The Avebury Papers: digitisation, exploration and creative re-use of a uniquely important archaeological archive.

Lead Research Organisation: Bournemouth University
Department Name: Faculty of Science and Technology


Context: The proposed research focuses upon the dramatic phase of monument construction that characterises the later Neolithic of the British Isles. This is a period that saw the creation of a wide and varied range of megalithic, timber and earth structures, alongside the development of extensive landscapes of linked and interwoven monuments. Nowhere is this more apparent than Avebury, north Wiltshire. A key component of the UNESCO Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, the Avebury henge is one of the pre-eminent megalithic monuments of the European Neolithic, sitting alongside Stonehenge, the Boyne Valley passage graves and Carnac alignments. Its 420m diameter earthwork encloses the world's largest stone circle, which in turn encloses two smaller (yet still colossal) megalithic circles of c.100m diameter - the northern and southern inner circles. Within each of the latter are further complex stone settings. From two of its four entrances lead avenues of paired standing stones that together extend for c.3.5km linking with other monumental constructions. It sits at the heart of a landscape rich in later Neolithic monuments, among them Silbury Hill and the West Kennet palisade enclosures. Avebury has stood at the heart of developing narratives of the Neolithic period in the British Isles - a period of remarkable transformation in the ways in which people understood and engaged with the world. Avebury's history has a resonance that extends far beyond the British Isles, informing research on a range of fundamental questions concerning the European Neolithic such as: what sparked this remarkable period of monument construction? What was the inspiration for the monumental forms we observe? Why were specific locations chosen to monumentalise?

Aims & Objectives: Despite its international importance, detailed knowledge of Avebury is sorely lacking. The only large-scale excavations to take place at Avebury were carried out in the first half of the 20th Century, with an ambitious programme of open area excavation brought to an abrupt end by the outbreak of WWII. As a result, we have only a partial understanding of the range, character and relationships between the features present at Avebury. This lack of understanding is due to a failure to synthesise, integrate and make available the full detail encoded in the archives resulting from this extensive early 20th century work - much of which was methodologically exemplary - as well as much smaller ad-hoc investigations that took place after. This has lead to only partial understandings of this pivotal site, circular arguments, repeated rediscoveries and a serial forgetting of the results of previous work. To rectify this we will complete the work that ended so abruptly in 1939: carrying out unfinished programmes of detailed post-excavation analysis and synthesising the mass of unpublished detail that survives only in archive form. Most critically, we will make the full set of data available and accessible through the design and implementation of an ambitious, open access digital archive, that will provide a baseline from which all future engagements with Avebury can proceed. This will not only support future archaeological and Heritage studies, but is expressly designed to stimulate, foster and nurture innovative public and creative engagement.

Applications & Benefits: The results will have enormous significance for the general public, creative industries and all academic students of prehistory, revealing in detail the origins and subsequent life-history of one of Europe's most important prehistoric sites. They will also allow for effective heritage management (through a fuller understanding of the WHS and its history) as well as enhanced education and tourism potential. Avebury has always been an object of fascination, and as international media interest in recent discoveries has demonstrated, public interest in Avebury is global.


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