Tag Archives: barrows

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.

Farm archaeology: barrows, mines and medieval fields

The farm archaeology is fascinating here, and best of all there is a folder full of articles and reports on what can be seen, and what experts know about it. The information here comes from a report done by Frank Robinson in 2001 (FR), an English Heritage designation report (EH), and a lovely packet put together by a Geography teacher for the local secondary school (G). These maps are from Robinson:

IMG_2732IMG_2734IMG_2730

The farm sits at the top in the middle. For the farmhouse – the house and stone buildings built in the late 18th and early 19th century, and they originally made cheese in what is now the kitchen (G). The oldest building stands along the lane and supposedly ‘from the lane can be seen a sandstone cheese press block used to fill part of an old doorway’ (FR). I read that too late to go look for it, coming to Glasgow meant I didn’t quite get to process everything. Whitewash (made of quicklime from the lime quarry on the farm itself) mixed with cow’s blood, dung, sand and horse hair worked as building mortar, and this was used in construction of the farm itself, along with more quarried limestone, and rubble infill.

The old shed along the lane:

Farm 3.6

Farm 3.6

The farm itself from the lane:

Farm 3.1

As interesting are the hedgerows – The presence of 8 different woody species age a hedge at roughly 500 years, the hedgerow here is probably about 800 years old due to the presence of 13 different woody shrubs: Hawthorn, Buckthorn, Guelder Rose, Holly, Elderberry, Willow, Hazel, Honesuckle, Field Maple, Field Rose, Dog Rose, Blackthorn and Ash (G).

Farm 3.13

Almost as cool is that the age of the hedgerow may show date of enclosure — Robinson notes that the land was enclosed by agreement so there is no act as such, probably the field boundaries were established by early 19th century. These now serve as windbreaks and habitats for small mammals and birds – wrens, bank voles, badgers, foxes, rabbits. Other plants found here are wood anemone, townhall lock, goldilox buttercup, ground ivy, red campion, dog’s mercury, and lords and ladies (G). For years these would also have been the main source of firewood, and food as well — the tender shoots of hogweed boiled or steamed! Delicious.

Before enclosure these were open fields, plowed in a ridge and furrow pattern which shows the old medieval fields. These ridges were to be found all over the farm, but I found them difficult to see in many places. Apple Sitch Pingle (a name I never heard, this field was always top block) shows them clearly in the late afternoon light however, especially after mowing:

Farm 3.14

Robinson notes the meaning of this old field name – sitch is an old English word for a muddy stream, Apple probably a spelling of Aplow – low old English hlaw – hill or mound. Ap could refer to a hill or lost barrow. Pingle term often used to describe a meadow by the side of a stream.

You climb up to the top of the this and get the most lovely view of the farm and surrounding hills:

Farm 3.5

The next field up is Stanlow Close, between this and Stanlow Nobbs is:

The dew pond

Farm

These were needed before the existence of water mains and hoses. Built to provide water for upper fields, Robinson describes their building as almost a lost art. They were made with a special clay lining to retain water, sometimes ‘puddled with pig manure and dock leaves’. The Department of Agriculture ordered these filled in during the 1950s — there are evidence of several on the farm.

Continuing on to Stanlow Nobbs (limekiln field or the quarry to us) are

The barrows

Climbing up from the other side:

Farm 3.1

And another view of them (and me! Hello!):

Farm 3.1

The view from the top

Farm 3.1

Farm 3.1

From the very dry English Heritage Monument documents: There are two bowl barrows, joined by an earthwork ‘not yet fully understood’. Lucas and Carrington partially excavated one of the barrows in 1869, dated it to Bronze age and found a pottery urn, amber ring, perforated stone axe and bronze 3-rivetted dagger with ivory pommel (the axe and dagger are buried somewhere in the British Museum — they were once thought lost but refound, probably in a pile of things all gathering dust in London. I can’t help but feel they should have remained with their dead, or be found in the local museum). Cropmarks (3 rectangular marks of lush growth in dry weather) show probable location of Anglian secondary burials dating to c AD 700.

This would also be shared in common with Wigber Low — which is visible from here but this view of it makes it seem most unremarkable.

The cropmarks weren’t visible sadly. Robinson gives a bit more information — most such bowl barrows are from the Late Bronze Age, dating between 2400-1500 BC. Of these, there is actually some debate as to whether the smaller of the two is simply a natural mound, as well as the connecting ridge between them. This hasn’t yet been resolved as there has been no excavation since the 1800s.

Just to the other side of them, a rise followed by a dangerous drop off shows the presence of:

The Quarry

Climbing down and around it is beautiful here in the afternoon light:

Farm 3.1

Farm 3.1

Farm 3.1

This area is left uncut and ungrazed through July so rare limestone flora can grow as part of a conservation scheme – Stone Crop, Cowslip, Primroses, Wild Carrots, Sheep’s Bit Scabious and Field Scabious, Yarrow, Meadow saxifrage, Kidney Vetch and others:

Farm 3.1

Two quarries appear on 1850 tithe maps, by 1880 they had been combined and extended. In 1941, the farm owner (Jack Oakes) and a butcher in Ashbourne (Herbert Plumbley) were recorded as operators, and providing crushed Limestone for construction of Darley Moor – Ashbourne’s airfield during WWII.

