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?
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.
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
|The Y & Z Holes|
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
9. Ralph Merrifield, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, BCA, 1987.
10. Darvill, Op.cit.
11. Pryor, Op.cit. p.178.