Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Saturday 16 July 2016

Exploring Avebury - the essential guide, by Steve Marshall

This is a fabulous new book from Steve Marshall, beautifully organized, filled with stunning images and with enough hard information to keep everybody happy.  Steve's cool and laid-back approach comes through in the text, which is clear and concise -- thankfully there is an emphasis on what we know rather than on what we would like to know.  So fantasy is kept at bay, and what we have in its place is a highly informative portrait of a fascinating place which almost everybody seems to prefer to Stonehenge.

In reading through the text, I was greatly taken by the section on sarsen "drifts" (p 14), and the images of the Valley of Stones on Fyfield Down are both atmospheric and revealing.  Then there is a good section on the mode of formation of sarsen stone.  On p 41 there is a fine section (again illustrated by gorgeous images) on the West Kennet Long Barrow.  This is one of the most interesting long barrows in Britain, not least because it is so old -- it's assumed to have been built almost 6,000 years ago.  This is one intriguing quote:

In today’s restored monument, virtually all the sarsen stone is original. However, the original construction also included sections of dry walling made with small, thin slabs of limestone imported from outside the area, as commonly found in other Cotswold-Severn long barrows. Much of the stone used as dry walling in the WKLB was identified as originating from Calne, 7 miles to the west; some though, came from an area between Frome and Bradford-on-Avon, some 20 miles to the south-west. Well over a ton of this ‘foreign’ stone had been imported to build the barrow.

As at Newgrange, it seems that the big stones were used more or less where they were found, and infilling or facade materials were carried in from a few miles away.   That would not have been a major task -- but one is of course quite justified in wondering whether some of the small stones might be erratic material, carried in by ice from the west........  some of the infill slabs and blocks look quite fresh, and Steve mentions that around a tonne of original (Neolithic) material was so rotten by 1950 that it was replaced by new dry walling stone brought in from Calne.  Some of the small slabs look to me (in the photos) to be very worn -- I wonder whether stone shapes and abrasion features have ever been systematically studied?

On p 64 there is a useful explanation of how the stones in the main Avebury stone settings were emplaced.  Steve cites the geophysical work of Martin Papworth in identifying a hundred or so buried stones and also sockets assumed to have held monoliths at some stage; but since the majority of the standing and recumbent stones appear to have come from the immediate neighbourhood, some of the holes interpreted as "sockets" might of course simply be extraction pits.  These are difficult to tell apart without physical examination -- and even then, the task is not an easy one.

On p 104 there is a chapter called "Where did the stones come from?  Again, this is comprehensive, well illustrated and quite revealing.  Good geology, simply explained.  The ten "primary stones" are assumed to have been used more or less where they were found, but the abundant "henge stones" are thought to have been brought in as batches with certain physical differences (colour, texture etc) from sources not far away.  On p 109 there is a good section on possible extraction pits.  The author is not particularly keen on confrontation, but he does suggest (ever so politely) that there is no evidence to support the widely-cited Atkinson theory that the Avebury sarsen stones were carried to the site by heroic Neolithic stone-hauling squads from the Marlborough Downs......

Silbury Hill and lots of other features in the Avebury landscape are also dealt with in detail -- there is far too much to cover in a short review.  But buy the book!  It's very informative, and Steve deserves our congratulations.  And even if you are not into detailed archaeology, buy it as an essential piece of archaeo photographic porn to share with your dinner guests!  I hope it sells well.


First published 2016
The History Press, The Mill, Brimscombe Port, Stroud, Gloucestershire, Gl5 2QG

isbn 978 0 7509 6766 2
soft cover, 226 x 248mm, 144 pages, full colour,  £14.99

From Steve's site:

"Exploring Avebury is really excellent, being quite clearly the best current introduction and guide to the whole monumental complex: up to date, consistently fair-minded, and superbly illustrated."
Prof. Ronald Hutton, historian

Avebury in Wiltshire is best known as the world’s largest stone circle, but surrounding it is a wealth of ancient monuments. Captivated by its unique atmosphere, many visitors form a personal, often spiritual, connection to Avebury and its ‘sacred landscape’. What was it that first attracted people to the Avebury area more than five thousand years ago?
Beautifully illustrated with over 400 photographs, maps and diagrams, Exploring Avebury invites us on a journey of discovery. For the first time the importance of water, light and sound is revealed, and we begin to see Avebury through the eyes of those who built it.

