Tag Archives: Avebury

Avebury in the ages of copper, Iron and steel

I knew of Avebury for stone circles and avenues, for its Neolithic wonders, I hadn’t realised the wealth of barrows and earthworks from more recent times. ‘Recent’ used loosely.

The Age of Metals (2400 BC — 50 AD) ushered in the end of the great monuments such as Windmill Hill, Knap Hill, the stone circles of Avebury and the Sanctuary. Earth continues to be moved, but increasingly in defensive ways and the relationship with the dead changes. We see new forms of burial in single graves with goods, distinctive Beaker pottery and the first items of metalwork.

But of course there is still much continuity. Many graves were built on top of older graves, into older graves. The last identifiable act of deposit into the Avebury henge ditch probably took place in the first quarter of the 2nd millenium, and it contained worked flints, sherds of vessels in two fabrics, a sheep/goat metatarsal and a carved chalk ball. I love these miscellaneous sacred items identified more with the earlier period and a very different system of value…because of course people will continue their traditions, will have memories of older ways. I wonder what this change felt like.

Individuals were now buried, not left to become fragments of bone in a collective tomb. Several of them were buried crouched at the base of the standing stones with bowls and beakers.

Burials in such locations could have been undertaken with full respect for earlier sacred traditions for which these monuments stood. But whether intended or not, these actions did bring about a change in meanings. Certain monuments were becoming ‘personalised’, in the sense that they now had close contextual relationships with particular individuals or social groups. (129)

Thus we have the beginning of round barrow mounds for 1 to 12 people. There are over 300 in the Avebury area, and having walked so many miles of it they are the most distinctive apart from Silbury hill. But even the giant mound of Silbury is oddly hidden, only visible here and there in this great rolling landscape. Here it is peeking above the horizon in the dead centre between the barrows.

Barrows line the hills, particularly along the ridgeway. Left unplowed amidst the vast arable, they are now even more visible as stands of trees, but still they would have been distinct across the horizon in ways in few long barrows were.

Here the Overton hill barrows without trees:

Few of them are wealthy individuals, only one such ‘Wessex’ burial has been found of an older woman with gold and bronze. Pollard and Reynolds write:

The peripheral situation of the Manton Barow in relation to Avebury might even bespeak of the unacceptability of ostentatious funerary displays in the zone surrounding the earlier monument complex. (134)

I know others have noted this shift from an openness and collective humility to a hierarchical display. Carolyn Merchant, for example, writes of it as taken for granted in the collection I’m working through now, Uncommon Ground. Still, to experience the materiality of this in such a place is quite something.

These stands of trees are quite beautiful.

Much has also been written, of course, about how this hierarchy connects to permanence in the landscape, and we begin to see extensive field systems and the establishment of permanent settlements on Marlborough Downs. These do not encroach on older neolithic sites and archaeologists have encountered few remains there. This is also the time of hill forts, which include Oliver’s Castle, Oldbury, Rybury and the Martinesell/Giant’s Grave complex, but we remain unsure what they really mean. Oldbury at least was occupied, but Cherhill Down where it sits had been occupied on and off since the Mesolithic. This is the one we visited but there is little left beyond a hint of ditch. A good sign about livestock though.

The builders oriented all houses and barrows south-easterly.

Marlborough downs have a patchwork of old systems that we struggled a bit to see ourselves, but have been subject to extensive excavation and documentation.

It seems to have become an oppidum or regional centre, but By the arrival of the Romans, this was most likely ‘a bit of a backwater‘. There is much here about the shifting fortune of place.

The Romans (43-450AD)

Their material culture appeared before them — arriving over a century before the conquest of Claudius. Likewise it seems that the ‘the influence of Late Iron Age tribal geography upon the Roman administrative districts is probably considerable‘ (150). This area seems to have remained a bit of a backwater, though villas and settlements are known to have been built at Windmill Hill, East Kennett, Cherhill, Oldbury among others, with a small town at the foot of Silbury Hill. A number of settlements were tied to the Ridgeway, while others sat alongside the Roman road of ‘Yatesbury lane’. They form a highly ordered landscape, through alternation between cultivation and pasture. Though I like the note that their domestic waste was spread across fields (hence the scatter of shards and things) so not too orderly.

We traveled the old Roman road for a way.

It runs into the A4 at Silbury, it’s interesting that that is where the Romans chose to settle. We climbed Waden Hill, and there is nothing left now to see.


