Ancient Wiltshire

Ancient Wiltshire

Twenty thousand years ago Wiltshire was an almost blank sheet of snow and frozen soil above the bones of its native rocks, a legacy of the last great Ice Age which brought glaciers near its northern edge and permanent frost over the south. A warmer phase started some ten thousand years later, melting the ice and causing frost-shattered rock to flow into the valleys, but with succeeding centuries stabilisation of the land enabled soil to reform and forests to colonise it. First came birch trees, then pine and lastly mixtures of oak and elm, lime and alder, which filled the clay-covered valleys with dense forest and covered the thinner soils on the chalk hills with more open woodland.

England was still joined to the mainland of Europe as so much of the ocean waters were still locked up in the Polar ice-caps, and nomadic groups of hunters from the mainland traversed the Wiltshire area for thousands of years before making any regular settlements. Evidence of their temporary camps has been found, usually in the river valleys, in the form of hand axes and arrowheads but little else. The chilly climate discouraged settlement before about 6000 B.C., when continuously rising temperatures had melted much of the Polar ice and the ocean had flooded the Straits of Dover. Immigration became more difficult, but it is from this period that the first traces of settlement have been found, at Downton in the south and at Cherhill in the north of the county. Neither migrants nor early settlers were farmers, they were hunter-gatherers, but by 5000 B.C. they were already clearing considerable areas of forest. Some of this was accidental, the result of uncontrolled spread of their camp fires, but they were also learning to burn selectively, recognising that this would improve the grazing inside the forest and so attract more game.

Clearance of forest reached such a pitch that in another thousand years, about 4000 B.C., it had reached an ecological turning-point known as the ‘Elm Decline’ beyond which elm ceased to be one of the major self-perpetuating species. By this time, however, new immigrants of a Mediterranean type had introduced the first cereal seeds, the first domesticated cattle and new tools to cultivate the cleared areas and grow crops. These people are called Neolithic, meaning of the New Stone Age. Farming, hunting and fishing now overlapped but most Wiltshire settlers concentrated on farming, extending the forest clearance, cultivating, with primitive one-stick ploughs, the thin chalk soils of the downland and introducing cows and sheep to its simple landscapes.

The main areas of early Neolithic settlement must be judged from burials. In Wessex they were all on the chalk, three wholly inside modern Wiltshire, one straddling the Dorset border and another in southern Dorset. Those in Wiltshire were: i, on the Marlborough Downs, ii, on the western edge of Salisbury Plain, iii, on the Plain west of the Avon, and iv, in Cranborne Chase. The overall number of people is thought to have been very small, for a few tens of families could have cleared the whole of Salisbury Plain in a thousand years. They grew both wheat and barley, roughly in proportions of nine to one, and introduced domesticated cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and dogs. They also hunted the remaining wild cattle, deer, pigs, horses and even brown bear.

Their cultural and tribal centres seem to have been those curious enclosures with interrupted ditches which archaeologists used to call ’causewayed camps’. These were evidently not for the defence of their users and their exact functions are still disputed, but it seems likely that they were used for tribal gatherings, certain unknown ceremonial functions and the exchange of goods. The type site, which has also given its name to a distinctive early pottery, is that first recognised at Windmill Hill, north of Avebury. Its ditch encloses 21 acres and it was probably the central place for a group of settlers on the Marlborough Downs. Others were at Knap Hill on the north side of the Vale of Pewsey, at Robin Hood’s Ball north of Stonehenge, which may have been the centre for the eastern Salisbury Plain group, and at Whitesheet Hill north of Mere, which was only five acres in extent and probably served the group in western Salisbury Plain. Another similar enclosure has been found at Rybury near All Cannings.

Aubrey Burl has suggested a link between the creation of these enclosures and a dramatic drop in activity in southern England when, between 3100 and 2850 B.C., some centuries of drier weather combined with probable overgrazing had impoverished both soil and settlers. These enclosures may then have been built by the more powerful groups of settlers as status symbols, on the edge of their territories, to warn off or overawe ‘foreigners’.

These settlers developed trade with other areas, importing clay from Cornwall and also greenstone axes, and they started the first industrial projects in the county: the axe factory at flint mines at Easton Down near Salisbury and other flint mines at Durrington. But more interestingly they developed before 3000 B.C. a unique monumental treatment for the burial of their important dead. It involved the making of mortuary enclosures in which their bodies were laid out, and the erection of giant tombs known as long barrows. These had a chamber of wood or stone, usually at the eastern end, in which the dried skeletons of up to fifty bodies could be set; tailing back from this chamber was a long earthen mound. The best known of these barrows are at West and East Kennet, which are some three hundred and forty feet long, and there is one at Tilshead 390 feet long. Wiltshire shows the highest concentration of such monuments, about one third of the known long barrows in the country. At a later date, probably five hundred years on, further ceremonial earthworks were constructed, sometimes elaborated with circles of stone, and it is thought that those at Avebury and Stonehenge replaced the older centres at Windmill Hill and at Robin Hood’s Ball. The most famous of such works and the best-known in the world is Stonehenge, but the largest and much older is that at Avebury.