This quarry is also the site of the

Lead Mine

The two were worked together. I wasn’t sure quite where the seam was to be found, assuming it to be somewhere amongst the rubble in the middle:

Farm 3.1

Lead mining was another way to supplement farm income, and lead was used widely before plastics became available, especially for plumbing. There are a number of records relating to the mining, and showed a number of people in the surrounding area had worked the quarry, not just the farmer. The more recent 20th Century mine shaft has been explored by a local group, and they found evidence of folded iron rails and a wooden sleeper from narrow gauge track, as well as a winching beam standing over a shaft .

Other records are to be found in the Wirksworth Wapantake General Barmasters Book vols 24 and 77, though there were much older workings here as well. The English Heritage records note that this is described as a King’s Field, where the crown has the right to assign mining rights. The below is all from Robinson:

1806 land staked out as Bonyhole (bony hole) by William Bearisford of Weston. I know some of you will find that name hilarious, there is no speculation on its origin.

1938 H.G. Plumbley and John Oakes (the butcher/farmer combo) claimed a vein in the quarry with the Barmaster. In October and December 1948, two others (W.J. Brooks of Wirksworth and John Matkin of Carsington) applied to be given rights to work Bonyhole mine – notice was served on Plumbley on 23rd December ‘that unless his mine, Bonyhole is put in proper workmanship within 3 weeks it will be given away. Notice is also posted at the mine’. The new owner of New House Farm, Major F.C. Linnel-Gosling, then sent his own notice of registration as owner, saying that he had been working since Jan 1948 and that others had unlawfully taken lead from it.

Brooks returned the lead.

As of 1950 when Bob’s father bought the farm, I don’t think there was any longer activity in the quarry or mine.

Close to the quarry is also to be found a gravel pit:

Farm 3.1

Along with ruins of the:

Limekiln

Farm 3.1

Limestone used to be quarried both as a source of income and for the farm itself – quarried limestone was used as a building material of course, but could also be heated in a kiln to produce Calcium Oxide – Quicklime. This was sprinkled in plague graves to reduce infection. It was a also mixed with water to make slaked lime – ie whitewash — which was also known as ‘bug-binding’ as it disinfected walls in houses and barns and got rid of insects. Whitewash, as mentioned at the beginning, could also be mixed with blood, straw and sand to create mortar for building. All in all, limestone is a very useful material.

From the edge of the field you can look into Rye Close

Farm 3.1

Clearly used as a field for planting rye — once the main grain for consumption in this area. This was known to his parents as the football field as there used to be a football pitch on it! Old ridge and furrow is supposed to be visible from medieval plowing, but I couldn’t really see it. I’d have hated to play football on it.

Coming back down the central field you can some more of it though, not so much from the top

Farm 3.1

but further down, where the electric fence now keeps everything safe from the goats.

Farm 3.14

This place was rich in history, and visible markings of the different ways people not just grew food and raised livestock for survival here, but also dug out metals and processed rock. I so loved being part of this.

Strange after thinking of land and history in this way, to wake up to the news that we have left the EU. The area where I was voted overwhelmingly for leave…signs were posted everywhere, and I know a meeting of farmers was held to discuss the issue, and they were all for leave which disappointed the conveners immensely. An American friend asked what I thought about it all and I am still not sure, but this is sort of what is in my head — and I wished for us to remain.

Most of us are pretty depressed, because it feels like a vote for the right wing and xenophobia and racist anti-immigrant rhetoric and insularity and fear… and at the same time there was a strong left argument for leaving because the EU is a neoliberal shit that has been working to build a (metaphorical-ish) wall around the EU to stop all non-white immigrants from getting in (while allowing free movement within it) and pushing austerity and layers of bureaucracy without much accountability, and I’ve heard some argue it’s a working class vote against politics in general, which may be true — but seems as usual cities full of working class and immigrants tended to vote one way and rich and rural people who live in areas without immigrants voted another, with some exceptions for areas in the north that have been truly fucked economically for a very long time. Brixton/South London was 78% remain, and of course scotland also voted remain so another vote for their independence will probably take place again in light of this. It will be years two years at least, of course, before it ‘starts’ and at least one booming job market in legal wrangling and regulation writing. I wish I could celebrate Cameron’s resignation properly but I just can’t.

Many on my facebook feed see it is a failure of the (Blairite) left to respond to concerns of the working class facing stagnant wages and a shrinking economy and fewer and fewer services and opportunities.

But the news has been heartbreakingly unbearable lately, even more than usual. It hasn’t helped too much to spend every day working so hard physically to produce food rather than politically or with community as before, nor helped much to think of how many bloody and horrific periods of history these barrows or the ridge and furrows have existed alongside and survived, but it resets the perspective a little perhaps.

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