"Not only is this the most beautiful book to be published on the Avebury landscape, but it offers the reader one of the finest introductions to a region remarkable for its stunning prehistoric heritage and understated natural beauty. Steve Marshall has followed in the footsteps of an earlier generation of great Avebury observers and writers such as William Stukeley and A.C. Smith, to produce an account rich in stunning imagery, detailed personal observation and insightful interpretation. This is the essential guide!"
Dr Joshua Pollard, archaeologist and author 

Whether you are new to Avebury or are a seasoned visitor, this book really is essential. For first-time visitors it is an ideal guide for navigating the Avebury landscape and its monuments; for those who think they already know Avebury, there are surprises in store.  Packed with hundreds of gorgeous photographs, the book shows Avebury not just in the summer, but throughout the seasons. Although Avebury sees few visitors in the winter, it is then that its springs and rivers begin to flow and the place comes truly alive. 
Author Steve Marshall lived close to Avebury for many years whilst researching and taking the photographs for this book. His acclaimed study of Avebury’s springs and rivers resulted from many months of dedicated fieldwork, largely conducted in freezing weather.
Why was Avebury built where it is? Where did the sarsen stones come from? How does Silbury’s ditch fill with water each winter? What was the Avebury landscape like in prehistory? Exploring Avebury: The Essential Guide contains a wealth of new information and examines some of Avebury’s greatest mysteries afresh.
Exploring Avebury includes all the monuments and natural features of the 'sacred landscape' within a five mile radius of the Avebury Henge, including:

  • West Kennet Avenue
  • Silbury Hill
  • West Kennet long barrow
  • The Sanctuary
  • Longstones
  • Windmill Hill
  • Marlborough Mound
  • Beckhampton Avenue
  • West Kennet Palisaded Enclosures
  • Devil's Den
  • Adam's Grave
  • East Kennet long barrow
  • Fyfield Down Valley of Stones
  • Piggledene
  • Lockeridge Dene
  • Alton Yew & Springs
  • Swallowhead Springs
  • and more...


chris johnson said...

I am going to buy this after your recommendation.

Do you know whether the paperback version is adequate? It is the one I can order here, and otherwise I will go looking for a hardback version next time I am in UK - quite soon actually. Assuming you lot let me in now you have brexited.

AG said...

You're Barred! Time gentlemen please!

AG said...

Have brought the paperback book, will let you know.

My grandfather used to own a farm in Uffington. Other relatives lived near Avebury.

That whole stretch of the Ridgeway, from the Blowing stone near Uffington White

horse, via the dragon's mount, Uffington Hill fort, Wayland Smithy, Liddington and

Barbury castles, Avebury, and finally Silbury Hill. Holds many happy childhood


Although don't tell anyone at English Heritage that the Avebury stones are perfect

climbing frames for children! I wouldn't like to see my aged father arrested and

hauled before the courts!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Oh, I think we can let Chris in. I can vouch for his good character. He doesn't look like a Jihadist to me........

Mine host of the Red Lion said...

Exploring Avebury
The essential guide.
Steve Marshall 144pp pb 400 colour photos throughout. £14.99.
For once the title ‘The essential guide’ and blurb ‘the most beautiful book to be published on the Avebury landscape’ are spot on, indeed they undersell the visual joys that spring out of this book.
This is as close to a walk, on a warm, late June evening as it can be. Northwest from East Kennet to West Kennet and Silbury Hill and then via the West Kennet Avenue to Avebury, accompanied by an all knowing, avuncular, photo-savvy guide.
But there is more, there are pages showing side by side multiple images of lichens, spring wild flowers (found as pollen within Silbury Hill) but most importantly the ‘male’ and ‘female’ stones of Avebury and West Kennet Avenue, so making it possible to test the idea of paired-off stones.
It is just missing a final cooling drink in the Avebury Red Lion. Naturally, this should be spring water from its well, for it all starts and end here, eternally refreshing and being refreshed.
This heavenly book is THE Christmas stocking filler.

