Iron Age mystery at Wendover

Preparatory work ahead of the construction of the HS2 high-speed rail link that will connect London to Birmingham has unearthed a a number of finds near Wendover in Buckinghamshire ranging from the Neolithic Age to the Medieval period with evidence of continuous domestic occupation during the Bronze to Iron Ages (3000BC to AD43).

The Neolithic wooden circle, dating to between 4,000 to 5,000 years old, is seen as further evidence of the site’s ritual importance over thousands of years [HS2]

The site at Wellwick Farm near Wendover in Buckinghamshire, has revealed:

  • A large Neolithic circular monument of wooden posts 65m (213 ft) in diameter and aligned with the winter solstice, “similar to Stonehenge”
  • A Roman era “high status” skeleton buried in an “expensive” lead coffin set within a square enclosure
  • A gold coin dating from about about 100BC (Iron Age) was found in a ditch near the funerary monument

Project archaeologist Dr Rachel Wood of Fusion JV said the team were surprised to discover a site with evidence of human activity spanning some 4,000 years, used over centuries as a funerary monument for the burial of specific, high status people as shown by the Roman era skeleton found in an expensive lead coffin.

Yet the biggest surprise was the discovery of an Iron Age skeleton lying face down with his hands bound behind his back, a suspected execution victim. Further analysis will hopefully explain the circumstances of the gruesome death of the 2,000-year-old adult male.

>> Iron Age ‘mystery’ murder victim found in Wendover – BBC News, Beds, Herts & Bucks, 11 July 2020.

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The Source of the Altar Stone

The Altar Stone at Stonehenge is unique, no other stone at the monument on Salisbury Plain constitutes the same lithology; a greenish sandstone thought to be of Late Silurian-Devonian (‘Old Red Sandstone’) age.

The Altar Stone

It is classed as one of the bluestone group of lithologies, exotic to Salisbury Plain, most of which have been sourced to Mynydd Preseli, in west Wales. However, there is no Old Red Sandstone outcrop in the Preseli.

In 1923 HH Thomas proposed that the pale sage-green micaceous sandstone had a strong similarity to either sandstones from the Senni Formation, which outcrop between Kidwelly and Abergavenny in south Wales, or to sandstones from the Cosheston Subgroup from the shore of Milford Haven in west Wales.

The Stones of Stonehenge

Consequently, Milford Haven was suggested as the source of the Altar Stone. This location sat well with a proposed transport route established in the 1950’s by Richard Atkinson (Stonehenge, 1956) which argued that the bluestones were taken to Stonehenge by sea, being loaded into rafts at Milford Haven, sailed along the coast, then up the Bristol Channel into the river Avon, before a final land crossing to Salisbury Plain.

However, results of detailed petrographic examinations of the Altar Stone sandstone and sandstones from Old Red Sandstone outcrops in west Wales have called into question the Cosheston Subgroup source for the Altar Stone. Recently a source further to the east has been suggested.

As a result, it is argued in the latest issue of The Journal of Archaeological Science 120 (2020), that if the Altar Stone was not sourced at Milford Haven then the sea route for the bluestones looks increasingly unlikely, suggesting a totally land-based route was used following a natural route leading from west Wales and beyond the Severn estuary.

Alternative Transport Routes

The land route supports the identification of two bluestone quarries on the northern flanks of the Mynydd Preseli, at Craig Rhos-y-felin and Carn Goedog with the Altar Stone probably collected en route.

Many standing stones have been recorded at the eastern part of the Senni Formation area. The authors of the study point out that the Growing Stone (Cwrt y Gollen), a 4m-tall sandstone monolith beside the modern A40 road between Crickhowell and Abergavenny which compares well with the Altar Stone at Stonehenge.

The eastern section of the Senni Formation lies on a natural routeway which today is traced by the A40 road, following a route along the valleys which may have been significant in prehistory, raising the possibility that the Altar Stone was added to the assemblage of Preseli bluestones taken to Stonehenge around or shortly before 3000 BC.


Constraining the provenance of the Stonehenge ‘Altar Stone’: Evidence from automated mineralogy and U–Pb zircon age dating
Richard E. Bevins, Duncan Pirrie, Rob A. Ixer, Hugh O’Brien, Mike Parker Pearson, Matthew R. Power, Robin K. Shail.
Journal of Archaeological Science 120 (2020)


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Ring of Shafts Discovered Centred on Durrington Walls

A 1.2 mile-wide (2km) circle of large shafts measuring more than 10m (30ft) in diameter and 5m (15ft) in depth has been discovered centred on Durrington Walls.

A team from the universities of St Andrews, Birmingham, Warwick, Bradford, Glasgow and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David believe the 20 or more shafts may have served as a boundary to a sacred area connected to the henge.

This feature is significantly larger than any comparable prehistoric monument in Britain. Tests indicate that the pits were excavated by Neolithic people more than 4,500 years ago.

In addition to being centred on the huge henge monument of Durrington Walls, the huge ring encloses Woodhenge and intersects the cause-wayed enclosure at Larkhill.

Further reading:

BBC News Wiltshire 22 June 2020

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The Desecration of Doll Tor Stone Circle

The small upland area of Stanton Moor in the Derbyshire Peak District, with more than seventy prehistoric barrows is awarded protection as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The moor has four Bronze Age stone circles, of which the best known is Nine Ladies, said to be nine women turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. Today, witches are said to dance at the circle.

The biggest threat to Stanton Moor over the years has been modern quarrying. Mineral rights still exist at various sites around the moor, granted by the Government before the Peak District National Park was created. Endcliffe and Lees Cross quarries have not been worked for over 50 years but as recently as 2014 Stancliffe Stone desired to extract 2.4 million tonnes of stone at a site barely 200m from Nine Ladies. Thankfully the application was rejected.

Claimed by the New Age fraternity, today Nine Ladies feels far removed from its prehistoric origins. Whenever I have visited the Moor there has often been a camp by Nine Ladies said to be guarding the site against the threat of quarrying. I am told the camp has now gone along with the quarry threat but gifts, such as rowan berries, crystals, feathers, can typically be found left on the stones. The centre of the circle is often blackened, evidence of camp fires. Nearby, a sacred tree is adorned with blessings.

Doll Tor stone circle

Situated on the west side of Stanton Moor near Birchover, a short distance from the natural rock outcrop of the Andle Stone, you can find the unassuming little stone circle known as Doll Tor, or Six Stone Circle. Often neglected by visitors, this tranquil site set under trees, with small stones barely three feet in height, typical of Derbyshire megalithic settings, has been described as one of the most picturesque in England. The stone circle with attached cairn has been dated to between 2,000-1,500BC.

Thomas Bateman “excavated” the site in a single afternoon in 1852. Scratching around in the centre of the circle he found cinerary urns and, what has been described as incense cups.

In the early 1930’s JP Heathcote carried out further excavations and repaired three stones that had been broken up. He uncovered a central grave pit which contained a female cremation along with a faience bead along with further cremation deposits near the base of three of the upright stones.

Then, in 1993 the stones were mysteriously rearranged to create a more complete circle with further stones added. However this was an inaccurate reconstruction and the circle was restored in 1994 by English Heritage and the Peak National Park authority, with two fallen stones being re-erected, to something like to its original Bronze Age setting.

