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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
i am from north wiltshire and have been fascinated by the ancient sites for many years now. I am not an academic, though i took a physics degree many years ago. The internet is making the secrets of the past much more accessible to those of us outside academia. With sites like yours and video lectures etc.
I have often wondered about dew ponds and thankyou for your research and thoughts. I am reading about your opinions wrt the barrows. It seems to me that the pewsey vale was a natural divide between parts of wiltshire. Avebury and Stonehenge. It is interesting to compare them in terms of design, both in differences and similarities.
I was very interested on your comments re the giants grave long barrow south east of pewsey. I have long thought that avebury and stonehenge were ‘rival’ temple people, looking at each others patch across the vale. And meeting there of course. River people, marking the source of their sacred life giving water wiith barrows and great mounds. The 2 avons and the thames being fed by the marlborough chalk downs.
Water. The weakness of a community enclosure that doesnt contain a water source. Were there wells in places like knap hill? If not then they were very vulnerable to an organised attack. But then again perhaps such places were sacred by location and let be for thousands of years.
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