A book review that is still in the aether so hush hush.

ND Wiseman said...

Hi Gents,

Brian - your review is spot on. The book is informative without being pedantic, the photographs are works of art, and the in-depth coverage of many nearby sites brings them all, rightfully, within a sphere of substantial influence.

Chris - the book only appears in paperback, and will be available in the US in August.
(Fortunately, I got a jump-start on it in June, as Steve sent me a copy.)

I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but Stonehenge is relegated to the background, rarely mentioned in context. In this case that's appropriate. Avebury and its peripherals are older than the more specifically encoded southern site and so most of what's revealed took place before any stones were erected there.

If you're in the UK, definitely go out and buy this. If you're in the US, put your pre-order in now, as this volume is not a POD and 1st printing supplies will be limited.


TonyH said...

Sounds like an excellent prospective purchase. Quite an accolade that the serious "in - depth" Avebury author Dr Josh Pollard (he of Rhosyfelin and Stonehenge Riverside Project, etc, etc) sings in praise of this book's presentation and content as an introductory text, and calls it the essential guide!

I got to know the Avebury landscape a lot better during the two years I was a volunteer in the Avebury Museums for the National Trust. Dr Nick Snashall, National Trust Archaeologist for the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site,is conducting one of her walks this Wednesday, starts at 10 a.m. from Avebury. It takes in Silbury Hill and the West Kennett Long Barrow as well as the West Kennet Avenue and the circles. £25, includes lunch, not sure whether this is at the Red Lion, M.

TonyH said...

Go to the National Trust specific website, FragmeNTs, to read about Dr Nick Snashall's walk(s) and also to see stuff on recent investigations within the Avebury landscape by the Between the Monuments Team: includes access to a video of Dr Josh Pollard talking about the latter. There is also liely to be stuff on N.T. walks and happenings at Avebury, use Google.

CysgodyCastell said...

On the back of the review and comments here I ordered my copy at the weekend and it arrived today. It is quite a page turner....

You may eventually earn a few bob in comission Brian.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Doubt that! But always happy to help a good book succeed -- and I know the difficulties of publishing and marketing. It's a tough old business, especially for the smaller publishers who do not have the resources for vast marketing campaigns. I hope Steve earns a few honest quid in royalties -- he deserves it.

Jon Morris said...

Ordered a copy too. Thanks for review Brian

TonyH said...

Off to the current Season's Marden Henge dig led by Jim Leary over the weekend for a butcher's [not literally! Not a lot of pig remains as far as I know, but Marden Henge included in its previous discoveries a Scandinavian - style sauna house]. Marden is beyond Devizes and closer to Pewsey. Some, with suitably MPP - type rampant imaginations think the sarsen stones were dragged oh! - so - heroically from the Marlborough Downland via the boggy prehistoric environment around Marden to Stonehenge All Those Years Ago, to paraphrase George Harrison R.I.P.

Well done, Brian, for doing several Posts based around Wiltshire, including today's on the Cuckoo Stone.

chris johnson said...

Is there anything to see at Marden for a casual visitor?

TonyH said...

Hi, Chris. It's basically the henge monument's bank, where it remains. Take a look at the Wiltshire Museum's site, where you'll see mention of an exhibition on the previous Season's discoveries. Also, you are,at Marden, relatively close to Silbury Hill/ Avebury/ West Kennet long barrow broadly northwards; and Stonehenge/Great Cursus/ Durrington Walls broadly southwards. You may pop in the local Marden pub; also, park at Woodhenge car park for a great walk towards Cuckoo Stone/ The Avenue/ The Old Ruin etc etc; also the Red Lion and its car park in the centre of Avebury whence great walks in every direction.

TonyH said...

Didn't manage to get to Marden Henge's Dig this weekend, a great shame.Had just visited Salisbury including its great prehistoric displays. Will see what is said about this Season's Marden excavations (linked to the University of Reading and led by Jim Leary again) in due course.....

TonyH said...

Steve Marshall's giving a talk at Wiltshire Museum, Devizes, on 24 September, Saturday, 14.30 hours, £6 .50 for non - members, "Exploring Avebury".