Largely covered in dense woodland, Vespasian’s Camp is one of the least known monuments in the Stonehenge landscape. In the winter of 2015‒16 we were fortunate enough to obtain permission to survey the site. Though it had been well mapped by the Ordnance Survey and limited geophysical survey was carried out in 1995, no modern archaeological survey had previously been undertaken.
The hillfort occupies a locally dominant position at the southern end of a ridge on the west bank of the River Avon. Two or more Bronze Age barrows are known to have existed on this ridge and the mutilated mound of one of them (Amesbury 25) survives. The hillfort itself has ramparts over 7 metres high on its western side, though on the eastern and southern sides it is less well preserved; here the ramparts have largely been levelled and survive only as outward-facing scarps above the river cliff. Excavations by Kurt Hunter-Mann in the 1980s confirmed that the ramparts were built in two phases, but that the hillfort flourished for a relatively short time in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Its misleading name derives from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the hillfort was believed to be a Roman fort.
Though it is difficult to be certain about the original form of Vespasian’s Camp because of the later mutilation of its eastern ramparts, the way in which it presents its very high, straight ramparts to the west – towards Stonehenge – is remarkable, and echoes the relationship of Oldbury hillfort to the megalithic monuments at Avebury. This must reflect the beliefs of the inhabitants during much of the Iron Age, when Stonehenge and its immediate surroundings were apparently avoided: apart from one burial, very few finds or monuments of this period are known close to Stonehenge, though contemporary settlements are widespread elsewhere in the region. Curiously, the boundary of the World Heritage Site approximately mirrors this gap in the local pattern of Iron Age activity.
The camp in context
Vespasian’s Camp is one of a number of hillforts on the southern part of Salisbury Plain. Many of these are placed in locally dominant positions along the valley of the Avon and its tributaries; the significance of the river as a conduit for people, material and ideas throughout later prehistory is increasingly appreciated. The nearest neighbour is Ogbury on the east bank to the south; with Casterley Camp and Sidbury to the north; Yarnbury and Quarley Hill to west and east respectively; and Figsbury Ring and Old Sarum to the south.
All of these sites share the defining characteristics of hillforts – an area of high ground surrounded by ramparts and ditches in the Early to Middle Iron Age – but differ from each other in positioning and form; they are not all necessarily strictly contemporary with each other, and seem to be the constructions of separate local communities rather than part of a wider regional system. Though all are on relatively high ground in their locality they generally avoid the highest hills, with most occupying positions along river valleys.
Some have slight, single ramparts; some have much more substantial defences; some occupy hilltops, while others are quite deliberately tilted down into the valley; some occupy large areas while others are small; no two are alike.
Yarnbury and Sidbury have been identified as long-used hillforts, ‘preferred locations’ throughout the early and middle parts of the Iron Age, like Danebury, Maiden Castle and South Cadbury; Vespasian’s Camp, by contrast, and despite the effort that went into creating its substantial ramparts, seems to have been relatively short-lived. These sites all show signs of activity in earlier periods – barrows, enclosures, linear ditches – and have been said to ‘re-emphasise locations of ancestral activity’ (McOmish et al 2002, 160). They also nearly all show signs of later activity – Late Iron Age, Roman, Medieval and Post-medieval – but in different forms; only Yarnbury and Old Sarum have evidence for extensive Roman occupation, though a few finds of Romano-British pottery at Vespasian’s Camp attest to some activity there.
Changes in the historic era
The interior of Vespasian’s Camp is known to have been under cultivation in the medieval period; this continued until about 1740. It is also known that Stonehenge Road was established on its current line by the end of the 14th century, cutting the hillfort into two unequal parts.
In the 1740s the northern part of the hillfort was acquired by the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry and incorporated within their park at Amesbury Abbey, where they were employing the celebrated landscape gardener Charles Bridgeman to lay out their grounds in a formal manner, some remains of which are visible as earthworks. Bridgeman laid out the hillfort interior on two main axes at right angles to each other, meeting at a large circular platform near the centre. To the east of this platform, facing the formal gardens around the house, were planting lines and an artificial grotto known as ‘Gay’s Cave’. The grotto was cut into the river cliff below the ramparts and surrounded by a ‘diamond’ of paths leading down to the river edge. To the north of the circular platform, a carriage drive was cut through the mound of barrow Amesbury 25, leading to a square platform and the northern entrance of the hillfort, which was widened.
The stiff formality of this landscape was not maintained for long; documentary and map evidence shows that the straight edges of the planting were soon softened. The earthworks of the planting lines seem to reflect this, as they are far from symmetrical. Another carriage drive was engineered down the steep slope to the east of the monument, leading to the valley floor where a ‘Chinese House’ was built on a bridge over a channel of the river; a large drainage ditch was constructed alongside this carriage drive, which must always have been wet and slippery.
It was almost certainly in the 1740s, during this landscaping, that two Bronze Age daggers and a pin were found in two barrows at the hillfort, one of them almost certainly Amesbury 25. These finds seem to have gone into the Duke’s (or Duchess’s) cabinet of curiosities; they were not exhibited in public until 1771, when they were shown to the Society of Antiquaries of London. Thomas Pownall sketched them in the Society’s Minute Book on that occasion, but their whereabouts is now unknown.
Meanwhile the portion of the hillfort to the south of Stonehenge Road continued in agricultural use until, in the early years of the 20th century, it began to be sold off for building plots. There are now about a dozen houses within this part of the monument.
Surveying the monument proved to be a challenge. Dense woodland to the north of Stonehenge Road and nine separate private gardens and paddocks to the south had to be negotiated, all incorporating steep slopes.
We are extremely grateful to all the owners for their ready permission to undertake this work. The survey framework consisted of a ring traverse and three spur traverses totalling 84 stations, measured with a Trimble 5600 total station theodolite.
Mark Bowden MCIfA FSA is a Senior Investigator, and Manager of Historic Places Investigation Team West. Mark studied archaeology at Reading University and has worked for many years as an Investigator for Historic England and its predecessors. His most recent publication is The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site (Swindon, 2015). The research for this article was undertaken with Olaf Bayer, Rebecca Lane, Cara Pearce and Rebecca Pullen.
Bowden, M, Soutar, S, Barber, M and Field, D 2015 The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. Swindon: Historic England
Bowden M 2016 Stonehenge Southern WHS Project: Vespasians Camp, Amesbury, Wiltshire: analytical earthwork survey. Historic England Research Report 49/2016.
McOmish, D, Field, D and Brown, G 2002 The Field Archaeology of the Salisbury Plain Training Area. Swindon: English Heritage.