“The Overton-hill, from time immemorial, the country people have a high notion of it. 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…..” – William Stukeley, 1743.
The Star Chambered Barrow
Standing outside West Kennet Long Barrow it’s hard not to be drawn to the view of the top of Silbury, which although not the same height, certainly is at a similar level. There must be an intended relationship here between the two sites but Silbury, now unstable after archaeological digs of the last few hundred years, retains its mysteries. In the 17th century the antiquarian John Aubrey had drawn the long barrow with the chamber capstones and the facade seemingly aligned on the Sanctuary on the skyline of the distant Overton Hill. In 1724 William Stukeley described the barrow as “pointing to the dragon’s head on Overton-hill”. In fact the West Kennet long barrow points almost due east-west and misses the Sanctuary, but nevertheless, the barrow forecourt does look toward it and suggests a correlation between Silbury, the Sanctuary and the long barrow.
John North proposes that with the blocking stones of the facade removed the five chambers within the eastern end of the long barrow were aligned toward five significant stars by two flanking stones that purposefully limited lines of sight from within the chambers. North continues that the ditches of the West Kennet long barrow appear to have been cut in six sections, rather than one continuous ditch either side as one would expect, with deliberate changes in direction at set points. North suggests that the ditches could have provided viewing platforms at right angles to the barrow, although he adds caution in the fact that the ditches have been far from fully excavated. He goes on to propose that looking from the southern ditch across the barrow c.3600 BC Neolithic man would have witnessed the star Arcturus dip down to touch the tomb, rest there for about half an hour, then rise up again. Some four and a half hours after that, viewed from the northern ditch across the barrow, Sirius would have risen over the tomb then fallen again. Vega mimicked the behaviour of Arcturus over the barrow, descending into the tomb before rising again. A fourth star, Rigel, completed the astral display by following Sirius in the southern sky, rising out of the tomb then quickly falling back in. Of course seasonal limits would vary from star to star for viewing this phenomena but three could be seen on every clear night from about a fortnight before the autumnal equinox and a month prior to the winter solstice. North calculates that the period between the mid point of Arcturus’ visit to the tomb and the mid point of Vega’s visit on the same night would be about six hours. Insufficient investigation has been carried out at East Kennet long barrow to ascertain if a similar phenomena occurs but the tomb does align with Rigel rising.  The Sanctuary was our next port of call before returning back to Avebury, so we left West Kennet Long Barrow and headed for The Ridgeway and Overton Hill.
The Dragon’s Head
After walking alongside then crossing the river Kennet, skirting around the perimeter of a wheat field, we joined the ancient trackway of The Ridgeway and made our way sharply uphill towards Overton Hill. As the trackway levelled off at the top of the hill we noticed several barrows on our right, appropriately named Seven Barrows in Aubrey’s day. We saw more barrows on the other side of the busy A4, Bath – Marlborough Road, as the trackway continued northwards but we departed The Ridgeway here and turned left into the English Heritage enclosure of the prehistoric site of The Sanctuary; now just concentric rings of low lying concrete blocks. The Sanctuary is thought to have been constructed c.2400 BC, about a thousand years after the West Kennet Long Barrow but around the same time that the barrow went out of use as a tomb and was sealed. The latest wisdom is that the construction of Sibury was completed, in its current form, between 2400 and 2300 BC. 
It would appear the stone rings of The Sanctuary, the closure of West Kennet Long Barrow, the construction of the great mound of Silbury and the Avebury Avenues all appear to be contemporaneous; all within a couple of hundred years of each other, forming a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age complex. The closure and sealing of the long barrows would appear to indicate a change in religious practice, but not necessarily the complete termination of its utilisation, taking the Avebury complex into a new phase linked through the Kennet and Beckhampton Avenues. As we have seen above the West Kennet long barrow forecourt was targeted toward the barrow complex at Overton Hill, or Seven Barrow hill as it was formerly known. The megalithic monuments of the Sanctuary, Silbury and the Kennet long barrows all share intervisibility; from one you can see the others, but for the most part the Avenues are concealed from Silbury. No one is really sure of the significance of this intervisibility and concealment between megalithic monuments but it is becoming increasingly recognised as an important design feature in determining their position in the prehistoric landscape.
