Vale of Pewsey

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By Dr Jim Leary

This summer the University of Reading Field School excavated within the landscape between the famous prehistoric monuments of Avebury and Stonehenge in the Vale of Pewsey in Wiltshire. Our excavations focused on two prehistoric henge monuments (Marden and Wilsford) and, with Historic England, a Roman settlement. We also surveyed part of medieval Marden village.

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Marden henge is a truly huge monument, enclosing an area of 15.7 hectares, making it the largest Neolithic henge in Britain. Our excavations focused to the south end of the monument and we uncovered an extraordinarily well-preserved Neolithic building surface. The complete surface was rectangular with a central sunken area, which was dominated by a large hearth. On the floor were flint flakes still lying untouched in the same position they had been left in, and this is one of the best preserved Neolithic buildings in England. Close to the building were spreads of Neolithic rubbish, which incorporated elegant bone needles, as well as flint flakes and decorated ‘Grooved Ware’ pottery. In one area was an assemblage of bones from numerous pigs, clearly representing the remains of a feast. Analysis of the building is ongoing and we do not yet know what it was used for, although we have suggested that it may have been a sweat lodge type building.

We also excavated the Wilsford henge on the other side of the river. This is a much smaller monument and completely flattened by ploughing over the centuries. We excavated through the end of the ditch, next to the entrance of the henge, and discovered that the ditch was amazingly deep – over three metres! Near the bottom was a very well preserved early Bronze Age burial of a teenager wearing an amber spacer necklace.

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The striking feature about these monuments is their relationship with the River Avon, which runs between them. Both monuments face the river, as if access or good views of this part of the river were important, and Marden henge in particular sits within a large sweeping meander of the river. The relationship between these monuments and water was evidently a close one and likely to be key to understanding them. To this end and in order to better understand the hydrology of the river in the past, we undertook a geoarchaeological project along the river valley. This work has produced some very exciting results, including thick layers of peat, and will no doubt add significantly to our knowledge.

Under the guidance of staff from Historic England we also undertook a detailed topographic survey of an earthwork site located within Marden village. The grass-covered site comprises a series of enclosures of varying size, within which a number of building platforms and a network of tracks or hollow-ways have been identified. The enclosures clearly represent multiple phases of activity, with some of the enclosure banks overlying or reusing earlier features. At the eastern end of the site, two small terraced building platforms were recorded associated with a number of small compounds; these earthworks probably represent the remains of a small deserted medieval farmstead. This site is clearly complex and multifaceted, and interpretation work is ongoing.

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The area around Marden henge has seen very little archaeological work, particularly compared to the famous sites of Avebury and Stonehenge to the north and south. However, we now know that there are many other monuments preserved in the Vale of Pewsey, particularly along the upper reaches of the River Avon. These monuments will all be investigated over the coming seasons. There is clearly much more work to be done in the Vale of Pewsey and as we work through the post-excavation over the winter, we look forward to going back next summer.

 

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The University of Reading Archaeology Field School has a new location from summer 2015 – the Vale of Pewsey! Dr Jim Leary will be directing the project over the next few years and below, he explains a little of his background and experience in this fantastic landscape…

Dr Jim Leary

Dr Jim Leary

“As a prehistorian I have always been drawn to Wiltshire. I excavated there as an undergraduate, looking at the Mesolithic site of Golden Ball Hill, and have been digging there on and off ever since. I once even found and excavated a very ancient site there indeed. It was fantastically well-preserved considering it was 250,000 years old, and packed full of the flint tools and hunting residue of one of one of our early hominin ancestors. But it is the ancient Neolithic monuments that are the main source of fascination for me – and a challenge too: there is so much more to discover.

In 2007 I took charge of the Silbury Hill project, working inside the enormous Neolithic mound with a team of miners and archaeologists. It was an amazing experience, to be able to spend so much time actually inside Silbury. There was real concern that a big portion of the mound might collapse as a result of various shafts and tunnels created by past archaeologists and antiquarians. We had to stabilise the structure and make it safe for the future, but this was also an opportunity to gather archaeological information.

In the summer of 2010 I directed an excavation at the huge Neolithic henge at Marden in the Vale of Pewsey. It is the one no-one has heard of, and yet it is the biggest henge of all – bigger than Avebury and about 10 times the size of Stonehenge. One objective was to find the position of the ‘Hatfield Barrow’ – another conical mound, half the size of Silbury. The mound was dug into in 1807 but it collapsed and the remains of it were later removed by the farmer. We assumed it had completely gone but below the soil we found that some of the mound still remained – it was just 15 centimetres high! That is quite a reduction from the original 15 metres, but it did contain dateable material, which showed it to be the same date as Silbury.

Marden Henge

Marden Henge

Also inside Marden henge, we found the best-preserved Neolithic building in England. It wasn’t a house that was lived in, but probably had some other function – perhaps a sweat lodge. The people that used this building will have seen Stonehenge in use – perhaps even worshipped there. There may be more buildings at Marden, and this is one of the questions we need to answer when we go back. The Marden excavations produced other unique finds, including some of the most finely worked flint arrowheads I’ve ever seen. The pottery too, was highly unusual: one clay pot had been coated in bone ash – my guess is that it is human bone, but we’ll never know for sure.

Continuing with the mounds theme I’ve also made the news through my work at Marlborough Castle Mound – or ‘Merlin’s Mound’ as it is known locally. Now in the grounds of Marlborough College, this 19m high mound was once the motte on which Marlborough Castle was built shortly after the Norman Conquest. In the 17th century it became part of an elaborate garden; a spiral path was cut into it and shrubs planted. With the help of colleagues I drilled boreholes deep into the mound from the top. We were able to date some charcoal from the cores which told us that its origins go back to the same time as Silbury Hill; it was a Neolithic mound that had been re-used later on. It was one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments that are so rare in archaeology.

I am now gearing up to go back to Wiltshire. We will be undertaking further excavations in the amazing Marden henge. But more than this – we’ll be looking at a whole plethora or weird and wonderful sites all around it. I can’t wait!”

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