Tag Archives: neolithic

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.


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.

Wigber Low

The area this farm sits on is particularly rich in traces of the past — with two mounds here, and Wigber Low just across the road. It’s a fascinating site, and unlike the mounds here (descriptions upcoming), was excavated in the early 70s and a monograph published/edited by John Collis.

I got the story of how this happened — an amateur (and now accredited) archeologist and son of the farmer down the village took his metal detector up there and found some precious metals — the dagger perhaps? I can’t remember all of the story, I apologise I was too tired to blog this right away. He let local archeologists know of his finds, and that there was more to be found — did they come look and find some gold perhaps? How can I not remember? But I don’t. Still, the upshot is that a Derby paper got hold of it and printed a small story about gold found on Wigber Low, and the next weekend there were carloads of treasure hunters coming up from the city…thus this emergency excavation took place lead by the University of Sheffield to rescue it, and it was so rich it was continued for several seasons.

A picture from the excavation:


Pictures from my own visit — approaching it from the other side of the wall you see in this photo:

Wigber Low

And now facing in this same direction. The nicer direction. The view they gave their dead, with another burial sight in the distance — the largest in the area — Minning Low. This is the best place to really feel sure you have found it:

Wigber Low

And the full view from atop what I do believe was one of the mounds, but there isn’t honestly too much to see:

Wigber Low

It really is stunning.

wigber lowIt’s very technical this book, and represents the collective analysis of many different people looking at the evidence collected here — often in the pouring rain and high wind. It is highly descriptive — both in terms of methodological jargon and findings. I did very much love how much reflection was included — problems in the evidence, places where human error was introduced, things that could have been done better. How better to make use of very early computing and data systems. I feel for them, some things are easier now.

But the meaning of this site and the glimpses of the lives of those buried here remain almost as buried in these pages as the objects among the stones for a slightly voyeuristic enthusiast such as myself. They come through briefly, like a bit of sun. The small spear, perhaps belonging to a child. The amber bead. The fact that light spears were probably carried by women, and they were buried with them, as well as knives. A male and female buried along with a side of beef…

It is clear this site had meaning to the people living in this area for a very long time — there are layers of ceremony and human activity. Found here was a flat-topped stone platform — the first place identified where the dead were left exposed in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age. There are a scattering of teeth and phalanges — and likely that larger bones were removed to be reburied (collections of such mingled bones of the ancestors have been found in barrows), though it was not discovered where they were interred. The cairn was made larger at some point, but they could not be sure when. Possibly the bronze age. The bones of at least 30 individuals were found here.

It was used in the iron age and Roman period as well, possibly some folks lived up here, but just as likely it was just some poor dude sat on the hill watching sheep.  I feel for him too.

But most interesting, is that seven Anglo-Saxon burials were also found here, cut into the cairn. Probably a family group. They were partially excavated in the 19th century — like the ones here on the farm — with just a shaft sunk down, disturbing lots and dragging forth some treasure that now sits in the British Museum.

These are, of course, the graves that yield the most information about the people within them. But still, it is so little…but they felt some connection to this mound created by much earlier peoples to desire burial here, and they were not alone in this as other Anglo Saxon burials have been found cut into neolithic cairns.

This was also a site of medieval lead working, with numerous pits dug into the hill, and smelting happening on its top. Slag thus mingles with the other remains.

I felt I didn’t quite know enough to glean much from the expert discussions, but it was interesting to see how many people contributed to elucidating what the excavations produced, as well as the main sections examined: human remains; environment and subsistence; pottery; stone objects; metal, bone and glass; coins; lead working.

One last note, the earliest mention of the name Wigber Low is from a manuscript found in Belvoir Castle, dated about 1230 — it is named Wygebericlow. -ber perhaps relates to a barrow, low to hlaw or mound, and Wig from personal name Wicga.

