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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Stonehenge Tunnel given Greenlight

Ignoring the advice of UNESCO, eminent archaeologists and the wishes of 50,000 people who signed a petition against a 2 mile (3.2km) past the prehistoric monument on Salisbury Plain, the government in its first budget has allocated funds for the Stonehenge tunnel.

In his first Budget Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced more than £600bn to be spent on roads, rail, broadband and housing by the middle of 2025, £27bn of which will be allocated to motorways and other arterial roads, including the tunnel for the A303 passing Stonehenge posing a very real threat to the unique archaeology of this most special prehistoric site.

Few people will argue that Britain’s infrastructure is in desperate need of a huge inject of funds but this is an opportunity missed to re-route the A303 out of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.

>> Stonehenge A303 tunnel given go ahead by chancellor – BBC News Wiltshire 11 March 2020

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The Rollright Trust acquires the King Stone

Divided by a road and individual landowners for hundreds of years, now for the first time in recorded history the complete Rollright Stones complex has come together under common ownership with the Rollright Trust now acquiring the King Stone.

Traditionally a king and his men petrified by a witch, the Rollright Stones are a complex of three megalithic monuments consisting of the King’s Men stone circle, the Whispering Knights burial chamber and the single outlier known as the King Stone. The development of the site near the village of Long Compton, on the borders of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, covers a period of nearly 2,000 years from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.

The King Stone

The King Stone takes its name from the well-known legend about a King and his men who were turned to stone by a witch who challenged the king saying:

“Seven long strides shalt thou take and if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be”.

On his seventh stride a mound rose up blocking the King’s view of the village below. The witch turned them all to stone: the king became the King Stone; his army the King’s Men; and his knights the Whispering Knights burial chamber. The witch became an elder tree, said to still be in the hedge

There are at least two prehistoric barrows by the King Stone and an unusual Saxon burial was found nearby in 2014 indicating the important relationship of the field to the complex but always cut-off from the main circle and the burial chamber by the road and separate ownership.

The Rollright Trust was established in 1997 who then purchased the stones when they were put up for sale by the owner in 2001. The King’s Men stone circle and the Whispering Knights burial chamber were then owned by the Rollright Trust while the King Stone was on land owned by the neighbouring farm across the road, Haine Farmers.

The King’s Men and the Whispering Knights were included in the schedule of the first Ancient Monuments act in 1882, which provided the monument with State protection. Guardianship of the stone circle and burial chamber then transferred to the Commissioners of Works in 1883, with the King Stone included in 1894.

In 2014 the management role for guardianship of the Rollright monuments transferred to the English Heritage Trust, which takes responsibility for repairing damage to the Stones and railings while the Rollright Trust undertakes the normal day-to-day management, maintenance and presentation of the site near Oxford.

The Rollright Stones c.1645

The Chairman of the Rollright Trust, George Lambrick said, “The Stones are a true gem of the Cotswolds. With all three monuments in our ownership we can enhance their overall management in the low key way that everyone loves and respects. We are immensely grateful to Nat le Roux and Nick Cavalla who helped found the Trust and enabled us to acquire the two Oxfordshire monuments, and to Nat for a further major donation which has provided the bedrock of this acquisition. In addition to creating the meadow, we will be doing archaeological surveys to find out more about the site, enhancing our education work, and improving visitor information, including a ‘toposcope’ guide to the view. We will also have greater flexibility in managing events and access arrangements. The work starts now!”

Further reading:

>> The Rollright Trust – News 22 Feb 2020

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Stonehenge Tunnel Petition Handed in to Government

A petition with 50,000 signatures calling on the Government not to damage the Stonehenge landscape with any further road upgrade plans has been handed into No 10 Downing Street this afternoon.

A decision is said to be imminent on the proposed A303 Stonehenge tunnel, planned to ease congestion on the over-crowded highway.

Stonehenge is without doubt English Heritage’s biggest attraction with over 1.5 million visitors recorded in 2018, many being foreign tourists.

Significantly, one fifth of the petition’s signatories are from over 100 countries outside the UK, which the campaign group Stonehenge Alliance said reflects ‘…..the international concern expressed by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee’.

Sir Tony Robinson, Time Team presenter and campaign supporter, said: “The impact of building huge new roads into the Stonehenge Neolithic and Bronze Age landscape would be dire.

“It’s a complete farce to expect to solve congestion and preserve the site by building a huge new expressway there.”

A decision on the tunnel had been expected in December 2019, but was delayed owing to the election.

Any hopes of this Government cancelling the Stonehenge tunnel in favour of a route outside the World Heritage Site should consider the recent decision to go ahead with the high speed rail link HS2 at a cost of over £100 Billion; yet, with half the country currently underwater the Government allocates just 1% of the infrastructure budget to flood defences.

>> BBC News Wiltshire 19 Feb 2020

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Megalithomania Conference 2020


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The Bridestones

The Bridestones is a prehistoric chambered burial cairn, near Congleton, on the Staffordshire-Cheshire border, constructed around five thousand years ago. Debate goes on as the origin of the name of this ancient tomb; one story claims it was named after a newly married couple who were murdered nearby and the stones laid around their grave.

For me there is little doubt that the tomb is named after the Goddess Brigid, also known as Bride, daughter of a Druid who became a Christian Saint. Brigid is often associated with the Celtic Goddess Brigantia who’s popularity is attested in several inscriptions in the North of England. However, there are distinct differences between the two goddesses and clearly separate deities.

The Bridestones, near Congleton, England.

Once a proud chambered tomb covered by a cairn similar to West Kennet Long barrow, little has survived of The Bridestones into modern times. In 1764 the cairn was described as being 120 yards long and 12 yards wide, with three separate chambers eighteen feet long, only one of which remains today. A holed chamber slab was said to be similar to the holed stone of the Devil’s Ring and Finger a few miles south at Mucklestone where just two stones have survived of a prehistoric chambered tomb. Imaginative descriptions claim that the hole was apparently to let spirits pass through.

Thousands of tons of the cairn material was stripped from The Bridestones in the late 18th century for road building. Then megaliths from the burial chambers were robbed for the nearby house with just two of four portal stones remaining. One portal stone has been repaired, its broken top cemented back in place, and said to display a carving of a human figure looking out from the chamber. Carvings are difficult, if not impossible, to date accurately and this type of figure would be unusual in prehistoric tombs which were typically abstract designs of spirals and chevrons.

The Bridestones burial chamber

A stone circle was said to have enclosed the forecourt, the monoliths dragged off and used at Tunstall Park where some can still be seen today. Work to trace the sockets of these surviving stones at The Bridestones has not been successful.

Now a Scheduled Ancient Monument it has been a massive failure of humanity that we have not managed to protect and preserve our heritage from the development of civilisation and allowed these prehistoric constructions to degenerate into such poor states. Of course many have not survived at all.

The Bridestones reminds me of Five Wells in Derbyshire, another debuded chambered tomb, but the Cheshire site is especially worth a vist today on the feast of St Brigid where offerings will be left to the Goddess.

The Bridestones (Cheshire) – The Megalithic Portal
The Bridestones Burial Chamber – The Modern Antiquarian
The Bridestones Neolithic chambered long cairn – Historic England
Doug Pickford – The Bridestones, in Magic, Myth & Memory, Churnet Valley Books, Leek,  2014, pp.179-237.
Pictures: Wikipedia (Commons Licence)

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