Salisbury Plain is renowned for its spectacular Neolithic monuments, but decades of research have found few traces of earlier activity in the Stonehenge landscape. Now the discovery of the plain’s oldest residential site has uncovered evidence of 9,000 years of ritual and domestic activity, beginning three millennia before Stonehenge was built, as David Jacques, Tom Phillips, and Tom Lyons explained.
About a mile east of Stonehenge, an impressive promontory rises out of Salisbury Plain to around 95m above sea level. Situated close to the Avenue and Bluestonehenge (CA 237), commanding extensive views over the river Avon, and surrounded at all points of the compass by important prehistoric and historic sites and monuments, this spot might be expected to have held pivotal cultural significance for the plain’s early inhabitants for its location alone. But until our small-scale Open University excavations began in 2005, the Iron Age fortifications cresting the hill had received little archaeological attention.
Dubbed ‘Vespasian’s Camp’ by the Elizabethan antiquarian William Camden — despite having no connection to the Roman commander (and later emperor) who subdued Britain’s southwest in the aftermath of the AD 43 Roman conquest (CA 196) — the full archaeological potential of the 2,500-year-old hillfort only started to be appreciated recently. While its substantial ramparts enclosing a 16ha space have earned the site Scheduled Monument status, it was widely assumed that much of the Camp’s archaeology had been destroyed centuries ago.
In the 18th century the Marquess of Queensberry commissioned major landscaping works to the grounds surrounding Amesbury Abbey — later the Antrobus Estate — transforming them into gardens with ornamental walkways, grottoes, and extensive tree planting.
It was thought that the hillfort had been included in this project — a belief which, together with the fact that the Camp has been in private hands since the Tudor era, helped to create and reinforce conditions whereby Vespasian’s Camp became an archaeological blind spot in an area world famous for its archaeology.
Springing a surprise
This all changed following research of documents relating to the site and nearby farms. Examining property deeds and estate records revealed that the Camp itself had escaped significant landscaping, and in 2005 our fieldwork started. Following a meeting with landowners Sir Edward and Lady Antrobus, and their Site Custodian Mike Clarke, we whittled six possible targets down to one: a low-lying hollow northeast of the Camp, outside of the scheduled area, known as Blick Mead.
Over a long weekend that autumn, a team of 20 recovered over 200 worked flints through test-pitting and surveying, ranging from early Bronze Age-Beaker scrapers to Mesolithic tools. We also made another important discovery: a water feature, hitherto assumed to have been an 18th-century pond, was neither so simple nor so recent. Geologist Peter Hoare identified it as an ancient spring — the largest of a complex of such in the immediate area — while Reading University’s Head of Environmental Science, Nick Branch, suggests it might have once been part of a seasonal lake. As well as being increasingly regarded as ‘special places’ in the early landscape, springs have potential for excellent preservation conditions. With Blick Mead’s close proximity to such a wealth of archaeological sites and the river Avon, it was clearly a promising target for closer investigation. We have returned to the site every year since, but it was only recently that the spring yielded its most exciting finds.
Since 2010 we have started to uncover a very large amount of Mesolithic material in three small trenches around the spring, sealed by a layer of silt. Previously only scattered handfuls of Mesolithic material were known from Salisbury Plain, with the largest assemblage comprising 50 pieces of worked flint, found on King Barrow Ridge about a mile from our site. Our findings have dwarfed this: around 10,000 pieces of struck flint, several kilograms of burnt flint, and over 300 pieces of animal bone. Forming a layer 12cm thick, these finds were described by Professor Tim Darvill during a recent visit to the site as ‘the most important discovery at Stonehenge in many years’.
These thousands of tools include an impressive range of implements, from microliths, backed blades (used for making knives, arrows and other composite tools), and burins for working bone and antler, to notched tools (perhaps for cutting sinews or stripping bark to make baskets) and scrapers, as well as cores and knapping debitage representing all stages of the production process. We have also recovered three tranchet axes, a significant haul given that only 5 have ever been found in the whole Salisbury Plain landscape before.
