Rethinking the early Neolithic Stonehenge landscape

The segmented ditches of the newly discovered causewayed enclosure at Larkhill. The segment running from the bottom left of the photograph to its centre may have formed part of a formal gateway. The remainder of the ditches run up the hillside and pass the group of people. This unexpected early Neolithic monument has major implications for understanding the Stonehenge landscape. (Photo: WYG)

Excavations at Larkhill have revealed a remarkable set of structures superimposed in the Wiltshire chalk. The discovery of a causewayed enclosure is raising fundamental questions about the early Neolithic focus of what would become the Stonehenge landscape, while more recent digging sought to prepare soldiers for the terrors of trench warfare. Steve Thompson, Matt Leivers, and Alistair Barclay told Matthew Symonds about a hillside scarred by both the first farmers and the First World War.

Until recently, Robin Hood’s Ball was the only causewayed enclosure known in the Stonehenge landscape. This earthwork lies about 4km north-west of Stonehenge, on Ministry of Defence (MOD) land beyond the boundary of the World Heritage Site (WHS) centred on the famous megalithic monument. The location of Robin Hood’s Ball seemingly places it very much on the periphery of the Stonehenge landscape. Even if the site does not excite the level of attention lavished on its renowned neighbour, though, the presence of this causewayed enclosure is a crucial part of the story of this area.

Robin Hood’s Ball consists of two rings of banks and ditches that sketch out crude concentric circles, creating an outline not dissimilar to a fried egg when seen from above. One of the signature features of these monuments is that the ditches themselves were not cut as a single trench. Rather than forming a continuous circuit, they consist of numerous individual segments separated by causeways, which have been memorably likened to a string of sausages. About 70 causewayed enclosures are known in Britain, and although their size, number of rings, and even position in the landscape vary, these sites appear consistent in one regard: they are some of our earliest built monuments. Indeed, after long barrows, they were frequently the second earliest permanent monuments to be constructed. Robin Hood’s Ball was raised c.3600 BC, making it a good six centuries earlier than the first element of Stonehenge. The causewayed enclosure was also a century or two earlier than the two cursus monuments that were laid out in around 3500 and 3400 BC to the north-west and north of what would become Stonehenge.

Rather than acting as a Neolithic equivalent to later hillforts, which some causewayed enclosures superficially resemble, it appears that most of these early monuments were meeting places where communities could gather. Blick Mead – located to the east of the later site of Stonehenge – provided a longstanding venue for Mesolithic feasting (see CA 271, 293, 325), but the earliest focus for the Neolithic ‘first farmers’ in life rather than death appeared to be away to the north-west at Robin Hood’s Ball. All of that changed when a Wessex Archaeology team found a new, second causewayed enclosure at Larkhill, placing it north-east of Stonehenge and 4km from Robin Hood’s Ball. It is a discovery that is set to revolutionise our understanding of how this ceremonial landscape developed.

Joining the dots

The Larkhill excavations were initiated by plans to base an extra 4,000 soldiers around Salisbury Plain by 2019. In order to accommodate this influx of service personnel and their families, hundreds of new homes are being constructed. One of the locations earmarked for development is a hillslope at Larkhill, which offers stunning views north-east over the Avon valley. Although the full archaeological potential of this spot was only revealed when the topsoil was removed, the first hints that something exceptional lay hidden on the hillside emerged during trial excavations. Evaluation of 4% of the site had revealed a big ditch towards the top of the slope; the question was, what did it belong to?

The segmented ditches have the appearance of a string of sausages when seen from above. This photograph shows the portion of the causewayed enclosure exposed during the excavations. (Image: Aerial-Cam, www.aerial-cam.co.uk)

‘When we started stripping off the topsoil, we saw a ditch terminus. Then we found another ditch terminus, and then another,’ remembers Steve Thompson, Site Director for Wessex Archaeology. ‘So, by then it was pretty clear that we were dealing with a segmented ditch! After that we found a collared urn, which is a type of Bronze Age pottery, sticking out of the top of one of the filled-in ditches. I thought, “Well, if it’s earlier than the Bronze Age, it’s got to be a causewayed enclosure”, which started a lot of discussions about whether it was possible we could have found something so unexpected.’

The finds that came out of the ditches soon confirmed Steve’s hunch. ‘We have had hundreds and hundreds of pieces of struck flint,’ he says. ‘There were some nice cores, and some really lovely leaf-shaped arrowheads. In fact, pretty much the final scrape of the trowel as we were emptying the last ditch produced a leaf-shaped arrowhead. All of the flint is right for an early date, too. We also found some pieces of human skull, as well as a few bits of antler that could have been used as tools to cut the ditch. There was also a quern, which was probably originally placed on the bottom of a ditch, before being disturbed by digging during the First World War.’

Pottery found during the excavations could help shed light on how the monument was used. ‘There have been three different sorts of early Neolithic pottery so far’, says Matt Leivers, Senior Specialist Services Manager for Wessex Archaeology. ‘One is Hembury-style ware, which is beautiful stuff with distinctive protruding lugs, and the others are variants of the decorated bowls more commonly found at causewayed enclosures in this part of the world. Some of it came from a pit outside the enclosure, and this is different from the sherds from the ditches, being more similar to material from Windmill Hill. This pottery is all roughly contemporary, but the styles are very different. What that might mean is that different groups were coming here and bringing different sorts of pottery with them.’

