Exploring the ‘first place’ in the stonehenge landscape

The terrace trench, shown in the foreground, yielded most of the team’s 5th millennium BC radiocarbon dates and their only Neolithic one, bringing us closer to bridging the gap between the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods in the Stonehenge area. Groups of people mark other trenches. (Photo: Tom Lyons)

Ongoing excavations at Blick Mead, an ancient spring on Salisbury Plain, have revealed an unprecedented array of evidence for large Mesolithic gatherings and extravagant feasts taking place just over a mile from where Stonehenge would be built thousands of years later. Now the project has produced signs of the site’s life continuing into the Neolithic period, shedding new light on the origins of a ritual landscape. David Jacques, Tom Lyons, and Tom Phillips report.

Stonehenge can justly claim to be one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world, but much about its origins and the choice of its location on Salisbury Plain remain a mystery. Although recent archaeological investigations have revealed stunning new details of the monuments that sprang up in its immediate vicinity during the 4th and 3rd millennia BC (see CA 296 and 320), less attention has been paid to establishing the area’s ‘back story’. The nearby Neolithic settlement of Durrington Walls has been identified as the likely home of the community that raised the celebrated stones (CA 208), but until recently no residential sites pre-dating the late Neolithic period had been identified within the entire area of the World Heritage Site (WHS). This was all set to change with the excavations at Blick Mead.

Since 2005, University of Buckingham archaeologists have been exploring a site about a mile from Stonehenge, which lies beside an ancient spring known as Blick Mead. Despite initially limited resources and restricted access to the site – which mean that in the past 11 years, we have had barely three months of excavating days at the spring, including just one weekend of work a year for the first five digging seasons – the site has yielded truly remarkable evidence of extensive and enduring activity during the Mesolithic period (see CA 271 and 293). Recently announced plans to transform the stretch of the A303 that runs past Stonehenge into a tunnel have raised concerns for the archaeology’s survival, however: it is feared that a suggested flyover that forms part of the development will be constructed only metres from our site, affecting the local water table and threatening its organic remains.

To date, we have recovered over 35,000 pieces of worked flint – as well as tools that suggest far-reaching contacts, among them a Horsham Point, a microlith type from the Sussex Weald, though made from slate that could have been brought from as far west as Wales – plus 2,420 pieces of animal bone and 126kg of burnt flint that speak of extravagant feasts having been held beside the spring. Analysis of these remains by Durham University and the Natural History Museum reveals that around 60% of the animal bone comes from aurochsen, a kind of large prehistoric cattle. Killing just one of these animals would have provided food for 200 people, and at least seven aurochsen are represented among the Blick Mead finds. This is taken to be a conservative estimate, however, and radiocarbon dating of the remains reveals that such animals were being eaten at the site between 6650-4722 BC. Taken together, these finds hint at large gatherings of people, potentially drawn from far afield, coming together for sumptuous feasts beside the spring over a long period of time. More exciting still, they represent tantalising traces of the earliest residential and activity area yet found in the WHS.

Dogged digging

As for what attracted these crowds to the site, Blick Mead lies within what would have been excellent prehistoric hunting grounds. Since the mid-1990s, it has been known that, during the 9th-7th millennia BC, the Stonehenge landscape was an area of open and lightly wooded country, with vegetation kept low – perhaps thanks to the regular presence of the large herbivores, notably aurochsen, which we now know to have been present here at the time. The environment’s plentiful natural vantage points would also have been invaluable to Mesolithic hunters. Given this bounty of advantages, it is therefore not surprising that human activity at Blick Mead seems to have been strikingly long-lived.

Overlooking the excavations at Blick Mead, just beside the A303. Recently announced plans to replace the part of the road that runs past Stonehenge with a tunnel have raised concerns for the site’s safety. (Photo: Qinetiq – Boscombe Down)

Our excavations have yielded a remarkable sequence of radiocarbon dates for the site, comprising 16 results spanning every millennium between the 8th and 4th BC. Such a series is unique in north-west Europe, while the eight dates from the 5th millennium BC are the only such yet recovered from the Stonehenge landscape. These results are exciting in their own right, but they also represent an important new set of data that brings us closer to bridging the temporal gap between the Mesolithic and Neolithic phases of activity in the Stonehenge area.

Such dates lie right on the cusp of the early Neolithic, and from this transitional period we have a number of illuminating finds, including a dog’s tooth that indicates some of those present at Blick Mead in the late 5th millennium BC had undertaken long journeys to visit the site (CA 321). The tooth was analysed by Bryony Rogers of Durham University, who found that it had belonged to a large species of dog, probably similar in build to a modern Alsatian, and perhaps used for hunting. Strikingly, Bryony’s analysis of oxygen isotopes preserved within the tooth enamel revealed that the dog had grown up far from Salisbury Plain, perhaps in eastern or northern England, or, latest analysis suggests, possibly as far north as Scotland. Meanwhile, carbon and nitrogen isotopes tell us that the dog had enjoyed a diet very similar to what we know humans were eating at Blick Mead – aurochs, deer, wild pig, and fish – which suggests that the living animal had travelled with its owner to the spring rather than the tooth being carried, perhaps as a talisman, and lost or deposited there.

So far, no human remains have been found at Blick Mead, but as dogs are taken as a proxy for people, we have tangible evidence of a long journey to the Stonehenge area. Such undertakings by both people and animals are well attested in the 3rd millennium BC, when Stonehenge was in its heyday, but this small tooth, like many of the finds from Blick Mead, suggests that the area was regarded as in some way special long before the formal Neolithic ritual landscape was established. The overall sense is of people from elsewhere meeting locals at an important hub, where they would hunt, feast, and exchange ideas, objects, and maybe even genes.

