Long Barrows of the Pewsey Downs

There are eight long barrows located in the immediate vicinity of the Vale of Pewsey. Mounds at King’s Play Hill, Shepherd’s Shore, Roughridge Hill, Easton Down, Horton Down and Kitchen Barrow Hill are part of a larger group north of the Vale. King’s Play Hill (or Heddington 3), Shepherd’s Shore and Easton Down are all short or oval barrows whilst Kitchen Barrow, Roughridge, Horton Down and Adam’s Grave are long mounds in the proper sense.

Long or Trapezoidal Barrows

Roughridge Hill
The long barrow on Roughridge Hill is notable for being partially obscured by the later construction of the Wansdyke over the north-eastern end of the monument. There is no evidence to suggest the barrow, measuring some 75 metres long and up to 32 metres wide, has been excavated in modern times, indeed it was only identified as a long barrow by means of an aerial photograph (Grinsell 1957, 138). The barrow is located on a south east facing slope which gives limited views of the Vale and seems to suggest that it is intended to be seen from the western slopes of Easton Down, the site of another long barrow (see below) and intervening dry valley. . Systematic surface collection took place around the long barrow in the winter of 1983-84 (Barker C in Whittle et al. 1993). A total of 332 struck flints were collected, over 90% comprising flakes and blades, with a notable concentration centring on the monument. Darvill (2004, 197-8) notes that the results of surface collection in the Cotswolds by antiquarians and modern archaeologists suggest that concentrations of worked flint are found close to long mounds. He notes the work of the Rev David Royce (Grinsell 1964, 5-23), who recovered large concentrations of leaf-shaped arrowheads within a 300 metre radius of a number of long barrows in the Cotswolds. The work of Royce is, perhaps, instructive because his period of fieldwork in the second half of the nineteenth century coincided with the main period of enclosure and conversion to arable in the Cotswolds. Accordingly, the scatters he encountered had only been exposed to weathering and plough damage for a few decades at most.

Kitchen Barrow is situated on a prominent south-westerly spur overlooking the Vale some 1250 metres south of Easton Down long barrow. Its position clearly indicates an intention to be seen from the Vale rather than the chalk upland to the north. The barrow survives as a mound some 34 metres long, 18 metres high and up to 2.7 metres high (Barker 1985, 20). There is no record of modern archaeological intervention although Smith (1884, 114) noted that “a gentleman had dug a trench right through it many years ago” and Smith (1965b: 117) noted the presence of fragments of Oolitic limestone from the mound. Barker (1985: 20) suggests that this, combined with the presence of a sarsen protruding from the NE end, may be evidence for a stone-chambered tomb, a view supported by Kinnes (1992: fig 2.8.2). The case for stone-chambered status, however, needs to be proven.

Horton Down long barrow is situated on a west facing spur on the eastern flank of a dry valley running down to Beckhampton. The mound, badly damaged by ploughing, is thought to have been excavated by Thurnam who reported recovering skeletons in a long mound on Horton Down although the identification of the mound he excavated is far from clear (Barker 1985: 20). Barker notes the presence of a small mound of sarsens, possibly cleared from the mound to facilitate ploughing. It is now only visible from the air (Barker 1985: 20)
Further east, located on a prominent spur overlooking both Knap Hill and the Ridgeway is Adam’s Grave, its location being very similar to that of Kitchen Barrow. The siting of Adam’s Grave seems quite deliberate, dominating the western skyline as travellers accessed the natural routeway running north from the Vale. The mound is some 65 metres long and is trapezoidal in plan, although the addition of pillow mounds and a square enclosure at some point in the historic period has partially obscured the monument. Despite the damage done by subsequent generations, sufficient remains of the original mound and ditches to suggest that the builders deliberately scarped the hilltop in order to accentuate the crest of the mound, in a way similar to that carried out at Easton Down and Knap Hill. Thurnam excavated the eastern end of the mound in 1860, recovering some skeletal material and a leaf shaped arrowhead situated within the apparent remains of a megalithic burial chamber composed of sarsen uprights and oolitic limestone coursed walling(Thurman 1860: 230) and reminiscent of construction techniques at West Kennet.

With the exception of Roughridge Hill, all the trapezoidal or long mounds discussed occupy prominent positions in the landscape. Kitchen Barrow and Adam’s Grave are the most prominent located on spurs overlooking the Vale, their siting maximising the visual impact the monuments would have on observers from below. Horton Down long barrow overlooks much of Bishop’s Cannings Down, West Down and the eastern slopes of Cherhill Down and Calstone Down. The same is true of other long mounds in the Avebury area such as East and West Kennet although we should not forget that the final long mound constructed on the site may not have been the first structure to be built there (Whittle 2003: 123). In comparison, the oval barrows (below) are situated in far less visually advantageous positions, often occupying the slopes of hills. If the assumption that Neolithic mounds were sited with the intention of being visible from the surrounding locale is correct, this juxtaposition may suggest that the long mounds were able to use the most prominent locations because they were built at a date earlier than oval mounds.

Oval Barrows
The status of oval mounds as a monument class has fluctuated over the years with Colt Hoare(1810: 242) being the first to identify such monuments, Thurnam denying their existence (1870: 296) and Ashbee(1970: 15-8) being somewhat ambivalent despite the excavation of Wor Barrow (Pitt Rivers 1898) and Thickthorn Down (Drew & Piggott 1936) on Cranborne Chase. Drewett’s excavations at Alfriston (1975: 119-52) and North Marden in Sussex (1986: 31-51) have done much to restore the class to academic consideration although debate continues about the character and chronology of oval barrows.

King’s Play Down Barrow
The oval barrow at King’s Play Hill is located on an east facing slope with a view over the east of the Vale. The monument was excavated by the Cunningtons in 1907 who uncovered a single crouched male inhumation and some flint flakes from the main mound. Interestingly, they observed two “holes” and a “trench” beneath the mound (Barker 1985: 22-3) (Cunnington ME 1909: 311-7), features Ashbee (1970: 40 & 129) interpreted as being the remains of an axial mortuary house with a possible façade at the eastern end.

Shepherd’s Shore Oval Barrow
The oval barrow at Shepherd’s Shore is located on a south-easterly slope again overlooking the Vale and was excavated in 1914 by Maud Cunnington who showed that the monument had been subject to past disturbance. Fragments of four inhumations and an associated cremation from an undisturbed part of the barrow were uncovered (Cunnington ME 1926: 397-8). The Cunningtons found “five thin slabs of oolite”, a feature which has been interpreted either as flooring (Cunnington ME 1926) (Kinnes 1992: 87) or evidence for a stone burial chamber (Corcoran 1969: WIL 18). As Kinnes points out, the presence of a group of long mounds on Salisbury Plain with evidence of flooring would suggest this was, possibly, a strong structural element in the construction of some barrows. Kinnes fails to point out, however, that the five barrows in question (Knook Barrow, Bowl’s Barrow (sic), Tilshead Old Ditch, Silver Barrow, Arn Hill) are all located to the north and west of Salisbury Plain and may represent a localised building tradition. It is not impossible that Shepherd’s Shore is another example of that local trend. Recently, the monument was subject to a Magnetometer Survey conducted by the AML where it was shown the monument is significantly larger than the visible earthwork and had previously undiscovered side ditches (ADS Record ID: EHNMR – 1149336).

Easton Down Oval Barrow
Easton Down oval barrow lies approximately a kilometre east-north-east of the long mound on Roughridge Hill and is situated on the summit of a ridge forming the eastern side of a dry valley running into the Downs. The barrow was excavated by Thurnam in the 1850s and recovered remains of two adult males and two juveniles. These artefacts have been subsequently lost (Whittle et al. 1993: 200). Thurnam recorded no structural evidence although Passmore and Smith noted fragments of oolitic limestone in the mound (Barker 1985: 19) but insufficient to suggest megalithic structural elements (contra Corcoran1969: 295). Archaeological interventions in the form of two trenches were carried out by Whittle in 1991 with the aims of recovering environmental and dating samples from the old ground surface and the flanking ditches (Whittle et al. 1993: 200) and results suggested that the barrow was situated within a small woodland clearing. Radiocarbon determinations from samples obtained were suggestive of a mid fourth millennium date for the monument, making its construction later than Horslip, West Kennet and perhaps South Street (Whittle et al. 1991: 227).
West Woods Long Barrow, West Overton, Wilts
West Woods Oval Barrow
The easternmost oval barrow on the northern side of the Vale is located in West Woods. It is situated on the east facing slope of a small dry valley running north east to join Clatford Bottom. In essence an oval mound, the monument measures 38 metres in length and 30 metres at its maximum width. Passmore(1923) noted that Sir Henry Meux, the local landowner, excavated the barrow in 1880 and recorded a four-sided, rectangular stone chamber measuring some 2m by 1m internally covered by a capstone underlying a central cairn of small sarsen stones and what was described as “black matter” (Barker 1985: 18). Fowler’s plan (2000: 184) clearly shows the remains of an excavation shaft in the centre of the mound.

Oval Barrows: Discussion
The dating of oval barrows is problematic as few have been excavated in the era of scientific dating. Drewett’s (1986: 31-51) excavation of a Neolithic oval barrow at North Marden, West Sussex in 1982 suggested a date of c. 3500BC for the construction of the monument based on a single radiocarbon determination of 2760 + 110bc (Drewett 1986: 46). This date bears comparison with the findings of Whittle et al. (1993: 226) where three radiocarbon determinations provide a date for construction between 3500 and 3100BC (2780 + 65bc to 2585 + 65bc). Clearly both monuments belong to the second half of the third millennium BC and Easton Down would appear to be later than Horslip, West Kennet and possibly South Street and either contemporary with or slightly later than Beckhampton Road and Millbarrow (Whittle et al. 1993: 227). These dates find support from the reassessment of excavations at Thickthorn Down (Drew and Piggott 1936) and Wor Barrow (Pitt Rivers 1898) carried out by Barrett and Bradley (1991: 52-53). The radiocarbon determination obtained from an antler from the bottom of the ditch at Wor Barrow closely matches those obtained at North Marden and Easton Down at 2790 + 70bc. Unfortunately contamination of the radiocarbon sample from Thickthorn rendered the determination less meaningful (Barrett & Bradley 1991: 52). Consequently it seems possible that oval barrows are a later feature of the Early Neolithic landscape and Drewett (1986: 49) may be correct when he suggests they represent a form of infilling between long mounds.

Non-Local Stone and its Role in Neolithic Mortuary Practice

The presence of oolitic limestone in a number of the long mounds on the Pewsey Downs has been interpreted in a variety of ways. It has been perceived as evidence of megalithic construction (Corcoran 1969) (Kinnes 1992); flooring (Kinnes 1992) or symbolic of long-distance contact (Thomas 1999: 208). Certainly in the case of West Kennet (Piggott 1962) and possibly at Adam’s Grave, the limestone formed the drystone infill of the chamber walls but the same cannot be true for every mound containing fragments of oolite. To imply a substantial stone burial chamber, some tangible evidence of that structure must be identified beyond a few fragments of easily portable limestone. Thomas (1999: 208) notes that “foreign (sic) forms of oolite, sandstone, forest marble and other stones have also been found at Kitchen Barrow and Adam’s Grave, and in the unchambered mounds of Easton Down, Shepherd’s Shore and Horslip, where they could not have had a constructional role” and goes on to state that these stones were “the physical manifestation of contacts with far-off places”.