Doll Tor stone circle and cairn

Today, Doll Tor stone circle is completely uncovered, showing that the six standing stones were each joined into one circumference by flat stones.

Such prehistoric sites are now protected by law, not that it seems to amke any difference on Stanton Moor. The protection of ancient sites began in 1882 when Sir John Lubbock, 1st Baron of Avebury, introduced The Ancient Monuments Protection Act which provided guardianship for some 50 ancient sites. In 1913 The Ancient Monuments Act introduced the first effective system for the protection of heritage sites in Britain; today this has evolved as the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act of 1979.

Yet, the desecration goes on and these ancient sites continue to be vandalised. In the last few days the little stone circle at Doll Tor has suffered “serious damage” when stones were moved to build a fire pit while one stone appears to have been moved to make a seat. Other fires had also been made.

A spokesman for Historic England said: “As a scheduled monument, Doll Tor stone circle and adjacent stone cairn is a nationally important archaeological site and protected by law.

>> Ancient Peak District stone circle damaged by campfires – BBC News, East Midlands, 04 June 2020 [ ]


Further Reading:
Victoria and Paul Morgan, Rock Around the Peak: Megalithic Monuments of the Peak District, Sigma Leisure, 2001.
John Barnatt, Stone Circles of The Peak, Turnstone, 1978.

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Watering Well or Ritual Shaft?

The discovery of the Wilsford Shaft, a 30m (100ft) deep pit, underneath what was thought to be a pond barrow (Wilsford 33a), during excavations in 1960-62 led to disagreement between the excavators, Paul Ashbee and Edwina Proudfoot, on the purpose of the shaft: was it simply a well to access water or used as a place of ritual deposition, perhaps a portal to the underworld? [1]

Lake Down Barrow Cemetery, Wilsford cum Lake, Wiltshire

The discovery of this deep shaft beneath a pond barrow raised the question of whether all pond barrows have shafts beneath them. Yet magnetometer and resistivity surveys over a sample of three pond barrows at the nearby Lake Down barrow cemetery near Wilsford in Wiltshire in 1996 failed to reveal any indications of further shafts. [2]

The purpose of the enigmatic pond barrow is still unclear. Pond barrows differ considerably from the broader category of round barrows, although some do contain burials, albeit only in small quantities; a sepulchral role is not thought to have been their primary function. Pond barrows usually occur in association with other Bronze Age monuments, usually within the context of funerary or ceremonial monuments of barrow cemeteries, typically located in prominent locations on rolling downlands, rarely on hilltops. However their positioning within the barrow cemetery, whilst not totally random, does not appear to be influenced by any strict governance. Consequently, as their purpose is little understood, the pond barrow’s association with barrow cemeteries has led to a ritual interpretation.

Less than 100 pond barrows have been identified in Britain and these are generally confined to south and east England, with concentrations in Dorset and Wiltshire, although a few outliers are known further north and east. There are three main concentrations around Stonehenge, Avebury and Winterbourne Abbas, although other examples are known in Berkshire and as far afield as Norfolk and recently (2010) a possible pond barrow has been identified amongst a rare group of earthworks consisting of seven monuments near Llanfyrnach, Pembrokeshire.

If the purpose of the pond barrow remains unclear then the function of the Wilsford Shaft is equally puzzling; clearly “ritual shafts” need to be differentiated from “wells”. By definition a “well” is a deep hole or shaft sunk into the earth to obtain water.

Whereas a “ritual shaft” appears to have been purposefully dug expressly for the ceremonial deposition of objects apparently for reasons other than storage or disposal. Deposits in shafts have been found to include metalwork, pottery, ash and charred wood, human and animal remains. Yet, ritual deposits tend to consist of only a few species of animal and sometimes only a few parts of the animal, but these sacrificial offerings bear no evidence of being butchered for human consumption.

In England and Wales the skulls of cattle and skulls or bodies of horses and dogs are often found underneath Iron Age houses or deposited in nearby pits and in the ditches or ramparts of enclosures. Sheep are rare finds in this context. [3] A ritual shaft may be seen as a portal to the underworld where votive offerings where deposited to placate the gods.

But what happens when a well receives ritual deposits such as in the widespread custom of dropping votive deposits, such as human skulls or coins, into the abyss – should the well then become classified as a ritual shaft?

Well Deposits
Special difficulties arise in the case of shafts and pits that were undoubtedly used as wells or cisterns, that also contain deposits, perhaps from just one single occasion, suggestive of a deliberate act of ritual deposition. Furthermore, there would appear to have been different deposits for significant occurrences in the water supply and just to complicate matters further different deposits are found in different geographical regions. Human skulls are common in wells and possibly testament to a Celtic Cult of the Head closely associated with sacred waters and wells of wisdom. The Celts were well known for making votive offerings into lakes and pools, wells and springs. They placed similar objects into shafts and pits. Rarely are skulls found in holy wells, more usually they occur in wells that have previously been used to supply water for domestic or industrial purposes. This ritual deposition is emphasised at Caerwent where a cistern was given two skulls and some pottery. An adult human skeleton was laid over it as if to seal it before the wall of a house was built above it. However, well deposits are typically interpreted as accidental loss or refuse disposal.

In London there is evidence of the practice of ritual deposition when a human skull was found in the well in Queen Street. The skull appears to have been deposited in the first century after the well had silted up and became unusable. In Cannon Street, also in London, a box was found in a well containing a human cranium, animal bones, including those of two dogs, and pottery dated to the first century. Another skull was found in a third century Roman well at a villa in Northwood, Herts. This appears to have been a complete decapitated head, sandwiched between layers of building debris, suggesting the head was deposited at the time of demolition.

The bones of certain animals are more common than human skulls as deposits in wells. Five dog skulls were found in a well at Caerwent and numerous dogs were found in a deep well associated with a first century shrine at Muntham Court, Sussex. A complete Samian bowl and the remains of sixteen dogs were placed in a second century well at Staines near London. Similar finds have been discovered in Avon, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, Gwent and Bedfordshire; the practice was evidently widespread in southern Britain throughout the Roman period.  Pairs of dogs feature in many well closing ceremonies, yet archaeologists invariably interpret this as the fatal ending of a dog fight; an interpretation that just does not stand up to scrutiny. The repetition of canine deposition is so common that it indicates a traditional custom in the sequence of well deposits. In the Romano-Celtic period the remains of dogs seem to be found frequently in association with closure of wells.  The regular occurrence of these deposits after the well ceased to be used and covered by demolition material strongly suggests a rite of termination. [4]

Bronze dog figurine, a probable votive offering from the ‘Romano-Celtic’ temple of Nodens at Lydney Park, Gloucestershire.

Evidently, there appears to be some significance of dogs in the rite of termination. The dog has been man’s closest companion for millennia, the first domesticated animal, yet providing a very specific role in spiritual guardianship throughout the mythologies of the world. [5] It seems very probable that dogs were linked with some chthonic or underworld ritual. Dogs seem to have fulfilled a special role in Celtic mythology; for example, in the First Branch of the Mabinogi it is Pwyll’s hunting dogs, in pursuit of a stag, that lead him to an Otherworld meeting with Arawn, king of Annwfn, indicating a curious connection between dogs and travel to the realm of the dead.

