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Bronze Age Boundaries in the Stonehenge Landscape.

Historic England investigation of early field systems.

As well as the work on the Neolithic pits south-west of Stonehenge, Historic England carried out excavation and analysis relating to the Bronze Age field systems of the southern World Heritage Site (WHS). Here we consider their implications for our understanding of how the Stonehenge landscape changed in the Middle Bronze Age.

On the eastern side of the WHS, at West Amesbury Farm, parts of an extensive system of linear ditches and enclosures were excavated in four separate trenches. A series of ephemeral anomalies picked up by Ground Penetrating Radar survey appeared to form several fragmentary enclosures across the field, and small ditches relating to these were excavated in several places. Whilst datable material was limited to worked flint that could only be assigned a later prehistoric date, two of the ditches were stratigraphically earlier than a major Middle Bronze Age linear ditch, and another was earlier than a Bronze Age pit. As such, it appears that these shallow-ditched enclosures date to the early part of the Middle Bronze Age, perhaps around 1500 BC.

Photograph of a Bronze Age ditch.
Bronze Age ditch at West Amesbury Farm, prior to excavation. © Historic England

A stratigraphy of enclosures

The ditches are too shallow to have been useful for keeping animals penned, and the enclosures are very different in form to field systems of this period found nearby on Salisbury Plain. Characterising activity within these enclosures, and further refining their dating, would be a very worthwhile aim for future research.

These enclosures were succeeded by a less complex system of land division, based around a long curvilinear boundary that has been mapped from aerial photography and extends from near the Stonehenge Avenue across King Barrow Ridge to the western side of Coneybury Hill, terminating just south of Luxenborough Plantation (Bowden et al 2015). Various linear ditches have also been mapped; they appear as broadly perpendicular offshoots from this main ditch, predominantly on its southern side.

One of these was sampled by excavation, revealing a narrow, shallow linear ditch which produced significant quantities of grain, radiocarbon dated to the post-medieval period. The date of the ditch remains in question, however, as it is likely that this material is intrusive.

Photograph of a major Bronze Age boundary near King Barrow Ridge.
Major Bronze Age boundary near King Barrow Ridge. © Historic England

Where the major ditch itself was excavated, dating evidence was much clearer. A long stretch was revealed in the western part of the field, and sectioned several times.

At the base of one section were the skeletons of two adult males who had been interred in graves cut shortly after the digging of the ditch, before secondary fills had formed. They must thus be associated with the laying out of this new division of the landscape. The remains were radiocarbon dated, which suggests that they were interred in relatively quick succession between around 1450 and 1300 cal BC. (See explanation of calibrating radio carbon dates). This places the burials in the first half of the Middle Bronze Age, a time when there are strong suggestions from previous research that the WHS landscape was being substantially reorganised (Bowden et al 2015).

A bone from a large red deer found in the uppermost fill of the ditch was also radiocarbon dated to the late 1st millennium cal BC. As well as showing the continued presence of large wild animals in the Stonehenge landscape, this indicates that the ditch remained an active boundary and open feature in the landscape until the later Iron Age, more than twelve centuries after the interments of two members of the community which built it.

Reconstruction drawing depicting a burial in the Bronze Age boundary ditch.
Reconstruction of a burial in the Bronze Age boundary ditch. © Historic England, Judith Dobie.

High palisade

In the western part of the WHS, in a field to the south-east of the Winterbourne Stoke roundabout, we excavated a selection of features revealed by geophysical survey.

One of these was a ditch that formed part of a partial enclosure to the east of long barrow Wilsford 34. The trench covered about 5 metres of the ditch up to its south-western terminus. Two sections were excavated, one at the terminus and one further along the ditch. Both showed evidence that posts had been placed in the base of the ditch; this strongly suggests that the ditch held a palisade. The posts were around 0.3 metres in diameter, and were buried around 1m deep in the ditch, suggesting (based on the usual ratios for estimating the height of post supports) that up to 4 metres of each post would have been visible above ground, forming a significant structure in the landscape. The posts were removed from the ditch which was then infilled, again during the Middle Bronze Age.

We can date this activity through the remains of a perinatal infant deposited in the infill material, radiocarbon dated to the 15th to 13th centuries cal BC, and a sherd of Deverel-Rimbury urn.

It is unclear why the palisade was removed and the ditch filled in at this time, but it may be related to the establishment of a major linear ditch, which cuts the palisade ditch to the east, and an extensive field system on its western side. This major ditch is similar to the one excavated at West Amesbury Farm on the other side of the WHS, and it is notable that the radiocarbon dates for the infilling of the palisade ditch and the establishment of the linear ditch at West Amesbury are broadly contemporary. It is becoming clear, by combining this research with previous work, that the Middle Bronze Age saw major changes in how the landscape around Stonehenge was divided. Changes in land division imply alterations in how the landscape was used and perceived by the people who lived in it, and thus hint at significant social as well as economic changes.

Aerial photograph showing traces of later prehistoric fields and a much more recent dewpond south of Winterbourne Stoke crossroads.
Traces of later prehistoric fields and a much more recent dewpond south of Winterbourne Stoke crossroads. © Damian Grady, © Historic England 27571/030, 13 December 2012

Thanks are due to the Druids Lodge Estate and the National Trust for allowing access to the land to undertake this research, which was the work of a wide range of Historic England specialists and external colleagues. As with the Neolithic evidence, the full results of these excavations will be published later in 2017 in open access articles in academic journals. Full details of the radiocarbon determinations and modelling will be given in these academic publications.

 

David Roberts

Author

David Roberts PhD, MCiFA completed his doctorate on Roman interactions with the natural world in Wessex and Provence at the University of York in 2015. Since 2013 he has worked as an archaeologist for Historic England’s Excavation and Analysis Team, managing research projects and excavations, predominantly in Wiltshire on prehistoric and Roman sites and landscapes.

Further reading

Bowden, M, Soutar, S, Field, D and Barber M 2015 The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. Swindon: Historic England; available at: https://www.historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/stonehenge-landscape

Linford, N, Linford, P and Payne, A 2015 Stonehenge Southern WHS Survey, West Amesbury, Wiltshire: Report on Geophysical Surveys, October 2015. Historic England Research Report 95/2015

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