One last look — the view behind me of Wigber Low’s sharp profile as I carried on my way:

Wigber Low







Stanton Drew Stone Circles

I’ve always been a bit of a frustrated archeologist — it was a road started and then not taken. But my youth was full of books about Hittites and Ancient Egypt, watching Michael Faught examining arrowheads while babysitting us, volunteering at the museum in downtown Tucson putting storage pots together — but of course volunteering was not sustainable for a poor kid without a car. I got a minimum wage summer job and that was that.

There is such richness here, but not having a car (again the car) makes everything a little difficult. It was a bit of a surprise getting here on a lovely walk from Pensford, an easy bus ride from Bristol. It was in an old guide book (though surprisingly accurate and nicely sarcastic) and mentioned the neolithic stone circle as an aside only. Some extra scenery.

But wow.

Stanton Drew Stone Circles

I have since looked up, only to find it is the third largest in the UK behind Stonehenge and Avesbury. In finding out more, there is the English Heritage site, but if you want the really detailed and juicy stuff, you can look at ‘Stanton Drew 2010’, a report by John Oswin and John Richards, of the Bath and Camerton Archaeological Society, and Richard Sermon, Archaeological Officer, Bath and North-East Somerset (BANES).

They include in their report an 1896 drawing done by Charles Dymond, a railway surveyor. Quite simply it is beautiful.

It shows the different circles as they relate to one another, along with ‘the cove’, a set of three more stones we stumbled across when we naturally paused at the pub, called the Druid’s Arms. These relationships are almost impossible to see from the ground, but here it all becomes a bit more clear:


With today’s technology, archeologists create maps like this one, showing how much more there is to this site than the eye can capture unaided:


But really, it was nice to discover for ourselves, to measure out the circle with our steps and let our fingers trace the stones. Then come home and add more layers on to that. Though I’d like to go back.

Stanton Drew Stone Circle

Oswin, Richards & Sermon write:

The visibility of the monument site at Stanton Drew from the surrounding countryside might have been an important factor in the location of the site. Higher ground surrounds the low ground of the River Chew basin where the stone circle site is situated and an approach from a low level would have meant that the site could not be seen, the seclusion giving a sense of privacy…Streams enter the main river here from Dundry and Norton Malreward to the north and from the Stanton Wick area to the south… During the Neolithic many sites were placed close to rivers, water sheds and water sources as can be seen at Stanton Drew.

We approached from the south, there is no real view of the water.

The stones from the beginning fascinated me, most of them in the great circle rusty red, pitted and starred with tiny crystals and geodes, festooned with spiderwebs and lichens.

Stanton Drew Stone Circles

They are Silicified Dolomitic Conglomerate of Triassic Age (circa 248–205 Ma). Oswin, Richards & Sermon write:

 The rocks have a glassy, metallic appearance and feel and the surface has been described as pitted, pock-marked, frothy, knobbly and gnarly. There are abundant quartz geodes that make many of the stones sparkle, William Stukeley (cited in Lloyd Morgan 1887: 39) remarks that “it shines eminently and reflects the sunbeams with great lustre”. Quartz was a highly significant and regarded material in prehistory as indicated through its use in various monuments (Lewis n.d.). There are some silicified fossil fragments from the remains of limestone clasts within the conglomerate.

We found no fossils damnit! But the rock remains beautiful:

Stanton Drew Stone Circles

Stanton Drew Stone Circles

Stanton Drew Stone Circles

Stanton Drew Stone Circles

I took some uninspired pictures of the Oolitic Limestone, which I accidentally purged. I wanted to go back after reading this:

The surface of the blocks resembles a limestone pavement and there are numerous natural cup-shaped depressions and pits that partly fill with water. At many rock art sites flat slabs of stone are found that are open to the elements and after rain, any cup-and-ring marks fill with water; also rocks with natural cup marks are often utilised for the same effect. It could be that places where rocks ran with water or held water were culturally significant in many ways (Fowler and Cummings 2003: 10). It is possible that some of these limestone slabs at Stanton Drew were not intended to stand or were intended for use as capstones.

There was an interesting grouping inside the circle, being resolutely occupied by a middle-class family with no conception of sharing or situational awareness. We hovered for a while, but eventually moved on. We were paused in the middle of an eight+ mile walk after all.