This last statement overstates the case somewhat, as all these types of stone could be obtained within a 50Km radius of the Pewsey Downs. Piggott (1962: 58) noted that the oolitic limestone found at West Kennet originated from the Frome-Bath-Atworth area, a block of limestone upland bounded by the Bristol Avon on the eastern and western flanks and by the Box stream to the north. Even today it is a significant obstacle to communications with vehicular traffic having to climb steep sustained slopes to cross the area and the main Bath to Swindon railway line required to tunnel under Box Hill. This block of limestone upland effectively terminates the low-lying terrain to the west of the Vale of Pewsey and forces the Bristol Avon to give up its meandering course through the greensands and clays of western Wiltshire and pass through a narrow defile on its way down to the Bristol Channel.

This natural feature, then, would present a significant barrier to prehistoric groups to the east. It represents an ecotone, where the plants and animal of the clays and greensands gave way to a eco-system more suitable to limestone; it was the point at which the Bristol Avon changed character and it saw the change from low lying damp greensands and clays to an upland of thin soils stretched over a resilient, hard, quartz laden rock which jutted through that soil in many places. The location of sources for stone axes suggests that Neolithic society placed special significance on tools obtained from high or remote places with outstanding viewsheds such as Great Langdale and Graig Lwyd. Standing on the limestone hill above the town of Bradford-on-Avon affords one a superb view east across the valley of the Bristol Avon and the Vale of Pewsey beyond.

Perhaps this natural feature, bounded by three rivers, represented more than a physical boundary. The inclusion of oolite in burial mounds was, possibly, emblematic of the longest journey individuals had to make, the journey into the afterlife and it’s inclusion in the construction of burial mounds a symbolic act with a palimpsest of meanings for contemporary society. Forest marble has also been recovered from burial mounds in the Avebury area, and whilst it is a form of Great Oolite like Bradford Stone, it is mainly found in the southern Cotswolds principally between Cirencester and the Oxfordshire Border forming the Wychwood Beds (Arkell 1947: 44 – 6). Like the Bradford oolite, the source of Forest Marble is, therefore, on the far side of a river, the Thames in this case, in relation to the Vale and Pewsey Downs.

This trans-riverine aspect to the origin of these non-local stones possibly suggests that the groups who incorporated them into burial mounds perceived their world to be bounded physically and spiritually by rivers, especially rivers that separated markedly different ecotones, chalk and limestone for instance. Ethno-historical studies of the sacred landscapes of the North American Lakota Sioux (Sundstrom 1996) showed that for successive groups occupying the Black Hills of Dakota, the Cheyenne and Belle Fourche Rivers formed the boundaries to the spiritual and temporal landscape. Certainly oolitic limestone seems to have great significance in Early Neolithic ritual activity in central southern Britain, Peacock (1969, 145) noted large quantities of oolite and fossil shell from the Bath/Bradford/Frome area being incorporated into the fabric of pottery found at Windmill Hill, Robin Hood’s Ball, Whitesheet Hill and Knap Hill.

The nature of the stone must also be considered. Unlike chalk, it does not erode and ablate so quickly, it is crystalline, its qualities of colour and texture could not be so easily diminished. It was, in comparison, a far more durable stone than chalk and those qualities, in a society so aware of its surroundings and the component parts thereof, would have been significant. The oolite also contains fossils which would have been recognisable as the shells of molluscs (North 1930, 210) to Neolithic observers. Perhaps the petrification of once living organisms was symbolic of death. Soils and stones were clearly manipulated by the builders of Neolithic monuments. Pollard and Reynolds (2002: 62) note the diverse nature of the soils used to create the mounds at South Street and Beckhampton Road where, at the latter, “turf, brickearth, marl, chalk gravel and coombe rock were carefully employed in the mound make-up”. We will return to the meanings and values Neolithic society placed on soils and minerals in monument construction.

Long Mounds and Territorial Division

Fowler (2000: 239) postulates the presence of an as yet undiscovered long mound north of Boreham Wood based on his assertion that the existence of territories in the Neolithic dictated an equidistant distribution of long barrows south of the River Kennet. This hypothesis differs from that expounded by Renfrew (1973) by substituting the boundary defining mechanism of Theissen polygons with boundaries defined by topography. Fowler seems to implying a distribution of one long mound to each territory and a level of social organization that cannot be substantiated by the available evidence. Barrett’s criticisms (1994: 158-164) of Renfrew’s proposition have relevance here. Barrett accuses Renfrew of both using modern day assumptions and views in his assessment of Neolithic society and employing inappropriate “scientistic” data in the construction of his argument. Renfrew’s hypothesis, Barrett claims, has its origins in the “processualist” analysis of the amount of labour required to construct monuments and the stages of monument construction. Renfrew saw a parallel development between complexity of monument and a developing and centralising social hierarchy, a connection Barrett refuted in the light of the increased understanding of Neolithic monuments acquired since the late 1970s (Barrett 1994: 159). In essence, Barrett rejects Renfrew’s analysis on the basis of having transposed many modern day assumptions onto Neolithic material culture. He criticises the concept of“chiefdom” (Barrett 1994: 161-2) as representing a totality which may, on the basis of a total absence of evidence of the necessary criteria such as a bureaucracy or centralised redistribution, have never existed. Rather Barrett proposes that the Neolithic is characterized by a lack of such state apparatus and rather than chiefs imposing their will on the people, they performed their roles “out of their obligation to the community”.

Salisbury Plain: Giant’s Grave Long Barrow
The remaining long barrow is located on the edge of the northern ridge of Salisbury Plain at Milton Lilbourne overlooking the central and western areas of the Vale. Giant’s Grave is located on the very edge of the scarp with gently dipping land to the south and a precipitous drop to the Vale floor to the north. This very steep slope is breached some 600 metres north east of the mound by a curious naturally formed ridge running west from the main scarp down into the Vale. This “ramp”, probably formed by periglacial activity, provides the easiest access between the Vale and the chalk massif for at least 2km in either direction. The placing of the barrow adjacent to this natural routeway is reminiscent of Adam’s Grave, as a traveller ascended the “ramp” increasingly more of the barrow was revealed. This seems a very deliberate siting of such a large mound and is indicative of the way prehistoric societies manipulated the natural topography for social reasons. Thurnam excavated the eastern end of the mound in the summer of 1865 uncovering a “heap” of three or four skeletons “on the natural level”, noting that one skull had been cleft before burial. The only grave good recovered was a leaf shaped arrowhead (Thurnam 1869: 47).

The isolated position of this long barrow is notable. The closest long barrows are Tow Barrow (9km east), Fittleton 5 (6.6km south), West Woods (8.2km north west) and Ell Barrow (13.4km south west), a marked contrast from the dense distribution over the western Pewsey Downs and north towards Avebury. This may be indicative of a relative absence of Early Neolithic activity on the eastern and central portions of Salisbury Plain. It may also suggest that the Vale, with it’s almost entire lack of Early Neolithic monuments did act as some form of boundary or no-man’s-land between different social groups occupying the blocks of chalk upland to the north, south and east, an impression reinforced by the presence of three causewayed enclosures on the fringes of the Vale.



This is based on my observations and reflections on some nine years’ fieldwork on the Pewsey Downs in central eastern Wiltshire in southern England. Located between the Marlborough Downs to the north and Salisbury Plain to the south, the Vale of Pewsey area, in stark contrast to its neighbouring areas, is poorly understood and has recently become the focus of an English Heritage National Mapping Programme exercise.

The Pewsey Downs sit on the edge of both the Avebury WHS NMP and the Vale of Pewsey NMP and continue to be relatively neglected despite a wealth of archaeological evidence. The Downs are composed of chalk, in parts overlain by drift deposits of Clay-with-Flints, and are characterized by thin, poorly fertile, low nitrogen rendzina soils. In the picture above you can see to the right Milk Hill, the highest point in Wiltshire at 295m OD. Until some 60 years ago, the area was almost exclusively given over to livestock grazing but the UK Government’s drive during the Cold War towards establishing staple food supplies that were not dependent on imports and, later, EU agricultural subsidies led to the ploughing-up of the majority of calcareous grasslands of the area and the “improvement” of that which survived by the application of nitrate fertilisers. Only small pockets of original chalk downland habitat now survive mostly preserved as National Nature Reserves. My fieldwork, entirely of a non-intrusive nature, was a natural corollary to the work I had carried out for my PhD. The research for my thesis strongly indicated that the Vale of Pewsey witnessed substantial Bronze Age settlement for the first time in the ninth to seventh centuries BC, in the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age transition. The LBA/EIA activity I identified was in the form of densely concentrated surface scatters of All Cannings Cross type pottery, butchered animal bone, burnt sarsen stone and flint commonly found in a black, humic soil quite unlike the prevailing greensand soils. These “black-earth” sites were distributed along the edge of the Vale of Pewsey, situated close to the foot of the Downs. The slide shows the location of three such sites at the foot of Milk Hill. The meaning of the “black-earth” sites is not clear – were they settlements, middens, livestock stations or a combination of all three and more besides? One thing is clear, though, the black humic soil is the result of the deliberate curation of animal waste and bedding – dunghills.


  I am a Landscape Archaeologist (a deeply unfashionable calling, as I am frequently reminded by my Conflict Archaeologist colleagues) and believe that a multi-disciplinary “landscape” approach can provide insights into prehistoric animal husbandry practices amongst other things. Many of the sites I work on are either SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) or are closely associated with such sites. The sites are desiginated on account of their exceptional flora and invertebrate populations. In the case of calcareous grasslands, these are exceptionally complex and interlinked, often highly dependent on seasonal grazing by specific livestock. 

knap hill as palimpset

This site, Knap Hill on the southern edge of the Pewsey Downs and part of the Pewsey Downs national Nature Reserve, is a good example in microcosm of my argument. Let’s look first at the prehistoric activity on the site.


 Knap Hill is famous for being the site of an extremely well preserved Early Neolithic causewayed enclosure, indeed the first to be tentatively identified as such by Maud Cunnington in 1908. The hill also shows evidence of later prehistoric activity including Early Bronze Age barrows, a linear earthwork probably dating from the Late Bronze Age and a Late Iron Age settlement. There are also a number of less easily attributable features including field boundaries and a track that may well have been used from the Bronze Age through to the late Medieval period. The site is what I like to term a “persistent place”. 

Red Shore environs

Knap Hill is set within an immediate landscape rich in prehistoric activity from the Neolithic onwards but the most striking feature is the sheer density of Late Bronze Age and Iron Age sites present. Each pink blob represents an early first millennium BC feature – linear earthworks, field systems and settlements. 

