Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Wiltshire

Stonehenge from the Heel Stone

Stonehenge from the Heel Stone

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.
  • Entrance to West Kennet long barrow

    Entrance to West Kennet long barrow

    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

    Silbury Hill

    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.
  • The Amesbury Archer in Salisbury Museum

    The Amesbury Archer in Salisbury Museum

    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.

Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Buckinghamshire

ubpOur director, Kim Biddulph, has lived in Buckinghamshire for over ten years so knows a thing of two about the prehistory of this county. In fact, many years ago she worked on a project to get the county’s archaeological database, held by the county council, online with added imaged and teaching resources. Today you can find it at Unlocking Buckinghamshire’s Past. Search by parish, time period or type of site to find some prehistory near you. Look at the teaching packs to find loads of ideas on teaching archaeological skills in the classroom and look how the landscape of Buckinghamshire has changed over time. There are also round-ups on the website of main sites for each period. The website is maintained by the Buckinghamshire Historic Environment Service, who would be happy to supply images and more information on the prehistory of the county.

Boddington Hillfort

Boddington Hillfort

Some important sites to know about in Buckinghamshire are:

  • Mesolithic (Stone Age hunter-gatherer) camps found along the Colne and Chess valleys, for instance East Street and Stratford’s Yard, Chesham and the Sanderson Factory Site, Denham.
  • Neolithic kidney-shaped barrow at Whiteleaf Hill above what is probably a post-medieval chalk-cut cross. It is in a nature reserve and is readily accessible by foot with a nearby car park.
  • Massive Neolithic to Iron Age waterlogged landscape along the Thames at Dorney excavated for the Eton Rowing Lake.
  • Many Early Bronze Age round barrows preserved on the top of the Chilterns, e.g. Beacon Hill in Ellesborough, but only because the ones in the valleys have been ploughed flat.
  • Later Bronze Age roundhouse and settlement at the Blue Bridge in Milton Keynes.
  • Later Bronze Age or Iron Age territorial boundaries, often called Grim’s Ditch, for instance this section in Park Wood, Bradenham (just behind old Bomber Command).
  • Later Bronze Age and Iron Age hillforts are dotted among the Chiltern hills. Many of these are publicly accessible, from Pulpit Hill near Princes Risborough to Ivinghoe Beacon to Cholesbury.

One prehistoric feature that is actually a myth is the Icknield Way. Ridgeway paths like this one were all the rage in mid-twentieth century archaeological theory, but it has become clear that the majority of settlement and activity happened in the river valleys and that rivers were probably the main routeways through the landscape. Plus there are Iron Age roads at Aston Clinton that cut across at right-angles the supposed line of the Icknield Way along which no roadway was found. See Harrison, S. 2003. ‘The Icknield Way: Some Queries’, Archaeological Journal 160.

Replica Iron Age roundhouse at the Chiltern Open Air Museum. Photograph by Kim Biddulph.

Replica Iron Age roundhouse at the Chiltern Open Air Museum. Photograph by Kim Biddulph.

There are a few museums to visit in Buckinghamshire to learn about the prehistory of the county.

  • We have worked with the Chiltern Open Air Museum to develop their Stone Age workshop, they had an existing Iron Age workshop in their replica roundhouse and they have also developed an archaeological dig workshop.
  • Buckinghamshire County Museum has some awesome Iron Age objects on display in their galleries including a hoard of gold coins found near Buckingham and a beautiful mirror found in Dorton.
  • Milton Keynes Museum has a small display on prehistory which they intend to expand.

IllusCoverSome useful publications on the prehistory of the county are published by the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society. The most useful for teachers would be An Illustrated History of Early Buckinghamshire, which can be ordered from their website.

Other archaeological societies and organisations in Buckinghamshire that could be of help are:

If we’ve forgotten anything, do let us know!

Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Devon

Several weeks ago we took a trip to Devon and had a great time getting to know its prehistory. Teachers in Devon are spoiled rotten with amazing places to talk about or visit. Here are a few of them.

