Professor David Jacques
University of Buckingham
Blick Mead and Amesbury “The Cradle of Stonehenge”
Stonehenge can justly claim to be one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world, but much about its origins and the choice of its location on Salisbury Plain remain a mystery. Although recent archaeological investigations have revealed stunning new details of the monuments that sprang up in its immediate vicinity during the 4th and 3rd millennia BC, much less attention has been paid to establishing the area’s ‘back story’. The nearby Neolithic settlement of Durrington Walls has been identified as the likely home of the community that raised the celebrated stones, but until recently no residential sites pre-dating the late Neolithic period had been identified within the entire area of the World Heritage Site. This was all set to change with the excavations at Blick Mead, the results of which will be showcased by the Amesbury History Centre.
Since 2005, University of Buckingham archaeologists and volunteers from Amesbury and beyond have been exploring a site about 2km from Stonehenge, which lies beside an ancient spring known as Blick Mead. Despite initially limited resources and restricted access to the site – which mean that in the past 14 years we have had barely three months of excavating days at the spring, including just one weekend of work a year for the first five digging seasons – the site has yielded truly remarkable evidence of extensive and enduring activity during the Mesolithic period.
To-date we have recovered c.70,000 pieces of worked flint – including tools that suggest far-reaching contacts, such as a slate Horsham Point, a microlith type from the Sussex Weald, though made from a fabric that could have been brought from as far west as Wales – plus 2,500 pieces of animal bone and c. 140kg of burnt flint that speak of extravagant feasts being held beside the spring. Analysis of these remains by Durham University and the Natural History Museum reveals that around 60% of the animal bone comes from aurochsen, a kind of large prehistoric cattle. Killing just one of these animals would have provided food for 200 people. Taken taken together, these finds hint at large gatherings of people, potentially drawn from far afield, for large scale hunts and feasts. More exciting still, they represent tantalising traces of the earliest residential and activity area yet found in the WHS.
As for what attracted these crowds to the site, Blick Mead lies within what would have been excellent prehistoric hunting grounds. Since the mid-1990s it has been known that during the 9th-7th millennia BC, the Stonehenge landscape was an area of open and lightly wooded woodland, with vegetation kept low – perhaps thanks to the regular presence of the large herbivores, notably aurochsen, which we now know to have been present here at the time. The environment’s plentiful natural vantage points would also have been invaluable to Mesolithic hunters. Given this bounty of advantages, it is therefore not surprising that human activity at Blick Mead seems to have been strikingly long-lived.
Our excavations have yielded a remarkable sequence of radiocarbon dates for the site, comprising 20 results spanning every millennium between the 8th and 5th BC. Such a series is unique in northwest Europe, while the eight dates from the 5th millennium BC are the only such yet recovered from the Stonehenge landscape. These results are exciting in their own right, but they also represent important new data that bring us closer to bridging the temporal gap between the Mesolithic and Neolithic phases of activity in the Stonehenge landscape. Such dates lie right on the cusp of the early Neolithic, and from this transitional period we have a number of illuminating finds
For all this evidence of large congregations, however, until recently we did not know where the people of Blick Mead were living. Recent excavations on a terrace adjacent to the spring, undertaken in short episodes between 2014-2016 as a result of a geophysics target established by the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape project, have changed this. Here we found a large tree throw (the space left by a fallen tree), which was deliberately modified in the very late 5th millennium BC to create what is the earliest dwelling yet identified in the Stonehenge landscape.
Unmistakeable signs of alterations by human hands include a series of pebbles that have been pressed into the sides of the 3m-wide space – perhaps serving as revetments to support the hollow’s natural ‘walls’ – as well as two postholes that may have originally held timbers supporting a thatched or animal skin roof. Close by we also found a mound of intensively-fired burnt flint, which also contained fragments of animal bone, toolmaking debitage, and ochre pods (possibly a source of pigment). Numerous flint nodules were found immediately outside the tree throw too, but there were also hints that this was more than a handy shelter and workspace: inside the throw we also discovered a number of unusual objects including aurochs teeth, a beautiful worked sarsen river pebble probably used as a meat tenderiser and tiny microliths that were too small to have had any obvious practical use.
This terrace area was the source of over half our 5th millennium BC radiocarbon dates. Spanning c.4236-4041 BC, they make Blick Mead one of the latest Mesolithic sites in England – but arguably more importantly still, they also bring the transition from Mesolithic hunter-gatherer to Neolithic farming culture into a human scale and personal focus. Rather than imagining Neolithic newcomers imposing their ideas on an empty landscape, it seems entirely possible that the grandchildren of the people who left these traces, or even the people themselves, could have been the first to meet the incomers who arrived in the area at around this time. This sequence also overlaps a date previously obtained from a ‘cow bone’ found beneath Sarsen 27 at Stonehenge itself, which has long been understood as the first Neolithic date in the area. Might Blick Mead be set to steal this title?
Certainly, one radiocarbon date from the site is indisputably Neolithic in nature, and this too comes from the terrace beside the spring. Just above and to the side of the tree throw we found a scoop – a find that might appear deceptively unprepossessing at first glance, but one that held very promising clues. A sample taken from close to this area yielded a radiocarbon date of c.3636-3507 BC; another solidly Neolithic result, which dated the placement of the 70 mid-Neolithic blades found within it.
The dating evidence from the scoop puts us in mind of another enigmatic find, held to be the earliest Neolithic monument in the Stonehenge landscape. This was found on Coneybury Hill, and is an early 4th millennium BC ceremonial pit known as the ‘Coneybury Anomaly’. It takes its name from the geophysical techniques that brought it to light, but could just as well stem from its intriguing contents. The pit held a striking mix of material that could reflect both Mesolithic hunter-gatherer and Neolithic farming cultures. Feasting refuse dominated by wild animal remains was mingled with flint tools reminiscent of types from both periods, as well as more distinctively Neolithic pottery fragments, leaf-shaped arrowheads, and cultivated grains. It is tempting to view the Anomaly assemblage as the product of large-scale feasting and the meeting of two different material cultures. Could we see Blick Mead as a similarly transitional site, bridging the gap between Mesolithic and Neolithic practices?
Further clues to this crossover came towards the end of a recent excavation on-site, when a volunteer member of the sieving team found a rare ripple-flaked oblique arrowhead in the layers immediately above the Mesolithic occupation area. This type of tool has previously only been associated with later Neolithic ritual sites; in Wessex, parallels are known from Marden Henge, Durrington Walls, and Bluestonehenge (at the start of the Avenue). Its presence at Blick Mead is therefore highly significant, as it suggests that the site was well known and valued as part of the wider Stonehenge ritual landscape as late as 2500 BC. If so, might this be because the area’s inhabitants understood it as some kind of place of origin, as was recently argued by our team and Professor Mike Parker-Pearson?
Perhaps we could even go as far as describing Blick Mead as the ‘cradle of Stonehenge’ a place that endured throughout the Mesolithic period and beyond as a culturally significant site. The ancient spring is proving a fount of knowledge about how the pre-Stonehenge environment was known and utilised millennia before the establishment of its famous monument and soon its secrets will be on show for the world to see at the Amesbury History Centre. In the near future, the late Mesolithic may emerge as a new starting point for understanding the area’s better-known archaeology, with Blick Mead and Amesbury History Centre at its heart.