At the temple to Nodens at Lydney on the Severn, a funnel shaped structure was placed above a pit in the central part of the temple. The shaft was found to contain twenty one coins and a bronze representation of a dog. Nodens was a god of healing and the association of dogs with hunter gods with healing attributes is well attested throughout the Romano-Celtic world. A small bronze dog was also found at Coventina’s Well at Carrawbrough on Hadrian’s Wall, amongst 14,000 coins, pins, bronze heads, a bronze horse, brooches, glass, pottery, shrine bells and a human skull. [6]

A panel on the Gundestrop cauldron depicts a god, usually identified as Teutates immersing a man head-first into a cauldron with a dog underneath. According to Lucan in the Pharsalia, Teutates, the Gaulish god of the tribe, was propitiated by drowning victims in a cauldron, or vat of water. The iconography is usually interpreted as a ritual act and may be related to the tale of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi in which we see the Cauldron of Rebirth in which “a man who is killed today and thrown in the cauldron, arises the next day he will be as good as he was at his best, except he will not be able to talk”. The dog presumably appears on the panel in his role as guide for the spirits of the dead warriors.

Teutates  panel of Gundestrop cauldron.

The Neolithic- Bronze age complex at Flag Fen, near Peterborough, was a site that was a major focus for funerary rituals for many centuries, from around 1,200 to 200 BC, with most deposition made in the middle of this period. Amongst the objects recovered from the site are three hundred pieces of very fine metalwork of weapons or ornaments, most broken or bent before being thrown into the marsh. Significantly all the deposited material was placed to one side of an impressive alignment of several thousand wooden posts driven in to the marsh between an island and the dry land. The skeletons of two dogs were found buried around the base of the timbers. The posts clearly act as a divisional marker and the dogs seem to have been ritually killed and deposited to serve as guardians of the liminal boundary. [7]

Another Bronze Age site at Caldicot in Gwent provides evidence for a dog buried in a manner which strongly suggests a role as ritual guardian. Large numbers of animal skulls have been found in wells across the country. Often interpreted as refuse, but the large numbers of specific animals supports a structured deposition of a particular rite rather than a haphazard  rubbish tip. Skulls of thirteen oxen, three sheep, as well as two dogs, and a complete skeleton of a Great Northern Diver were found amongst the fourth century fill of  a well at Portchester Castle. At another Roman military site, the auxiliary fort at Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, the skulls of ten oxen were found in the late fourth century fill of the well. If the Roman military had an obsession for putting multiple quantities of ox skulls in wells, then in Essex it was horse skulls. Five horse skulls were deposited in a well in Wickford in the fourth century, signifying the commencement of a period of neglect, although the well was subsequently reused. At Chelmsford, a dry shaft that was re-cut in the second century, was found to contain five horse skulls. Termination indicating the well had failed or political change resulting in the desertion of a site.

The situation is further complicated as not all deposits in wells were associated with termination and many deposits are recognised as rituals of commencement. Offerings connected with the rite of commencement, such as complete pots, are usually found at the very bottom, or half way down the shaft. However, as we have seen above, rites of termination may start at the bottom of the shaft and continue in the fill in structured layers.

Ritual Shafts
Clearly it is difficult but important to distinguish between shafts that seemingly serve no practical purpose and appear to have been used from inception for a succession of ritual deposits, and those that were dug and used purely as wells, possibly over a long period of time, and underwent ritual deposition as a rite of termination or commencement, as we have seen above. The offerings may have been intended for the same underworld gods but the purpose of the ritual may have been quite different. [8

By the mid-1980s, twenty one “ritual shafts” had been identified. About half of these are concentrated in Kent and Surrey, the rest spread across England from as fas as Exeter and Warwick. Many of these were given the classification simply because they failed to possess any other obvious purpose. Notably, the shafts of south-east England contained more dog and bird bones, whereas those from other regions contained more horse remains, otherwise they held much the same material: pottery, ash, ox bones and human remains. [9]

We find a classic ritual shaft within the Romano-Celtic temple at Jordan Hill on the South Dorset Downs. The earliest feature on the site was a dry shaft containing a repetitive succession of deposits. At the bottom of this shaft was a rough cist formed of two stones, containing two Roman pots, a short sword, a spearhead, a knife, two pieces of iron and a steelyard. Above this was a layer of stone tiles on which was a layer of ashes and charcoal. Above this was a double layer of tiles, arranged in pairs, with a skeleton of a bird and a Roman coin between each. Another layer of ashes, thereafter in alternating succession a layer of tiles containing bird skeletons and coins and then ashes again. This repetition continued for sixteen layers between the top and bottom of the well but interrupted in the middle by another cist, like that at the bottom of the shaft containing a sword, a spearhead and pots. The birds represented were raven, crow, buzzard and starling, ceremoniously deposited in a succession of rites as the shaft was filled. [10]

Jordan Hill Romano-Celtic Temple

There are many other examples of dry shafts containing ritual deposits. At Keston, Kent, a sixteen foot shaft was found to contain the articulated skeleton of a dog at the bottom. To the side of the shaft were a pile of animal bones that seem to have been distributed for the next layer of three skeletons of horses, articulated and complete, carefully arranged in a triangle, the second with his head to the tail of the first, the third head to head with that of the first. There were a further seven animal deposits, making ten in total. Pottery evidence indicates the deposits were taking place in the first and second centuries. Nearby, a similar shaft was found to contain the cremated remains of two small dogs in a pile at the bottom, covered by sherds of red pottery. Both shafts were in close proximity to the mausoleum of a Roman villa. It seems likely that other shafts may remain undiscovered in this area. The deposition of dogs in the first layer would again appear to be significant  as noted above.

The concept of the deep shaft as a means of communicating with the gods of the underworld is widespread and ancient, it was known in the Mediterranean world to the Greeks and Romans. The device has certainly been used since the Bronze Age in Britain. Whereas there may be some doubt as to the purpose of some of these shafts discussed above, there can be no doubting the function of the shaft at Swanwick in Hampshire.

Swanwick Shaft
The evidence for Wilsford Shaft may appear ambiguous, but a similar shaft discovered in clay-digging near the river Hamble at Swanwick near Fareham in Hampshire, was clearly used for ritual purposes.

The Swanwick shaft is a circular shaft, 24ft deep, 14ft diameter at the funnel mouth but at a depth of 9ft becoming cylindrical and about 7ft across. At the top of this cylindrical part of the shaft a compact horizontal band of charcoal (oak, hazel and elder) ran across the filling. Above the band of charcoal were 20 clay loom-weights, typical of  Deveral-Rimbury cultures of Bronze Age settlements in Susses and Wessex , of between 1,200 – 1,000 BC. Fragments of a saddle quern were found scattered through the fill. Below this, again the shaft narrowed slightly to a diameter of 4ft and contained a central wooden post 5ft high and 8in diameter, packed with estuarine clay.

A brown deposit on the walls of the lower part of the shaft and the post proved on analysis to have a composition that included phosphorous and nitrogen compounds, such as could most likely derive from dried blood or flesh, indicating the post was used for sacrifice. Swanwick can safely be considered a ritual shaft and clearly quite different from a well containing votive offerings.

