With all this lovely sunshine in the last few weeks, it has been good to see so many people of all ages getting out and about in the great outdoors. I have been doing quite a lot more walking myself recently and it has reminded me how lucky we are in Wiltshire having so many monuments and historic places that are easily accessible and make great walks. Many of our sites and monuments are very impressive, give commanding views and are free to enter.
I have always enjoyed that physical engagement with the past that you get from climbing up to a steep ancient monument, such as an Iron Age hillfort, a castle mound or the top of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. The physical exertion has always helped me to understand the scale of effort required by the people who built them and encourages enquiry about who, when and how the monuments were built.
I distinctly remember my first visit to Maiden Castle Hillfort in Dorset when I was 9 or 10, and after a steep walk the sense of discovery and wonder at the size of the ditches and banks. Several decades later, three of which as an archaeologist, I still get that same buzz about visiting these types of site, and what better way is there to get fitter and heather and explore our wonderful monuments at the same time?
Since 2007 the Wiltshire Council Archaeology Team has been organising annual archaeology walks each summer, usually to coincide with the annual Festival of Archaeology organised and promoted by the Council for British Archaeology in July and August. The walks, led by members of the Archaeology team have been very popular and have include places such as Avebury, the Stonehenge landscape, Littlecote Roman Villa, Barbury Castle, the Wansdyke, Adams Grave and Knap Hill and Oldbury Castle.
The very first walk I led as County Archaeologist in 2007 was one of the most challenging. It was a very rainy and wet Spring and Summer and the July walk to Avebury, Silbury and West Kennett Long Barrow was hampered by flooding, so much so that we lost some of the group as they weren’t wearing appropriate footwear to wade across the flooded Kennett on the way to the Long Barrow. Nevertheless, there was plenty to talk about at Silbury as English Heritage were in the process of repairing the Hill after a partial tunnel collapse some months earlier. The repair work was a great opportunity archaeologists to learn more about the monument and how it was built. The 2014 publication of the results by Historic England are fascinating.
This year for the first time in 27 years the Council for British Archaeology is taking a break from organising the Archaeology Festival. However, the County Archaeology team are still organising three exciting and diverse walks, one each in July, August and September.
Sunday 29th July - Iron Age Hillforts. Starting at Battlesbury, Warminster
Long before the Army started training on Salisbury Plain, and even before the Romans ruled, massive earthwork defences were created on the chalk downland. The edge of the Plain above Warminster has been sculpted to created massive hillforts over 2000 years old. Were these structures intended to defend ancestral lands, or to say "this is us”? Were they citadels, granaries, or temples? The hillforts enclose older remains – sites of burials and sacred places, so there may be more to them than defence and power. Join us as we explore these massive monuments and the landscape that they occupy, see how archaeology has deepened our understanding of the hillforts and wonder why, after so much work, one fort may have been abandoned before it was finished.
Sunday 5th August - Avebury World Heritage Site
Avebury is well known for having the largest Prehistoric stone circle in the world. However, the stone circle is surrounded by a range of other funerary and ritual monuments dating to the Neolithic and Bronze Age, some of which are unusual and unique. This exciting tour takes you through and between the monuments, exploring the monuments and their relationship with the landscape. The tour will take in the Avenue, Waden Hill and Silbury Hill amongst others and explore the reasons why the Avebury landscape has been designated as a World Heritage Site.
Sunday 2nd September - Oliver’s Castle Roundway Down Battlefield, Bromham
The Battle of Roundway Down was fought on 13th July 1643, when the armies of King Charles I and Parliament clashed on the hills above Devizes. Our walk will explore the battlefield and its importance, as well as its place in the wider landscape. Join us to find out why there were Lobsters on the battlefield, how the Bloody Ditch got its name and what occasioned Charles I’s only recorded joke. We might also explain where Devizes castle went.
We will also explore the remains of much older monuments, Oliver’s Castle Iron Age hillfort and associated burial mounds, which are testament to how our Prehistoric ancestors used this landscape for settlement, defence and ritual activities.
The walks promise to be interesting and stimulating events for all age groups. They all start at 11 AM on a Sunday morning and will involve walking for 2-3 hours. The Iron Age Hillforts walk may be a little longer (3-4 hours).
All our walks are free but you will have to book a spot as we have a limit on numbers.
World Heritage is the shared wealth of humankind. Protecting and preserving this valuable asset demands the collective efforts of the international community. This special day offers an opportunity to raise the public's awareness about the diversity of cultural heritage and the efforts that are required to protect and conserve it, as well as draw attention to its vulnerability.
Endorsed by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation UNESCO the day is an opportunity to raise the profile of World Heritage Sites across the globe and to recognise and explore their unique and special features. Many of you will know the most famous Sites such as the Great Wall of China, the Egyptian Pyramids and the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil but did you know that we have 31 World Heritage Site in the United Kingdom and that the most recent of these is the Lake District which was added to the List last year?
Here in Wiltshire we are incredibly fortunate to have the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites World Heritage Site – to use its proper title. The globally iconic stone circles are instantly recognisable but do you know about all the other monuments and sites which form part of this 50 square kilometre landscape which makes up our World Heritage Site? The partners that look after all things World Heritage are planning to make sure that this year Wiltshire marks World Heritage Day with an array of fun activities and events all across Wiltshire to help you find out more about our World Heritage and how to get involved.
At Avebury you can join the National Trust for a guided walk and find out why this World Heritage Site is globally important as you explore the landscape visiting the Bronze Age 'hedgehog' barrows and stroll down to Neolithic West Kennet Avenue. You'll discover some of the most exciting parts of the prehistoric landscape at Avebury.