They are now called ‘henge’ monuments and named, by a jocular back-formation, from the name given to Stonehenge, which meant hanging stones; the name is confusing because archaeologists have applied it to all prehistoric circular enclosures with an outer bank and inner ditch, places for meeting and not defence, irrespective of the presence of stones. They have been found all over the British Isles, but those with stones only west of a line, which includes Wiltshire, from Bournemouth to Scarborough. The following have been identified within the county area: Avebury, Durrington Walls, Marden, Stonehenge and Woodhenge; other prehistoric circles with or without stones have been identified at Fargo plantation, west of Stonehenge, Coneybury Hill to its south-east, Winterbourne Bassett and Sutton Veny, while other suspected rings have been wholly or partly destroyed by time and farming.

The Avebur area

Avebury is less known than Stonehenge but its history should be related first for, as Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead, Wiltshire’s busiest historian and antiquary, has said, ‘it is the supposed parent of Stonehenge and the most ancient, as well as the most interesting relict which our island can produce’. John Aubrey took his king, Charles II, to see it and was even more enthusiastic, saying ‘it did as much excel! Stonehenge as a Cathedral does a parish church’.

The Avebury area had long been dominated by the circle on Windmill Hill and here has been found evidence of the trade in pottery from Cornwall, from the Cotswolds and from the Thames Valley, as well as fragments of oolitic limestone and red sandstone from Somerset, Oxfordshire slate, and Forest Marble from the Cotswolds. And on the brows of surrounding hills a number of long barrows of extravagant length and height were made in this period of active trade. But there followed a period when forests increased and grasses encroached on former ploughed fields. Sometime about 2900 B.C. a new kind of mortuary was developed when a round hut was erected for this purpose, on Overton Hill where it is crossed by the ancient Ridgeway about three miles from Windmill Hill and one mile from Avebury. It is now known as ‘the Sanctuary’ and has a complicated history which makes it seem likely that it may also have been a ceremonial circle, though without the ditch that marks the so-called ‘henge’ monuments. In this same period, and again only a mile from Avebury, the largest prehistoric mound in Europe was built This is Silbury Hill, a gigantic pyramid of chalk blocks laced with turves, 130 feet (39 metres) high and covering 51 acres (21 hectares). In spite of repeated excavations, no sign of any burial has been found in the pyramid nor any other obvious reason for its construction. About the same time the early henge monuments at Durrington, Stonehenge and Marden were being started but involving only a ditch and bank with perhaps a single stone at the centre, and in the case of Stonehenge with a ring of pits which were almost immediately filled in.

The first of the important stone circles was not started for perhaps another hundred and fifty years, when one of sarsen stones from the surrounding downs was erected at Avebury. This was connected to the Sanctuary site by an avenue of more sarsens and by another avenue running to a now-unknown objective to its south-west. It should perhaps be said here that ‘sarsens’ or ‘sarsen’ stones originally meant simply ‘foreign’ stones, but the term is now confined to those great sandstone boulders found stranded on the chalk downs after a few million years of erosion. A few might once have been found on Salisbury Plain, but almost all have come from within the Marlborough Downs. Study of the Avebury avenues shows that by now descendants of the early settlers had been joined by a different people, or at least people with different customs, who are known as Beaker Folk because they buried their dead with a ceremonial beaker, and these people helped in the building of the avenues. They helped too in the building of a second ring of stones at Avebury just north of the first circle. Finally both circles were encircled by a massive bank and ditch, over a quarter of a mile in diameter, and the inner side of the ditch was lined with 100 sarsens larger than any used before and weighing up to fifty tons each.

The complex of multiple stone rings at Avebury, the lengthy stone avenues, the complicated mortuary chamber on Overton Hill and the Silbury Hill pyramid were all completed several hundred years before any great changes were made to the simple bank and ditch at Stonehenge. Fashions in upper-class burial changed and long barrows were abandoned. The bone chamber in the great West Kennet long barrow was walled in about 2250 B.C. and the important dead were now given their own private graves, usually in a round barrow, a mound about sixty feet in diameter. The barrows were still set prominently in the landscape, but often in straight lines as on the Ridgeway, north of the Overton ‘sanctuary’, and at Winterbourne Stoke near Stonehenge.

The Stonehenge area

In spite of the lack of change in the ring itself, the area around Stonehenge seems to have been of great importance, to judge by the great number of burial mounds that were made close to and around it. By about 2200 B.C. some of the Beaker Folk, descendants of those who helped at Avebury, had become masters of Salisbury Plain and the Stonehenge area within it. They now dominated the cross-roads of busy trade routes from east, west, south and north-east which brought copper and gold from Ireland and battle-axes of ‘blue stone’ (spotted dolerite) from Pembrokeshire to exchange for the products of continental Europe and eastern England. It is likely that these people, with their knowledge of Irish circles and their experience at Avebury, decided on the addition of a stone circle inside the simple bank and ditch at Stonehenge. For this they used not any stones still left on Salisbury Plain, nor the plentiful boulders of the Marlborough Downs, but boulders of ‘blue stone’ from north Pembrokeshire. They therefore brought in some eighty stones weighing about four tons each which had originated 135 miles away and, we presume, been brought by sledge and raft across the Bristol Channel, up the Bristol Avon and across land to the Salisbury Avon. We do not know why these stones were chosen, though their cultural importance as a source of battle-axes was well-known, and it has been suggested that they may have been used elsewhere on the Plain before being brought here. Certainly one other blue stone was used in Bowl’s Barrow near Heytesbury several hundred years before this assembly at Stonehenge.