Virtually all of these tools are in pristine condition — indeed, they are still so sharp that some of the team cut their fingers on the blades — suggesting they were either knapped in situ or deposited in the spring/lake shortly after manufacture. The flints are currently being examined in detail and catalogued by lithics expert Barry Bishop, funded by a grant from the Wiltshire Unitary Authority. Barry suggests that the thick layer of worked flint exposed by our trenches could represent a deposit carrying on for hundreds of metres more — perhaps, as put forward by Nick Branch, forming a jetty or platform seasonally revealed when water levels dropped.
Barry also highlighted the fact that we have some tool types which are usually found outside Wiltshire, such as Horsham points, typically associated with the 8th millennium BC. Most intriguingly, we also recovered a small worked slate point shaped like a microlith: the only prehistoric slate tool we know of ever discovered in the UK. By itself this would be interesting, but the fact it was found in a Mesolithic context just over a mile from Stonehenge makes it very significant. Tim Darvill says the slate is a kind of metamudstone, which would make the tool more durable. We are still trying to determine the provenance of the stone. There is no slate in the Stonehenge area — indeed, the nearest source we know of is in north Wales. It could have been fashioned from glacial erratic, though we are not aware of any such slate erratics in the vicinity. The alternative is that this points to a significant movement of people and ideas, pre-dating what went on at Stonehenge by thousands of years. All signs point to this site being regarded as a special place to gather.
Mesolithic missing link
More exciting still, interim conclusions suggest that at Blick Mead we have found evidence for a rare type of Mesolithic domestic site termed a ‘homebase’; a living place repeatedly revisited by families. As well as being a focus for toolmaking, it appears that the spring was also the venue for huge feasts. The large quantities of burnt flint — rarely found with such abundance in secure Mesolithic contexts – indicate cooking and the heating of water.
Cambridge University’s Tony Legge, who worked on the faunal remains from Star Carr, Britain’s largest known Mesolithic settlement (CA 264), analysed the hundreds of cooked animal bones found at Blick Mead and found that 60% came from aurochs. These very large extinct wild cattle were the most powerful animal in the landscape — weighing in at around 1.5 tonnes they were twice as heavy as a modern cow — and probably the most symbolically potent too. Two radiocarbon dates obtained from a fragment of aurochs bone and a tooth have shown that the occupation of the site was no short-lived event, with activity spanning the period from 6250-4700 BC. The latter end of this range provides the only radiocarbon date from between 5000-4000 BC ever recovered from the Stonehenge environs and brings us within range of the Neolithic – presenting us with some huge questions. What is the connection between our site and that of Stonehenge? Could it provide the long-sought ‘missing link’ between the Mesolithic and Neolithic on Salisbury Plain? Blick Mead’s ‘homebase’ is the oldest place of residence ever found in the area. Have we found a site which was used for so long that it became a repository of stories about traditions of local veneration?
The only other known Mesolithic ‘place’ in the landscape is the site of the enigmatic posts found underneath Stonehenge car park in 1966 (CA 212). Dating to somewhere between 8800-6600 BC, these appear to be ‘marking’ the future location of Stonehenge as somewhere special, representing the first monumental features in the landscape. With the posts just a mile from Blick Mead, can these sites be linked as points of cultural significance in the millennia preceding the construction of Stonehenge? Perhaps this is a key reason for the later siting of the Neolithic monument.
Nearby, ‘Bluestonehenge’ (constructed around 3000 BC) also stands immediately adjacent to a spring, which was formed at around the same time, and as a result of very similar geological conditions and processes, as ours at Blick Mead. Mesolithic flint work has been found close to this site as well, which raises another tantalising question: were Salisbury Plain’s ancient springs treated as very early sites of veneration? And did the practices in and around them later become monumentalised in the Neolithic?
While Blick Mead was clearly an important centre of human activity during the Mesolithic period, archaeological evidence has shown that occupation at the site continued for thousands of years afterwards. English Heritage Inspectors David McOmish, David Field and Mark Bowden identified a multi-phase field system beside the spring, with Bronze Age origins and use continuing through the Romano-British period. Subsequent excavations by Open University students and local Amesbury residents confirmed this span of activity, uncovering artefacts from across the date range.
In 2008 we found a copper-alloy dagger refashioned from the tip of a Middle Bronze Age rapier. With only one rivet securing the blade to the handle it was probably too flimsy to have been functional. Perhaps this implement had some kind of ceremonial purpose. The object had been bent, broken, and placed in the spring. Together with a Middle Bronze Age chisel found last year, CambridgeUniversity’s David Barrowclough suggests that in around 1400 BC the spring was being used as a place of ritual weapon deposition.
Adding to this picture, in 2010 a seven—year-old girl— the daughter of one of our local volunteers — discovered two ‘duck-shaped’ pieces of flint together in the spring. There is some debate as to whether they were deliberately shaped, or whether this form is due to natural processes, but they were likely to have been representational objects chosen for special deposition. Waterfowl are a known feature of late Bronze Age/Iron Age ritual iconography, traditionally linked with the veneration of some form of fertility or healing goddess. Duck imagery associated with the worship of the goddess Sequana was found at an Iron Age shrine, later a Roman temple, at a springhead in the LoireValley, for example.
Moving into the Iron Age, in addition to our work at the spring, we have been able to carry out a basic survey of the hillfort itself. Vespasian’s Camp’s univallate enclosure is believed to have been constructed in c.500 BC, with little or no evidence of later Iron Age use previously known. After inspecting badger sets, molehills and tree throws along the bank and ditch of the western rampart, however, our team found a pottery assemblage pushing the occupation of the hillfort into the late Iron Age, close to the time of the Roman conquest. According to Wessex Archaeology’s Lorraine Mepham, some of this pottery might have come from over 50 miles away, suggesting that the Camp was an important centre for trade and the movement of people at this time.
The discovery of a likely Romano-British lead curse tablet in the spring, unrolled but found not to have writing in it — something not uncommon in the late Roman period — adds to our sense that this site continued to be seen as a place for depositing ritual items for many generations. Roman finds at Blick Mead have been very limited, perhaps suggesting that by this point the spring had become a private shrine, possibly associated with a Roman villa recently identified just across the A303. Completing this picture, a 5th-century Anglo Saxon disc brooch (from the spring line at the foot of the hillfort), and Medieval wooden staves found in the main spring, connect the site to the earliest Anglo Saxon settlements in Amesbury, and the later Amesbury Abbey periods. Clearly this was a special place for the long durÃ©e.
Time after time
Before our work, there was no known evidence for the Camp and its surrounds playing a significant part on Salisbury Plain in any period. Yet now our spectacular results have led an English Heritage team to describe the site as ‘potentially one of the pivotal places in the history of the Stonehenge landscape.’ Thanks to the contributions of Open University students, increasingly large numbers of Amesbury residents, and colleagues from other companies and institutions, we have started to reveal a much more significant story of the Camp’s place in the landscape, and of Blick Mead, which may have been the focus for ritual practices over 9 millennia.
This could potentially provide the narrative between Stonehenge’s hitherto missing Mesolithic context and Stonehenge itself, as all the other archaeological research in the area so far has not identified a significant pre-Neolithic presence. Could this place be the cradle of Stonehenge – the reason why it is where it is?
Source: Open University tutor David Jacques has directed excavations at Vespasian’s Camp since 2005. Site Supervisor Tom Phillips, is a Project Officer for Oxford Archaeology East, and Site Supervisor Tom Lyons is a field archaeologist, formerly of Oxford Archaeology East.
We would like to thank Sir Edward and Lady Antrobus for allowing us to work on their property, as well as the over 100 students from the OU, all the Amesbury residents who helped to find such an exciting new story about their town, and Amesbury Town Council for supporting our work. Without these people a really important part of Amesbury’s and Stonehenge’s history would never have been found and there would be no ‘Brown Badge for Amesbury’s Historic status’, as awarded in 2011, or new museum, for which the land was bought this year.