seen by him at Darab, in Persia, surrounded by a wide and deep ditch and a high bank of earth; there is a central stone, and a single upright stone at some distance from the main groups, the resemblance of the circle at Darab to the general arrangement of Stonehenge, and other similar monuments of Europe, led Sir William Ouseley to the natural conclusion that a “British antiquary might be almost authorized to pronounce it Druidical, according to the general application of the word among us.” At Darab there is a peculiarity which is not found at Stonehenge, at least in its existing state. Under several of the stones there are recesses, or small caverns. In this particular, and in the general rudeness of its construction, the circle of Darab resembles the Druidical circle of Jersey, although the circle there is very much smaller, and the stones of very inconsiderable dimensions, — a copy in miniature of such vast works as those of Stonehenge and Avebury. This singular monument, which was found buried under the earth, was removed by General Conway to his seat near Henley, the stones being placed in his garden according to the original plan.

At Abury are two openings through the bank and ditch, at which two lines of upright stones branched off, each extending for more than a mile. That running to the south, and south-east, from the great temple, terminated in an elliptical range of upright stones. It consisted, according to Stukeley, of two hundred stones. The oval thus terminating this avenue was placed on a hill called the Hakpen, or Overton Hill. Crossing this is an old British track-way: barrows scattered all around. The western avenue, extending nearly a mile and a half towards Beckhampton, consisted also of about two hundred stones, terminating in a single stone. It has been held that these avenues, running in curved lines, are emblematic of the serpent-worship, one of the most primitive and widely extended superstitions of the human race. Conjoined with this worship was the worship of the sun, according to those who hold that the whole construction of Abury was emblematic of the idolatry of primitive Druidism. On the high ground to the south of Abury within the avenues is a most remarkable monument of the British period, Silbury Hill; of which Sir R. Hoare says, “There can be no doubt it was one of the component parts of the grand temple at Abury;” others think it a sepulchral mound raised over the bones and ashes of a king or arch-druid, as does the author of these lines: —

“Grave of Cuneda, were it vain to call,
      For one wild lay of all that buried lie
38   Beneath thy giant mound? From Tara’s hall
      Faint warblings yet are heard, faint echoes die
  Among the Hebrides: the ghost that sung
      In Ossian’s ear, yet wails in feeble cry
  On Morvern; but the harmonies that rung
      Around the grove and cromlech, never more
  Shall visit earth: for ages have unstrung
      The Druid’s harp, and shrouded all his lore,
  Where under the world’s ruin sleep in gloom
      The secrets of the flood, — the letter’d stone,
  Which Seth’s memorial pillars from the doom
      Preserved not, when the sleep was Nature’s doom.”

Silbury Hill is the largest mound of the kind in England; the next in size is Marlborough Mount, in the garden of an inn in Marlborough. No history gives us any account of Silbury; the tradition only is, that King Sil, or Zel, as the country-folk pronounce it, was buried here on horseback, and that the hill was raised while a posset of milk was seething. Its name, however, seems to have signified the great hill. The diameter of Silbury at the top is 105 feet, at bottom it is somewhat more than 500 feet; it stands upon as much ground as Stonehenge, and is carried up to the perpendicular height of 170 feet, its solid contents amounting to 13,558,809 cubic feet. It covers a surface equal to five acres and thirty-four perches. It is impossible, at this remote period, to ascertain by whom, or for what precise purpose, the enormous mound of earth was raised; but from its proximity to the celebrated Druidical temple of Abury, it is supposed to have had some reference to the idolatrous worship of the Druids, and perhaps to contain the bones of some personage.

It requires no antiquarian knowledge to satisfy the observer of the great remains of Stonehenge and Abury, that they are works of art, in the strict sense of the word — originating in design, having proportion of parts, adapted to the institution of the period to which they belonged, calculated to affect with awe and wonder the imagination of the people that assembled around them. But Druidical circles are not confined to England or Scotland. On the opposite shores of Brittany the great remains of Carnac exhibit a structure of far greater extent even than Abury. “Carnac is infinitely more extensive than Stonehenge, but of ruder formation; the stones are much broken, fallen down, and displaced; they consist of eleven rows of unwrought pieces of rock or stone, merely set up on end in the earth, without any pieces crossing them at top. These stones are of great thickness, but not exceeding nine or twelve feet in height; there may be some few fifteen feet. The rows are placed from fifteen to eighteen paces from each other, extending in length (taking rather a semicircular direction) above half a mile, 39 on unequal ground, and towards one end upon a hilly site. When the length of these rows is considered, there must have been nearly three hundred stones in each, and there are eleven rows: this will give you some idea of the immensity of the work, and the labour such a construction required. It is said that there are above four thousand stones now remaining.” (Mrs. Stothard’s Tour in Normandy and Brittany.) It is easy to understand how the same religion prevailing in neighbouring countries might produce monuments of a similar character; but we find the same in the far east, in lands separated from ours by pathless deserts and wide seas.


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