As Eternal states, this would have been an amazing place at its prime - and before the road! When I first visited it took a while to find the place as a big lorry had parked in front of the site and I couldn't see it from the car park!! I must admit I couldn't make head or tail of the concrete posts but I am sure that was me being a bit thick! Nevertheless, an important site which is easy to access although the road can be busy when trying to cross.
My latest visit (07/07/09), and the Natioinal Trust warden was finishing off strimming the grass, or rather the latest of many showers finished it for her, and sent her scuttling back to the Land Rover. I waited for the rain to stop, and the warm sun to return, and entered the sacred site, ankle-deep in strimmings (is there such a word?). They almost obscured the ugly concrete markers, which isn't a bad thing. The number of outstanding sites visible from The Sanctuary is more than you could shake a big stick at, and sites that would be on any anorak's ticklist: East Kennett long barrow, West Kennett long barrow, Seorfon round barrows, The Ridgeway, Silbury Hill, and dear old Avebury. Need I go on. Alright, I will - Adam's Grave. Good, eh? If The Sanctuary had a doorstep, I could safely say it's a crying shame that the A4 is on its doorstep. Why, as a nation, are we famous for ruining our historic sites by running roads right through or by them? The Sanctuary would be truly that if it was remote from the A4, and had its original stones. It still exudes an atmosphere, in spite of everything.
And so to The Sanctuary... well that is if you can actually get into it! It took me about 5 mins to work out how to open the gate, which seems to have been fashioned from an Inquistion torture device and one of those brakes mechanisms that they used to put on kiddies go-karts. I pushed and pulled and the gate remained locked; i lifted and tugged and still no joy. I tried a combination of the above and, at last, it came undone - this certainly wasn't the type of riddle that i'd expected to be confronted with here.
Once inside there's not much to see and it's rather left up to your own imagination or the graphics on the EH information post to fill in the blanks, or the holes if you will. In the dramatic reconstruction that an EH artist has kindly put together i found it rather disconcerting that Neolithic man bears an uncanny resemblance to the hairy, bearded bloke from that 1970's erotic masterpiece, 'The Joys of Love'. Perhaps it was the same artist?
Either way this shouldn't really distract from the wider context in which The Sanctuary is posited: sitting aloft Overton Hill at the south-western end of The Ridgeway and forming part Avebury's astonishing Druidic complex. As some of the other posts have commented, this really is the place from which a visit to any of the surrounding sites should begin. Having already trod the Ridgeway earlier in the day up at Uffington i picked it up once again, by way of the M4, at its conlusion just north of The Sancturay.
As one journey ends at The Sancturay it seems that so another begins - that of the descent down to Avebury and Silbury. I found an excellent print in the Henge Shop in Avebury etched by Antiquarian extrodinaire, William Stukeley, in which he offers up a far more interesting and aesthetically pleasing dramatic reconstruction than the one seen on the EH sign. In it he depicts a panoramic elevation of Beckhmanpton Ave, Avebury, West Kennett Ave and The Sanctuary in which the shape of a serpent is apparent in the way the sites are connected - The Sanctuary being it's head!
Access through kissing gate. Well kept and smooth grass area around the markers.
Monday 15 September 2003
Ha! Got my head a lot further round it this time! For some reason (no other visitors, maybe) I could visualise and imagine the whole thing much better.
Was also able to spend a while spotting the other visible Avebury 'monuments' properly this time! Still missed the West Kennett Avenue which I didn't realise you could see. (Thanks FourWinds! I'm in a huff now!)
Sunday 27 July 2003
Just as enigmatic as I expected. After only a few minutes I decided it was too complex for me to get my head round, especially with other people wandering about. Need to sit down & read about it onsite and 'sans tourists'.
As a vantage point for spying out the landscape it's superb.
Visited 10th May 2003: This was the penultimate site of the day, and the folks I were travelling with were getting slightly megalith weary. I hopped out of the car for a quick gander, and tried to look like I wouldn't take long. What an amazingly enigmatic site this is. I think I need to do it justice with a longer visit when I have time to contemplate (perhaps in another lifetime!).
Slug City! The Ridgeway up here was absolutely *dripping* with them last week ... Mrs Gibbon was most perturbed, having trodden on one barefoot the night before ...
Cracking place for a wander if you need to stretch your legs for 10 minutes ... Silbury nestles quitely behind Waden Hill, just like the book says it does. Go towards it and it disappears, before returning with a huge "blam" in your face.
