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The Army Basing Programme: New Discoveries at Larkhill and Bulford

Investigations by Wessex Archaeology ahead of development for the Army Basing Programme have revealed a plethora of prehistoric remains.

Map showing the location of sites in the wider landscape
The location of sites in the wider landscape © Historic England

Wessex Archaeology was commissioned by consultants WYG on behalf of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation to carry out archaeological investigations ahead of development for the Army Basing Programme. These works, which collectively involve an ambitious project to accommodate the 4,000 additional service personnel and their families who will be based on and around Salisbury Plain by 2019, required excavations to the east of Larkhill Camp and on land to the south of Bulford between 2015 and 2017.

Location map of the site at Bulford.
The location of the site at Bulford. © Wessex Archaeology

Ring-ditches and pits

The site at Bulford is located on a spur of the north-west facing slope of the Nine Mile River valley (a tributary of the River Avon), just to the north of the barrow cemetery at Double Hedges. The work confirmed the presence of two ring-ditches known from aerial photography, and revealed a large number of Neolithic pits, Beaker period features and a cemetery of Anglo-Saxon date. Drone photography indicated that the ring-ditches were rather more complex than had previously been apparent. Limited excavation was undertaken to inform decisions about the preservation and scheduling of the site.

Image from a drone survey showing the ring-ditches, cemetery and pits.
The drone survey showing the ring-ditches, cemetery and pits. © Wessex Archaeology

Both ring-ditches began as segmented hengiform enclosures with single entrances on the northern side. Deposits from the ditches included Late Neolithic Grooved Ware of Durrington Walls type, struck flint, and animal bone (including the skull from a large dog or wolf). Once the original segmented ditches had filled, both were surrounded by continuous barrow ditches of probable Early Bronze Age date. Both monuments had evidence of a central mound, while the western ring-ditch also appeared to have an external bank.

The henges and ring-ditches.
The henges and ring-ditches. © Wessex Archaeology

The area to the east, south and west of the ring-ditches contained numerous pits of Late Neolithic date, from which extensive deposits of cultural material were recovered.

The pits were mainly located in a linear band extending from east to west below the southern crest of the spur and extending around its eastern tip, although some lay to the north of the ring-ditches, and some were within them.

Most of the pits contained bone, Grooved Ware of Woodlands type, flint knapping debris and charcoal. Many pits also contained ‘exotic’ objects including carved chalk, spherical flint nodules, flint and stone axes or fragments, a discoidal knife, antlers and aurochs bones, and – in one instance – claws from a large bird, probably a corvid (the family of birds that includes crows and ravens).

Image of a chalk bowl produced by the reflectance transformation technique.
Reflectance transformation imaging of one of the chalk bowls. This digital photographic technique allows the viewer to change the way they see the image so that otherwise invisible or hard-to-detect features are revealed. © Wessex

 

A Neolithic discoidal knife
A polished discoidal knife ‒ a very rare find from a Late Neolithic pit. © Wessex Archaeology

Slightly further to the east, on the slopes of the dry coombe below the spur, further pits contained Early Neolithic ceramics and lithics. Similar material came from a spread of colluvium in the valley floor, suggesting occupation.

A new causewayed enclosure

The site at Larkhill, less than 1 kilometre north-west of Durrington Walls and 3 kilometre north-east of Stonehenge, was previously thought to be free of significant archaeological remains.

Evaluation trenching revealed a 'Wessex Linear' and other ditches which were considered to be parts of later Bronze Age and Iron Age field systems; an undated unaccompanied inhumation burial; a sub-rectangular Iron Age enclosure; lynchets and terraces of probable Romano-British date; and military remains.

The results were of sufficient interest and in an area of sufficient archaeological sensitivity for Wiltshire Council Archaeology Service to require full excavation of the area. Stripping commenced in July 2016.

Excavation revealed a Beaker inhumation, a Middle Bronze Age cremation cemetery, a very small ring-ditch, and the extensive remains of military practice trench systems, mainly from the World War I. However, the most notable prehistoric discovery was a series of seven ditch segments against the site’s southern boundary, forming 117 metres of an arc of an Early Neolithic causewayed enclosure approximately 210 metres in diameter.

The causewayed enclosure ditches revealed within the excavations at Larkhill.
The causewayed enclosure ditches revealed within the excavations at Larkhill. © Adam Stanford

The ditch segments varied in length, width and depth. While some of these differences may have resulted from variations in the natural chalk, some of them seem to have been deliberate choices. In many segments, individual episodes of cutting and recutting could be seen, with later cuts both deeper and shorter than the originals.

The two easternmost ditch segments were separated by an unusually wide causeway of 13.5 metres, which may have been an entrance. Placed centrally within this gap was a shallow oval stepped pit containing Early Neolithic pottery.

Other ditch segments contained ceramics of varying types. The primary fills contained fragments of Decorated Bowl pottery, most of which were of a stylistically local type (Windmill Hill ware), but which also included forms that were more typical of the south-west peninsula (Hembury ware).

Pottery of South-Western type from the enclosure ditch.
Pottery of South-Western type from the enclosure ditch. © Wessex

Only a single line of ditch segments was encountered. Since many causewayed enclosures consist of multiple circuits of ditch one inside the other, further arcs may exist inside the area defined by the excavated segments (there are none outside  it, on the north side at least). The projected diameter compares well with that  of the well-known causewayed enclosure at Robin Hood’s Ball, 4 kilometres to the west-north-west, perhaps suggesting that an inner ditch circuit could be expected.

The enclosure and its associated features represent a major new discovery in the Stonehenge landscape. It sits just below the brow of the low hill occupied by Larkhill Camp, commanding broad views to the north-east across the valley of the river Avon towards Barrow Clump and Sidbury. While most of the enclosure remains uninvestigated within the camp, projections of its size suggest that its entire circuit lies on the northern side of the hill, and therefore looks out across the Avon valley rather than south and south-west towards Stonehenge. The excavated part lies only 300 metres outside the northern boundary of the World Heritage Site (WHS).

The Larkhill enclosure adds a very significant architectural element to the Early Neolithic landscape north of the WHS. Known sites of this date are situated on the ridge of high ground running east-south-east from Robin Hood’s Ball and the cluster of long and oval barrows to its east and north-east. The ridge takes in the summit occupied by the Knighton Long Barrow and the oval barrow south of it, adjacent to the Packway, and continues on to end at the scarp above Durrington Walls. The Larkhill enclosure sits on a low eminence east of the Packway barrow, and may be the focal point for both it and the Knighton barrow. Geophysical survey has revealed what may be the remains of a further ploughed-down long barrow 600 metres to the north, suggesting that further elements of the Early Neolithic landscape await discovery.

Excavations were undertaken by a team from Wessex Archaeology directed by Steve Thompson and managed by Si Cleggett. Martin Brown managed the project for WYG on behalf of Defence Infrastructure Organisation. Wessex Archaeology would like to thank Adam Stanford of Aerial Cam for his work at very short notice.


 

A large saddle quern.
A large saddle quern recovered from a World War I feature cutting the enclosure. © Wessex Archaeology
Mat Leivers, Wessex Archaeology

Author

Matt Leivers PhD ACIfA is Senior Specialist Services Manager at Wessex Archaeology. His most recent publication is A Research Framework for the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites World Heritage Site (Leivers and Powell 2016).

Further reading

Leivers, M and  Powell, A. B. 2016 A Research Framework for the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites World Heritage Site(Wessex Archaeology Monograph 39). Salisbury: Wessex Archaeology

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