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.
After eight years working for the Museums Service at the History Centre, I was lucky enough to be given the chance to change direction slightly and join my colleagues in the Archaeology Service working directly with the Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Environment Record (HER). This was a somewhat daunting prospect – moving from the sunny uplands of the first floor in the History Centre down to the darker, subterranean office with stellar views of the car park. However, my welcome was warm and friendly, regardless of my ignorance in the matters of tree throws, debitage and test pits….
In the august words of Historic England, ‘HERs are an important starting point for anyone interested in the archaeology, built heritage, and history of an area. They can provide information on a wide variety of buildings and sites, from finds of prehistoric flint tools to medieval castles and Second World War pillboxes.
HERs are a primary source of information for planning, development-control work, and land management.’
There are over 85 HERs held in England, maintained and managed by local authorities and often held by joint services such as district councils and national parks. Similar records are maintained by the National Trust.
The Wiltshire and Swindon HER is not only used to advise planning authorities and developers of the implications to the historic environment when a proposed development looms but is also consulted by a variety of different users. They include archaeologists, historians, community groups, students, schools and general members of the public.
One of my favourite queries was in June this year from the 12th Cambridge Scout Group, asking me for the dimensions of Stonehenge, as the troop were about to recreate the monument with cardboard boxes. You can check out some photos of their creation on their Facebook page!
Most HERs contain three types of record, Monuments (the archaeology or buildings), Events (fieldwork such as excavations or building surveys) and Sources (the associated documentary source). The records include non-designated archaeological sites and buildings, designated Heritage Assets (e.g. listed buildings, scheduled monuments, protected wrecks, registered parks and gardens and registered battlefields) and other areas such as conservation areas.
Wiltshire is obviously rich in all of these monuments (apart from the protected wrecks!) and our HER can be used as a signpost to discover further information about them. Something as splendidly evocative as the Amesbury Archer, whose grave was discovered in 2002, a Central European man suffering from an abscess and missing left kneecap who was buried with an unusually large number and variety of objects including pots, arrowheads, two bracers (archers’ wrist guards), flint tools, three copper knives, a pair of gold hair ornaments and a cushion stone (used as a small anvil during metalworking). The gold ornaments are the oldest gold objects yet to be found in Britain.
As the most recent member of the Archaeology team, I found this information fascinating and used the HER database to search for other sites and monuments in the near vicinity of the discovered burial, using the GIS layers on which the data is linked.
Having worked with the National Buildings Record many years ago, I’m also passionate about architecture, quite often post-medieval and dare I say it, 20th century, much to many archaeologists’ bemusement. The HER can also signpost the user to the built heritage and in Wiltshire we have an interesting supply of military building types with evidence at Larkhill of a First World War training battlefield and trench system (including finds of associated bottles!).
(For more information about this fascinating site see first world war tunnels, a blog by my colleague Clare King, Assistant County Archaeologist).
Our HER is constantly being added to and enhanced, with various projects also included into the database including a farmsteads project, an Extensive Urban Survey and the Historic Landscape Characterisation project, which is an overview of the modern and historic processes that have influenced the character of the landscape.
We are delighted to share this comic by Katy Whitaker, Doctoral Researcher at the University of Reading about where Wiltshire's Sarsen stones come from (some of the theories are pretty outlandish!):
I am researching the past and present use of sarsen stone, those great grey boulders we are familiar with at Stonehenge and Avebury. Sarsens are a special part of the Marlborough Downs landscape. They are best known in prehistoric monuments. During the Neolithic in the period c3,900 - 2,500 BC sarsens were used in other ways, too. This includes as quern stones for grinding grains into flour; in burials; as tools such as hammers; as boundary markers and laying out the first fields. Archaeologists haven't researched the stone in its own right before, so my project does just that. I am based at the University of Reading, with support from the University of Southampton, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre is a partner in the AHRC scheme, and my project will be using archaeological data and archive material from the Centre.
The Archaeology Team are preparing again to organise some events to celebrate the annual Festival of British Archaeology. Due to poplar demand, this year the team are organising three weekend archaeological walks to different areas of archaeological interest across Wiltshire.
Sunday 13th July: guided walk to the Easton Grey Roman settlement near Malmesbury with Melanie Pomeroy-Kellinger and Clare King
Sunday 20th July: guided walk in the Stonehenge landscape with Rachel Foster and Tom Sunley (please note this walk not include a visit to the visitor centre and stone circle which can be done separately)
Saturday 26th July: guided walk to Knapp Hill, Adam’s Grave in the Vale of Pewsey with Faye Glover and Emma Whitcombe.
The walks will include some of Wiltshire’s best known prehistoric monuments in the Stonehenge landscape, including Woodhenge, Durrington Walls and the Stonehenge Avenue. The walk in the Pewsey Vale will include the magnificent views from Adam’s Grave Neolithic Long Barrow and Knap Hill. The walk at Easton Grey will focus on the Roman remains in North Wiltshire and the Cotswolds and will include a walk along the Fosse Way Roman Road.
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.