Careful though ... we had our car broken into here once. For some Penguin biscuits. And the turn out towards Silbury/Avebury is terrifying ... the top of a blind hill either side ...
(SU 11846802) The Sanctuary (NAT) Stone Circle (NR) (site of) (1)
The concrete blocks which denote the positions of the stones have been surveyed at 1/2500 but the concrete markers indicating the positions of the wooden post holes have been omitted (limitation of scale). (3)
The Sanctuary was the site of a pair of concentric stone circles. When visited in the later 17th century by Aubrey and early 18th century by Stukeley it seems that many of the stones were still extant although most had fallen. However the bulk of the stones appear to have been removed and/or destroyed in the years around 1724. The records of Aubrey and Stukely were used to relocate the site in 1930, and following its discovery it was completely excavated. The two stone circles proved to have been preceded by six concentric timber rings. Numerous artefacts came from post holes, but the phasing of the various circles remains unclear. The bulk of the pottery found was of later Neolithic date, including Grooved Ware, although both earlier (Windmill Hill) and later (Beaker) sherds were present. The site appears to be connected via
the West Kennet Avenue (SU 16 NW 101) with the henge-enclosure and stone circles at Avebury (SU 16 NW 22). Following excavation, the locations of the various post-holes and stone settings were marked out on the ground. (4-5)
Suggested reconstructions of the structures at the Sanctuary have been published by Piggott (6) and Musson (7). (6-7) [See SU 16 NW 22 for additional bibliography].
An RCHME 1:2500 scale, level 3 air photographic survey (Event UID 936869) was carried out on this monument in January 1992. The site is extant and no change was made to the record. The archive created by this project (Collection UID 936807) is held by RCHME. (8)
The archive and finds from the Cunningtons' excavations have been reconsidered by Pollard, who suggests a rather simpler phasing and constructional sequence for the site than previously suggested. The main construction phase is suggested to have occurred around 2500 BC and was associated primarily with Grooved Ware. Pre-construction activity is represented by earlier ceramic and lithic finds. A crouched inhumation with Beaker, found in a grave adjacent to one of the stones, was suggested by Cunnington to be broadly contemporary with construction. Pollard suggests that it is in fact among the last archaeologically visible events at the site, c.2000 BC (with the exception of the appearance of Romano-British potsherds in upper fills of features) (9).
The Sanctuary is known from partial excavation in the 1930s and 1960s to have had two concentric circles of stones and four concentric circles of timber rings. The outer circle measured about 40 metres in diameter and included 42 sarsen stones. Four main phases have been postulated: Phase 1: a 5 metre diameter circle of seven timber posts around a central post; Phase 2: a 6 metre diameter circle of 8 posts surrounded by a 11 metre diameter circle of 12 posts; Phase 3: an additional circle of 21 metre diameter of 33 posts. A smaller stone circle was constructed and an entrance built on the south eastern side; Phase 4: construction of the outer stone circle and the avenue from avebury was built. This indicates that the Sanctuary was important prior to the construction of the avebury henge and that it continued to be significant after. (10) Brief details of the site. (11)
Excavations in 1999 aimed to reconcile discrepancies between the original 1930's excavation report and the diary of W E V Young, the excavation foreman at the time. A number of important new finds were uncovered, including a large group of lithics, and new insights into the nature of the Sanctuary's construction are made. These include evidence that some of the posts were repeatedly renewed. (12)
The author puts his case for an earlier single-phase roofed structure. (13)
In "Abury: A Temple of the British Druids" 1743, Stuckley observes that Overton Hill is part of a ridge known as Hakpen (Hackpen Hill), a place-name he broke into 2 parts; Hack which he claimed had a Semitic root meaning "Snake" and pen deriving from the ancient British word for head. Snakehead Hill? Perhaps supporting the serpent like shape he observed in the avenues leading from Avebury. He went on to associate this "megalithic serpent" as Kneph (The Graeco-Egyption form of the creator god Khnum) the winged-serpent whos image is replicated the world over in ancient culture.
One burial was found. This consisted of a much crouched skeleton of a youth some 14 or 15 years of age, lying in a shallow grave on the inner side of the stone hole 12, in the Stone-and-post-ring, i.e., on the eastern side of the rings immediately behind the one single-post hole in the Bank Holiday ring (Plate X.).
The skeleton lay on its right side, head to the south, feet to the north i.e., facing east. The grave was l ft. deep, 3ft. long, by 2ft. wide. The
grave and the stone hole cut into one another, and the body must have almost, if not quite, touched the inner face of the stone at the time of
burial, if the stone was already standing. See PL III., 1.