First ditch effort

Digging the ditches for the causewayed enclosure would itself have required a communal effort, but their final ‘string-of-sausages’ style does not seem to have been the original form. ‘The individual ditches are so sinuous that they don’t create a clear arc,’ says Steve. ‘It’s almost as though they’ve got a mind of their own. But they have definitely been recut on a number of occasions. It looks like they started off as fairly deep, oval pits, and then they were extended again and again. We can see that because the later recuts weren’t as deep, and so when the holes were widened very thin primary deposits from the earliest phases were left.’ When precisely that primary phase took place is still being narrowed down, but a radiocarbon date suggests it falls somewhere around 3650-3750 BC.

Even allowing for each ditch segment being the handiwork of different groups, the results are pretty haphazard. Some ditches are comparatively deep and narrow, while one is so shallow it looks like the sort of thing that might be finished off in a hurry on a Friday afternoon. Slender gullies created when the ground surface repeatedly froze and then thawed during the last Ice Age – long before the causewayed enclosure was built – survive on the lip of the pits and show that the differences in depth are not down to preservation. Even though the shallow ditch is also wider, it clearly shows that the different groups digging the pits were not working to a standardised ideal. Instead, it looks like they were making it up as they went along, or working to their own plan. The end result would still have been impressive though, especially if the landscape was fairly open, with the white chalk banks cast up from the ditches dominating the Avon valley on the approaches to what would become Stonehenge.

The fl int implements recovered during
the excavations, including some fine
examples of leaf-shaped arrowheads, fit an early
Neolithic date for the digging of the ditch. (Image: Wessex Archaeology)

The area currently being developed only clips part of the outer circuit of the causewayed enclosure, making it possible that at least one more ring of ditches awaits discovery further up the hillside. What has been exposed so far, though, would fit a diameter of about 200m, making it a good match for Robin Hood’s Ball. There is also a strong chance that the exposed area includes a formal entranceway. The easternmost ditch segment to be exposed has a terminal that curves outward, breaking away from the general arc sketched out by the others. There is also an unusually wide causeway beside it. What really draws attention to this area, though, is what happened after the ditch segment had been mostly filled up, probably in the late Neolithic period. At that time a huge timber post was driven into the former ditch. This formed one of five that run in a rough line down the hillslope, pointing in the direction of the early Neolithic pits at nearby Barrow Clump (see CA 306) and the now ploughed-out remains of a long and round barrow.

So what does the Larkhill causewayed enclosure add to our knowledge of this region? ‘It will rewrite what we think about this landscape,’ says Alistair Barclay, Senior Research Manager at Wessex Archaeology. ‘It fills quite a big gap, and it does make a lot of sense that it’s here. Cursuses are often a bit later than the causewayed enclosures, but there can be some overlap, and the relationship between the two cursuses and the two enclosures fits very nicely. The Lesser Cursus even points towards the Larkhill causewayed enclosure! The entrances to Durrington Walls also align in that sort of direction. So this discovery is joining a lot of dots in the landscape. It really suggests that people need to start looking beyond the boundaries of the WHS to find out what’s happening to the north.’ When seen alongside Robin Hood’s Ball, the position of the Larkhill monument suggests that instead of the causewayed enclosures being on the periphery of the ceremonial landscape, in the early Neolithic period the focus was to the north of the later site of Stonehenge.

Digging for victory

At some point after this ditch segment began to fill up, probably in the late Neolithic period, one of a rough line of five huge timber posts was inserted into it. They point downhill, in the direction of a long and round barrow and Barrow Clump. (Image: M Symonds)

If the causewayed enclosure was one of the first permanent structures to be dug into the Wiltshire chalk, it was certainly not the last. The haphazard enclosure ditches met their polar opposite thousands of years later when a set of practice trenches were cut into the hillside during the First World War. In places, they sliced directly through the Neolithic archaeology, but in some respects the uniformity of these trenches is just as remarkable as the handiwork of their prehistoric predecessors. ‘They created a proper theatre of war for training,’ says Steve, ‘with trenches dug according to the manuals, something that didn’t always happen on the Western Front. By following the manual to the letter, the soldiers created a perfect World War I battlefield: so perfect, it never existed in reality! To be fair, though, they weren’t being shot at while they worked.

The First World War trenches are part of a 20th-century military landscape that sprawled over the entire 9ha of the development site. Other intriguing discoveries include the remnants of an MG car that was found partially dismantled in an abandoned Second World War artillery position. Whether this was an early example of an attempt to fix up a classic motor, or a case of a stolen vehicle being stripped down in a conveniently secluded spot remains a mystery. But what is certain is that when a new community gathers at Larkhill in 2019, they will be following in the footsteps of people who first assembled on this hillside over 5,000 years ago.

This feature appeared in CA 326.

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