For example, although scholars still debate the purpose of Cursus monuments it is significant that at least eight long barrows are targeted on the now obliterated barrow, Amesbury 42, at the eastern end of the Stonehenge Cursus, now lying under a bridleway, the oldest of the eight alignments directed toward Rigel.  Furthermore, of the thirty nine extant or destroyed earthen long barrows on Cranbourne Chase the course of the Dorset Cursus would have been visible from at least fourteen with nine of those directly associated with the Cursus; two incorporated within its course and seven aligned on its terminals.  Were they laid out like this to facilitate movement of the ancestor spirits between the tombs?
There is not much to see at The Sanctuary today, just those concentric concrete rings and the standard English Heritage information boards. Said to be large enough to contain the outer ring of stones at Stonehenge, the later structure at The Sanctuary was the site of a stone circle that formed the terminus of the West Kennet Avenue, linking it to Avebury stone circles. From here we could see the West and East Kennet long barrows and just peeping up behind Waden Hill was the top of Silbury.
Waden Hill is an important feature of the Avebury complex, although often not recognised as such, used by prehistoric man to great effect in his games of visibility and concealment. Waden Hill shrouds Silbury from the West Kennet Avenue and The Sanctuary, just the top of the man made mound being visible from Overton Hill. The infant river Kennet, also known here as the Winterbourne, trickles along the western side of Waden Hill which once had nine Bronze Age round barrows on it but now only one remains on the north end. Stukeley sketched a barrow on the south end but there are no traces of it on the ground now. The site was excavated when a sewer was being put in, which uncovered molluscan evidence indicating that the barrow had been constructed in an established grazed downland.  Ploughing has removed many of the barrows that once existed in the Avebury area such as the cemetery on Waden Hill; crop marks providing evidence of their former existence. A similar barrow cemetery existed on Windmill Hill and also at Folly Hill between the Longstones and Silbury Hill.
William Stukeley’s findings at Avebury were published in 1743 in his “Abury, A Temple of the British Druids“. In 1723 he recorded that he saw the site at Overton Hill, as the head of a huge serpent, Beckampton being the tail, referring to it as the “hakpen”, or the “serpent’s head”, although he claimed the country people called it the “Sanctuary”. It was composed of two concentric ovals, the outer containing 40 and the inner 18 stones, 130ft and 45ft diameters respectively, standing on what is still called Mill Field.
A year later it was gone; Stukeley records the destruction of these rings in the winter of 1724:
“Farmer Green took away the stones and Farmer Griffin ploughed up the field………..in order to clear the ground for ploughing and so gain a little dirty profit”.
He added, “…..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.” 
Aubrey’s drawings of the Avebury monuments unveil the presence of stones which had disappeared by the time Stukeley was to study the site; testament to the period between the two men’s visits as one of major destruction to the monument and the Avebury prehistoric complex. For example, at the time of his visits in the 17th century, Aubrey records that there were 20 stones in the Southern Inner Circle at Avebury whereas Stukeley found only 5 still standing barely 60 years later.
The Temple Rediscovered
And that’s how The Sanctuary remained; once a proud megalithic circle now reduced to a flat field, largely forgotten until 200 years later when excavated by the Cunnington’s in 1930 who managed to locate the site from Stukeley’s sketches and writings. Local archaeologists Maud and Ben Cunnington determined that the first stage of activity at the site consisted of six concentric rings of timbers erected around 3,000 BC, probably as a series of three increasingly large timber structures, which may have supported a thatched roof, which has been suggested as originally the observatory of an astronomer-priest.
The timber circles at the Sanctuary were eventually superseded around 2,400 BC by the two concentric stone circles, at this time the axis was realigned 10 degrees to the west where three stone pillars were set radially on the outer circumference, appearing to form an entrance that joined a short avenue that would later be extended to lead downhill and onto Avebury; the West Kennet Avenue.
In her report on the 1930 excavations Mrs Cunnington records that only one burial was found at the site. This consisted of the crouched skeleton, always termed a youth but possibly a young girl of some 14 or 15 years of age in a shallow grave on the eastern side of ring C immediately behind the one single-post hole, lying head to the south, feet to the north, looking towards the east and facing the mid-year sunrise. A beaker was placed between her legs. The body must have almost touched the inner face of the stone at the time of burial, if the stone was already standing, as the grave and the stone hole cut into one another. Cunnington thought it hardly possible that the burial was made before the stone hole was dug, suggesting that it seemed probable that it was made at the time the stone was erected, otherwise the risk of bringing down the stone would have been considerable had the grave been dug later. The bones of the skeleton were nearly all broken, probably due to a certain amount of disturbance caused when the stone fell.
