West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury, Wiltshire
Text by Tim Darvill
West Kennet long barrow, the biggest in southern England at more than 100m long, sits along a ridge overlooking the River Kennet amid one of the richest archaeological landscapes in Britain. The mound is rather uneven and there is a marked cut through it towards the eastern end. Although sometimes described as the line of an old trackway, this cutting may show that there are two long barrows here set end to end. Only further surveys and excavation will tell, but it is an interesting possibility.
The mound is built of chalk rubble quarried from a pair of flanking side ditches which have long since silted up. In good conditions, however, the outline of the northern quarry ditch can sometimes be seen as differential crop growth. The eastern end of the mound was originally elaborated by a facade of upright slabs between which were panels of dry-stone walling.
This edging may have continued round some or all of the rest of the barrow, although nothing of it remains to be seen. In the centre of the east end was a shallow forecourt, in the back of which is the entrance to a passage that gives access to five cells: two opposing pairs and an end-chamber.
These were constructed of massive sarsen orthostats, making this one of the largest known chambers amongst long barrows in the Cotswold-Severn region. The excavation of the end-chamber by John Thurnam in 1859 revealed at least six burials, while the investigation of the four other chambers by Stuart Piggott and Richard Atkinson in 1955-6 revealed another 40 or so burials. Most were incomplete and disarticulated, but there were exceptions. Radiocarbon dates on human bones from the chambers suggest that these burials were deposited about 3500 BC.
By about 3000 BC the West Kennet long barrow had fallen out of use as a place to deposit new burials and eventually the chambers and passage were filled to the roof with rubble and soil admixed into which was abundant cultural material including pottery, animal bone, personal ornaments, worked flint and a few pieces of human bone. The forecourt was filled with boulders and three large stones were placed across the front in line with the flanking horns to create a truly monumental facade. This blocking arrangement has been restored and therefore makes entry to the chambers rather difficult and certainly not very authentic.
The main things to look for at this long barrow are: the monumental facade and the use of panels of dry-stone walling; the construction of the chambers (but ignore the modern roof-lights and concrete pads on top of the mound); the axe-sharpening marks on some of the orthostats inside the chamber; the size and position of the mound; the depression in the mound; and the relationship of the long barrow to nearby but slightly later monuments such as Avebury, the Sanctuary and Silbury Hill. The East Kennet long barrow, the same size as West Kennet but never excavated, can be seen from West Kennet in a group of trees across the valley to the southeast.
Further reading: Piggott 1958; 1962; Atkinson and Piggott 1986; Thomas and Whittle 1986.