A similar discovery was made at Holzhausen in Bavaria. Investigations in Germany of the quadrilateral earthwork enclosures known as the Viereckschanzen type of late La Tene period within the last century BC, concentrated in the Upper Danube and northwards toward the Main. These seems to be ritual sanctuary enclosures with smaller square ditches around graves or Romano-Celtic temples.

Holzhausen Viereckschanzen

The enclosure at Holzhausen had three distinct phases with a ritual pit or shaft as a feature of both the first and last. The shaft of Phase III lay in the northern corner of the earthwork and was cylindrical, 20ft deep and 6ft diameter, with a slightly funnel shaped mouth. In the centre of the lower part of its filling a wooden post 4in diameter and 6ft 6in long had been carefully set up and packed into position. Around the upper part were lumps of brown clay found to contain high concentrations of albuminous and nitrogen compounds, and traces of animal fats, which have been interpreted as the result of the decomposition of blood, flesh and viscera.

The similarities in size, proportion and details between Swanwick and Holzhausen is quite spectacular. Other Late Bronze Age ritual enclosures similar to Swanwick and Holzhausen with shafts containing posts at the base have been found in Southern Germany and one in Vledder in the Netherlands. [11]

Above we have seen examples to illustrate a complex picture of what may be defined as a true “ritual shaft“. There are dry shafts that seem to have been used purely for ritual purposes and wells that have received ritual offerings at certain periods in their use. Yet the waters become quite muddied when the function of the shaft may have changed during its serviceable life. At Wilsford the deposit has been interpreted as an accidental accumulation. However, we should not dismiss out of hand the possibility that the shaft was originally dug to provide access to the underworld realm of the gods, possibly in the Neolithic period, and abandoned as such when flooded and then later re-cut and then used as a well during the Bronze Age. [12]

Prehistoric shafts terminating in wells have been found in England, their intended original purpose unclear. One such shaft found in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, was found packed full with coins, pottery, Roman tiles, sandstone slabs, charred wood, animal and human bones, to a depth of 116ft. A human skull was lodged in a niche in the shaft when it was first dug. Another 37ft deep shaft at Biddenham contained part of an altar slab, a mutilated statue, fragments from about fifty urns, bones of horse, hogs, ox, fox and dog, and a human skeleton.  In Warwickshire a 4ft square shaft (?) was discovered in 1689. At a depth of 20ft  a large square stone, with a hole in the middle, was found supporting several grey-ware urns. Twelve were removed whole while another twelve had been broken apparently by the fall of  a stone from above. The shaft was sounded to a depth of 40ft but the bottom was not reached. [13]

At Ashill in Norfolk, a 40ft deep shaft constructed with wooden square sides contained pottery, bones including those of a toad and a wooden bucket amongst the fill of the upper 19ft. Below this level the nature of the fill changed to layers of perfect urns embedded in hazel leaves and hazel nuts. A layer of flints covered the bottom of the shaft. The hazel tree’s association with sacred wells in Celtic literature requires no further explanation here.[14]

At Fir Tree Field, Down Farm, Dorset another prehistoric shaft, complete with weathering cone and containing artefacts, was found but unlike the man-made Wilsford shaft this was a natural solution hollow utilised for ritual purposes. A pond barrow had been constructed close to the shaft at Fir Tree Field, perhaps making some reference to it and certainly suggesting a link. The close proximity of the Fir Tree Field shaft to the Dorset Cursus and numerous sites of Bronze Age activity suggest this natural shaft was a significant feature in the prehistoric landscape. As with the Wilsford shaft, two alternative proposals have been made for the function of the shaft. Firstly, owing to the presence of human and animal bone and other artefacts such as a shale ring, amber beads, and bone pins, in the fill, that it was primarily ritual in nature. Secondly, the environmental evidence suggests that it was used as a well. Perhaps both explanations are correct?

The environmental evidence from the fill of the Wilsford shaft indicates it was surrounded by grassland, indicating that the shaft, perhaps originally dug in the Neolithic period, was in use around 1,450 BC as a very deep well used by the local community for obtaining water for livestock and other purposes.  The finds including grass cropped by sheep, sheep dung and two aborted lambs , together with the absence of typical deposit material, when compared to Iron Age and Roman period shafts in England and mainland Europe that could be construed as offerings, tends to support this interpretation. As we have seen above sheep rarely feature in ritual deposition

The rare find of prehistoric rope, and a wooden container dated to 3,650-3,100 BC from the bottom of the Wilsford shaft, suggest this was an ancient well, that may have been first cut in the Middle Neolithic period and was merely re-cut, to a wider diameter, in the 2nd millennium BC. Alternatively, the wooden bucket may already have been ancient when deposited at a later date, perhaps the Early Bronze Age. Yet significantly amongst the other finds from the bottom of the shaft were a flint scraper, a selection of flint flakes and blades, amber beads, a notched bone and ring-headed bone pins; refuse or typical of deposits found at consecrated Neolithic sites such as monument ditches and ritual pits and at Fir Tree Field?

After all, is a shaft no more than a deep, narrow pit?


1. Paul Ashbee, M.G. Bell, E.V. Proudfoot, Wilsford Shaft: Excavations, 1960-62, English Heritage Archaeological Report, 1989.
2. Paul Linford, Report on geophysical survey of three pond barrows, March 1996.Lake Down, Near Wilsford, Wiltshire.
3. Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Blackwell, 1993, p.192.
4. Ralph Merrifield, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, BCA, 1987, pp.46-47.
5. Black Dogs, Guardians of the Corpse Ways, Bob Trubshaw, Mercian Mysteries. No.20, 1994.
6. Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, Chicago Academy, 1967.
7. Hutton, op.cit. p.186.
8. Merrifield, op.cit.
9. Hutton, op.cit.p.192.
10. Merrifield, op.cit.
11. Stuart Piggott, The Antiquaries Journal, September 1963 43 : pp 286-287.
12. Ashbee & Proudfoot, op.cit.
13. Ross, op.cit. pp.53-54
14. Ibid.


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Wilsford Shaft

The Shaft
Excavations between 1960 and 1962 at what appeared to be a recently bulldozed barrow revealed the presence of a single large shaft, the deepest prehistoric man-made shaft yet known in England. When fully excavated it was found to be a 30m (100ft) deep pit cut through the solid chalk of Salisbury Plain, a short distance southwest from Stonehenge. The so-called barrow, about 12.6m across surrounded by a low bank enclosing a shallow depression typical of a pond barrow, had been designated “Wilsford 33a”.

Situated 900m east of Winterbourne Stoke crossroads, just south of the A303 trunk road between Winterborne Stoke and Normanton Down barrow cemeteries, Wilsford 33a barrow was not assigned to a particular group. As excavations got underway in 1960 it quickly became apparent that the site was not a conventional pond barrow at all but the low bank enclosed a rock-cut shaft, which led to a controversial hypothesis on the purpose of pond barrows; do all pond barrows have shafts beneath them?