Let’s look in more detail at the eastern end of this arbitrarily defined landscape. The plan is dominated by a series of linear earthworks: ditch-and-bank systems are denoted by solid lines and lynchets (often very large) by dashed lines. Two of the linear earthworks, both lynchets, are associated with a number of dewponds and this association is also found elsewhere in the region, for example, Salisbury Plain. 

Golden Ball Dewpond BW

This is the dewpond located at the summit of Golden Ball Hill. Dewponds are frequently found on areas of calcareous grassland. They are artificial ponds, dug out of the porous chalk subsoil and subsequently lined with puddle clay to prevent the rainwater that collected in the depression from leaching away. Maintained and constructed up until the early years of the 20th century, they provided water for livestock, particularly cattle, on otherwise dry grassland. The greatest debate revolves around their date of origin with many arguing for a medieval date for their inception. My work suggests otherwise with dewponds being frequently associated with the terminals and junctions of linear earthworks and also found in close association with evidence of first millennium BC settlement activity. The dewpond shown is at the western end of a linear earthwork and within metres of an extensive spread of Late Bronze Age activity investigated by Cardiff University in the 1990s. Evidence from the western part of the wider Knap Hill area will further illustrate my point.

Milk Hill North

In the area around Milk Hill there is a strong association between dewponds, linear earthworks, prehistoric settlements and their adjacent field systems. The Eald Burh (a partially preserved prehistoric settlement) is linked by a minor earthwork running through a field system to a dewpond some 300m to the east. To the north of Milk Hill, two linear earthworks (marked All Cann. 1 and S St B 2) include field systems and settlements in their courses. I have recently surveyed S St B 2 and it is a quite remarkable earthwork, changing morphology at least twice, and incorporating several purpose built inturned entrances in its course. These inturned entrances are placed at the junction of minor re-entrants that facilitate easier access to the northern side of Milk Hill. In other words, it seems very likely that this earthwork and its twin S St B 1, were constructed to facilitate and choreograph the movement of cattle from and to Milk Hill. Milk Hill itself forms a virtual enclosure with the judicious placement of earthworks across its gentler slopes combined with the very steep southern and western scarps. It is significant that four dewponds are located on Milk Hill, all associated with either prehistoric settlement or linears. 


In summary, therefore, it is possible to show through non-intrusive work that there are a number of monuments associations within this landscape that strongly suggest a high degree of sophisticated animal husbandry was taking place in the second and first millennium BC. 

Downland turf

Let’s now move on to a brief consideration of the natural history of the area and, by inference, the wider Pewsey Downs. Slide 11. Knap Hill is classic short turf calcareous grassland, highly dependent on seasonal grazing for the maintenance of its ecosystem. This ecosystem, therefore, is a plagiosere, a plant community prevented from fully developing by outside factors – in this case, grazing. Downland, when left ungrazed, reverts to scrubby secondary woodland. In the case of Knap Hill, Natural England use cattle, rather than the stereotypical sheep so frequently associated with chalk downland, arguing that the Pewsey Downs were traditionally grazed by cattle. 

dowland species

Certainly the species present, some of which are pictured here, require conditions that are created by cattle grazing with their tendency to uproot the turf and poach the soil to an extent. Knap Hill holds internationally important communities of the Early Gentian and Burnt Tip Orchid and its invertebrates include the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary (bottom left), a seriously threatened species across its range.

The nature of the soils themselves indicate that grazing was the principal activity on the downs until the advent of modern agrichemicals. The plant and invert communities are highly reliant on grazing for their survival. For me, the main issue is how long these complex ecosystems took to develop. Work by Mike Allen on evidence from Strawberry Hill on Salisbury Plain seems to indicate the presence of extensive downland grazing by the Early Iron Age. Relatively little work has been down on the origins and spread of these ecosystems and perhaps the results of such research could help our understanding of the role animal husbandry, particularly grazing played in the second and first Millenia BC.

 Finally, I’d like to briefly touch on some aspects of landscape history.

Stanton parish

The Vale of Pewsey was divided into a series of parishes during the Anglo-Saxon period and Simon Draper has suggested a post 7th century AD date for this organisation of the landscape.

Slide 16. In the case of Stanton St Bernard, the parish incorporated the summit of Milk Hill. The eastern bounds of the parish followed the edge of first millennium BC field systems and skirted the largest dewpond on Milk Hill, the Oxnamere.


 The Oxnamere is so named in the Anglo-Saxon boundary charter for Stanton St Bernard. It is surrounded by evidence for first millennium BC activity including artefact scatters and hut platforms. It would appear to have been a long established and well known landmark by the middle Saxon period.

Investigations into landscape history can enhance our understanding of late prehistoric husbandry practices through the identification of the surviving traces of that system in the historic and modern landscape. What is remarkable in the case of the Pewsey Downs is quite how much survived until the last 70 years or so.

Early Bronze Age round barrows in and around the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire

Only some forty extant barrows can be considered as being visible from the Vale.These are restricted to a relatively small number of round barrows, many situated on the flanks of the Vale.  This is in contrast to the massive concentration of barrows noted by McOmish et al. found on the eastern portion of the Salisbury Plain Training Area (2002, 33) and a smaller, yet significant, population of barrows on the Marlborough Downs (Cleal 2005).  Some of those barrows on the very fringes of the Salisbury Plain cluster clearly relate to the Vale, however, occupying somewhat ambiguous topographical positions.

Barrows, topography and soils in and around the Vale of Pewsey

 1.  The Greensand Vale

A brief perusal of a map reveals that the vast majority of the barrows in the Vale are located on the chalk.  Only two extant barrows, near Market Lavington (ST 9999 5641 & ST9995 5649), opened by Maud Cunnington in 1924, are found on Greensand soils.  Field (1998) in his analysis of round barrows in Sussex, by way of contrast, noted concentrations of barrow cemeteries at the western end of the Greensands forming the Weald.  These cemeteries were restricted to the Folkestone Beds formation which tended to form narrow prominent ridges running parallel to the chalk downs.  The cemeteries were equally spaced, set back from, but aligned along small rivers (Field 1998, 313-4).  There are apparent similarities between the location of the Market Lavington barrows and those at the western end of the Weald.  The Market Lavington pair are located on the eastern spur of a small but prominent ridge running south east from Worton and flanked by streams on either side.  The barrows are equidistant between the watercourses and seem to be addressing the narrowing shallow valley running north east to Stert.  Field (1998, 315-6) states that there are three common themes in the siting of round barrows in the landscape in the Weald:

  • Barrows are often located on ridges and are, therefore, highly visible;
  • Barrows exhibit a tendency towards false cresting, highlighting the direction in which to view the monument from, and;
  • Barrows tend to be located near rivers; i.e. mounds are situated close to but set back from rivers.  Field claims this is so the monuments do not “interfere with agriculture or other activities”.

The monuments at Market Lavington certainly seem to fall into all of these three criteria, although whether they occupied land considered marginal in the Early Bronze Age is impossible to verify within the current bounds of this work.  McOmish et al. (2002,  46) have noted similar locational traits in their study of the Bronze Age mounds of the Salisbury Plain Training Area notably around the Nine Mile River and River Bourne and Woodward (2000,  63-6) has noted a correlation between round barrows and watercourses on Cranborne Chase.

The topography of barrows and barrow cemeteries has been studied using a variety of approaches in the recent past.  Woodward and Woodward (1996) analysed the topographical setting of barrows on the South Dorset Ridgeway, the environs of Stonehenge and Avebury.  The paper claims to adopt ‘a systematic and detailed analysis of the geographical contexts of barrow cemeteries’ and yet no clear methodological approach is apparent beyond simple powers of observation.  So called ‘analysis lines’ (ibid: Fig 1) applied to the barrows of the South Dorset Ridgeway simply follow the main ridges and linear barrow groups and arrows pointing from outlying clusters of barrows towards the main linear groups are apparently meant to imply some degree of connectivity, presumably through the medium of intervisibility although no clear explanation is provided.  A similar approach is taken to the analysis of barrows around Avebury and Stonehenge, with inconclusive results for the former and a rather simplistic analysis of barrow distribution at the latter.  Woodward & Woodward (ibid 283-5) state that there are two concentric bands of barrows running around Stonehenge, however their analysis omits a significant number of barrows including Winterbourne Stoke 38 to 43; Durrington 1 to 3; Winterbourne Stoke 46 to 50; Shrewton 13 to 22; the entire Lake Down Group and a large number of barrows left stranded between the two concentric circles.  The main reason that barrows appear to be laid out in a circular distribution around Stonehenge is that the monument lies in the middle of a shallow basin surrounded by low ridges, typical locations for the siting of barrows (Field 1999: 315-6).  The distribution of barrows around Stonehenge is partly a product of the topography of the area, not some overriding, conscious plan of Bronze Age barrow builders.

Tilley’s phenomenological analysis of the distribution of barrows on the Ebble-Nadder Ridge (2004: 185-203) suffers similarly from the lack of a defined methodology.  The author admits following peer review (ibid: 199-203) that the methodology consisted simply of observations taken whilst walking (ibid: 202).  Little reference is made to past archaeological investigation and the interpretation is purely based on the observer’s reactions to the landscape and position of the round barrows within it, what Tilley refers to as an ‘insider’s knowledge of the significance of place’ (ibid: 185).  The most interesting observation Tilley makes is with reference to the tendency for some barrows to be grouped on the lower slopes of coombes for example Hydon Hill/Little Down (ibid: Fig 4; Fig 8: 189-191), an anomalous position if we accept that the majority of barrows are located on ridges, but no meaningful suggestions are made to explain their position beyond the observation that they are located at all the main transition points within the coombe complex.  Certainly Tilley is correct to look for some of the explanations for the siting of barrows within the topography of the landscape but without a meaningful methodology and consideration of other factors, the approach has limited application.

What is surprising, though, is the apparent lack of barrows located on any of the prominent natural features present on the floor of the Vale.  Etchilhampton Hill, for instance, a large chalk outlier located in the centre of the Vale just to the east of Devizes has no documented evidence for any prehistoric burial monuments. The presence of a ring-ditch situated on the western slope of the hill was detected on aerial photographs (Valentin & Moore 2002)has been interpreted as indicating the possible presence of a barrow but the evidence is inconclusive.  Similarly Potterne Field, The Knoll at Bishop’s Cannings, Woodborough Hill and Swanborough Tump all apparently lack any surviving evidence of Early Bronze Age monument building.  The explanations for this apparent absence are none too obvious. 

