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

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