The excavators had first encountered an old pit containing many animal bones in the upper levels and at a depth of 2.8m. There were few other finds in the shaft in-fill, until at a depth of 20m (65ft) the remains of a Deverel-Rimbury type urn were found scattered through a vertical layer of 1.5m depth. The shaft was found to continue below this layer and then descended vertically to a depth of  21.5m (70ft). where excavation ceased at the end of the first season. Yet the shaft continued. The dig resumed in 1961 with a further 10m of material removed. The fill contained further fragments of Deverel-Rimbury pottery, while at about 30m waterlogged pieces of alder wood and large amounts of organic material were recovered.

In the upper fill of the shaft disarticulated human remains together with animal bones and pottery have been dated to the period 760-400 BC, rare Iron Age finds in the Stonehenge landscape. The water-logged layers revealed objects dated to the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, including amber beads, a shale ring and bone pins with perforated-heads. Amongst these layers was a fair representation of Deverel-Rimbury Ware, pottery characteristic of the ‘Middle Bronze Age’ in southern Britain, regularly found in both funerary and settlement contexts. The rate of deposition within the Wilsford shaft seems to have continued for two or three centuries. Over time the level of the local water table had fluctuated and while the bottom of the shaft is thought to have always been waterlogged, the water table level had risen at times to a depth of about 20m.  The deep shaft is thought to have been cut soon after 1500 BC. Environmental evidence recovered from the fill material is consistent with pasture and arable land, indicating that field systems were in place on the downlands of Salisbury Plain in the later Bronze Age. The shaft was certainly silted up by the early Roman period when it would have been unrecognisable as such. Today the site of the shaft is visible on the ground as a depression 0.3 metres deep and 9 metres wide.

The shaft would appear to have been dug around a plumb line in short sections of about 2m depth and in view of the very constant diameter of about 1.7m which persisted for most of its depth, a sort of template was probably used. But for the last 2m, at its deepest point, the shaft was much narrower and displayed evidence of having been constructed using antler picks. The finds from this lowest section, the bottom of the shaft, included a flint scraper, a selection of flint flakes and blades, a rare find of prehistoric rope, and significantly, a wooden container dated to 3650-3100 BC. The dates from the lowest fill suggest the shaft may have been first cut in the Middle Neolithic period and was merely re-cut, to a wider diameter in the Bronze Age.

The Barrow
The discovery of the shaft beneath the pond barrow suggests it is possible that other “pond barrows” may have such shafts beneath them. By extension, this led to the hypothesis that all pond barrows are the remains of silted up weathering cones features similar to the Wilsford shaft.

By definition, a pond barrow comprises a circular depression, usually regularly formed, the material scooped out from the centre and placed around the circumference to form a low bank. The most distinctive feature of any pond barrow is  the central depression, which is typically between 0.2m to 0.3m deep. Within the enclosed central area there may be pits, some have been found to contain burials. The diameter of pond barrows range typically from about 5m to as much as 27m at Winterbourne Abbas in Dorset. The majority are around 12m across, as with Wilsford 33a. Surrounding the central depression is usually a continuous bank, varying in height from about 0.1m high to some 0.6m and up to 5m wide in some instances. Few pond barrows have an entrance cut through the bank and even rarer is an outer ditch.

Most are still recognisable as upstanding earthworks, but ploughed out examples can often be identified from cropmarks in aerial photographs owing to the distinctive hollow centre and peripheral bank; however, many pond barrows have been confused with various other classes of hengi-form monuments, shafts and wells of various periods, collapsed mineshafts, extraction pits, old ponds, and natural sink holes.

Pond Barrow – Colt Hoare, 1810

The classification was introduced by Sir Richard Colt Hoare in the early 19th century but pond barrows are not “barrows” in the strictest sense of the word. A barrow typically is a raised mound whereas in the pond barrow tradition this is totally absent and replaced by a hollow. However, pond barrows are usually found associated with barrow cemeteries and generally interpreted in the context of funerary or ceremonial monuments of early and middle Bronze Age date, although it must be stated that their purpose is not really understood. Dating evidence from the Dorset and Wiltshire area indicate that their construction concurs with an early to mid-Bronze Age dating. However, it must be noted that very few pond barrows have been securely dated.

Less than 100 pond barrows have been identified in Britain and these are generally confined to south and east England, with concentrations in Dorset and Wiltshire, although a few outliers are known further north and east. Pond barrows usually occur in association with other Bronze Age monuments, typically located in prominent locations on rolling downlands, rarely on hilltops. There are three main concentrations around Stonehenge, Avebury and Winterbourne Abbas, although other examples are known in Berkshire and as far afield as Norfolk and recently (2010) a possible pond barrow has been identified amongst a rare group of earthworks consisting of seven monuments near Llanfyrnach, Pembrokeshire.

As stated above, the purpose of pond barrows is not fully understood. Though some do contain burials, albeit only in small quantities, it is thought that this may not have been the prime function of pond barrows. In this respect the monuments differ considerably from the broader category of round barrows, consequently, their association with barrow cemeteries has led to a ritual interpretation.

The Cemetery
Of the 8 Stonehenge barrow groups identified by Grinsell, only 3 contain pond barrows with a significantly high proportion found at the barrow cemetery at Lake Down. Comprising of 11 barrows, Lake Down is relatively small when compared to other barrow cemeteries in the area such as the Lake Group (22), the Winterbourne Crossroads Group (27), and the Wilsford Group (17). Another pond barrow, now almost levelled, has been identified adjacent to the Durrington Firs barrow group. With our limited understanding of these monuments we can be forgiven for assuming that within these groups the pond barrows appear to be positioned randomly with no obvious relationship between their presence and overall cemetery layout, with a complete absence of any predetermined protocol with regard to the position of the pond barrow in relation to other barrows.

It is known that the Reverend Edward Duke had been poking about in the Lake Down barrow cemetery in 1806 and noted four pond barrows. Duke’s notes reveal some sixteen barrows in the neighbourhood of Lake House, of which he claims to have dug four pond barrows in addition to a number of round barrows but the lack of detailed records makes it impossible to determine exactly which barrows he meant and these may, or may not, be the same pond barrows identified by Grinsell at Lake Down.

Lake Barrow Group – Stukeley, 1740
Of the four pond barrows that Grinsell identified at Lake Down cemetery he noted two distinct forms. Whereas all Lake Down four pond barrows have external banks, the two smaller barrows, numbered 76a and 77a by Grinsell, may also possess encircling ditches. Lake Down barrows 76a and 77a seem to have been built somewhat shallower, with the central depressions at the same level as the surrounding ground surface, but barrows 77 and 78 had a substantial hollow depression and no apparent ditch.

Since 1950, excavations of other pond barrows in Wessex and Dorset suggests that shallower depressions, similar to Lake Down 76a and 77a, all contained human cremations, but all using different methods. In all cases the barrows are not considered as being primarily sepulchral but rather places of funerary ritual. Further, the absence of a perimeter ditch and deeper concavity may be indicative that different pond barrows were constructed for different purposes. The enigma of the purpose of the deeper pond barrows remains unanswered

The Survey

Situated with the Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS) the earthworks on Lake Down underwent analytical survey in May 2009 as part of the  English Heritage Stonehenge WHS Landscape Project.

