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ArchaeologyPart of Humanities

Research project: Living with Monuments: life and cultural landscape between the 4th and 2nd millennia BC in the Avebury region, Wiltshire

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The Living with Monuments Project is directed by Joshua Pollard (University of Southampton) and Mark Gillings (University of Leicester), in collaboration with Rosamund Cleal and Nick Snashall (National Trust), Mike Allen (Allen Environmental Archaeology) and Charly French (University of Cambridge). It is funded by an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The aim of the project is to redress a critical imbalance in our knowledge of life and cultural landscapes during a key period of British prehistory - the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (Neo-EBA; c.4,000-1500 BC). Accounts of the Neo-EBA are dominated by an interpretive framework devised to explain the creation of ceremonial and funerary monuments, which form the most visible and tangible part of its archaeological record. By contrast, knowledge of the character of contemporary settlement and other non-monument focussed activity lags behind. This project will redress this imbalance through a coherent and innovative programme of targeted fieldwork and reassessment of existing data within one landscape that is famed for its monumental architecture: that of the Avebury region in Wiltshire.

Sheep grazing

The great ceremonial and funerary monuments of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (EBA) have attracted considerable academic and public attention, but the wider social worlds of routine, subsistence and settlement within which they were created remain poorly understood and often elusive. Visitors to sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury often ask how and where the people who constructed and used these monuments lived. These have not been easy questions to answer. The scale and permanence of constructions like the Avebury henge, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill contrast markedly with the ephemeral character of everyday activity during the Neolithic and EBA (c.3800-1500BC), and for this reason archaeological narratives of social life during these periods have often been crafted around 'goings on' at highly visible monuments.

The Living with Monuments Project seeks to redress the balance by examining the record of settlement and related activities within a landscape that is famed for its prehistoric ceremonial monuments: the Upper Kennet Valley, Wiltshire, in the Avebury component of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site (WHS). The project aims to identify the extent, scale, density, character and tempo of human settlement in the core of the region during the Neolithic and EBA; the relationship between people's living within the landscape and its progressive monumentalisation, in terms of how monument building may have structured settlement (e.g. drawing people into the region); the way that settlement imparted a history to places that could lead to their subsequent conversion into monumental spaces; and to better define the environment within which such activity took place.

In order to explore these issues, a programme of targeted fieldwork will be undertaken on a series of sites in a range of topographic zones. Some are known locations of Neolithic settlement; others locations where good settlement and environmental evidence is suspected to be preserved under hillwash and flood sediments; and at the sites of monuments that look to have developed out of settlement locations. This work will variously involve gridded surface collection of artefacts to map traces of activity, geophysical survey, coring of deposits, test pitting and full excavation. Dealing with the ephemeral traces that routine activity of this date leaves will require new ways of investigating, theorising and interpreting the evidence; a challenge this project seeks to embrace, with the view of developing approaches which can then be applied elsewhere.

The project builds upon earlier fieldwork undertaken at Rough Leaze, to the immediate east of Avebury in 2007, and on the West Kennet Avenue ‘occupation site’ between 2013-15.

Fieldwork to Date

An Archaeological dig
Trench 1 at the Foot of Avebury Down looking towards Avebury-Ben Chan

In 2017 the project excavated an extensive lithic scatter on the Foot of Avebury Down originally indentifed in the 1920s by H.G.O. Kendall and W.E.V. Young. The fieldwork represented the first systematic investigation of the dense scatter of worked flint that occupies a key location overlooking Avebury to the west. The scatter was investigated through the excavation of nine trenches, comprising at total area of 421m2. The excavation retrieved a large assemblage of later prehistoric worked flint, alongside smaller assemblages of prehistoric ground stone, pottery and animal bone. The worked flint and pottery is dated to the Neolithic and Bronze Age with a small amount of probably late Mesolithic flintwork also being identified. Beneath the ploughsoil a series of pits, tree throws, stake-holes and post-holes were identified. At least one of the pits dates to the middle Neolithic, whilst a substantial post-hole, likely part of a larger structure, is of Late Neolithic date.

The density and scale of the Foot of Avebury Down scatter is striking. This was a locale that witnessed repeated visitation over at least two millennia. Some of the activity was related to the working of flint nodules, which here outcrop from the chalk slightly upslope from the investigated area. Settlement also occurred, as witnessed by the finds of animal bone, pottery and ephemeral structural traces. Geophysical survey hints at the presence of numerous other pits in addition to those revealed through the excavation. Together, the evidence points to this being a major Neolithic and early Bronze Age site occupying a commanding location in the Avebury landscape.

A full interim report on the excavation under useful downloads

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