Whether there are any other round barrows present on the Greensands is very difficult to say.  As previously noted, the Greensands are inimical to aerial photography unless chalk is located just below the soil surface.  There are a series of NMR entries for possible round barrows in the parishes of All Cannings and Alton, located in areas where the shallow layer of Greensand overlies Chalk (NMR Entries: SU 06 NE 91; SU 06 NE 94; SU 06 103; SU 16 SW 102).   Field (1998, 314) has observed that it is very difficult to tell monuments from natural features on the ground on Greensand soils making identification of eroded or inconspicuous barrows on the ground very difficult.  Field (2001, 59) noted an apparent barrow cemetery at Charlton based on data from an aerial photograph showing a cluster of ring-ditches centred on SU 0920 5748 (Field pers. comm.).

Barrows, Ring-ditches and Aerial Photography

There does seem to be a tendency on the part of some writers to automatically assume that ring-ditches, when found in association with water-courses, represent ploughed out round barrows (pace McOmish et al. 2002, 46).  There are plenty of excavated sites to suggest that is not always the case, for example Shorncote, Gloucestershire (Barclay & Glass 1995), Standlake, Oxon, Cassington, Oxon and Barrow Hills, Radley where ring ditches and round barrow were found alongside each other (Case & Whittle 1982).  The examples cited are all situated in close proximity to the Upper and Middle Thames and, therefore, may represent a localized anomaly but may also be suggestive of a tradition of constructing ring-ditch monuments near rivers.  Many ring-ditches probably do represent ploughed-out or otherwise levelled round barrows but it is possible that a significant proportion of ring ditches identified from aerial photographs represent either funerary monuments built without recourse to the construction of a mound or other ritual structures.  Indeed Catling (1982, 101-2) argues for a period of currency for the construction of funerary ring-ditches commencing in the latest Neolithic and ending in the Middle Bronze Age, contemporaneous with the main period of barrow construction in Southern England.  Excavations at Shorncote Quarry, Somerford Keynes, Gloucestershire (Barclay & Glass 1995) lend some support to this suggestion.  The excavation uncovered a number of ring-ditches including a multi-phased penannular ring-ditch from Area 5 that was probably constructed in the Late Neolithic and contained a series of Deverel-Rimbury period urned cremations.  This ring-ditch was located in close proximity to another ring-ditch enclosing a central Beaker grave in Area 1.  As no original ground surface survived, it was unclear whether the Beaker burial had been covered by a mound (ibid: 25-34)

The currency of ring-ditches as an Early Bronze Age funerary monument may also help to explain the origins of some types of “fancy” barrow.  A ring-ditch with external or internal bank is not very far away from a pond barrow or disc barrow in terms of its morphology.  Perhaps archaeologists have placed too much emphasis on the mound element of barrow building (pace Peters 2000) and not given enough consideration to the enclosing ditch and associated features.  In the case of ring-ditch enclosures close to rivers, there is  evidence to suggest  some ditches contained water from the outset, for example the Neolithic ring-ditch at Newnham Murren, Oxon (Moorey 1982,  57).  If this were so, the water and any associated bank would represent a definitive and most striking boundary between the enclosure and the surrounding landscape and perhaps go some way to explaining the presence of ring-ditches near watercourses in a manner similar to that already suggested for henges (Richards 1996)

The most extreme explanation for the apparent absence of round barrows from the greensands of the Vale is to suggest the development of a local burial tradition in the Early Bronze Age utilizing ring-ditches and “inconspicuous” barrows (Peters 2000).  This burial tradition combined with the inability of aerial photography to detect subsurface features on greensand would render any Early Bronze Age burial activity almost invisible but, in the circumstances, this explanation seems most unlikely.

2.  The Chalk Downs

Of the barrows located on chalk, very few have been investigated by modern archaeologists and, indeed, many appear not have attracted the attention of antiquarians either, or at least those that recorded their investigations.  Consequently this account is very largely dependent on the sparse entries recorded in the Wiltshire SMR and National Monument Archive which are based on site visits carried out, on average, some thirty years and more ago.  The discussion will follow a prescribed route around the fringes of the Vale starting in the north-east at Wootton Rivers and running anti-clockwise until concluding at Burbage.

A. The North of the Vale

Wootton Rivers

The Wootton Rivers or Square copse barrow group (SU 2180 6375) is located on a south-east facing spur overlooking the course of the River Dun.  Five barrows are clustered together and are now covered by woodland, whilst two outliers (one considered doubtful) lie in a field just to the east.  This group is clearly intended to be seen from the river valley east of their position.  A separate single barrow (SU 2096 6420) lies  approximately 1 km to the north-west of the Square Copse group lying on the 175m contour overlooking a wide area due south of its position.  Perhaps significantly, the next barrows on the northern edge of the Vale are located 7 km to the west.  This “gap” is interesting including, as it does, remarkable natural features like Martinsell Hill and the Giant’s Grave spur but there is no clear explanation for the absence of round barrows except perhaps to observe that the “gap” coincides with a substantial deposit of clay-with-flints that extends to within metres of the scarp slope in many places.  The Wootton Rivers barrows are all located on chalk, in the case of the single outlier barrow, placed within metres of the clay-with-flints.  The exception to this is the Giant’s Grave spur near Oare which is composed entirely of Chalk but the extent and nature of later earthworks including the construction of a summer house for Rainscombe House (Colt Hoare 1821 Plate III) may have obscured or destroyed any barrow present.  It is also worth noting that the scarp between Martinsell and Knap Hill is extremely steep, unlike the slope further west, a factor which may have precluded barrow construction.


The “gap” on the northern flank of the Vale is terminated by the siting of a barrow cemetery (SU1394 6397) to the south-west of Gopher Wood near Huish.  The barrow group comprises three bowl barrows (Grinsell’s Wilcot 1, 2 and 5a), a cluster of three confluent bowl barrows (Wilcot 3a –c), two confluent bowl barrows (Wilcot 4) and a disc barrow (Wilcot 5).  Colt Hoare (1821, 11) notes that Cunnington Snr. opened three barrows, although it is not possible to say which, and whilst pottery was recovered no mention is made of human remains, suggesting none were recovered.  Thurnam excavated the triple barrow in the middle of the nineteenth century recovering cremations from central pits from Wilcot 3b and c (Thurnam 1869, 42) although no other grave goods were present.  The barrow group is located on a steep-sided spur overlooking the centre of the Vale.  High ground rises behind and to the west of the cemetery and most of the barrows are set back from the edge of the scarp, making it difficult to see the barrows from immediately below.

Colt-Hoare, in his perambulation along the ridge between Gopher Wood and Knap Hill, notes two barrows in his passing (Colt-Hoare 1821, 11) but there is no evidence of their existence today.


Three barrows are located on Knap Hill, a kilometre to the west of Gopher Wood.  Two are situated within the Neolithic enclosure and one on the western slope of the hill (Connah 1965).  Connah states that the small barrow on the western slope (Grinsell’s Alton 10 or 13) was excavated in 1939 but unpublished (Connah 1965, 22).  This is probably the same barrow excavated by Thurnam without result (Thurnam 1866, 326-7).  The barrow is inconspicuous,  recorded by the Ordnance Survey in 1974 as being 0.4m high and 16m in diameter (NMR No: SU 16 SW 171).  Darvill (2004, 61) states that the barrow may date from the early fourth millennium, based on the dimensions of the barrow, and the findings of the excavator, C W Phillips.  The excavation of the barrow revealed “a central crouched inhumation surrounded by flint-working waste and broken plain bowl-style pottery” (Darvill 2004, 61). An alternative explanation is provided by the NMR Monument Record for the barrow (SU 16 SW 173) which states “Although there is a possibility that the barrow may be of Neolithic origin, the incorporation of Neolithic material in a mound constructed in an area of Neolithic activity is not entirely surprising”.  The movement of Neolithic cultural material incorporated into topsoil downhill from the causewayed enclosure is entirely possible; Connah noted the lack of distinction between the downhill edge of the enclosure banks and the overlying topsoil (Connah 1965: 10).  The subsequent inclusion of residual Neolithic pottery in the construction of this small burial mound is perfectly feasible.  Alternatively, it may have been the intention of the barrow builders to incorporate Neolithic material into the mound (see below)

  Colt Hoare notes the presence of two barrows within Knap Hill enclosure (1821, 11) but the barrow on the hill top was destroyed by flint digging at some point before Thurnam excavated Alton 8 in the 1850s (Thurnam 1866, 326-7). His excavation revealed some sheep bones in the upper stratigraphy of the mound and a circular cist, some 0.6m in diameter and 0.6m deep, in the chalk at the centre of the barrow “nearly full of ashes and burnt bones” (Thurnam 1866, 327)

The two extant barrows seem to be positioned to be seen from the col between Adam’s Grave and Knap Hill through which the Ridgeway runs today.  They also overlook the relatively flat, fertile land of East Field, where a thin covering of Greensand overlies the chalk, some of the most easily worked and fertile soil in the Vale.  The long since destroyed barrow, in contrast, seems to address both the dry valley to the north of Knap Hill where it would have been clearly framed against the southern horizon and, to a lesser extent, the Vale.

The two bell barrows and one bowl barrow (SU 1157 6376) referred to by Grinsell as Alton 15, 16 and 6 respectively lie in the col next to the Workway Drove, part of the Ridgeway.  The saddle in which the three barrows are situated is flat but the barrows are close to the scarp edge again overlooking East Field.  Thurnam excavated the bowl barrow in the 1850s, reporting that he found a previously disturbed cremation and a probable Early Medieval extended female inhumation with infant (Thurnam 1860, 326).

All Cannings

Further west, Tan Hill was a focus for barrow construction in the Early Bronze Age with some 12 barrows still extant within a radius of 1200 metres of the summit.  Furthest east, All Cannings 1b (SU 0931 6457) is located, unusually, on the edge of the scarp slope with a commanding view over Stanton St Bernard and Milk Hill.  The barrow appears not have been investigated in the modern era.  It has suffered plough damage with the ditch ploughed out on the north side and its true diameter of 15 metres is now only visible on aerial photographs.  East of the summit of Tan Hill, four bowl barrows (All Cannings 1, 1a, 12 & 15) are heavily plough damaged (SU 0904 6463).  All Cannings 1 was excavated by Thurnam (1860, 325) who found two circular pits containing ashes but no evidence of cremations.  The mound also contained fragments of antler and sheep and cattle bone.  It is debatable whether these barrows were sited with the intention of directly addressing the Vale.  Rather they seem to be best seen from Milk Hill and area immediately behind the ridge.

Conversely, the siting of All Cannings 20 and 22, a bowl barrow and saucer barrow respectively, are clearly situated to be seen from the gently sloping part of the Vale situated to the west of Rybury. All Cannings 20 appears never to have been excavated in the modern era but the NMR entry notes “some slight mutilation at its centre” (NMR No: SU 06 SE 21).  It is situated on a small spur of the main ridge overlooking a trackway running between All Cannings and Beckhampton and which, possibly, is the contemporary trace of a much older routeway.