The survey revisited the geophysical surveys of pond barrows 77, 77a and 78 (Grinsell) at Lake Down carried out in 1995, expressly taken to identify potential shafts underlying the pond barrows, but failed to reveal anything significant. However, the surveys did reveal anomalies interpreted as depressions associated with 19th century excavations.

Therefore, within the Stonehenge landscape, we are brought to the conclusion that the relationship between the Wilsford Shaft and the pond barrow is unique to Wilsford 33a, or the earthwork was originally misidentified as a pond barrow. Therefore we must consider other possibilities.

Significantly, the excavators, Paul Ashbee and Edwina Proudfoot, could not agree on the purpose of the shaft: whether it was simply a well dug to access water or used as a place of ritual deposition as a portal to the underworld.

Prehistoric well or ritual shaft: the issue remains unresolved.

P. Ashbee, M.G. Bell, E.V. Proudfoot, Wilsford Shaft: Excavations, 1960-62, English Heritage Archaeological Report, 1989.
A M Konar, Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project, Lake Down, Wilsford-cum-Lake, Archaeological Survey Report, English Heritage, 2010.


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Aubrey Burl on Callanish

It was announced recently that British archaeologist Aubrey Burl had passed away at the age of 93. Harry Aubrey Woodruff Burl, Fellow of The Society of Antiquaries, did not appreciate many of the weird and wacky theories that megalthic sites have attracted since the early antiquarians showed interest in these archaic structures. But agree with him, or not, his knowledge of ancient sites and the eloquence of his writing will be sadly missed. Here is a short sample from Aubrey’s book “From Carnac to Callanish: The Prehistoric Stone Rows and Avenues of Britain, Ireland and Brittany” by way of a tribute to the esteemed archaeologist:

Diodorus and the Spherical Temple
“Whereas Stonehenge with its spurious druids has created widespread interest in stone circles little attention has been given to the splendid ranks of standing stones that lead to many of those rings. Worse, what has been written about these marvellous settings has frequently been mistaken.

“As recently as 1986 a guidebook provided a whole paragraph of misinformation about the avenue of tall stones attached to the Scottish circle of Callanish….

“… Despite the ‘experts’ almost everything is wrong. The circle is not great but small. Its suggested age is centuries too young. The priests and their sacrifices are questionable. The central cairn is an off-centre miniature tomb with short passage and burial-chamber. The avenue does not run north-south. The star-lines to Capella and Altair, whose dates are misquoted, never existed.

“The errors were unnecessary. The circle and avenue have been written about for over three centuries since John Morison around 1680 first reported that it ‘it is left by Traditiones that these were a sort of Men converted into Stones by ane Inchanter’. Others thought they were petrified giants. The site has been planned in Imperial Feet and Druid cubits, excavated, analysed astronomically, re-excavated, re-planned in metres and Megalithic Yards, inhabited by wizards, druids, mid-summer cuckoos, astronomer priests, even by travellers from outer space who erected the stones as a landing beacon.”[1]

“The avenue at Callanish does seem to to define lunar and solar alignments. It is credible that these were intended by the Callanish people but it is almost unbelievable that references to the sightlines should exist in a first-century classical text. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus [of Sicily] quoted from a lost history by Hecateus of Abdera, a verse-chronicle with later interploations. Part appears to claim that an early voyager around northern Britain had seen a lunar ‘spherical temple’ on an ‘island no smaller than Sicily’. In its path across the sky ‘the moon as viewed from this island appears to be but a little distance from the earth’ an event unique to the latitude of Callanish. Diodorus added that ‘the god’ visited ‘the island every nineteen years’, the 18.61-year cycle of the moon.

“The latitude of 58º N is critical. Nowhere farther south in Europe could the major moon between its rising and setting seem to skim the horizon…

“… A Mediterranean voyager must have seen such a low moon at Callanish or some other ‘spherical temple’ at that northern latitude – and to the writer’s knowledge there is none in Norway or Sweden, just one or two megalithic rings in Scotland, Guidebest in Caithness, the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, both of them several miles inland from the coast.

Stonehenge has repeatedly been identified as the ‘temple’ but this is wrong. Its latitude is five hundred impossible miles (800km) too far south for the moon ever to brush the skyline. Moreover, if, as has been supposed, the information about the ‘temple’ derived from observations by the mid-third-century BC Greek explorer, Pytheas, it is unlikely that that he ever travelled far enough inland to see Stonehenge…

…. In August 1993 [Alexander] Thom sailed into Loch Roag. ‘As we stowed sail, I well remember looking up and seeing the full moon rising over the low land and there, silhouetted against the orb, were the stones of Callanish’. The same stark stones may have astonished a Greek crew around 250 BC. Diodorus states ‘that certain Greeks visited the Hyperboreans [people of the far north] and left behind them costly votive offerings’, not an unusual practice for strangers in a possibly hostile land. If so, it implies that as late as the Iron Age natives of Lewis remembered, perhaps even still celebrated, the times when the midsummer moon reached its southern extreme.

“The astronomy is enigmatic. Diodorus wrote that when ‘the god [the moon] visits the island every nineteen years’, it would ‘dance continuously the night through from the vernal equinox until the rising of the Pleiades’. This has been considered astronomical nonsense because at the time of the Spring Equinox the Pleiades were in conjunction with the sun ‘and would be unseen shortly after sunrise’. But as will be seen when considering the short rows at Callanish there may be some truth in the words of Diodorus.” [2]

Aubrey Burl 24 September 1926 – 8 April 2020

Aubrey Burl, From Carnac to Callanish, Yale University Press, 1993.
1. Preface
2. Chapter 3, Avenues and Stone Circles, Callanish, pp.63-65.

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Pottery find dates farming in London to Early Neolithic Period

In my previous post we discussed how rubbish pits in Neolithic Britain are frequently associated with ceremonial sites. Now a pit has been uncovered on the boundary of the historic centre of London dated to the Early Neolithic period.

DURING EXCAVATIONS just outside the northern boundary of the historic City of London at the site of the new Amazon UK HQ at Principal Place in Shoreditch archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) have uncovered an extraordinary trove of Early Neolithic pottery, comprising 436 fragments, or sherds, from at least 24 separate vessels, weighing nearly 6.5 kilos.

The site at Principal Place in Shoreditch (the new Amazon UK HQ) where MOLA archaeologists are excavating © MOLA

This is an extremely rare find from this era in central London and helps breach a void in London’s prehistory; previously only a few individual fragments of pottery and stone axes have been uncovered in the Historic Centre.

Using a new radiocarbon dating technique on traces of milk fats extracted from within the
fabric of the pottery fragments, researchers from the University of Bristol were able to date the pottery to around 3,600BC.

This suggests that in the Early Neolithic period the area around what is now Shoreditch High Street was being used by established farmers who ate cow, sheep and goat dairy products as a central part of their diet.

The 436 pottery fragments are thought to have been part of a rubbish pit which would have probably contained many thousands of sherds, representing large numbers of ceramic vessels. Usage of the pit seems to have survived into Roman times, some 3600 years after it had been created. However, owing to urban development and other activity over the past 2,000 years, the upper parts of the pits have not survived.


