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Neolithic Pits Near Stonehenge

Excavation of five pits only a little older than the first phase of construction at Stonehenge.

As part of the Stonehenge Southern WHS Survey Project, Historic England carried out a series of excavations targeting features mapped through aerial photography and geophysical survey. The aims were to characterise these features and to understand their significance. This article discusses the most significant discovery from these excavations, a new group of Neolithic pits 1.5 kilometre south-east of Stonehenge.

 

Photograph of Middle Neolithic pits during excavation.
The Middle Neolithic pits during excavation. © Historic England

Much previous work in the Stonehenge WHS has focused on large monuments such as Durrington Walls, Woodhenge and Stonehenge itself. When selecting features for excavation as part of the southern WHS project, as well as looking at ditches and enclosures, we targeted a group of pit-like anomalies visible on geophysical survey results from the fields sloping southwards from King Barrow Ridge. These features were chosen for excavation because there are large numbers of similar anomalies across the fields, and we hoped to understand the wider landscape by sampling a small number of them.

In the past archaeologists have often been wary of committing resources to look at such features, which have often turned out to be tree throws, the disturbed ground left when a tree falls naturally. However, previous work has shown that King Barrow Ridge was used for pit digging and deposition throughout the Neolithic (Richards 1990) and it was thus possible that the features shown on the geophysical survey could represent the same type of activity, especially as a Late Neolithic Grooved Ware pit had previously been found in the same field.

Two areas of excavation targeted the pit-like anomalies shown in the geophysical survey. The first, quite high up the ridge, revealed several tree throws, but no pits. The second, further downslope to the south-east, revealed several further tree throws, but also five pits. It quickly became apparent that these pits contained a vast amount of Middle Neolithic material culture, including Peterborough Ware pottery, a style that was widespread across Britain during the later fourth and early third millennia BC.

Deposition patterns

The five pits were of similar size, roughly circular in plan and around 0.6 metres to 0.8 metres deep. In the base of each pit was a substantial grey silty layer, deposited either immediately or shortly after the pit was dug, and in every case this contained the majority of the finds. Following the deposition of this layer the pits appear to have been at least partly deliberately infilled, incorporating additional material culture.

Photograph of a section excavated through a Neolithic pit.
Section through a Neolithic pit. © Historic England

The finds from the pits included sherds from over 50 Peterborough Ware vessels, but only a small proportion of each pot was present. Sherds of the same vessel which join -but show different degrees of burning- demonstrate that the pieces had been through different processes after they were broken. The fragments deposited in the pits, then, had been selected from material that had first been deposited in separate places elsewhere. They may have come from a midden or fire-pit, or simply been dispersed across open ground. The pits then were deliberately infilled after a short period of being open to the elements.

Photograph of a Neolithic pot fragment.
Part of a Peterborough Ware vessel. © Historic England

The pits also contained a remarkable assemblage of worked flint, comprising nearly 14,000 pieces, including over 8,000 pieces of micro-debitage (waste products from flint knapping) and 149 retouched implements including arrowheads, burins (engraving tools), piercers, scrapers and serrated tools. Analysis of these artefacts indicates that they include elements of both earlier and later Neolithic flint-working techniques, and as such they shed important light on the transition from the blade-based knapping technology of the Early Neolithic to the less regular flaking techniques of the Late Neolithic.

Finds of Neolithic flints displayed on a table.
Flints from the Neolithic pits. © Historic England

Radiocarbon dates and a significant burial

Other finds from the pits included beads of cowrie shell and shale (along with the debris left by shale working), all of which must have been imported from the coast; a worked sarsen object; and a carved piece of chalk. Hazelnuts and animal bones from the pits have been radiocarbon dated, and the results tell us that deposition in these pits took place sometime between 3300 and 3200 cal BC, although the actual length of time over which the pits were used may be considerably shorter than this range. (See explanation of calibrating carbon dating). This is 200‒300 years before the construction of the first enclosure ditch at Stonehenge.

Reconstruction art depicting Neolithic people and domestic animals moving through a landscape.
Reconstruction of the Middle Neolithic activity. © Historic England, Judith Dobie

These small-scale excavations provide a window into the activities people were undertaking in the Stonehenge landscape in the centuries before the monument was constructed. These people appear to have lived a pastoral lifestyle, with food also gathered from wild resources. They used sophisticated worked flint technology and wore decorative beads. The pits are of course only one part of the round of activities taking place in this landscape in the Middle Neolithic. They have survived as they are below the depth reached by modern ploughing, which has removed most evidence left by prehistoric people on the surface of the site (although some flints survive in the ploughsoil).

At a similar time as people were using the pits a large badger sett was active in an area of woodland immediately to the west: perhaps these trees provided a landmark and a resource for the Neolithic inhabitants?

Photograph of a badger sett found on an archaeological excavation.
The badger sett. © Historic England

'There is one more part of this story: during one episode of activity in the Middle Neolithic, people returned to the site and placed a human skull and some limb bones in a grave amongst the pits. Analysis of the bones, which is ongoing, should throw light on aspects of this person's origin and life and add significantly to our understanding of what was happening around Stonehenge in the period before its construction.

This research has been undertaken by a wide range of Historic England specialists and external colleagues. Thanks are due to the National Trust and the tenant farmer for allowing access to the land. The full results of the 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

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.

Richards, J 1990 The Stonehenge Environs Project. London: English Heritage; download of monograph available via the Archaeology Data Service.

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