It’s interesting thinking about how culture shifts and hybridises — and the nature of the relationships between one people and another. The Romans started building barrows too, and potentially started leaving coins and votive offerings at older long barrows. Of these ‘hoards’ it is hard to tell what was hidden, what lost, what sacramental. They also seem to have built a temple on Overton Hill inside of the hillfort, this continuity of religious spaces is well known elsewhere. They remained occupying the land until a generation into the fifth century. But I still wonder quite who ‘they’ were. They couldn’t have been all Roman or all Celt, couldn’t have had a completely unified culture. We look backwards and see so little.

The Anglo-Saxons (450-1100)

Avebury apparently initially flourished under the Anglo-Saxons and much has been excavated but little published (by 2006, I didn’t look up papers, they are often too much for me). The hillforts were probably first defended by the Britons against the Anglo-Saxons, and then some like Oldbury Castle later reoccupied. But there is this incredible structure — the Wansdyke, a great earthwork I had never heard of.

Watts writes that Wansdyke was probably built by the Britons to keep out the Saxons advance from the north in the late 5th century, that it probably existed by 778 as the quaddum vallum mentioned in a charter, and it is described again in 825 as the Ealden Dic (Old Dyke).

L.V. Grinsell described the Wansdyke as ‘…one of the most spectacular experiences in British field archaeology‘ (as quoted in Watts). I probably agree (though my experience is limited).

Here it crests the horizon:

This part of Wiltshire seemed almost always to have a strange haze, but even on warm yet grey day, the Wansdyke is a spectacular walk. We found it again in West Woods, but there it is diminished…

Watts argues it would have in the end been taken by the Saxon advance from the south under Cynric and Ceawlin in the 6th century. He also mentions the strategic point where the dyke crosses the Ridgeway, known as Red Shore. We walked through this point without realising. Gah. Perhaps because we were looking ahead to the great long barrow known as Adam’s Grave against the sky.

This is the site of at least one, probably more battles but it is those between the West Saxons and the ‘Upper Thames Saxons’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 592 describing that ‘In this year there was a great slaughter at Adam’s Grave, and Ceawlin was expelled’ by Ceolwulf. He died the following year, and Wessex was then ruled by Ceol. (As quoted in Watts, p 63). There was a second battle there in 715 between Ine and Ceolred.

The Saxons developed a new public way alongside the Roman Road (Yatesbury road) and the Ridgeway. It is called the herepath, or Green St, now known as the Wessex Way — also a lovely way to walk.

They built a settlement using the henge as a part of the defense, and possibly also used the henge to keep livestock at need. There seems to have been a minster here, making this a clear centre yet ultimately Avebury diminished. Pollard and Reynolds write:

it is possible to suggest that Avebury is a failed small-town of later ninth- or tenth- to early eleventh-century date (Reynolds 2001b). (207)

Damn. Apparently failed towns are a new area of research, and the more I think about it the more I see why…

This is an area of open-field (planned, champagne) countryside, which generally started around the 10th century — but it is hard to know quite when it happened here. The Overton charters reference headland, furlongs and yardland. No charter exists for the area of Avebury however. Saxon graves were inserted into the barrows on Overton hill, which was common practice among those not converted to Christianity.

There was also the execution field. They write

On a clear day, if one looks due south from in front of the Red Lion public house at Avebury, the location of the gallows can be seen as a faint ‘v’ on the horizon which marks a break in the short stretch of dyke visible from the henge. A human figure is surprisingly discernible, even from such a distance…(233)

We did try it while awaiting our bus back to Swindon, and the henge seems to get in the way…

Medieval period

The henge came into cultivation in 12th and 13th centuries, without seeming to damage the stones, but this changed in the 14th century. Up to 40, and perhaps more, of the stones in both henge and along the avenues were buried, though it is uncertain of over what stretch of time. Another wave came in the 18th century, this time better documented. Some of the stones were burned as well as buried. But why some and not others? There is speculation that it was the division of land into plots, with some owners doing so and others not, which makes sense I think.

There’s one last mad story about a graveyard found at the base of Sanctuary Hill by a Dr Toope, who wrote a letter in 1685 to antiquary John Aubrey about bones having been uncovered by workmen. No evidence has been discovered, but that may be because he removed ‘bushells’ of bones to make medicine.

Nice.

Also a final observation on today’s parish boundaries still oriented to the neolithic landscape.

Watts also notes however, that parish boundaries in the area tend to cross the Wansdyke, which means they predate its construction, predate the Saxons…rather wondrous.

Pollard, Joshua, and Andrew Reynolds (2006) Avebury the biography of a landscape. Stroud: Tempus.