The arms were crossed above the elbow in front of the face, the two hands seeming to enfold the face, finger bones being found over and under the facial bones ; the head was bent forward over the chest, and the legs were crossed below the knees.
In front of the legs just below the knees lay the crushed fragments of a beaker. Intimately associated with the skeleton, apparently having been laid on the body when it was buried, were some bones of animals, some being slightly charred. A few small flecks of charred (or decayed?) wood were noticed among the bones of the skeleton.
The bones of the skeleton were nearly all broken, most of the limb bones being in several pieces. The skull and the beaker were crushed flat and a few fragments of both were missing ; it seems that this was probably due to a certain amount of disturbance caused when the stone fell, or was thrown down and removed.
Some of the crushing may be due to heavy modern agricultural machines.
It is hardly possible that the burial was made before the stone hole was dug ; the probability seems to be that it was made at the time the stone was erected, for the risk of bringing down the stone would have been considerable had the grave been dug Later. As all the ground within and including the Fence-ring was dug over, had there been other burials they must have been found, so this with Woodhenge makes the second elaborate series of wooden circles that were not erected primarily as burial places.
This solitary somewhat insignifcant burial may have been of a dedicatory nature as the only one of the rings at Woodhenge is thought to have been.
The evidence from the burial affords a striking parallel to that of the pottery as regards an overlap in cultures. While some of the pottery is of the West Kennet Long Barrow type the rest is equally characteristic of the succeeding "Beaker" period. The youth buried beside the stone was of
Long Barrow people ancestry, but the vessel by his side is one typical of the "Beaker" people, who invaded Britian at the end of the Long Barrow period, imposing their culture—and presumably conquering—the Long Barrow people who were previously predominant in southern Britain.
Better evidence of overlap could scarcely be expected.
The only other human remains found were three pieces of a lower jaw scattered in stone hole 16 of the Stone-and-post-ring ; the pieces were sub-
sequently fitted together but do not make a complete jaw.
"Pseudo-antiquarianism like Kennett for Kennet and Stukeley's Sanctuary instead of John Aubrey's matter-of-fact but descriptive Seven Barrow Hill may be amusing, but they belong with the olde tea-shoppe."
- Aubrey Burl, 'Calanais' meets the olde tea-shoppe, British Archaeology, no 17, September 1996.
"This Overton-hill, from time immemorial, the country people have a high notion of. It was (alas, it was!) a very few years ago, crown'd with a most beautiful temple of the Druids. They still call it the sanctuary... The loss of this work I did not lament alone; but all the neighbours (except the person that gain'd the little dirty profit) were heartily griev'd for it. It had a beauty that touch'd them far beyond those much greater circles in Abury town."
Perhaps the 'Sanctuary' was in fact a title made up by one of Stukeley's romantic antiquarian friends. He wasn't beyond a bit of exaggeration (and more than once took something Aubrey had said and pretended he'd thought of it first).
(quote from Aubrey Burl's 'Prehistoric Avebury', 2nd ed. p133)
Aubrey in the 17th century, and Stukeley in the 18th both described the Kennett Avenue as leading from Avebury to Kennet, and then ascending Overton Hill where it ended in two concentric rings of standing stones. Stukeley, with a nice turn of phrase records the destruction of these rings in the winter of 1724 "in order to clear the ground for ploughing and so gain a little dirty profit".He also said that "[The country people] call it the Sanctuary."
With the site's destruction its location was lost until Maud Cunnington managed to locate it from Stukeley's descriptions. Her excavations found the many holes in which the two circles of stone had stood were found, but also and totally unexpectedly, six concentric circles of holes which had held timbers. The book below claims that one of the deeper postholes contained a piece of lava rock from Niedermendig in the Rhine district, which was often used for 'mealing stones' - it was certainly later imported by the romans for millstones. Whether this still holds or whether the find has been reinterpreted I don't know.
Gleaned from Mrs M E Cunnington's 1933 'Introduction to the archaeology of Wiltshire'.
Aubrey Burl (in 'Prehistoric Avebury') states that the Sanctuary was used at least at some point as a mortuary house, where the bodies of particular elite persons were stored until their bones were clean and ready for interring elsewhere.
He also discusses the controversy about whether the sanctuary was roofed or not at any time - whether it was a building or just an arrangement of posts. Certain shells were found in the excavations which belonged to snail species found in marshy areas, perhaps lending weight to the theory that the structure was thatched with reeds at some point.