The Ridgeway is about 50 miles long and runs from the top of Overton Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon not far from Tring in Hertfortshire where it joins the ancient Icknield Way after crossing the Thames close to Goring. In prehistoric times the track crossed the chalk downs near Dunstable and went on through Cambridgeshire to the Wash. At the Avebury end old Ridgeway spurs ran south-west to the Bridgewater area on the Bristol Channel, completing a coast-to-coast route, and also to Dorset, reaching the south coast near Weymouth. In Wiltshire just beyond East Kennet long barrow it meets and crosses Wansdyke, a deep ditch and embankment running from Savernake Forest west to Bath and maybe even the Avon Gorge. This is not such an ancient path however and it is thought it was perhaps dug as a boundary between ancient Celtic kingdoms or between lands of Celts and Saxons.
The Wiltshire Ridgeway was part of a whole network of prehistoric hilltop routes and as such was probably the main route bringing long-distance travellers to Avebury from the north, the east and the south-west.
The Sanctuary was constructed at a very important location on this path. Stones arranged in a circular formation were observed by the antiquaries, and the destruction of the site was recorded in 1724 by Stukeley. It was not excavated until the 1930s and it was understood to have been a structure constructed of various materials in different phases. Initially in about 3000BCE it was a small wooden hut with one central post. This was superseded by a larger wooden building almost twice the diameter and with the old central area open to the sky and a second ring of posts supporting the inner edge of the roof. This was superseded by a third wooden building, having three concentric rings of timbers. Finally a megalithic structure was incorporated into this. One ring of stones was set, alternating between the posts of the second circle. Another was located some distance beyond the outer wooden ring, with an added entrance. The three standing stones forming this are believed to mark the thin ‘tail’ end of the Kennet avenue ‘snake’-form. So the total lifespan of the Sanctuary began after the West Kennet long barrow was built and ended when it finally ceased to be used and when the last elements of the Avebury megalithic complex were built.
It appears that the building was used for ritual and ceremony connected with burial or death and may have been a charnel house.
Today the excavated stone and post-holes are marked on the grass with concrete blocks. From the Sanctuary there is a good view of West Kennet long barrow.
Much more clearly visible to the traveller is the line of round barrows on the horizon beside the Ridgeway. These date to a later period, approximately 2000-1800BCE.
Today only one stone remains standing of the small ring. First recorded by Mr Falkner in 1840, it has until very recently been understood as the remains of a twelve-stone feature, with two stones lying on the ground and nine hollow places from which stones were believed to have been removed. The two recumbent stones were removed quite shortly afterwards. Recent work by a joint universities team under Mark Gillings concluded that the hollows were related to stone destruction pits. The partial remains of some stones were found, but the original circle contained just ten megaliths.
Rev. Twining recorded seeing “The Devills Coytes”, another cove-style three-stone setting now called The Kennet Cove, west of the Kennet avenue near some other stones in the early 1700s. By 1723 this had disappeared and its existence was later disputed. It is now believed to have stood near/between the two stones 52B and 54B that lie on opposite sides of the Kennett lane near the A4 junction. The avenue crosses the lane here so the Coytes may have been removed by early roadbuilders/wideners and we will probably never learn more about it.
This is the only pictorial record of the setting. The three tabular pillar-like stones are of similar dimensions. If the drawing is in any way accurate it suggests that these stones might well have been artefactually shaped in a manner resembling either the Stonehenge pillars or stone 13A in Kennet avenue. They appear to be unlike any other stones of the Avebury complex but we will never know.
Isolated fallen stones still remain in the hedgerow beyond this point, between West Kennet and the Sanctuary (see Appendix 1).
It has been suggested that each gap in the henge might have been linked to an avenue. Aubrey reported stone flankers standing outside each one, though this claim has never been considered justified. From the north and east entrances the Ridgeway can be accessed. Beckhampton avenue led from the west entrance.
A footpath on that side of the village street leads behind the houses and into fields. Former megaliths from Beckhampton avenue were used to make the causeway and also the bridge over the seasonally dry Winterbourne which swells quite surprisingly to form a small river. Other large sarsens are clearly visible beside the track. Reporting this in 1879 Bryan King noted that chippings of sarsen remained in the fields and beside the Longstones. He was confirming observations made by Stukeley who believed (incorrectly) that this avenue, like the Kennet avenue, contained 100 pairs of stones and snaked beyond the present Beckhampton roundabout, making a more or less symmetrical layout, representing (when seen from the sky) a snake with a great coil (the Great Circle) in the centre of its body. Recent excavations have confirmed that Beckhampton avenue actually terminates after about 50 pairs where Adam now stands as sole survivor of the Beckhampton Cove. Eve, not actually its partner stone, is the sole standing survivor of the avenue.
These excavations and the fieldwork completed in 1997-2003 by the joint universities team under Mark Gillings, Joshua Pollard and colleagues determined various stone locations though none are marked on the ground, which continues to be farmed. Some had been buried, others destroyed by fire or removed. The locations are numbered L1-16 in Longstones field (Eve being L15), and T1 in the Trusloe field. Numbers L12, L11 and L13 formed the original linear Cove-like setting perpendicular to the avenue at its terminal but it was superseded in antiquity by a new Cove of four stones comprising of Adam (L14) plus stones L15, L16 and L11. Following these excavations the newly-discovered stones were reburied and the ground was returned to agricultural use.
The creation of the avenue marked the deliberate eradication of a former rectangular enclosure with a bank and ditch. Earth was moved from the bank to level the ditch and the avenue passed through what had been the eastern entrance to the enclosure.