Cunnington saw much in common with the solitary burial found at Woodhenge, a small grave found lying on the line of midsummer sunrise that she suspected was a murdered infant, suggesting they may have been of a similar dedicatory nature and speculated that these elaborate series of wooden circles were not erected primarily as burial places.
Four postholes were found flanking a single recumbent stone at The Sanctuary. Cunnington suggested this solitary stone on the south western side corresponds to the solitary stone at Woodhenge. Calculations have shown that from the centre of the Sanctuary this stone is aligned to the major southern moonset. Just inside the inner ring two much heavier posts were aligned to a north west entrance whose sides are aligned to the mid summer sun. These lunar and solar alignments add further weight to the argument for a ritual interpretation of the site.
Both Woodhenge and The Sanctuary were purchased by the Cunnington’s and given to nation.
The only other human remains the Cunnington’s found at The Sanctuary were three pieces of a lower jaw scattered in stone hole 16 of ring C, interpreted as evidence of funerary practices and ancestor rites with so few antlers and animal bones having been found at The Sanctuary that is considered to be a place of ritual and not a domestic dwelling. These increasingly large timber structures, which may have supported a thatch roofed mortuary house where corpses were kept either before or after ritual treatment at Avebury. The Sanctuary may have been a central ossuary serving the nearby Kennet long barrows, Adam’s Grave further south and the Devil’s Den to the north east; “Rituals connected with death seem likely there.” 
Yet debate continues over whether The Sanctuary was roofed or not. Certain mollusc 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 gathered from the nearby river Kennet. 
Mike Pitts and Josh Pollard carried out a small scale excavation at The Sanctuary in 1999 which found a 50cm (20 inches) step on the bottom of one of the double post holes. This step turned out to be Neolithic pit fill, hard-packed chalk. On removal of the fill there was still a step, half the height of the original, which also turned out to be prehistoric packing. Only the deepest pit at the eastern end of the hole had evidence for a timber, in the form of a dark pipe 25cm (10 inches) across. Pitts and Pollard concluded that if each pit held a post, these were later removed with only the last timber was left to rot in place. They could not envisage how this continual replacement could have occurred beneath a heavy thatched roof confirming the growing feeling amongst archaeologists that these sites were displays of free-standing posts. Pitts see this as indication of a continual process; one phase, not several. 
Although modern thinking amongst archaeologists is that these concentric rings of The Sanctuary may have held free-standing posts, Maud Cunnington did initially speculate that Woodhenge also held free standing posts and recent surveys at Stanton Drew have revealed huge concentric circles of post holes, the diameter considered too large to have supported a roofed structure; the function of these timber rings remains obscure. In some cases the gaps between the timbers were so close that a man could not pass between them.
Timber thatched temples or not, perhaps it is the concentric rings, or possibly the solitary burial, or maybe the fact that both sites are described by the same excavator in Maud Cunnington, but The Sanctuary today certainly feels and looks similar to what we see at Woodhenge with its low level concrete stumps just a couple of miles north east of Stonehenge. Yet, the location of Woodhenge does not feel like it was significantly placed in the landscape; perhaps it originally functioned as a ritual temple to Durrington Walls, although evidence of an interlinking avenue has not been found.
The lofty elevation of Overton Hill, the hill of the Seven barrows, adjacent to The Ridgeway, with its long views toward the Kennet long barrows, Silbury looking over Waden Hill with just the slightest glimpse of the West Kennet Avenue snaking away northward on its journey to the great henge of Avebury, shows the Avebury monuments as a once prehistoric ritual complex constructed in the Early Bronze Age marking a permanent change in the function of the Neolithic megalithic monuments of the area. How grand it would have been if the stones had not been ripped out in modern times.
- John North, Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos, Harper Collins, 1996, pp. 74-84.
- Jim Leary and David Field, The Story of Silbury Hill, English Heritage, 2010.
- North, op. cit. p.184.
- Chris Tilley, A Phenoenology of Landscape, Berg, 1994, pp. 170-201.
- Archaeology in the Avebury Area. Wessex Arch. Rpt. No 8, 1996.
- Aubrey Burl, Prehistoric Avebury, Yale University Press, 2nd Edition, 2002, p.133.
- Aubrey Burl, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale University Press, 2000, pp.313-315.
- Aubrey Burl, Prehistoric Avebury, Yale University Press, 2nd Edition, 2002, p.136.
- Mike Pitts, Hengeworld, Arrow, 2001, p.242 – 245