Watts, Kenneth (1993) The Marlnorough Downs. Bradford-on-Avon: Ex Libris Press.

Neolithic Avebury

This part of Wiltshire is best know for expansive chalkland, a scatter of sarsens across the landscape. Also called ‘greywethers’, they are ‘the only remainders of the Eocene here; pockets of hard sand originally set within a softer and easily-weathered matrix’ (Pollard & Reynolds 14). We sought them out in their natural habitat.

Watts (1993) writes that before the sarsen cutters depleted them for local building, they could be used as stepping stones from Delling to Clatford. They were being squared off and sold up through 1938, the last cartloads going by barge along the Avon-Kennet canal to Windsor castle. It was a dangerous occupation, and cutters died young of silicosis and exposed on the hillsides. Curiously they don’t all split easily, and many were attempted and then left.

Of course, it was those placed here in Neolithic times that I cared most about.

This place was being used long before then, a stop over for the people of the Mesolithic — Cherwell hill was used as an ongoing camp at least, a place people stayed off and on. Earlier archeologists spouted theories left and right but seems that we are more and more reluctant to commit ourselves to any one defined belief of how people moved across the landscape in these prehistoric days. The record tells us little.

There are more signs of occupation from the Early Neolithic (4000-3000 BC), we walked near to the Roughridge pits, which mark the beginnings of creating monuments in this landscape that still remain. They were followed by two long mounds, one at least covered several burials and was constructed within sight of the Roughridge settlement.

The creation of monuments has been seen as symptomatic of new attitudes to place, landscape and the natural world (Bradley 1993,1998). Their construction served to ‘alter the earth’ in a way rarely seen during the Mesolithic, creating permanent landscape features that marked socially and mythically important places… (29)

At this time it was a ‘treescape’ rather than open downs, and trees are described as sources of food fuel and timber, but also ways to hold memory within their clearings. In some ways we can know so little, but science has brought improved ability to trace people’s passage through the underlying geology of their food (crikey), and they traveled fairly large distances. One such study shows that a woman buried with three children at Monkton-up-Wimbourne had originally most likely lived in the Mendips 80 km away, traveled to Cranborne Chase and gave birth to two children. She returned to the Mendips to give birth to the third, then returned to Cranborne Chase.

But mostly we look still to what has been buried, preserved. Evidence of settlements like Hemp Hill in carefully dug pits where objects have been buried though the structures people lived in were fleeting and have left no trace. Archaeologists believe such pits, some colour coded through soil and pottery in dark and light, marked a link, an attachment with places. They describe a certain ‘persistence of place‘ (cf Barton et al 1995), a regular returning to familiar spaces (40). I like too archaeological descriptions of their lack of imprint on the earth beyond their monuments, which ‘seem so permanent and enduring compared with the ephemeral settings of routine existence that Barrett has spoken of Neolithic life as ‘a process of becoming, a movement towards a future state which was described by reference to ancestors or to gods and where life might be spoken of as ephemeral‘ (1994, 136 p 45).

I’m not certain what I think of that, but both the sentence and the life thus lived have a certain poetry.

This is a map of Neolithic presence in Avebury’s landscape.

Map of Avebury – http://www.avebury-web.co.uk/avebury_map.html

Windmill Hill is perhaps the most significant monument over time in this landscape. We did not get here somehow, the timings and circuits were not right, but we did see it from over the path of West Kennet Avenue.

On Windmill Hill lies the greatest early Neolithic monument — a great oval enclosure enclosing nearly 8.5 ha. Bronze Age burial mounds cut into it. This hill, along with Knap Hill and Rybury also offer beautiful vistas across a country, which when wooded would have offered few such. There are various theories about the enclosures’ connection with the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture and that it represents a lost communal longhouse. There is greater consensus that such a structure is an act of enclosing space, setting it apart, surely of symbolic significance. What I love most though, is that this enclosure is not complete.

The permeability of the enclosure created by the broken sections of ditch implies a lack of concern with exclusion, of people, animals or things, allowing access and egress from many directions. This and other evidence, such as the occurrence of many different pottery styles, some in non-local clays, indicates the participation of large numbers and a range of people in activities at the site (Whittle et al 1999) (50)

It was also filled with animal burials.

We did get to Knap Hill it is splendid, the views above all as there is very little to be seen.

It stands across from a hill with a great long barrow on it — Adam’s Grave. This belongs to the period that follows those of the great enclosures. A number of these were built, more than have survived. They were

‘deliberately sited on locations that had witnessed earlier activity; as such they ‘elaborated upon a landscape which was already composed of significant locations, whether natural landmarks or places associated with particular events or practices’ (Thomas, 1999, 203 quoted on 59).

