Revealed: The World Heritage ancient stone circle at Avebury is FAKE – with photographs


The ancient stone circle at Avebury is one of Britain’s greatest archaeological treasures. It is Europe’s largest stone circle, a World Heritage site and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

But an extraordinary set of photographs just released by Historic England reveal a chapter in the site’s history that many aren’t aware of.

The images show a group of men in the 1930s erecting the stones.

The archive images reveal the ‘restoration’ work taking place in the tiny Wiltshire village 90 years ago. With trucks, ropes and pulleys, the workmen are seen transforming an apparent empty grassy space into what we think of as the stone circle today.

The old photos show the team excavating hidden stones, moving them into chosen positions and standing them upright on new concrete plinths, which are then hidden with soil.

Newly digitised photographs reveal that the ancient stone circle at Avebury is actually a restoration by fabulously wealthy marmalade tycoon Alexander Keiller, carried out in the 1930s. Above, some of Keiller's men work on an excavation around an unidentified stone in the henge at Avebury

Newly digitised photographs reveal that the ancient stone circle at Avebury is actually a restoration by fabulously wealthy marmalade tycoon Alexander Keiller, carried out in the 1930s. Above, some of Keiller’s men work on an excavation around an unidentified stone in the henge at Avebury

The release of the images immediately shocked enthusiasts. After some were shown to a Facebook specialist group, their horrified comments included: ‘I had no idea the circle is a restoration! I now no longer have the sense of awe and reverence I previously had of the circle.’

The ‘Ancient and Sacred Sites of Avebury’ Facebook group has more than 3,000 members who are fans of the prehistoric site. One commented: ‘We have no way of knowing if this disinterment and re-erection is a true replication of that original. Now I feel I was conned by my own romantic imagination.’

Historic England released the 550 digitised photographic slides for the first time on its website last month and they are freely available to the public. We reproduce some of them here.

The release of the images immediately shocked enthusiasts. After some were shown to a Facebook specialist group, their horrified comments included: 'I had no idea the circle is a restoration! I now no longer have the sense of awe and reverence I previously had of the circle'

The release of the images immediately shocked enthusiasts. After some were shown to a Facebook specialist group, their horrified comments included: ‘I had no idea the circle is a restoration! I now no longer have the sense of awe and reverence I previously had of the circle’

The ancient stone circle at Avebury is one of Britain's greatest archaeological treasures. It is Europe's largest stone circle, a World Heritage site and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year

The ancient stone circle at Avebury is one of Britain’s greatest archaeological treasures. It is Europe’s largest stone circle, a World Heritage site and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year

The rest are available to view at historicengland.org.uk.

The story they reveal is that fabulously wealthy marmalade tycoon Alexander Keiller had bought much of the land at Avebury, including the manor where he lived.

Keiller was a keen amateur archaeologist who was fascinated by the occult and sun worship. It was Keiller who financed the ‘restoration’ of the village’s ancient monument.

Fabulously wealthy marmalade tycoon Alexander Keiller carried out the restoration work in 1937 and 1938. One Avebury expert says: 'Keiller did a pretty good job actually. The stones are pretty much in the right places, although one might be upside down'

Fabulously wealthy marmalade tycoon Alexander Keiller carried out the restoration work in 1937 and 1938. One Avebury expert says: ‘Keiller did a pretty good job actually. The stones are pretty much in the right places, although one might be upside down’

In the specialist archaeological world it has always been known that Keiller did major work at the prehistoric site on the chalk downs near Marlborough in 1937 and 1938.

One Avebury expert says: ‘Keiller did a pretty good job actually. The stones are pretty much in the right places, although one might be upside down.’

Mike Pitts – broadcaster, author and a leading expert on the Avebury site – adds: ‘There’s nothing controversial in these new images, but of course nowadays we wouldn’t do it like that.’

Nevertheless, to the non-specialist eye, the newly released pictures seem very surprising. Men in shirts, ties and waistcoats are seen posing alongside the ‘ancient’ stones they have just erected and set in concrete. Trucks, gunpowder and heavy machinery was used in the reconstruction process.

Keiller’s ‘restoration’ was necessary in the first place because, amazingly, the stone circle had been almost completely destroyed over the previous centuries.

Keiller dug up stones that he found buried, re-erected fallen stones and, most controversially, added concrete markers where he thought stones should be

Keiller dug up stones that he found buried, re-erected fallen stones and, most controversially, added concrete markers where he thought stones should be

The Neolithic standing stones had been repeatedly demolished between the medieval period and the 18th century. The majority of the stones from the site were destroyed or buried.

The huge sarsen rocks were heated by bonfires, then smashed to pieces. It was part of a project by Christians trying to remove traces of a pagan civilisation.

 People may think sites like Avebury and Stonehenge are untouched ancient monuments, left by our ancestors just as we see them today, but these fascinating photos show the extent that modern interpretation has contributed to their current appearance

In the 1930s, Keiller set out to restore the world’s largest stone circle in the way he thought it should look. He dug up stones that he found buried, re-erected fallen ones and, most controversially, added concrete markers where he thought stones should be.

He even demolished buildings that didn’t fit in with his idea of how the newly reconstructed stone circle should look.

The Avebury World Heritage Site is just 17 miles north of Stonehenge and is much larger and older than its famous neighbour.

It covers almost nine square miles and includes Silbury Hill, Europe’s largest prehistoric mound and the underground tombs at West Kennet Long Barrow.

West Kennet Avenue, lined by standing stones, leads for over a mile to ‘The Sanctuary’, yet another stone and timber circle.

Over the past 20 years, the stones within the Avebury complex have come to be seen as sacred objects, particularly at the solstice.

Unlike Stonehenge, people are able to walk right up and touch Avebury’s stones. Bizarrely, visitors have been known to press their ear against stones ‘to listen to ancient voices’ or hug them to feel their ‘energy’.

The more bohemian visitors are the most likely to be disappointed by the revelations that the stones were only erected and set in concrete just 90 years ago.

A spokesperson for Historic England said the slides were not new – but only recently made public: ‘The slides were catalogued around 18 years ago but only digitised in the past couple of months. They’ve only been widely accessible (through being digitised) for the past month or so.’

These images show the Avebury site before Keiller's restoration work

These images show the Avebury site before Keiller’s restoration work

The image shows the finished restoration in 1938

The image shows the finished restoration in 1938

The two images above show the present-day Avebury World Heritage Site, which is just 17 miles north of Stonehenge and is much larger and older than its famous neighbour

The two images above show the present-day Avebury World Heritage Site, which is just 17 miles north of Stonehenge and is much larger and older than its famous neighbour

Mel Barge, inspector of ancient monuments at Historic England, said: ‘In the late 1930s, Alexander Keiller cleared away nearby buildings and re-erected many stones. These images reveal how Avebury and the West Kennet Avenue looked in 1938 and 1939 before and after excavation and restoration work.

‘People may think sites like Avebury and Stonehenge are untouched ancient monuments, left by our ancestors just as we see them today, but these fascinating photos show the extent that modern interpretation has contributed to their current appearance.’

Nevertheless, the images will change the casual visitor’s impression of the site to see that most have only been standing since 1938, some are supported by concrete plinths, some are upside down, some are missing and imagined stones are marked by concrete posts.

‘Oh no, this is such a shock,’ said one regular woman visitor. ‘The experts may have known about all this for years, but the photos spell it out for the rest of us. I go there walking with my dog every week – but it will never feel the same now.’



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