Further reading:

Largest group of Early Neolithic pottery ever found in London dated using new technique – MOLA Blog 08/04/20

New discovery suggests London’s story goes back more than 3,000 years longer than previously thought – David Keys, The Independent 08/04/20

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Ritual Pits in the Stonehenge Landscape

Pits and Plaques
In 1980 the investigation of a flint scatter on the northern part of King Barrow Ridge, as part of the Stonehenge Environs Project, revealed three small circular pits grouped around a natural hollow, possibly a tree-throw. Finds from the pits included pottery, animal bones, mainly pig but including sheep and cattle, flint tools including scrapers, spent cores and flakes, and arrowheads. One of the pits has been dated to 3,800 – 2,850 BC.

Further south on the King Barrow Ridge is the so-called ‘Plaque Pit, discovered and excavated during the widening of the A303 in 1969. The pit was named as such because it was found to contain two square chalk plaques bearing inscribed decoration in addition to sherds of Grooved Ware, an antler pick and animal bones. Radiocarbon dating has provided determinations of the early third millennium BC, amongst the earliest for Grooved Ware in southern Britain. Nearby an isolated posthole containing sherds of Grooved Ware was found during cable laying in 1968. The large posthole perhaps maintaining a tradition established by an earlier posthole in the same area on the west of the ridge.1

A number of similar pits were found at Butterfield Down, Amesbury. One pit contained an extremely large, almost complete, Beaker vessel, one of the largest known from southern Britain. Owing to the vessel’s near completeness it is considered to be of an non-domestic context.  Nearby another decorated chalk plaque was found, similar to the finds from the ‘Plaque Pit’, bearing images that compare favourably with the decoration found on Grooved Ware and Beaker pottery. Are these pits simply rubbish tips in which Neolithic revellers discarded their waste after a ceremonial feast?


Engraved plaques have been recovered from elsewhere, (e.g. Llandegai, King’s Stanley, Poulton, Durrington Walls), ranging in date from the Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age. Almost always sculpted from chalk, these plaques are extremely rare.

Although the patterns on these plaques generally compare favourably with that found on pottery design it is significant that these plaques bear similar patterns to inscribed orthostats in passage grave art. Therefore we cannot be certain if the plaques simply mirror the Grooved Ware pottery or are connected to some form of funerary activity. Their function and significance remains a mystery, yet they immediately bring to mind Graeco-Roman curse tablets; were these Neolithic plaques bearing messages to the gods?

We find another arrangement of pits, remindful of the northern end of the King Barrow Ridge pits, in the carpark of the old Stonehenge visitor centre, north of the line of the old A344 road. These three pits, dated to the Mesolithic period, were discovered during construction of the visitor centre carpark in 1966, and marked by three large white disks and aligned on a fourth white disc, which, like the pits on King Barrow Ridge, is thought to be the hollow of a tree-throw. Francis Pryor argues this may not be a tree hole at all as the hole is more regularly shaped with steep sides, deeper and quite narrow when compared to the typical inverted mushroom-shaped scoop of earth pulled from the ground when a tree topples over in a storm. Furthermore, pine trees are not particularly deep rooted: around 8,000 BC oak had not yet colonised Britain after the Ice Age, which was a typical post-glacial environment of open mixed pine and hazel woodland.2

The date of the carpark ‘tree hole‘ is unknown but often thought to be contemporary with the row of Mesolithic pits. These pits have been interpreted as substantial post-holes, supporting posts between 0.6 to 0.8m in diameter and standing possibly as high as 3-4m above the ground. It is conjectured that these posts could have been similar to the totem poles used by Native North Americans. Others, such as Peter Newham, have argued that they marked astronomical alignments to the first earthwork, the ditch, bank and Heelstone arrangement at Stonehenge.3 Significantly, excavations by Darvill and Wainwright inside the stone circle of Stonehenge in 2008, found charcoal dating to the same period. Perhaps Newham was on to something, but certainly there was activity on the site in the Mesolithic, some 4,000 years before the stones arrived.

Stonehenge carpark postholes & pit 9580

Unlike the King Barrow Ridge pits, no artefacts have been reported being found in association with any of the carpark features, with the exception of an abundance of pine charcoal. The radio-carbon date range covers a period of 1,300 years, suggestive that the posts may not have stood in a row at the same time but were perhaps replaced one after the after over several hundred years life each. This timespan denotes continuity over a long period; perhaps an original marker to some key location was replaced several times during this period?

 About 100m to the east of the carpark postholes, another pit was found during alterations to the carpark in 1988. This pit (labelled 9580), nearly 2m across and 1.3m deep, had been reshaped at least once with the base of the re-cut secondary fill dated to the same period as the three carpark postholes, indicative of a contemporary relationship. The re-cutting of Pit 9580 suggests repeated visits to the site, yet the absence of finds from successive fills suggests more than a simple rubbish pit for the waste from ceremonial festivities. If not a rubbish tip what was the purpose of Pit 9580; potentially the earliest ritual feature in the Stonehenge landscape.

Other pits contemporary with the Stonehenge carpark postholes have been located at two other sites in the vicinity. Within the western end of the Stonehenge Cursus an oval hollow, about 2m by 3m, was located under the round barrow Winterbourne Stoke 30. The hollow predates the barrow and contained only pine charcoal. A similar hollow, or shallow pit, in the subsoil was located beneath the bank at Woodhenge. This pit contained charcoal and a slightly calcined core-trimming flake thought to be of the sixth or seventh millennium BC.

Coneybury Anomaly
Evidence for further Mesolithic activity is notable for its absence in this region for a period of around 4,000 years until the early Neolithic when an anomaly was discovered 1,300m to the south-east of the site of the earliest Stonehenge monument at Coneybury near West Amesbury, on the high ground continuing from King Barrow Ridge.

The Coneybury Anomaly, located about 12m northwest of Coneybury Henge, was discovered as part of the Stonehenge Environs Project in 1980 by Julian Richards. The later, small class 1 henge monument at Coneybury was well known, surviving as a cropmark but initially recorded as a ploughed-out disc barrow. The ‘anomaly‘ was unknown until it showed up on geophysical scans indicating something under the surface. On excavation it was found to be a large, round pit, nearly 2m across and around 1.25m deep. The pit was probably visible as a substantial backfilled depression at the time the henge was constructed. Shortly after being dug out the pit had been filled with numerous animal bones and a considerable assemblage of earlier Neolithic pottery, representing a minimum of 41 vessels, including one complete vessel, flint implements including flake tools and scrapers, and part of a polished flint axe. Most of the animal bones were from several roe deer and a minimum of ten cattle with at least two red deer, a pig, a beaver and a trout. All, except the beaver bones, possessed scratches, evidence of butchery, indicative of a feast with the roe deer and pig eaten at Coneybury with the red deer and beef  cuts from the cattle taken away and consumed elsewhere. Radio-carbon dating provided determinations between 4040-3640 BC, the era of the long barrows, the first man-made constructions.4

Was this simply a rubbish tip from a ceremonial feast at some important gathering?