Bishop’s Cannings

All Cannings 22 is bifurcated by the parish boundary between Bishop’s Cannings and All Cannings.  A well preserved saucer barrow with a diameter of 25 metres, it was excavated by Thurnam (1860, 325).  The excavation failed to locate any primary inhumation but a secondary urned cremation was recovered.  All Cannings 22 must be considered part of the group containing Bishop’s Cannings 46.47, 48 and 97 all situated on a spur to the east of Kitchen Barrow Hill.  Respectively three bowl barrows and one disc barrow, the bowl barrows were, again, excavated by Thurnam in the 1850s (Thurnam 1860, 324-5).  The excavator recovered a possible primary cremation and beads from Bishop Cannings 46 but discovered that 47 and 48 had been previously investigated.  All the barrows have undergone quarrying and some subsequent plough damage.  It would appear that the disc barrow, Bishops Cannings 97, has not been investigated at anytime in the past two hundred years at least.  This group of barrows is arrayed along the south-western edge of the spur looking out over the western end of the Vale.

The bowl barrow Bishops Cannings 45 on Kitchen Barrow Hill is situated at the head of a narrow deep comb.  The barrow is placed in such a way as to maximize its visibility towards the south-west and the centre of the western end of the Vale.  It placing could not be more deliberate.  The barrow, though, is very mutilated, indeed it is no longer visible on aerial photographs.  As a consequence it escaped the attentions of antiquarians.

Further west, the presence of a single bowl barrow on each of the two spurs of Easton Hill would appear to reinforce the idea that the barrow-builders wished to ensure that the monument being built was obvious from the floor of the Vale.  Bishops Cannings 43, however, may be a spoilheap from an adjacent quarry.  It is markedly oval, higher at the south-western end than the north-eastern and, most tellingly, constructed on a very steep slope.  Consequently doubts must be raised over the veracity of Grinsell’s identification.

Situated at the end of the western spur of Easton Hill, Bishops Canning 42 takes the form of a bowl barrow some 12 metres in diameter and 0.8 metres high.  It appears not to have investigated by either archaeologists or antiquarians.  It overlooks a broad area of the western end of the Vale.

B.  Salisbury Plain

Turning south to the northern scarp of Salisbury Plain, there are far fewer barrows overlooking the Vale of Pewsey.  The vast majority of barrows in the central and eastern portions of the Plain are located within the drainage basins of the Rivers Bourne and Avon (McOmish et al. 2002, 46), only a very small number are found elsewhere than the slopes of the river valleys that have cut through the chalk plateau.


Goddard’s Urchfont 1 and 2 are two such exceptions.  Urchfont 1 is perched on the ridge between the furthest headwaters of the Water Dean Bottom system and the scarp slope in an ambiguous position, with a viewshed of some 280° to the west, south and east.   Urchfont 2 lies on the north-west facing scarp slope overlooking the gentler slopes of the Vale.  Both are bowl barrows but whereas Urchfont 1 still stands to a height of 1.7m, Urchfont 2 has been almost destroyed by ploughing.  Neither appear to have been investigated.


Thirteen kilometres due east, Pewsey Down has the next concentration of round barrows on the southern flank of the Vale.  Manningford 1 (Grinsell) (SU 1711 5552), a ditched bowl barrow, is situated on the upper parts of a dry valley running north-west to the Avon.  The interlocking nature of the dry valley is such that the barrow can only be seen at close quarters, framed by the shallow slopes above it.  Some 1100 metres to the north-west and situated on a west facing spur, a second bowl barrow (SU 1636 5632) overlooks the same valley.  Unlisted by Grinsell, Meyrick retrieved a “chisel-shaped” palstave from this bowl barrow (Swanton 1987, 16).


 The barrows located in the portion of Pewsey Down within Pewsey Parish have fared less well.  Pewsey 1 (Grinsell) (SU 1760 5743), Pewsey 2 (Grinsell) (SU 1733 5728), the pair of barrows referred to as Pewsey 10A (Grinsell) (SU 1829 5740), and the unlisted probable bowl barrow at SU 1683 5777 have all been heavily plough damaged.  Of these barrows, only the suspected bowl barrow (SU 1683 5777) appears positioned to be seen from the floor of the Vale proper.  Pewsey 1 and the entirely ploughed out Pewsey 2 are situated at the head of a small re-entrant valley, part of the same dry-valley complex overlooked by the Manningford barrows.  Grinsell’s 10a clearly share the riverine distribution of so many barrows on Salisbury Plain and can be seen as extreme outliers of the Nine Mile River concentration and, therefore, have more in common with barrow groups such as Down Farm and Everleigh Barrows.

Colt-Hoare excavated several of the Down Farm group, noting the mound of one barrow: ‘No.8 is remarkable for having a more pointed apex than any other barrow I remember to have seen, on which count I named it the Cone Barrow’.  Colt-Hoare’s workmen encountered a considerable quantity of cremated bones, a bronze spearhead and a central cremation pit during the excavation of this barrow.  Several other barrows were opened but Colt-Hoare soon tired of the operation on account of the difficult nature of the clay-with-flints soil (ibid: 191 ).

Two ditchless bowl barrows and three saucer barrows of the Down Farm  barrow group were excavated by Faith de Mallet Vatcher in the Autumn of 1958 ( de Mallet Vatcher 1960: 339-51)as a result of ongoing agricultural damage.  No burials were recovered from the saucer barrows which had all been seriously damaged by cultivation but pits containing ash and charcoal were recovered from Sites C and D.  In Site D a hole measuring some 45 cm in diameter and depth was filled with a deposit of pure charcoal, no soil was present in the fill.  Two ash-filled pits were located in Site C (ibid: 346) and several possible hearths were noted on the old ground surface beneath several of the mounds.

A burial within a coffin or timber lined pit was uncovered beneath the mound of Site A (ibid, 341-3).  The human remains within were very fragmentary and badly decayed leading the excavator to suggest that the body was either in a decomposed condition when placed in the pit or the pit, with the body in situ, had been open to the elements for a considerable period before burial.  The second bowl barrow, Site B, had been robbed at some time in the past (ibid 344-5).

Very little pottery was recovered from the excavation, literally a few fragments from each site.  Typically, fragments of Beaker and Collared Urn was recovered but several small and weathered sherds of Early Neolithic Plain Ware were also found leading to the excavator suggesting that a Neolithic occupation site was located nearby (ibid 347), a claim supported by the presence of ‘occupation debris’ deposited in the ditch of Site C.  This occupation debris was described as being ‘of relatively fine grain, dark in colour, and contained a considerable clay-fraction, with much organic matter, some charcoal and numerous broken snail shells’ (Dorell & Cornwall in de Mallet Vatcher: 348-9).  The excavator suggested the layer had formed in the ditch early in the life of the site and was the accumulation of leaf mould and human refuse (de Mallet Vatcher: 345)



Milton Lilbourne

The northernmost barrow  cemetery on Salisbury Plain is found north-east of Milton Hill Farm (SU 1999 5786) located on the watershed between the Nine Mile and Bourne drainage systems, approximately a kilometre from the edge of the Vale.  In effect, the barrow group is situated on the south-eastern flank of a small slightly domed “island” of land situated between three drainage systems.

In the same year as Faith Vatcher excavated part of the Down Farm Group, Paul Ashbee excavated five barrows at Milton Hill Farm including a discrete group of an oval double disc barrow (Milton Lilbourne 1) and two bell-barrows conjoined by a small bowl barrow (Milton Lilbourne 2.3 & 4) and an outlying bowl barrow (Ashbee 1986: 23-96).  The oval disc barrow had been previously opened by Thurnam who had recovered a cremation (Thurman 1870: 295) and Ashbee excavated another cremation and awl from the monument.  The barrow is of an unusual form with only six comparable sites known in central southern Britain including Gussage St Michael 17a, Wimborne St Giles 8 (part of the Oakley Down group) and Bishops Cannings 95. 

The conjoined barrows (Milton Lilbourne 2, 3 & 4) had been damaged by past activity.  A pit had been sunk into Barrow 2 and the linking barrow, Barrow 3, had been entirely levelled possibly as a result of earlier excavation.  The structure of Barrow 2 comprised a loam core covered by an outer layer of chalk rubble (ibid 1986: 35-8).  The loam core was “augmented” by what Ashbee described as occupation debris, a feature the mound shared with Barrow 4.

The bell barrow (Milton Lilbourne 4) was offset within it’s ditched enclosure and contained a central cremation of a mature male accompanied by a miniature vessel and surrounded by the burnt remains of what Ashbee described as a coffin and mortuary house (ibid 45-46, 87).  Again the structure of the barrow featured a loam core with added soil and occupation debris overlain with chalk.

The outlying bowl barrow (Milton Lilbourne 5) had exactly the same structure as Barrows 4 and 2 with an inverted urn containing a cremation located in a pit at the centre of the ditched enclosure accompanied by a charcoal spread.  Ashbee suggested that Barrow 5 may be earlier in date than Barrow 4 on the basis of the presence of a large piece of carbonised wood, perhaps part of the wooded structure in Barrow 4, lying on top of the primary fill of the ditch of Barrow 5.

Ash, Occupation Debris, Round Barrows and Persistent Places


The inclusion of ash into burial mounds has already been discussed with reference to Hatfield Barrow, Marden.  In that instance, the ash comprised part of the make-up of the barrow mound in contrast to the findings made at the Down Farm barrow group where ash and charcoal was deposited in pits cut into the original ground surface (Vatcher 1960).  This is similar in character to the Grooved Ware pits full of charcoal and ash recovered from Woodlands, Countess Road, and Ratfyn, Amesbury (Stone 1935; Stone & Young 1948; Stone 1949) although not on the same scale nor in the same topographical setting.  The same deliberate effort had been made, though, to burn and curate a significant amount of ash and charcoal with the intention of depositing it in specially dug pits.  The contrast between the black of the charcoal and the white chalk would not have been lost on the participants in this process perhaps redolent of cremations and the colour and texture of cremated bone.  Parker Pearson (2004) has drawn attention to the symbolic possibilities of the inclusion of ash into barrows.

Ashbee’s occupation debris at Milton Hill Farm was ‘often charcoal-laden, embodying potsherds, flint artefacts, knapping debris and bones’ (ibid; 72) and would have provided a strong contrast when forming the loam core of the barrows to the enveloping chalk outer layer as it was heaped up.  Mary Ann Owoc has suggested that the deliberate inclusion of soils of different colours and types was a deliberate part of the process and ceremony associated with barrow construction in the Early Bronze Age (Owoc 2000; 2004) and Parker Pearson (2004:80) has drawn attention to the number of round barrows excavated that contain similar material.  The occupation debris at Milton Hill Farm contained sherds of pottery ‘partially or wholly representative’ of the entire repertoire of Neolithic and Earlier Bronze Age pottery (ibid: 73).  This is clearly different from the occupation debris Faith Vatcher recovered from the ditch of Site C at Down Farm in the autumn of 1958 which seems largely humic in nature and contained a large number of snail shells (de Mallet Vatcher 1960: 348-9).  It seems most unlikely, bearing in mind that both sites were excavated within a few months of each other, that the excavators were unaware of each other’s activities and may well have visited each other’s sites and discussed their findings.  Vatcher’s identification of occupation debris comes after the cessation of activity at Milton Hill Farm and was, probably, made in the light of Ashbee’s discoveries but the deposit is of an entirely different nature to that comprising the central cores of the Milton Lilbourne barrows, both pedologically and stratigraphically.

