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An Overview of New Investigations in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site

A recent Historic England project explores the less well-known parts of one of our most celebrated archaeological landscapes.

Readers of this special issue of Historic England Research will be aware that Stonehenge has again been in the news (see the foreword by Duncan Wilson). Managing change of any sort in a historic landscape as sensitive as the World Heritage Site (WHS) requires the best possible knowledge of its historic character and archaeological potential, as recognised by the research framework for the WHS.

The Historic England project reported here, known as the Stonehenge Southern WHS Survey, reflects a sense that we know less about the part of the World Heritage Site to the south of the present A303 than that to the north. This is partly a reflection of the known archaeology ‒ most of the major Neolithic monuments lie north of the road ‒ and partly a side-effect of the smaller amount of open-access land in the southern WHS. The article on geophysics in this edition outlines some of the challenges of working here. Most of the fieldwork for the Stonehenge Southern WHS Survey Project was carried out in 2015. It is the subject of all but one of the articles here.

Map of the project area
Map of the project area © Historic England

Venturing south

While the Historic England project provides a corrective to the balance of recent work in the WHS, it would be unwise to contrast the areas north and south of the road too strongly. For one thing, our understanding of other parts of the Stonehenge landscape is far from complete, as the article on work just outside the WHS in Larkhill and Bulford shows. And the southern WHS is hardly terra incognita: significant monuments are present, of which the Normanton Down barrow cemetery, Vespasian's Camp hillfort  and Coneybury Henge are the best known.

Early antiquarian work was largely focussed on round barrows, many of which were surveyed and reassessed as part of the previous Stonehenge WHS Landscape Project. There were also a number of 20th-century excavations of barrows, some as a response to plough damage (reflecting the prevalence of arable land in the southern WHS). Areas south of the A303 were subject to fieldwalking as part of the Stonehenge Environs Project in the 1980s  and more recently to geophysical survey as part of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project.The Stonehenge Riverside Project  also ventured south of the road, discovering a previously unknown henge monument at the southern end of the Stonehenge Avenue in West Amesbury; another recent discovery, the Mesolithic site at Blick Mead, lies between the A303 and Vespasian's Camp.

The potential for unexpected discoveries emphasises the ongoing need to improve our understanding of the character of the buried archaeology. This is essential if we are to ensure the landscape is properly managed, whether in the context of road schemes or of changes in land use. Most of the work reported here was therefore undertaken with the aim of informing heritage management decisions within the southern part of the WHS. The Historic England project deployed aerial mapping, geophysical survey, earthwork survey and excavation (with separate articles on Neolithic and Bronze Age sites and Neolithic lifeways. This collection of articles summarises the interim results of the project, along with discussions of digital presentation and, to provide some important context, recent development-led work in the vicinity.

The southern WHS project area comprised a strip of land to the south of Stonehenge measuring about 7.5 x 1.5 kilometres. The western half of the area is gently undulating downland while the east is more varied, with high points overlooking the River Avon at Coneybury Hill and Vespasian's Camp. The area is dissected by a series of dry valleys, the most pronounced of which is Stonehenge Bottom.

Aerial view across Stonhenge Bottom and the A303 road.
An oblique view looking northwest across Stonehenge Bottom and the A303, the low sunlight emphasising the topographical variation across the landscape. © Historic England, Damian Grady, image reference 26554/035

Mesolithic and Early Neolithic activity

Previous work indicates that Mesolithic activity, primarily marked by lithic artefacts, was concentrated close to the river. The earlier Neolithic (4th millennium BC) saw more activity on the downland, however, with the construction of a number of long barrows. The work reported here has confirmed that one previously uncertain cropmark did indeed indicate the site of a long barrow, while a causewayed enclosure is a new discovery of this period just to the north of the WHS.

Excavating the flanking ditch of a Neolithic long barrow near Druid's Lodge.
Excavating the flanking ditch of a Neolithic long barrow near Druid's Lodge. © Historic England

Later Neolithic monuments and occupation

Late Neolithic monuments (c 3000‒2200 BC) include the two henges at Coneybury and West Amesbury, while it is also likely that some round barrows and ring-ditches originated in this period; survey and excavation have demonstrated the complexity of these monuments across the Stonehenge landscape. To the north of the A303, King Barrow Ridge was probably a significant area throughout the Neolithic, judging by the number of finds incorporated into later round barrows. It is tempting to speculate that an undated square enclosure at the southern end of the ridge, investigated as part of the Historic England project, might also be Neolithic.

Image of an undated square enclosure at the southern end of King Barrow Ridge.
The undated square enclosure at the southern end of King Barrow Ridge. © Historic England

As well as the monuments, but less well-known, there is extensive evidence for Neolithic occupation in the form of surface lithic scatters and pits. The Stonehenge Environs Project suggested most surface flint in the WHS is Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age in date, but though the majority of known pits are indeed associated with Late Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery, there are also earlier examples, most notably the Early Neolithic 'Coneybury anomaly' in the east of the study area. However, until the present project, little Peterborough Ware (Middle Neolithic pottery) had been recovered from pits within the Stonehenge landscape, and those south of King Barrow Ridge thus represent a significant discovery. Although pits are usually seen as settlement features they often contain selected or placed deposits, and (like some monuments) could have marked significant places in the landscape to which people returned, as shown by the human remains which were associated with the pit group.

Bronze Age burials and fields

The majority of upstanding monuments within the project area are Early Bronze Age barrows (c 2200‒1500 BC). As well as the extant mounds numerous ring-ditches are visible as cropmarks on aerial photographs or through geophysical survey.

At the start of the Middle Bronze Age, around 1500 BC, much of the landscape was transformed into fields and routeways, which in the west of the project area seem to encircle Normanton Down. Boundaries of this period were investigated at each end of the WHS, the most notable discovery being a pair of burials in a ditch near West Amesbury. Particularly in the east, geophysical survey has revealed many more field boundaries than were previously known.

After the Bronze Age

Also of note are the extensive undated field systems to the west of the A360, beyond the current WHS boundary. These have barely been investigated but a significant component are probably Iron Age and Romano-British, periods that are poorly represented within the project area, with the key exception of Vespasian's Camp.

Anglo-Saxon and medieval finds are focussed in the east of the project area, around the historic settlement of Amesbury. The open fields of Amesbury Countess and West Amesbury, extending to King Barrow Ridge and Coneybury, were intensively cultivated, which partly explains the lack of upstanding prehistoric monuments here compared to the downland further west.

A key post-medieval development was the landscaping of Amesbury Abbey Park in the mid-18th century, while twentieth-century military activity represents another relatively recent phase of landscape change, knowledge of which was deepened by the geophysical andaerial surveys described here, as well as by the work carried out at Larkhill.

Connected landscapes

While the fieldwork has enhanced understanding of several known monuments, the most significant outcome of the project is perhaps to emphasise that small or ephemeral features in the landscape may be just as significant as the more obvious sites. Rather than being a collection of monuments with blank spaces between, the WHS is revealed as a seamless prehistoric landscape, in which significant remains can occur anywhere, as recognised by the 'Connected Landscapes' theme of the research framework. This needs to be reflected in any future development-led fieldwork.

 

Jonathon Last

Author

Dr Jonathan Last is an archaeologist specialising in prehistory. He has worked in various roles for English Heritage and Historic England since 2001. He is currently Landscape Strategy Manager in the Historic Places Investigation team.

Further reading

Leivers, M and Powell, A 2016: A Research Framework for the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites World Heritage Site: Research Agenda and Strategy. Salisbury: Wessex Archaeology

Reports on individual components of the Southern World Heritage Site can be found via the interactive map search facility.

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