The southwest circle has a very different feel, more elevated, the rocks much smaller.

The SSW Circle is situated in a more prominent position on a brow and commands a wider and more panoramic view of the surrounding countryside particularly when looking to the west along the valley towards the Severn Estuary where the high ground of Blackdown and the Mendip Hills is clearly visible. The different positioning of the SSW Circle might suggest a differing thought process or even a different period of construction.

Stanton Drew Stone Circles

Stanton Drew Stone Circles

I had a moment here reading this report — I realised apart from a simple fascination with a past so distant we can only barely imagine it I am also fascinated by something else, and this is part of it (though why this is a ‘new’ thing for archeologists is a bit bewildering):

Archaeologists are becoming increasingly aware that monuments help to shape the perception of landscape, possibly altering both the form and content of a landscape; helping to promote and create senses of time, place and notions of identity and belonging (Goldhahn 2008: 57). It is then feasible that monuments were constructed to occupy a permanent place in the landscape and were intended to exert an influence on any future occupants of that landscape.

Is that not what we do as planner, as activists, as community, as architects? So the question is what senses of time, place and belonging are created here, and what do we seek to create in our time? And how many ways is this contested, subverted? What brilliant imaginings this inspires. I am thinking. It makes me want to write, fiction is perhaps the best way to explore such thoughts.

The village of Stanton Drew is lovely, the cat was immensely friendly (joy), and the pub good.

Stanton Drew Stone Circles

I’m glad we stopped at the Druid’s Arms, driven by hunger and thirst but thus ensuring we did not miss the Cove somehow skipped by our guidebook, and the presence of what many argue are the remaining stones of a long barrow (the stones here are Dolomitic breccia by the way, different from the majority of the stones from the circles)

Stanton Drew - The Cove

As we drank down a pint and ate lunch, this became the scene of prayer and grief by a circle of friends or possibly family, history a palimpsest perhaps. These stones still hold meaning.

I rather love the history of archeology itself, and the stories of myths and theories that arise around such sites, and how people’s treatment of them has changed over time, this report does not disappoint on that front, which is lovely.

The first mention of an archaeological find at Stanton Drew is by an anonymous source writing in 1666 or later: “… (a stone) being newly fallen, in the Pitt, in which it stood, were found the crumbes of a man’s bones, and a large horse-bell, with a skrew as the stemme of it” (Hearne 1725: 507). This is reminiscent of the discovery of the barber-surgeon’s remains under a stone at Avebury (Smith 1965: 177–8).

There have been changes to the stone circles in the last few centuries. Aubrey (Aubrey et al 1980: 47) wrote in 1664 that the villagers break the stones with sledges to get them out of the way, and he was told they were much diminished in the last few years. Later, the villagers would tell Seyer (1821) that a century earlier many stones were broken up to mend the roads. However, the villagers then seem to have decided to leave the stones alone, and Long (1858) said it did not appear that any stones had vanished since Stukeley’s visit in 1723. The John Woods, father and son, the Bath architects, visited the site (Wood 1749), (Wood 1765). John Wood, the son, claims to have carried out an accurate survey. His text does indeed support this, but his diagrams are fanciful, being aimed at proving his intent.

Our little guide book noted that the measurement of Wood’s Moon Crescent in Bath  is based on that of  the great circle.

Some stones were toppled deliberately. It seems this was also done at Avebury in medieval times and the stones left lying on the surface; other stones were buried in pits. The purpose cannot have been simply to clear the land for cultivation as it was not particularly effective, and it is assumed there was a superstitious motive (Smith 1965: 176, 179–80).

I’m glad something of them still survives, along with a version of the local superstition given by English Heritage:

The most persistent tale is that the stones are the petrified members of a wedding party and its musicians, lured by the Devil to celebrate on the Sabbath and thus being punished for their revels.

Which sounds like the myth that exists for every group of standing stones anywhere. Either villagers or priests or note-takers of history had very little imagination.

After lunch we walked off westward, along what the guidebook described as an ancient approach to the circles. Hard to know now, but I like to think it true: