In CA 271 we brought you news of astonishing Mesolithic finds at Vespasian’s Camp on Salisbury Plain, a potentially game-changing site for our understanding of the Stonehenge landscape.
With the site about to star in the first episode of a new BBC archaeology series, we caught up with project director, Buckingham University’s David Jacques, to find out the latest.
CA: Why did you choose this site to investigate?
DJ: As a student working on a project in Amesbury, I wondered why Vespasian’s Camp was such an archaeological blind spot. When I realised that it was because of assumptions about the extent of 18th century landscaping, I investigated further and found that an area northeast of the camp was largely untouched.
In 2005 I met VC’s Site Custodian, Mike Clarke, for the first time, who also thought this area was interesting – it has been a twinkle in his eye long before anyone else. He allowed a small team of us to explore a feature assumed to be an 18th century pond over a weekend, and by the end of that time we knew we were in fact dealing with an ancient spring head containing pristine prehistoric artefacts.
CA: In a nutshell, what have you found?
DJ: The oldest settlement in the Stonehenge area by far, with the longest time depth of use – an incredible c.3000 years (radiocarbon dated to 7500-4750 BC). It looks very likely that we have found the community which put up the first monuments at Stonehenge: the 9th-7th millennia BC pine posts found beneath the Stonehenge carpark.
CA: What’s new since your feature in CA 271?
DJ: We have two new radiocarbon dates, 7596-7542 BC and 5469-5320 BC (see CA 275). These are hugely significant because they mean we have a sequence of dates running through every millennium from the 8th-5th millennia BC, seriously strengthening the argument for regular visits to the site across this period. The early date chimes connects directly with the date of post ‘B’ in the Stonehenge carpark, and is in range of the other post. When Josh Pollard, Mike Parker Pearson, and Peter Rowley Conwy visited the site in April, Josh Pollard said: ‘your team has found the community which put up the first monument at Stonehenge.’
Peter Rowly Conwy has also identified an area along the spring line which might have been a lagoon for canoes. We have all felt for some time that log boat transport would be a perfect way in and out of the site, and our site’s wood supplies, plus the fact that we have found 7 tranchet axes there – more than has been found across the whole of the rest of Salisbury Plain – suggests VC would have been a good place to make them.
Mike Clarke has noticed that the spring area has an extended growing season, something confirmed by Peter Rowley Conwy. This may have attracted the large animals to the site whose remains we have found – we now have 350 bones. Given that Star Carr, the biggest-known Mesolithic site in NW Europe, has just over 800, but found over a 60 year period, our site has the potential to be even bigger.
Finally, we also now have the results for analysis of ReadingUniversity’s first environmental sample from the Mesolithic contexts. The soil is alkaline, so it has destroyed much of the pollen, but there are traces of dandelion (which suggest nearby disturbed ground – animal trampling?) and alder. We also have microscopic particles of charred material. Barry Bishop says that the amount of burnt flint we have is suggestive of nearby hearths.
CA: Who do you think was using this site?
DJ: Due to long period of activity at VC, we think we are dealing with relatively stable communities, living semi-permanently on site, who were regularly visited by, and visited, groups from a widely dispersed area. We have evidence for potential large scale feasting, fires, and instances of cross cultural exchange (the slate tool – see below). This site boasted incredibly good resources: year-round food, easily accessible fresh water, large animals to hunt, plenty of material to make shelters and canoes from, good fuel sources, good flint, and an extended growing season at the spring (important for tempting animals down). It is also sheltered from the prevailing south westerly wind – when I was last at the site in early April there was a snow storm and the camp felt like it was still the warmest place in the Stonehenge landscape!
CA: Why is this site so important for our understanding of Stonehenge?
DJ: Our radiocarbon dates link the earliest Mesolithic monuments at Stonehenge to almost the start of the Neolithic. These are unique dates for Stonehenge. Previously there was no evidence of meaningful Mesolithic occupation of the landscape, and now we are looking at a place which may have kept traditions for practices in and around Stonehenge alive for 3000 years before the Neolithic establishment of the ritual landscape. We are also getting glimpses of what those practices were, including hunting huge animals. Animals like the aurochs may have been symbolically as well as physically powerful, and we have a huge amount of aurochs bone at VC. Might the Stonehenge area have been a sacred ground where widely dispersed communities came to hunt? Is that why the posts are there?
Our finds challenge the orthodoxy that there was little Mesolithic presence at Stonehenge and that what there was died out long before the Neolithic revolution. In fact, there could be a much more interesting story of cultural appropriation or merging. Some of the data coming out of the site has the potential to rewrite ideas about the British Mesolithic.
CA: Do you have a favourite find from the site?
DJ: The slate tool, because this material is totally exotic for Stonehenge. This piece is likely to come from the west somewhere, and yet it has been worked in the style a Horsham Point, a tool type from Sussex. This is exciting evidence for cultural exchange and throws up profound questions about language and communication between groups as well. It is also the only prehistoric slate tool ever found in the UK, which is nice!
CA: Can members of the public see any of your finds?
DJ: Yes, there is a brilliant exhibition at Amesbury Museum, which is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I would encourage everyone to go – you can see a really good selection of the stone tools, bones and burnt flint there, plus lots of excellent photos. You can also talk to people who have worked on site. Find out more on the museum’s Facebook page.
CA: When will you next be working on site?
DJ: Funding permitting, we hope to be there in the autumn for a week or so. If we‘re lucky with funding and the water levels are low enough, however, it would be great to get there in late summer.
CA: There has been a huge amount of media excitement about your findings, and now VC is going to be on TV. How does it feel to have so much interest in your project?
DJ: It is completely surreal for those of us who have been involved since the beginning, because this project has been so small-scale, running on the tiniest budget, and we have had barely 30 days on site. But on the other hand, we have all had this creeping realisation that we are dealing with a potential game changer for Stonehenge studies, and so many academics and prehistorians – Dave McOmish, Mark Bowden, and Jim Leary from English Heritage, Professors Tony Legge, Peter Rowley-Conwy, Tim Darvill, and Richard Bradley, to name just a few – have all been really supportive and encouraging of our project.
We feel a mix of being truly lucky, amazed, but also proud of what we have achieved. ‘It has been a really special project which has genuinely closely involved the local community of Amesbury, as well as many OU students. They have been integral to many of the identifications and ideas generations on site (for example, local resident Tim Roberts was the first to come up with the log boat concept). In a way, all of our periodic visitations to the site, bringing together dispersed groups alongside a settled community, and which involve feasting and cultural exchanges (especially on the Saturday nights!) may mirror some of what was happening at the site many thousands of years ago.