Dwelling in the past

For all this evidence of large congregations, however, until recently we did not know where the people of Blick Mead were living. Recent excavations on a terrace adjacent to the spring, undertaken in short episodes between 2014-2016, have changed this. Here we found a large tree throw (the space left by a fallen tree), which appears to have been deliberately modified in the very late 5th millennium BC to create what is thought to be the earliest dwelling yet identified in the Stonehenge landscape (CA 310).

Finds supervisor Christine Smith and local student Lucy Clarke examine some of the 35,000 pieces of worked flint so far been recovered from the site. (Photo: Andy Rhind Tutt)

Unmistakeable signs of alterations by human hands include a series of pebbles that have been pressed into the sides of the 3m-wide space – perhaps serving as revetments to support the hollow’s natural ‘walls’ – as well as two postholes that may have originally held timbers supporting a thatched or animal-skin roof. Close by, we found a large assemblage of intensively fired burnt flint, which also contained fragments of animal bone, tool-making debitage, and ochre pods (possibly a source of pigment). There were hints that this was more than a handy shelter and workspace, however: within the interior of the tree throw were aurochs teeth, a worked sarsen river pebble that may have been used as a meat tenderiser, and tiny microliths that were too small to have had any obvious practical use.

This terrace area was the source of over half our 5th millennium BC radiocarbon dates. Spanning c.4236-4041 BC, they make Blick Mead one of the latest Mesolithic sites in England – but, arguably more importantly still, they also bring the transition from Mesolithic hunter-gatherer to Neolithic farming culture into a human scale and personal focus. Rather than imagining Neolithic newcomers imposing their ideas on an empty landscape, it seems entirely possible that the grandchildren of the people who left these traces, or even the people themselves, could have been the first to meet the incomers who arrived in the area at around this time. This sequence also overlaps a date previously obtained from a ‘cow bone’ found beneath Sarsen 27 at Stonehenge itself, which has long been understood as the first Neolithic date in the area. Might Blick Mead be set to steal this title? Or is this a sign that Mesolithic culture was still persisting in the area and that the Stonehenge knoll was still special, as evidenced by the first monument building there in the 9th-7th millennia BC, when a number of timber posts are known to have been erected (CA 293)?

Certainly, one radiocarbon date from the site is indisputably Neolithic in nature, and this too comes from the terrace beside the spring. Just above and to the side of the tree throw, we found a simple scoop – a find that might appear deceptively unprepossessing at first glance, and one whose function remains unknown, but one that held very promising clues. A sample taken from this spot yielded a radiocarbon date of c.3636- 3507 BC – another solidly Neolithic result – along with 70 mid-Neolithic blades.

Mind the gap

The dating evidence from the scoop puts us in mind of another enigmatic find, held to be the earliest Neolithic monument in the Stonehenge landscape. This was found on Coneybury Hill, and is an early 4th millennium BC ceremonial pit known as the ‘Coneybury Anomaly’. It takes its name from the geophysical techniques that brought it to light, but could just as well stem from its intriguing contents. The pit held a striking mix of material that could reflect both Mesolithic hunter-gatherer and Neolithic farming cultures. Feasting refuse dominated by wild animal remains was mingled with flint tools reminiscent of types from both periods, as well as more distinctively Neolithic pottery fragments, leaf-shaped arrowheads, and cultivated grains. It is tempting to view the Anomaly assemblage as the product of large-scale feasting and the meeting of two different material cultures. Could we see Blick Mead as a similarly transitional site, bridging the gap between Mesolithic and Neolithic practices?

Blick Mead’s eponymous ancient spring in all its glory. (Photo: University of Buckingham)

Further clues to this crossover came towards the end of our latest excavation on site, when a volunteer member of the sieving team found a rare rippleflaked oblique arrowhead in the layer immediately above the Mesolithic occupation area. This type of tool has previously only been associated with later Neolithic ritual sites: in Wessex, parallels are known from Marden Henge (CA 314), Durrington Walls, and Bluestonehenge (at the start of the Avenue). Its presence at Blick Mead is therefore highly significant, as it suggests that the site was well known and valued as part of the wider Stonehenge ritual landscape as late as 2500 BC. If so, might this be because the area’s inhabitants understood it as some kind of place of origin, as was recently argued by our team and Mike Parker Pearson?

Perhaps we could even go as far as describing Blick Mead as the ‘first place’ in the Stonehenge landscape, one that endured throughout the Mesolithic period and beyond as a culturally significant site. The ancient spring is proving a fount of knowledge about how the pre-Stonehenge environment was known and utilised millennia before the establishment of its famous monument. In the near future, the late Mesolithic may emerge as a new starting point for understanding the area’s better-known archaeology, with Blick Mead at its heart. If the construction of the Stonehenge tunnel and associated developments do go ahead as proposed, however, will these fragile remains survive, and with them their revolutionary new insights about the early establishment of this landscape?

Further information

D Boric, D Antonovic et al, Holocene Foragers in Europe and Beyond (papers presented at the 9th international conference on the Mesolithic in Europe MESO 2015), Oxbow Books, forthcoming 2017. For more information, and to contribute, visit https://highwaysengland.citizenspace. com/cip/a303-stonehenge/.

This feature appeared in CA 324.

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