Many of them are located on vegetational or soil boundaries. Adam’s Grave is the one with the greatest view, here from below:

And here looking over to Knap Hill. This whole escarpment was wondrous looking out over the Pewsey Valley. The Saxons would fight long and hard over this, but more on that later.

West Kennet was the largest long barrow, used like the others for burials of fragments of bone over time. Both West Kennet and Adam’s Grave also contained oolitic limestone, which contrasts white with the grey stone, and had to be brought here from Frome-Bath-Atworth region.

The Later Neolithic period (3000-2400 BC) saw continued use of these areas — a continuity of memory. West Kennet barrow for instance, remained a focus of continued mortuary deposits and then became a repository for an infill of chalk, bone and other materials — but a purposeful one, with contrasting materials in different areas. They don’t make too much of these contrasts but I find them quite significant. They are not all on hills, we found this one in the West Woods covered in bluebells, obscured by saplings.

This is a period when the land was opening up, not so wooded but no evidence of cultivation until the end of the third millenium BC.

This is when Avebury stone circle was built. Deposits of worked flint, pottery, fragments of bone and skull at the bases of the greywethers. Pollard & Reynolds argue it should be seen as a continuation of whatever belief system underlay the enclosures of Windmill Hill, Rybury and Knapp Hill. Built on is it is, it is almost impossible to get a sense of the whole. It is experienced now in quarters, in bits and pieces created by the road.

A map of Avebury and its remaining stones without the village and the road driven through it.

The people here built additional structures at Beckhampton, West Kennet Palisades, the Sanctuary. Avenues connected Beckhampton and the Sanctuary (2.4 k) with Avebury, though almost nothing remains of them. That from the Sanctuary contains a sudden jog as it comes to it’s final third before Avebury — possibly to ensure a turn and then the monument opening up before you. This avenue was also laid out to cross an older occupation site, and a gap was left in its western wedge where it crossed the densest part of the old settlement. Pollard and Reynolds write:

The Avebury avenues brought together disparate places of significance in the landscape, creating connections not only between different parts of the landscape, but, because those places often had long histories of activity, between the past and the present. (105)

Nothing remains now of the Sanctuary but markers showing its complex arrangement of circles of wood and stone. It’s marvelous, and rediscovered by Maud Cunnington, ‘lady’ archaeologist of the 1930s who is never named in the signboards so you never know it was a woman running these early digs, yet who excavated a number of these places. This is directly alongside the ridgeway, but sadly also the A4.

The final monument is Silbury Hill — the largest prehistoric man-made mound in western Europe. MAN-MADE MOUND. Or human-made mound we should say. They built this, rising 37 m above the valley floor, base diameter of 160 m. Like the middens and infills of different colours, this hill was also made of contrasts. The primary mound at the base of turves brought from elsewhere.

The reasons are all opaque to us, but its presence demands a reason. There is some thought that the wooden constructions like the West Kennet palisades are perhaps versions of the Avebury circles for the living. Silbury hill a transition point. Reading about this landscape I found Silbury Hill perhaps the least interesting but seeing it…

It is extraordinary, and perhaps more so knowing that people are still not sedentary in this landscape. But they soon will be.

A last more detailed map of where we know they might sometimes be found while living, where their dead remained.

Sources:

Pollard, Joshua, and Andrew Reynolds (2006) Avebury the biography of a landscape. Stroud: Tempus.

Watts, Kenneth (1993) The Marlnorough Downs. Bradford-on-Avon: Ex Libris Press.

Avebury Walk: Adam’s Grave and Knap Hill, Gopher Woods, West Woods, Fyfield Downs

This was a wopping 17.94 miles before my phone died, and the pub in Lockeridge closed down for refurbishment — so many pubs are gone. We felt the tragedy in a most visceral manner. But Knap Hill, the escarpment over Pewsey Valley was incredible. And the bluebells in Gopher Wood? Some of the loveliest I have ever seen, not to mention the hollow way leading down to Alton Priors. Road not taken…

More about these wondrous things from Neolithic times here, and for all things Roman, Saxon and Medieval here.

Avebury Walk: East Kennet to Wansdyke to the roman Road, Oldbury Castle, Avebury

I’ve finally started mapping these. This was an astonishing 16.6 miles, no wonder we didn’t make it to Windmill Hill. But it was a most splendid birthday, follow by prosecco and chocolate cake back at the Old Forge.

More about these wondrous things from Neolithic times here, and for all things Roman, Saxon and Medieval here.