The range and relative proportions of pottery types contained within the occupation debris encountered by Ashbee is difficult to ascertain as the report tends to concentrate on Grooved Ware and Collared Urn sherds (ibid:73).  The range of pottery types combined with the presence of flint tools and debitage and animal bones is highly suggestive of the material having been curated in some form of midden.  A possible comparable site is the midden site excavated by Keiller adjacent to the West Kennett Avenue (Smith 1965b: 210-6) in 1934-5 where Peterborough Ware and Grooved Ware sherds had survived in considerable quantities suggestive of a thick protective layer of soil (Pollard 2005, 110-1).  The deposit appears to have accumulated as a result of intervals of periodic occupation, though the specialised and unusual nature of the flint assemblage suggests that the activity taking place was not run-of-the-mill.  The presence of postholes associated with the densest concentrations of material has led Pollard to suggest the midden was marked by posts and that pits adjacent to the postholes and containing structured deposits including Grooved Ware may have been dug in an act of final closure.  The incorporation of the midden into the course of the West Kennett Avenue was a further stage in this process, Smith (1965b: 212) noting that a gap in the stone settings of the western side of the Avenue coincided with the densest accumulation of midden material.

Another comparable site Avebury G55, excavated by Smith (1965c: 24-46) is situated some 250m north-west of West Kennet Long Barrow, located on a north facing spur overlooking the bend of the River Kennett at Swallowhead Springs.  The barrow had been dug into on three previous occasions and the central cremation pit was disturbed, although a number of satellite cremations were recovered.  The ploughsoil surrounding the barrow suggested that the monument had been over or in the vicinity of a Neolithic midden.  Sherds of Plain Ware, Peterborough Ware, Grooved Ware and beaker pottery were recovered from the pre-barrow layers along with animal bones and flint implements.  In addition a number of pits were recorded containing similar material to the midden.

The longevity of the period of deposition, no matter how episodic, defines both the West Kennett Avenue site and the midden adjacent to Avebury G55 as ‘persistent places’; successive generations have returned to the same location over long periods of time and, apparently carried out broadly similar activity much of which can only be described as being of a ritual nature.  This sort of activity takes the concept of persistence of place far beyond the narrow functionalist definition laid down by Schlanger (1992: 94-112).  These sites clearly have a symbolic significance far beyond their original meaning to subsequent groups, they serve as mnemonics reminding people of  past human activity and importance of a location (Pollard 2005: 105)(Gosden & Lock 1998). Potentially a midden would become every bit as much a monument in the landscape as a more formal sites such as a long barrow.  The colour of the soil, the presence of a mound, posts and the scatter of pottery would all serve to identify the location as one of special significance.

The symbolic and mnemonic importance of Neolithic middens may help to explain the incorporation of so-called occupation debris into the structure of the round barrows at Milton Lilbourne and elsewhere.  It is difficult to justify the argument that large amounts of midden material were carted in specifically for the construction of the round barrows at Milton Hill Farm.  Rather it could suggest that the location for the barrows was at least partly chosen because of the presence of a Neolithic midden on or close by the site as seems to have been the case at Avebury G55.  Here a riverside spur below the crest of the hill coincided with the presence of a Neolithic midden – perhaps the most auspicious position for the construction of a round barrow.

The significance of Neolithic middens for the location of some Bronze Age round barrows is further emphasised by the results of Edwina Proudfoot’s excavation of Bishop’ Cannings 61, 62 and 62a (Grinsell) on Roughridge Hill in 1964(Pollard 1993; Chap 3.2).  The barrows were situated on the south-eastern slope of Bishop’s Cannings Down approximately 450m west-south-west of Easton Down Oval Barrow. 

Beneath G61, a single large pit measuring 2.5m in diameter and 0.8m deep produced a considerable amount of Early Neolithic material.  Six more early Neolithic pits were located beneath and around G62a together with three less tightly dated pits.  The pottery and lithic assemblages from the pits on both sites suggests a very early Neolithic date, perhaps before the main periods of long barrow and enclosure construction.  Pollard suggests the contents of the pits had previously formed part of a midden accumulation as animal bones were disarticulated but softer parts such as phalanges were present and the pottery was largely unweathered.  Therefore it is not unreasonable to suggest that evidence of either the existence of an Early Neolithic midden or the presence of the pits acted as a stimulus to the construction of the round barrows at that location.

Care must be taken not to extrapolate these findings to explain the location of every Bronze Age round barrow.  In the case of Avebury G55 and Bishop’s Cannings G61, 62 & 62a the round barrows have been constructed in close proximity to long barrows.  The same is true of the Milton Hill farm group with Giant’s Grave lying some 1100m to the west-north-west.  The sequence of events is complicated, with the pits at Roughridge Hill predating the mound at Easton Down and apparently episodic depositional events at Avebury G55 but there does seem to be correlation between at least some Bronze Age round barrows and earlier Neolithic activity.

This association is all the more striking when analysing the spatial relationship between Neolithic monuments and Bronze Age round barrows in the study area.  With a few exceptions, Bronze Age barrows are not found in association with earlier monuments unlike the case on the South Dorset Ridgeway (Woodward & Woodward 1991: 140-6) and Cranborne Chase (Barrett et al 1991: 124-39).  The most notable exception is the presence of two round barrows (one now destroyed) within the circuit at Knap Hill.  The location of these barrows is analogous to those of Winterbourne Monkton 1 and 2 situated on the highest point of Windmill Hill (McOmish in Whittle et al 1999:16).  By way of contrast, Rybury appears to have no barrows in association, although the interior of the enclosure is so badly mutilated by quarrying that it is difficult to say with any certainty that no barrows existed within its banks.

The incorporation of Neolithic cultural material into the monument would be an inevitable consequence of building a Bronze Age round barrow on such a site as Windmill Hill or Knap Hill as, perhaps, we see in the case of Alton 10/13 on the slopes of Knap Hill where sherds of Plain Ware were encountered by the excavator (Darvill 2004: 61).  Field’s criteria for the location of round barrows (1999: 315-6) may need to be fine tuned in the case of some barrows to take account of the reuse and incorporation of Neolithic material from around the barrow’s location.


The side valleys of the Bourne system continue to be the focus for round barrows in the parish of Easton.  Grinsell’s Easton 1 (SU 2099 5775) and Easton 1B (SU 2160 5822) are located at the head of a small re-entrant running south-south-west into a dry valley.  Unusually, an unlisted bowl barrow (SU 2148 5802) is located in this dry valley, close to its base.  None of these bowl barrows have been investigated.

The disc barrow listed as Easton 1A (Grinsell) (SU 2108 5927) is anomalous in respect of its location and size.  Situated just below the summit of Easton Hill, a prominent chalk ridge that juts out into the eastern end of the Vale, it is clearly meant to be seen from the north, from the floor of the Vale.  The size of the monument is most striking, an overall diameter of some 67 metres.  This is one of the largest disc barrows in southern Britain, similar, if not larger than Grinsell’s Wimbourne St Giles 28, part of the Oakley Down cemetery.  The morphology of the barrow is unusual, too, with the presence of an external ditch.  The barrow appears not have been investigated.


One final anomalous barrow is the large oval barrow located near Burbage (SU 2381 6100).  This innominate and uninvestigated barrow is located on the narrow watershed between the Rivers Bourne, Avon and Dun.  It appears to address the Dun system but would not, given the flatness of the terrain, have been very visible but its location set between the furthest limits of these three river systems would have been highly significant, given the association between river valleys and round barrows.

3.  Clay-with-flints

The correlation between clay-with-flints and barrow location may well be significant.  A brief perusal of soil types and the distribution of round barrows on the Marlborough Downs and in the Savernake Forest area appears to demonstrate a similar aversion to clay-with-flints.  This is not the case on the northern fringes of Salisbury Plain where the Down Farm group, among others were constructed on top of Clay-with-flints.  From a practical, modern perspective clay-with-flints presents a number of difficulties.  Vehicles become easily mired, farm machinery must avoid overdue compression of the soil or cause crop failure and it is particularly awkward to walk or cycle across.  Both Colt Hoare (1810: 191) and de Mallet Vatcher (1960: 340) remarked on the difficulties or ‘clamminess’ of the soil.  The construction of mounds would not be aided by the nature of the soil and perhaps the lower concentrations of barrows on the northern edge of Salisbury plain demonstrates the reluctance of barrow builders to construct monuments on this type of soil.  Furthermore, it is often suggested that Clay-with-flints supported dense woodland (Barber et al 1999: 57) in the Neolithic and, perhaps, this was still true in the Early Bronze Age, possibly limiting both the choices of location for barrow construction and potential viewsheds towards and away from the mound.   Alternatively, Field (1998, 316) suggests round barrows were located on marginal land and Peters (2000, 353) notes that what she terms “Inconspicuous barrows” are located on the edge of MBA field systems.  Despite its innate difficulties, clay-with-flints is a fertile soil and, perhaps, the siting of barrows reflects the development of an early agricultural landscape.

Round Barrows and Routeways

In summary, then, the distribution of round barrows in the Vale is unequal.  There are proportionately more round barrows sited along the northern flank of the Vale than anywhere else.  Perhaps significantly, these barrows are found in groups in association with routes running transversely across the Vale (i.e. north – south).  The Wootton Rivers group are located adjacent to a series of tracks passing through Ram Alley and heading towards the byways running along the dry valleys flanking either side of Easton Hill and leading into the eastern portion of Salisbury Plain.  The Gopher Wood group overlook two routes running from Hare Street in Wilcot which converge 600 metres north of the barrows before following a dry valley north across the clay-with-flints of West Woods and meeting the chalk at Fyfield Down.  Similar locations for the barrows at Knap Hill and west of Tan Hill have already been noted but the siting of the barrows at these respective locations does seem to exhibit a desire to be seen from the routeway.

The possible explanations for this deliberate and clear patterning are not straightforward.  The lack of much positive evidence for EBA activity on the greensands of the Vale has already been noted.  Consequently, the answer may lie to the north.  It has already been suggested that there was a drift of activity away from the Vale towards the end of the Neolithic towards the twin poles of Avebury and Stonehenge, exemplified by the lack of EBA finds from Marden henge.  Perhaps the placing of barrows on the edge of the chalk scarp, close to major transverse routeways was intended as a statement for travellers along those routes.  If we accept the ecotone between the chalk and greensand as both a natural and human boundary zone, the siting of funerary monuments, metaphors for a journey between this world and another, along this liminal zone makes sense.  Travellers approaching the Pewsey Downs/Avebury complex passed through a series of loose “zones” as they journeyed towards the henge.  The outermost of these zones was concerned with dialogues with other worlds, the world of the dead and the outside world or perhaps the reverse is true with the “dead zone” being at the heart of the landscape around Avebury.  The siting of barrows along natural routeways served as “signposts” for travellers that they were entering a new territory/polity, reminding them of the ancestral claim the present residents had on the area, the antiquity of that claim and the wealth and status contained both within the mounds and the territory. 