Richards thought not and noted how the material filling the pit was similar, not just in the carefully arranged offerings found in the ditch of the Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Etton, Peterborough, but also in date range. The animal bones clearly suggest a feast, probably a single event, yet the flints and pottery, many of which fit together, may only have been exposed on the surface for a limited period, suggesting this was not simply a rubbish tip, but may have been accumulated elsewhere prior to deposition in the pit; items purposefully selected to be deliberately buried to commemorate a specific event.5

Pits at Stonehenge 

The earliest pits at the Stonehenge monument are the 56 Aubrey Holes, named after John Aubrey who first noted five circular cavities in 1663. Although Richard Colt Hoare seems to have encountered one under the Slaughter Stone in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1920’s that Robert Newall, assistant to Colonel Hawley, identified the ring of pits (originally named X Holes by Hawley) after they excavated 32 of the pits. Richard Atkinson excavated a further two in the 1950’s.

Recently it has been argued that the Aubrey Holes held Welsh Bluestones from their first use.6 However, this assumption is based on the excavation of just one Aubrey Hole (No 7) by the Stonehenge Riverside Project.

Human remains have been found in the upper fills of 25 of the 35 pits excavated to date. The Aubrey Hole nearest the centre of the north-east entrance, AH55, was honoured with a deposit of two antlers resting on a thick layer of ash and AH29 in the south west contained pottery; the deposits perhaps stressing the axis of the monument. Another, AH21, close to the southern entrance was found to also contain antlers and an enigmatic chalk ball. Significantly, most deposits at Stonehenge appear to honour the east side and the axis.

These 56 pits date from the earliest stage of the monument and appear to have been filled in shortly after being dug. Debate goes on as to the purpose of the Aubrey Holes and whether they held timber posts or stones, but they must be considered as ritual pits at some time in their usage.

Stonehenge Offerings: The deposition of cremations (skulls), burials of adult and child remains, antlers, bone pins, pottery and mace-heads. Also shown is the NE-SW axis and the southern most moonrise (bottom right) – after Castleden, 1993.

Amongst the objects recovered from the ditch at Stonehenge, concentrations were found at the main north-east entrance and the blocked southern entrance, suggesting a non-random distribution and evidence for deliberate deposition. Amongst the chalk objects was a broken plaque with carefully shaped edges found in the silt of the ditch near the western terminal of the blocked southern entrance. The plaque bears a shallow incised chevron motif, which, although not as deep as the two chalk plaques recovered from the pit on King Barrow Ridge, the pattern is certainly similar.7

Between the sarsen circle and the ditch at Stonehenge are two irregular, concentric rings (or a spiral) of pits known as the Y and Z Holes. The pits were roughly rectangular, wedge-shaped, measuring around 1.7m by 1.0m at the top and substantially less at the bottom where they were nearly a metre deep. Discovered by Hawley in 1923 on observing patches of humus amongst the chalk, these are the last known structural activity at Stonehenge, dated to around 1,600 BC from a jumbled stack of five broken stag antlers; two picks and three entire antlers. The antlers were all entangled and seemingly deliberately placed in the bottom of Y Hole 30; significantly adjacent the monument axis.
Only 18 of the Y Holes and 16 of the Z Holes have been excavated but the two rings are thought to consist of 30 and 29 pits respectively. Atkinson postulated that both Y & Z rings were intended to hold 30 stones each but was never completed.8
As with the Aubrey Holes, debate continues as the purpose of the Y and Z Holes. Both Hawley and Atkinson were of the opinion that they had never held posts or stones, although Atkinson speculated that they were intended to house Welsh Bluestones in a further remodelling of the monument that never happened. Indeed, many of the pits were found to contain fragments of bluestone, some placed just 2 inches from the bottom of the pit, which Atkinson suggested may have been a symbolic representation of a full bluestone monolith. Considered with the stack of antlers, this appears to be evidence of structured deposition. The wedge-shaped pits were probably never filled and left open as they have accumulated every type of material found over the lifespan of the monument.
The Y & Z Holes

Structured Deposition
At one time is was common for any finds that could not be given a material reasoning for their deposition to be classified simply as ‘ritual‘ (indeed a favourite term on the television program Time Team). As ‘ritual‘ implies a mystical purpose it was avoided by serious academics and became a joke term for anything not understood.

However, we can define ‘ritual’ as evidence for behaviour of a religious, magical or superstitious nature that has no obvious material purpose. Religion can be termed as a belief in unseen powers, the supernatural or spiritual beings; Magic, the use of practices to control the occult and therefore influence events; Superstition is often seen as excessive or false religious behaviour, a belief not based on reason or knowledge, which may cause an act based on such a belief. Ritual is therefore essentially a behaviour performed to placate or influence supernatural beings.9

The recognition of ‘ritual deposits‘ has now gained acceptance amongst the latest generation of archaeologists. But the interpretation of this phenomenon, widespread across Neolithic Britain and Ireland, in which artefacts, whether material remains of animal or human are deposited in pits, still presents difficulties. The digging of pits would appear to originate in the Mesolithic, as we have seen with the Stonehenge carpark postholes, with continued and recurrent use of many sites into the  Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

The content of the pits is evidently not random rubbish tipping. As such the assemblage is not simply the domestic left-overs from a ceremonial feast kicked into a hole after the event; the choice of the material is selective and significant with the pit assemblage carefully accumulated prior to deposition. However, the concept of ‘structured deposition’ is probably the least well understood aspect of these pits and the distinction must be made between organised placement (ritual), often with rapid back-filling, and the random deposits of domestic rubbish (middens).

Archaeologists have interpreted the digging and filling of pits as part of a growing tradition to commemorate the seasonal visit of a community, a permanent remembrance to the event. The latest wisdom trends toward ‘presencing’, a statement that “we were here”. Darvill suggests it is almost as if places once used for occupation by the ancient ones were remembered and celebrated by later periodic visits.10

We have barely scratched the surface here with the three types of pit discussed above; the Mesolithic carpark postholes and aligned pit, the ceremonial pits from the Stonehenge landscape at King Barrow Ridge and Coneybury and the pits within the monument at Stonehenge. These pits may all have had different uses at different times but they all commemorate an event in the landscape, essentially building a relationship between people and artefacts, painting a map for remembrance:

“The tradition of digging and filling pits was intended to transform a temporary event or occasion into something enshrined within tribal lore and ideology. It’s a process of creating and fixing history,11

Notes & References:
1. Timothy Darvill, Stonehenge: The Biography of a Landscape, The History Press, 2008.
2. Francis Pryor, Britain BC, Harper Perennial, 2003.
3. CA Newham, The Astronomical Significance of Stonehenge, Moon Publications; 1st edition, 1972.
4. Pryor, Op.cit.
5. Julian Richards, The Stonehenge Environs Project, English Heritage Archaeological Reports, 1990.
6. Mike Parker Pearson, Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery, Simon & Schuster, 2012.
7. Cleal et al, Stonehenge in its Landscape, English Heritage, Archaeological Reports 10, 1995
8. Ibid.
9. Ralph Merrifield, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, BCA, 1987.
10. Darvill, Op.cit.
11. Pryor, Op.cit. p.178.

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The desecration of Stonehenge

The Desecration of Stonehenge Shames this Government
The Budget confirmed that the Tories will drive concrete and tarmac through the ancient Wiltshire site

An article by Tom Holland president of The Stonehenge Alliance on the decision by the government to tunnel the A303 past Stonehenge through the World Heritage Site.

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