Or join the Human Henge group for a more sensory experience of Avebury's ancient landscape. Human Henge is a ground-breaking project about archaeology, mental health and creativity that is interesting, adventurous, safe and fun. Walk, sing and learn in the company of archaeologists and musicians, connecting with others who have walked here before us.
At Stonehenge, English Heritage invite you to meet their friendly volunteering team. See them make and decorate prehistoric style pottery, fashion rope out of water reed, and make cheese and bread over the open fire in the Neolithic Houses. Learn about the plants foraged from the Stonehenge landscape and chat to the volunteers as they repair the chalk daub walls of the houses. There will be a chance to sign up and join this amazing team and learn some essential Neolithic life skills! There are also free guided walks around the site, a trail for grown-ups, prize giveaways during the day, and a Stonehenge100 talk by Archaeologist Phil Harding in the evening.
Iron Age hillforts must be one of the most visited types of archaeological sites in the country. Recently I have been up to Barbury Castle a couple of times and have been reminded how impressive and commanding this site is, not just because of its massive ramparts, but also its good state of preservation and all of the other archaeological features you can see from here. It is one of the most impressive of the 35 hillforts we have in the Wiltshire and Swindon area, with panoramic views that take in the Marlborough Downs and the Vale of Pewsey.
Barbury is located between Wroughton and Swindon and the County boundary, as well as parish boundaries, run through the middle of the hillfort. The hillfort was built in the Iron Age, probably around 700 BC and is likely to have been continuously used until the Roman invasion in the mid 1st century AD. It was one of a string of hillforts built close to the line of the Ridgeway, considered to be an ancient long distance routeway. Three other hillforts, Liddington, Uffington and Martinsell are all intervisible with Barbury. It is the most developed and most impressive of the Ridgeway hillforts, having double ramparts on the south side and triple on the north side (possibly an unfinished circuit). In places the banks or ramparts stand over 3 metres in height even now and in the Iron Age would have been topped with wooden palisades and defensive towers. Located at 262 metres above sea level Barbury was built on the highest point of the local area, a beneficial defensive position with commanding views of the landscapes below.
The ramparts at Barbury enclose an area of about 5 hectares and there were two original entrances that survive today at the east and west sides. Unfortunately there has been little modern archaeological investigation to tell us details of the lives lived at Barbury. However, the results of a geophysical survey carried out by English Heritage in 1998 indicate that the interior is littered with hundreds of pits (probably for grain storage) and other features, some of which are the remains of huts or roundhouses.
The interior of the hillfort as well as the ramparts have suffered some damage in the 1940s from the activities of American troops and the Home Guard who were based at the nearby Wroughton Airfield during the war and used Barbury as a training ground. The original hillfort entrances were unfortunately widened by American troops in order to get their trucks into the interior. Fortunately, we have a measured survey drawn in 1884 by General Augustus Pitt Rivers, the first ever Inspector of Ancient Monuments, to show how they would have been.
I came across a beautiful example of a tin tabernacle whilst exploring the area of Braydon recently, and I began wondering about the history of these most temporary of religious structures. Here’s what I discovered!
Britain saw a ‘revival’ of preaching in the 19th century through to the outbreak of WWI, with mass meetings attended by huge audiences. By the late 1850s churches were becoming overcrowded and the search was on for new buildings to use as places of worship. Non-conformists were not bound by the Anglican parish system and found it much easier to expand with new builds or altering existing buildings. Smith (2004) in his book Tin Tabernacles states that over 100,000 people were converted during this time, 80% of whom were non-conformist.
The Conservation and Museums Advisory Service were lucky enough to be given a tour around the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre last week.
Newly opened by English Heritage at the end of last year the centre transforms the experience of visiting Stonehenge. The route to the stones is now a brisk walk or a rather warmer ride in the fleet of Land Rover trains. This keeps the car park away from the monument itself, restoring the stones more to their setting within the landscape.
Being newly opened the site is still developing – work had just started on the construction of replica Neolithic roundhouses on the day we visited.
For me one of the most exciting things about visiting and the biggest change from the previous experience is that for the first time you can see objects found at the site on display.
The vast majority of the finds that have been discovered in the Stonehenge landscape over the years are now held by the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum and the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes. Working in partnership, the two museums have loaned some of these artefacts to English Heritage for display, allowing the visitor centre to give a good feel for how people over the centuries made and used Stonehenge.
Some of the conservation work to get these objects ready for display was done by my conservator colleagues back in Chippenham, who were really pleased to be able to see their finished work on show.
If you are able, I would thoroughly recommend a trip to Stonehenge, Salisbury and Devizes. There is no better way to get up close to the artefacts of Neolithic and Bronze Age Wiltshire.
At 2 PM on Wednesday 18th December a brand new and much needed visitor centre for Stonehenge opened its door to the public. The £27 million building was completed and funded by English Heritage with financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This marks the culmination of decades of work and several plans and schemes to provide a modern and world class visitor centre for this much-visited site.
The new centre is located 2 km west of Stonehenge at Airman’s Corner, between Amesbury and Shrewton. As well as providing the expected array of visitor necessities (parking, shop, restaurant, toilets) the building incorporates an impressive exhibition and interpretation facility. For the first time visitors can read and see the full story of the site and how it has been investigated just prior to seeing Stonehenge. The exhibition includes some of the real objects found during the archaeological excavations, helping to bring the interpretation of the site to life. After visiting the exhibition, visitors have the option of walking to Stonehenge, taking in many other prehistoric monuments on the way, or taking the land train there and back. This has all been made possible by the closure of the A344 which until recently allowed vehicles to drive close to Stonehenge. The removal of this road has greatly enhanced the setting and ambiance of the site.