Barrows along the southern side of the Vale seem to fit into the pattern of distribution along river valleys noted by McOmish et al. (2002, 46).  Even the two bowl barrows located at Urchfont are very close to the furthest arm of the Water Dean System.  The only barrow that, perhaps, defies this analysis is Easton 1A, the large disc barrow situated at the northern end of Easton Hill. As noted above, the barrow is flanked on either side by byways of some antiquity, following dry valleys linked to the Bourne system.  It is also worth noting that the Vale reaches its narrowest width north of Easton, only some 3 kilometres wide and that the barrow overlooks the headwaters of the Avon, Bourne and Dun.  Perhaps the size of the disc barrow reflects the significance of the location and the aspirations of its builders


Prehistoric cairns in the Welsh mountains

I first became interested in prehistoric cairns during the expedition phase of my Mountain Leader (Summer) training at Plas y Brenin which was spent on the Carneddau (appropriately enough) in Snowdonia. Prehistoric cairns are stone-built burial mounds which can vary considerably in size and generally date from the Bronze Age.  On Ordnance Survey maps, they are denoted by the legend Cairn.  On the Carneddau, I was impressed at both the size of the cairns, particularly Carnedd Fach, and their locations.  It probably helped that, although chilly (after all, it was only the end of June), the pellucid quality of light on the evening of one of the longest days of the year was breathtaking and we could clearly see Snaefell on the Isle of Man from the summit of Carnedd Lleywelyn. Sadly, I had no camera with me. As we made our way across the Carneddau summits so very late at night that it was almost dawn, I could see why the builders of these massive monuments had built them where they did.  What struck me, however, as someone used to the round barrows of southern England, was how unusual the positioning of these cairns was.

The interpretation of barrows in the landscape is dominated by Dave Field’s (1998) excellent analysis of the siting of round barrows in South East and Central Southern England.  He noted that barrows tended to be clustered together, often on ridges overlooking river valleys and that individual barrows were false crested, in other words, situated close to, but not on, the highest point of a ridge.

Early Bronze Age round barrows near the Sanctuary, Avebury, Wilts.

Early Bronze Age round barrows near the Sanctuary, Avebury, Wilts.

He also claims that round barrows are located on marginal land.  I would dispute the reasons Field posits for this distribution: there is no evidence of a concept of territoriality in the Early Bronze Age and I’m not at all certain sufficient land was cultivated to facilitate the formation of ideas of marginality (ibid, 316-7).  However, the kernel of the paper remains a very useful tool for understanding the distribution of round barrows in southern Britain.

My observations of the Carneddau examples and other cairns in Snowdonia suggested that their location was very different to their southern earthern counterparts. In North Wales, a significant number of cairns were sited on summits  and cairns tended to be solitary structures set well apart from each other.  Further observation and map work in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales confirmed my initial impression, the location of some cairns was markedly different, in many cases, to that of earthern round barrows.  In order to understand the landscape setting of cairns, I needed to do some fieldwork.

A sunny day in September

The first field investigation took place in September 2012 in the company of Mike McQueen.  The location was the eastern end of the Mynydd Du, the massive limestone scarp situated at the western end of the Brecon Beacons.  The day was beautifully sunny, but on top the wind was cutting and we both walked with belay jackets on, such was the wind chill for that time of year.  We investigated five cairns located on Fan Brycheiniog, Fan Foel, Picws Du  on a circuit  walk from Glyntawe, north along the Beacons Way to Llyn y fan and then up and over the scarp to Bannau Sir Gaer and on to  before turning south and making our way over Cefn Mawr back to Glyntawe, a circuit of some 22 kilometres and 1500 metres climbed.

Fan Brycheiniog

The first cairn at Fan Brycheiniog, is located just below the 800mOD contour on a spur jutting out north and eastwards from the main scarp ridge.  According to the map, it lies in a false-crested position with the summit of the hill (802mOD)lying a few metres to the south-west.

Note the raised platform at the base of the cairn


On the ground, the cairn has every appearance on being the highest point on the ridge.  It has extensive views in all directions but the viewshed to the west, north and east are particularly good.

As can be seen from the photos, the modern cairn sits on a raised platform which is eroding on its south-western side and seems to be composed of large stones.  Without excavation, it is difficult to be definitive, but the platform would appear to be a circular stone feature constructed to emphasis the size and position of the cairn.

The cairn visually dominates its surroundings, especially the low-lying moor north of the scarp slope and the platform reinforces the impression of size and solidity.

Fan Foel

Located at the approximate centre of a broad, flat summitted spur some 150m wide, this cairn is situated just below the 780mOD contour. Like FanBrycheiniog, the map suggests that the Fan Foel cairn is false-crested with the summit of the spur lying to the south-west of the monument but it is not evident on the ground.

Again, the cairn appears to incorporate a platform raising it above the surrounding ground level. This cairn was excavated on behalf of Cadw and the Brecon Beacons National Park by Cambria Archaeology in June 2004 (link) because of erosion.  Evidence of a stone kerb and a cremation burial in a central stone cist were uncovered, along with a number of artefacts dating from the Early Bronze Age.

Note the torn fabric “protecting” the excavated cairn


I’m not sure that the cairn was done any favours by the excavation as the site is currently open to the elements and the protective material laid down over the archaeological features is exposed and weathering.    Despite being located on a very prominent spur whose steep sides project into the surrounding moorland, the cairn has a relatively restricted viewshed to the lower ground to the west, north and east and down the valley of the Afon Twrch running across the Mynydd Du in a south-westerly course because it is placed towards the centre of a broad, flat spur.


Picws Du

This cairn, located at the top of a long, steep climb from the valley of Nentydd Blaen-Twrch, proves a popular stopping point for hikers and when we arrived there a large group from London were enjoying a break, sitting on the cairn.

Situated at the very end of this slight spur, Picws Du cairn has an elevation of 749mOD and dominates its immediate surroundings on the southern dip slope.  Again, the cairn has a broad, raised platform but is not false crested.  It occupies the highest point of the hill, perched on the very edge of the scarp slope with extensive views to both north and south but little visibility to east or west.  The steepness of the dip slope dropping away to the south of the cairn would make this monument a very obvious landmark when viewed from the southern Mynydd Du.

Carnau’r Garreg Las

We then set off eastwards across the summit of Bannau Sir Gaer, and loped downslope through deep heather to the watershed between Afon Mihartech and Twrch Fechan before climbing the northern end of Garreg Las to investigate the pair of cairns on the boulder-strewn summit.

Garreg las south small

Both cairns are massive, composed of boulders from the rocky summit of the ridge and very different from the cairns we had looked at before.  The stone is very pale, almost white and it glitters in the sunlight with the amount of quartz in it; the cairns are certainly eye-catching.  Both are located on the on the summit plateau and the northernmost cairn is the highest point on Garreg Las.

The cairns have been hollowed out to an extent from the top, in order to create walker’s shelters.  They both enjoy extensive viewsheds to the north and west  but views are very limited to the south and east.

The southernmost cairn may have structures associated with it but it was very difficult to tell what was natural and man-made.

After taking some photos, we turned east and made our way down to the Twrch Fechan, past Pwll Cynrig (Pool of the King?) and across to the ford below Brest Twrch and the path back towards Glyntawe and well earned fish and chips in Brecon.

Knap Hill

I thought we’d kick off with a few words about the causewayed enclosure forming the background to this site, Knap Hill on the Pewsey Downs in Wiltshire, one of three in the area (the other two are Rybury and Crofton), and the nature of causewayed enclosures in general.

Knap Hill is located on a prominent rise overlooking the Vale of Pewsey. It is, without doubt, the best preserved example of its type in the British Isles with a clearly defined circuit of interrupted ditches and causeways on its northern side roughly aligned with the 260mOD contour line.  There are six very well preserved causewayed entrances “interrupting” the ditch and bank circuit.  The circuit has been carefully sited on  a break in slope that allowed its builders, by careful use of scarping, to construct banks that look far larger, when viewed from further down the slope, than they actually are.  Viewed from above, the bank is less than 0.3m high but an exaggeratedly long scarped uphill ditch side creates the optical illusion of much larger banks.   There is no evidence to suggest a continuation of the circuit onto the very steep south facing slope, although a later prehistoric linear traverses the slope.  The area enclosed by the combination of causewayed ditch and hillslope appears to be the subject of debate with areas of 1.7 and 2.4 hectares being quoted in the National Monument Report (NMR SU 16 SW 22).

Knap Hill view from north March 2011 smaller

Knap Hill from Milk Hill March 2011

The site was first identified as Neolithic and of a novel form by the Cunningtons who excavated the site in the early 1900s (Cunnington 1911: 42-65). Connah excavated three trenches across the Neolithic bank and ditch and stripped a causeway in 1961 (Connah 1965). The excavation report is frustratingly brief but reveals that the ditches were created by digging a series of smaller conjoined pits, the banks being formed by the heaping of spoil from the ditches and the scarping the uphill side of the ditches. Intriguingly, Connah (1965: 5) notes that the banks were composed of alternating deposits of smaller and larger rubble “sloping from front to back” and that below the banks in Sections 2 and 3 articulated groups of cattle bones were deposited on the buried soil surface (ibid: 17). Pollard and Reynolds (2002: 56-7) note the animal bone groups and suggest that perhaps metaphorical parallels between the extremities of the site and the animals were being stressed. Certainly, these depositions can only be construed as deliberate, taking place immediately before the construction of the bank and, indeed, perhaps part of the construction process with a “dedication” of the site involving the slaughter of cattle and feasting immediately prior to the digging of the ditches and raising of the banks.

The Structure of the Banks
Connah’s observation that the banks were composed of bands of differentially sized chalk rubble suggests that this was a deliberate part of the overall design of the enclosure. From outside the enclosure, the banks would have appeared to have alternate grey (or brown) and white stripes running longitudinally, emphasising the length and linearity of the enclosure. The deliberate use of soils as part of the architectural effect of prehistoric monuments has been recently discussed (Boivin 2000; Owoc 2001; Boivin & Owoc 2004) and this planned and careful inclusion of soils in the banks seems to be an attention focussing device (Owoc 2004: 111).

