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Wansdyke cuting through Woden's dene


Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

Tourists mostly come to Avebury to see the prehistory. And largely ignore the rather wonderful heritage from around a thousand to fifteen-hundred years ago. However, few other places allow so many aspects of Anglo-Saxon England to be appreciated. These include:

  1. The site of a large early Saxon settlement (now underneath the main visitors car park).
  2. Evidence for mid-Saxon occuption (discovered when the new village school – now a nursery – was built in 1970).
  3. A footpath following a substantial part of the defensive earthwork or burh which gave Avebury its name. See What was a bury?
  4. A parish church with Saxon stonework, late Saxon windows and fragments of tenth century carvings. See St James' – from minster to mother church and St Afa.
  5. A probable 'cult centre' to the south. Waden Hill was originally the weoh don. In other words the don (hill) with the weohs ('shrine' or 'idol'). Quite probably the great many Bronze Age barrows (now ploughed out and only known from cropmarks) were reused by the Anglo-Saxons for burials. Some, perhaps all, these barrows would then have a carved wooden post erected on the top – these were known as becuns ('markers', and the origin of the modern word 'beacon') or weohs.

NT car prk looking to Waden Hill

Standing in the visitors car park looking south to Waden Hill. Evidence for various early Anglo-Saxon houses was discovered under the car park.


footpath on line of <i>burh</i>

The footpath from the car park to the High Street seemingly follows the line of the defensive burh. Instead of a hawthorn hedge imagine a ditch and bank with a wooden palisade on the top. This photograph was taken from the prehistoric henge bank. The building is the middle distance is the school built in 1970; evidence for mid-Saxon occupation was found ahead of its construction.


long and short work     C10th carvings

Left: So-called 'long and short work' is a distinctive aspect of Anglo-Saxon architecture. This example forms the north-east corner of the exterior of the nave, now tucked in at the side of the later tower.
Right: One of the fragments of tenth century carving now inside the church porch.


Anglo-Saxon windows

The three round windows have survived from the last of the Anglo-Saxon churches at Avebury. The ring of holes allowed willow to be woven across the aperture to minimise the number of birds flying in – the use of glass in windows was still in the future.


There was considerably more Anglo-Saxon activity in the environs of Avebury. To the south, forming the skyline when seen from the henge, is the Wansdyke. This was a strategic military defensive earthwork, probably built in the first half ninth century when the kingdom of Wessex only extended as far north as this ridge. To land the north, where Avebury is situated, was officially part of the Mercia. In practice it was probably 'debatable lands' subject to cattle rustling and other raiding activities.

Wiltshire as we now know it only came into being after 825 when the forces of Egbert of Wessex defeated the armies of Beornwulf of Mercians at the battle of Ellandun (probably fought near Wroughton).

The name 'Wansdyke' probably comes later, and seemingly derives from the valley from Lockeridge to Knapp Hill once being known as 'Woden's dene ('shallow valley'). The photograph at the head of this page shows the Wansdyke (now a line of trees) where it is cut by the road running along this dene.


Adam's Grave

Adam's Grave – formerly 'Woden's beorg' – seen from the end of Woden's dene.

At this time the Neolithic long barrow we know as Adam's Grave, at the south-western end of this dene, was known as Woden's beorg (pronounced 'bury' and here indicating a burial mound). There had been a battle here in 592.

Between Avebury and the Wansdyke is the village of East Kennett, situated on the south side of the River Kennet. This was the site of a batle with the Vikings in 1006. Also the church here was recorded in a boundary charter. Which is very unusual as churches are usually in the centre of settlements, not on the boundaries. See East Kennett churchstead

In case you're getting confused about spellings, the River Kennet is spelt with one 't' while the settlements of West and East Kennett are spelt with two 't's. Except by archaeologists, who befuddle everything by referring to 'West Kennet long barrow'. It should be 'West Kennett long barrow' as it is named after the parish. Similarly the double row of megaliths should be West Kennett Avenue.

Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary


Other articles by Bob Trubshaw relevant to Anglo-Saxon Avebury:

Weohs and stapols why Waden Hill is so named.

Places of Anglo-Saxon worship

Anglo-Saxon inauguration sites and rites a possible origin for the King Sil legend associated with Silbury.

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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs

Overview of prehistoric Avebury and environs

Altars not burial mounds

Henges – brands or performances

Henges – dead or alive

Simulacra photos

Sound in the prehistoric landscape

Avebury sunrises and sunsets

Avebury and environs in the Roman period

Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary


Wiltshire battles

Understanding the Wansdykes

Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

Overview of medieval Avebury and environs

St James' – from minster to mother church

St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

The 'barber-surgeon'

Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history

Overview of twentieth century Avebury

Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

photo gallery