In addition to this ring another more massive stone was brought here, the so-called ‘Altar Stone’, which was 16 feet long and came from south Pembrokeshire. An avenue of ditches and banks was cut in the chalk north-eastward from the single (N.E.) entrance to the henge, and later extended first east, and then south-east toward the River Avon; it probably marked the route taken by these important stones. The making of the blue-stone circle was interrupted, however, when only two-thirds was complete. There seems to have been a revolution, for signs of the Beaker Folk almost disappear from the Plain though there is evidence of their culture continuing elsewhere. The new leaders of Salisbury Plain, perhaps also leaders of the Wessex area in view of their command of the old trade routes, were decorated with bronze daggers, and gold and amber ornaments, and they banished the blue stones and started to rebuild Stonehenge, using the massive sarsen stones, in a form that the world recognises today.

In this, five trilithons (two upright stones with another across the top) were set up in a horseshoe plan open to the north-east, that is toward the Avenue and the rising sun at midsummer, using sarsens weighing over fifty tons each. The horseshoe was encircled with smaller stones, still weighing over twenty tons each, with stone lintels. All the stones were dragged twenty miles from the Marlborough Downs and shaped. The standing stones were cut away to leave projecting pegs at the top while the lintels were given corresponding sockets underneath to fit the pegs and, finally, the lintels were carefully pared to make a neat butt-joint with their neighbours. These laborious tasks involved the techniques of carpentry, to which the builders must have been accustomed, and were largely wasted on these massive stones.

The organisers of this unique building grew rich on the international trade across Britain, particularly from the export of Irish copper to Europe, and not only commanded the obedience and patience of the skilled workers who built Stonehenge but also that of a few jewellers of such exquisite ornaments that the comparatively short period of their output has been called ‘The Wessex Culture’. Their products have been found in a number of the principal graves within sight of Stonehenge, notably of a man at Bush Barrow on Norman ton Down who was buried with two bronze daggers, a bronze axe and a gold belt-fastener and, more exceptionally, in that of a woman in the ‘Golden Barrow’ at Upton Lovell a few miles to the west, who was buried with gold ornaments of great beauty and delicacy, and an amber necklace derived from Baltic Sea trade. Twists in the history of the monument continued for, following completion of the horseshoe and the outer ring, it was decided to return the blue stones and a large number of holes were prepared for them on the outside of the sarsen circle. This plan was abandoned, but the stones were eventually re-used, some in a smaller circle inside the sarsen circle, 19 in a horseshoe inside the trilithons of the sarsen horseshoe, and one near the centre of the henge. A number of carvings and ‘boats of the dead’ were cut in the sarsens but no further alterations were made to the general disposition of the complex, save that hundreds of years after the major changes and near the end of its long ceremonial life, the Avenue, as already mentioned, was extended towards the river.

The detailed functions of this elaborate monument, built over some one thousand years, will never be known, but it is likely that almost all those, whether religious or astronomical, that have been attributed to it are, in whole or part, correct. It is only surprising that, during its lengthy development and when burial and other ceremonies were radically changing, the monument itself was not abandoned. Nevertheless it was probably a ruin by 500 B.C. when the festivals of the new Iron Age and Celtic immigrants on the Plain paid more respect to sunsets than to the sunrise which had obsessed their predecessors. It is therefore ironic that the ruins are so often associated today with the Celtic priests known as Druids who would have treated it with scorn and probably abhorrence.

The end of the ‘Wessex Culture’

The ‘Wessex Culture’ did not long survive the construction of the complex stone circles. Its place was taken by people with noses closer to grindstones, with less respect for the dead, less respect for this ancient monument and more interest in expanding and improving their farming.

What had happened? Copper and other important metals had been found in the Alps, which supplied the continental market, and in North Wales, which supplied those nearer home, and the new trade routes bypassed Wiltshire. The new populations had almost abandoned hunting and were now concentrating on cattle-rearing for which they made lengthy ranch boundaries, the larger leaving great banks across the inter-valley ridges. Indigenous and immigrant populations were expanding and causing land division so that many of the great ranches were divided by further boundaries running from the stream-side meadows to the chalk hill-tops. Many of these form the basis of parish boundaries in the chalk country today. The immigrant population was associated with a tidal wave of population movements westwards from modern Germany and Holland which made iron-working common and Celtic languages almost universal in southern Britain until after the departure of the Roman legions eight or nine hundred years later.