Wiltshire has quite a number of very well-known prehistoric sites (*cough* Stonehenge *cough* Avebury *cough* etc…) but we hope you find something new and useful in this round-up of online resources and places to visit for the county.
The main place to find out about the prehistoric sites in Wiltshire is the Historic Environment Record maintained by the county council. It can be searched online here: Wiltshire Historic Environment Record Advanced Search. Choose a time period and perhaps a place near you and find out what’s on your doorstep.
Some important sites to know about in Wiltshire in chronological order are:
- Mesolithic occupation at Blick Mead near Amesbury. It’s been in the news a lot lately and a publication is due out soon. It is not the only evidence for Mesolithic occupation in Wiltshire, a settlement was excavated in the 1950s in Downton in south Wiltshire. Neither of these sites, though, are accessible to visit.
- Three Mesolithic post-holes in the old car park next to Stonehenge, possibly the bases of something like totem poles, though it’s hard to say for sure.
- Neolithic causewayed enclosures, the earliest type of Neolithic monument possibly used as meeting, market and burial places, are known at Windmill Hill near Avebury and Robin Hood’s Ball near Stonehenge, among others such as Knap Hill near Alton and Figsbury Ring near Firsdown.
Neolithic long barrows are quite numerous in Wiltshire. All we see is the final monument, which is the relatively uniform long earthen mound, but they all have very different histories, some with wooden and/or stone chambers containing human remains like West Kennet and then the mound, some are mere cenotaphs with no burials beneath, like South Street near Beckhampton.
- There are two Neolithic cursuses in the county, the Lesser and Greater Cursus north of Stonehenge. Both predate the famous monument by 600 years. They may have been processional routes and the Greater Cursus has a long barrow at one end.
- The earliest part of the Stonehenge monument is a simple circular ditch with a slight internal bank that was dug around 3000 BC. It was used as a cremation cemetery before the stones arrived 500 years later. A lot of information about Stonehenge can be found on English Heritage’s website.
- Other henges in the county include Durrington Walls, which is just a couple of miles east of Stonehenge, and was the settlement site of the builders and worshippers at Stonehenge. Information about the most recent excavations can be found on the National Trust website. Next to it is Woodhenge, which is like Stonehenge but was once made of wood (though the little posts in the ground are now concrete). Avebury is the other well-known henge in Wiltshire and it has half a village inside it, so is very accessible.
Silbury Hill near Avebury is very imposing alongside the A4 from Bath to London. It is the largest artificial mound in Europe and dates to the late Neolithic. It is not possible to climb it. Legend once had it that it covered the burial of King Arthur, and that a similar, but smaller, mound in the grounds of Marlborough College was that of Merlin, but recent work has confirmed it is of a similar date to Silbury.
- The Early Bronze Age is visible all over the county in the form of round barrows, many of them near Stonehenge at Winterbourne Stoke roundabout or Normanton Down. There are also the Seorfon round barrows on the A4 between Avebury and Marlborough near the Sanctuary, a Neolithic stone and wood setting. There are pages about the Bush Barrow chieftain who was buried near Stonehenge on the British Museum’s Teaching History in 100 Objects website.
- Later Bronze Age archaeology is less visible in Wiltshire, and there is very little to see on the ground, but the county gets divided up into field systems around small settlements.
- The Iron Age sees the rise of hillforts, for instance at Old Sarum near Salisbury (English Heritage has a Teacher’s kit about this site) and many others like Vespasian’s Camp (mistakenly once thought to have been a Roman fort) in Amesbury Park or Sidbury Camp near Tidworth.
- Rybury Camp Iron Age hillfort near All Cannings overlies a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, so a visit there will cover the Stone Age to Iron Age topic nicely.
- An enclosed Iron Age settlement known as Little Woodbury was excavated near Salisbury in 1938-9. It can’t be visited now but it’s a well-known site, its importance is explained in this feature from British Archaeology (scroll halfway down the page).
There are several fantastic museums in Wiltshire that are well worth a visit to see some of the finds from these famous monuments.
- The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes has a permanent display of gold at the time of Stonehenge which includes the burial groups of several people buried around Stonehenge like the Bush Barrow Chieftain and slightly further afield, like the woman of the Golden Barrow from Upton Lovell.
- The Alexander Keiller Museum is within Avebury henge and stone circle and was first opened by an owner of the site, Alexander Keiller. It has displays of the Stone Age archaeology of the site and nearby places.
Salisbury Museum houses some of the famous burials found in and around Stonehenge, such as the Stonehenge Archer who was killed by arrows in the Early Bronze Age and dumped in the Stonehenge ditch, and the Amesbury Archer, who was buried with ceremony a couple of miles from Stonehenge with the earliest bronze tools known in Britain.
- Stonehenge has its own museum which contains the remains of the Queen of Stonehenge, among others, a burial group from one of the barrows in the Early Bronze Age Normanton Down barrow cemetery south of Stonehenge. There are also several reconstructed domestic houses based on those excavated at Durrington Walls.
If you think there’s something we missed, please feel free to let us know in the comments.