Cattle, Feasting and Causewayed Enclosures
Ray and Thomas (2003: 37-44) have speculated on the central role played by cattle in Early Neolithic society. They argue that cattle were far more important to Early Neolithic groups than cereals and cite as evidence the widespread evidence of deliberate deposition of cattle remains as part of both mortuary practices and the various activities taking place at causewayed enclosures. Although the husbanding groups spent much of the year following their herds, seasonal gatherings at ceremonial centres were important elements in social reproduction, facilitating feasting and the circulation of certain artefacts such as stone axes (ibid: 42). Citing evidence from the Upper Thames Valley (Barclay and Hey 1999: 71), Ray and Thomas claim that clearings existed close to some major ceremonial sites and would have served as grazing for cattle. Recent work in the Thames Valley (Barclay et al. 2003: 65) has cast doubt upon this interpretation. Evidence from the Drayton North Cursus in the form of oak-dominated charcoal deposits, and previous environmental investigations (Robinson & Lambrick 1984; Lambrick & Robinson 1988), suggest that the Thames floodplain was relatively dry until the Iron Age and that there is no tangible evidence to support the idea that the Neolithic floodplain provided significant grazing. Rather Barclay et al. suggest that the floodplain was a ‘topographic extension’ of the first gravel terrace in terms of landuse.

Despite these apparent problems of comparability, the notion of causewayed enclosures being associated with grazing may be valid. Connah (1965: 19-20) took molluscan samples from the old land surface that indicated the local vegetation at the time of the bank’s construction was probably open scrub. Results from samples taken in the early years of molluscan analysis must, of course, be treated with some scepticism but, if true, the environmental evidence has important implications for the origins of the site. It is possible that the causewayed enclosure was built in a location already associated with repeated seasonal grazing events. Located next to a major col in the Pewsey Downs, facilitating north-south passage, the locality of Knap Hill may have offered relatively open grazing set on the boundary between the heavily wooded clay-with-flints of the uplands and the possibly equally heavily wooded and boggy lowlands of the Vale.

Set on the boundary of two major ecotones with available grazing and being a prominent landmark, arguably Knap Hill became a fixed part of the annual cycle of transhumance practised by Early Neolithic herders (Ray & Thomas 2003: 39) and became a location associated with the gathering of disparate groups. This ceremonial function eventually became monumentalised with the construction of a causewayed enclosure, an event marked by feasting and the burial of articulated limbs of cattle beneath banks composed of alternate bands of smaller and larger rubble.

The importance of feasting in prehistoric societies has been recently discussed (Dietler & Hayden 2001) (Parker Pearson 2003). It is probably true that the majority of animal bones recovered from prehistoric sites are the results of feasting (Parker Pearson 2003: 10). Hayden’s discussion of the role of feasting Hayden 2001: 23-64) raises a number of key points about the use of agency through the feasting process but the analysis is hampered by the ecological approach of the paper and the functionalist view of feasting. Those criticisms aside, Hayden’s work does emphasise the role of feasting in “the creation or maintenance of important social relationships” (ibid: 30) and perhaps we see the remains of a feast being buried beneath the bank of the causewayed enclosure at Knap Hill. The feast represented the acceptance by all groups involved of the formalisation of the gathering place and the burial of the articulated limbs formed a ritual deposit placating deities as the integrity of the land’s surface was broken to create that formal enclosure.

Some authorities have suggested Rybury and Knap Hill are successive sites (Whittle 1996: 269; Edmonds 1999: 84). Whilst that is possible, more conclusive chronological evidence is required and the proximity may be due more to the presence of “saddles” or cols in the Pewsey Downs close to each enclosure facilitating easier access northwards to Windmill Hill and the Kennet Valley.
Causewayed Enclosures and Liminality
Knap Hill is located on an ecotone, like Rybury, on the south facing chalk scarp slope of the Pewsey Downs, very close to the edge of the greensand Vale of Pewsey  (Thomas, 1991: 43 and Edmonds, 1999: 93).   Crofton, at the eastern end of the Vale, is located close to the boundary between the Upper Chalk and Greensand to the west (Lobb 1995: 18). The sites are also liminal in the sense that they are located on or close to “thresholds” of natural routeways. Rybury lies on a complex spur flanked by two trackways of some apparent antiquity both of which take advantage of natural saddles or cols in the escarpment. The track to the west runs almost due north to Beckhampton and Windmill Hill beyond whilst the track to the east runs south in the direction of the Redhorn Gate and northwest to West Kennet. Knap Hill lies on the higher ground to the immediate west of the junction of Workway Drove and the Ridgeway in another natural saddle. Crofton is located on the western threshold of the valley of the River Dunn running north-east to its confluence with the River Kennett at Hungerford. The valley has played a vital role in communications in past centuries with the construction of the Kennet and Avon Canal and the Paddington – Taunton branch of the GWR along its course. There is no reason to assume its importance as a natural route was in any way diminished in the prehistoric period, enabling access from the West Country to the Thames basin and vice versa.

Thomas (1999: 42-5) argues that the nature of exchange in Neolithic society provides an explanation for the liminal location of these enclosures. The fear of ritualistic pollution of artefacts invested with social significance and meaning by the process of long distance exchange necessitated such transactions taking place on the “peripheries of social areas, within bounded spaces” (Thomas 1999 42) and was often accompanied by feasting. Causewayed enclosures were “socially neutral areas within which exchanges could be concluded in isolation from their normal social meaning”; they were transitional places.

Causewayed enclosures and flint extraction
The causewayed enclosures of the Vale of Pewsey also share an artefactual association with the extraction and knapping of flint. Knap Hill is immediately adjacent to Golden Ball Hill where evidence of extensive Mesolithic and Neolithic flint extraction from the clay-with-flints and primary knapping has been uncovered. The excavations carried out by Connah at Knap Hill in 1961 produced a flint assemblage dominated by debitage (Connah 1965: 14–7) and mole activity on the northern slope of the hill has turned up a large spread of debitage including axe thinning flakes (J Pollard: pers. comm.) Bonney’s excavation of a segment of the outer ditch at Rybury revealed over 600 flint flakes but no finished tools (Anon 1964: 185). Lobb’s excavation at Crofton, although small in extent, revealed a flint assemblage from the primary ditch fill that can be best described as debitage. Harding (Lobb 1995: 20) described it as knapping waste derived from core preparation relating to “small-scale activity for domestic purposes”.

Thomas (1999: 41) and others (Edmonds, 1995: 69 & 73) note an apparent association between causewayed enclosures and lithic sources and stone working and suggest their liminal nature enabled the regulation of lithic production. Certainly the liminality of all three causewayed enclosures in the Vale of Pewsey has been established but as Barber et al. (1999: 53) point out, the choice of location for flint mines or quarries is necessarily constrained by the availability of the raw material and so the two enclosures most likely to be associated with flint extraction and processing are Rybury and Knap Hill. Of those two sites, only Knap Hill is located close to known sources of flint used in the prehistoric period at Golden Ball Hill.

The exploitation of flint sources at Golden Ball Hill concur with a number of observations made by Barber et al. (1999). They note that although the choice of location is constrained by the presence of flint, many mines do not “slavishly” follow the course of flint strata nor is the most accessible or best quality stone always extracted (Barber et al., 1999: 53). They argue the site of extraction must have already possessed a significance or meaning to the groups that chose to extract flint from that location either because it was a prominent landscape feature or a place of import in seasonal or cyclical activities either for raw materials or gathering places. Of course a combination of all three reasons is entirely possible and this may be the case at Golden Ball and Knap Hill (see below). Barber et al. (1999: 57) claim that there are two general locations for flint mines, based on a survey of sites from the South Downs, and they are prominent locations with a high degree of visibility and, secondly, more discrete sites which are hidden by the topography. Certainly the first choice of location would apply to Golden Ball Hill and it is interesting to note an observation by Barber et al. that in Sussex, downland mines tended to be located close to Clay-with-flints and that there would be a strong visual contrast between the dense woodland of the Clay-with-flints and the more open scrub and woodland of the lower chalk slopes. Furthermore, the white of the spoilheaps composed of chalk would form a strong visual counterpoint to the dark of the woodlands. These observations of Barber et al. do bear a strong resemblance to the situation at Golden Ball Hill where a cap of Clay-with-flints covers the top of the ridge, a ridge that can be clearly seen from the rise immediately north of Durrington Walls some 20km south. The flint extraction seems to have taken place on either side of the summit of the hill but later flint extraction has obscured many of the Mesolithic and Neolithic sites.

Causewayed Enclosures and Prominent Places

Oswald et al. (2001: 99) note the tendency of causewayed enclosures found in upland areas to be close to “eye-catching natural landforms, or to striking elements of larger landmasses that are naturally dramatic”. This is true of both Knap Hill, lying at the western end of the Golden Ball Hill/Huish Hill ridge forming one side of the largest col through the Pewsey Downs, and Rybury, lying between a prominent spur and the Tan Hill massif. The builders of these monuments appear to have purposefully manipulated the attention focusing properties of these natural formations to draw attention to the enclosures built close to them. But, as Oswald et al. (2001: Fig 1.2) point out, both enclosures are more visible from the north than from the Vale. The main enclosure at Rybury is tilted away from the Vale and is most visible from Tan Hill (Oswald et al.: 101). The enclosure at Knap Hill is only bounded by a circuit on the northern side implying, Oswald et al. (2001, 102) argue, an orientation to the north. Conversely, it could be argued that the extremely steep southern slope at Knap Hill presents such a barrier and visible feature that any circuit would be superfluous. Furthermore, the Neolithic circuit traverses sufficient of the eastern and western slopes of the hill to appear as notches against the skyline when viewed from the floor of the Vale.

Causewayed Enclosures and Water Courses
Many causewayed enclosures appear to be associated with watercourses and Crofton appears to be deliberately placed to incorporate the course of the River Dun into the internal structure of the enclosure. Knap Hill and Rybury, at first glance, seem to bear little relation to watercourses situated, as they are, on the high, dry chalk ridge. Yet both enclosures overlook important sources for the Hampshire Avon, a river of apparently major ritual significance in the prehistoric period.


Anon. 1964. ‘Excavations and Fieldwork in Wiltshire 1963: Rybury Camp’ in WANHM 59: 185

Barber, M., Field, D. & Topping, P.  1999.  The Flint Mines of England.  Swindon: English Heritage

Barclay, A. and Harding, J. (eds). 1999. Pathways and ceremonies: the cursus monuments of Britain and Ireland. Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Papers 4, Oxford.

Barclay, A., and Hey, G., 1999.  Cattle, cursus monuments and the river: the development of ritual and domestic landscapes in the Upper Thames Valley , in Barclay and Harding: 67-76

Barclay, A., Lambrick, G., Moore, J. & Robinson, M.  2003.  Lines in the Landscape: Cursus Monuments in the Upper Thames Valley.  Oxford: Oxford Archaeology Thames Valley Landscapes Monograph 15

Boivin, N. and Owoc, M. (eds.), 2004. Soils, Stones and Symbols: Cultural Perceptions of the Mineral World. London: University College London Press

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Cunnington, M.E. 1911. ‘Knap Hill Camp’ WANHM 38: 42-65

Dietler, M. and Hayden, B.  2001.  Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics and Power.  Washington: Smithsonian Institiute


Edmonds, M. 1999. Ancestral Geographics of the Neolithic: Landscapes, Monuments and memory. London: Routledge

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