Devon is blessed with the site of the earliest piece of anatomically modern human (Homo sapiens) from Europe. The verdict is out on exactly how old it is, but it seems likely to date to about 40,000 years ago. It is a piece of jawbone and was found in Kents Cavern in Torquay. It was excavated in 1927 and found in a layer filled with bones of Ice Age animals such as wolves, deer, cave bear and woolly rhino. Schools can visit the cave to find out more about the Stone Age.

Tableau of life in the cave at Kents Cavern

Tableau of life in the cave at Kents Cavern

Display about a basket made of lime bast from Whitehorse Hill at Plymouth Museum

Display about a basket made of lime bast from Whitehorse Hill at Plymouth Museum

The cusp of the Stone and Bronze Ages can be explored by learning more about Dartmoor and the various hut circles, cairns and stone rows up there. In the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (e.g. 3000-1500 BC) the moor was the focus of religious and funerary activity with the creation of the stone rows and circles, as well as burials under round barrows (mounds of earth), cairns (mounds of stone) and in cists (stone boxes) buried in the peat. Once such cist has recently been excavated, at Whitehorse Hill, and dates to around 2000 BC. It’s on display at Plymouth Museum until 13th December and we plan to go back and see it ourselves. Burial in the peat means lots of organic material, that would otherwise have rotted, has been preserved, including a bracelet made of woven vegetable fibre set with tin studs. It was the focus of a BBC documentary called the Mystery of the Moor.

Tin was clearly being mined in the early Bronze Age (tin being one of the elements that can be mixed with copper to make bronze) and was probably exchanged with powerful tribes in the Stonehenge area that controlled the flow of raw materials to the continent. The people were also farmers, but their way of life did not become one of permanent settlements and fields until the middle Bronze Age, which is when the reaves (low stone walls) and hut circles of stone appear on the moor. In the later Bronze Age there was a climatic downturn which made the moor uninhabitable. The Dartmoor National Park Authority has useful posters to download, including this one on Prehistoric Dartmoor, and can be booked to take your group out safely onto the moor to see the prehistoric monuments. Alternatively, you can use OS maps of the moor to study the Stone Age to Bronze Age developments. We took a trip up to see Emmetts Post, which is a later stone marker set into a Bronze Age barrow, just before it is destroyed by porcelain clay mining after being excavated by Oxford Archaeology. It was a wet day!

Emmetts Post set into a Bronze Age round barrow on Dartmoor

Emmetts Post set into a Bronze Age round barrow on Dartmoor

As we’ve explained many times before, use your local Historic Environment Record (HER)! Unfortunately, Devon has three! But if you go to the Heritage Gateway and search for Devon, you will automatically get results from all of them. The main Devon HER has started collecting and creating useful pages on Devon’s prehistoric past, including Bronze Age burial mounds on Busdon Moor, Milbur Down Iron Age hillfort near Newton Abbott, Bolt Tail Iron Age hillfort near Bigbury Bay, and Dolbury Iron Age hillfort at Killerton.

Museums you can visit to find out more about the Stone Age to Iron Age include:

Usually on display in Exeter is the Kingsteignton Idol, an Iron Age carved wooden figure. Similar figures have been found in Roos Carr in Yorkshire and from the River Thames at Dagenham (although the latter is much older, Neolithic in date). Perhaps they were used as religious statues, or maybe even children’s toys. Either way, they are fascinating.

If there’s anything other resources you’d like to add about Devon’s prehistoric past that could be used in the classroom, please feel free to comment below!

Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Surrey

In a continuation of our new theme, we’re collecting useful resources and places to visit for teachers in Surrey who are teaching the new curriculum in September.

The historic country of Surrey stretched from the banks of the Thames to the North Downs but Greater London has since encroached and will be dealt with in a separate blog post. Unfortunately, because Surrey has been densely settled and farmed over the millennia, a lot of prehistoric evidence has been destroyed. The best place to go to for a run down of Surrey’s history is Exploring Surrey’s Past, especially the overviews of time periods.

Some interesting archaeology includes finds of mammoth tusks in Farnham Quarry that date to a time when Neanderthals, and possibly modern humans, were living around the area c. 30 kya. After the end of the Ice Age, a large camp was made at North Park Quarry near Bletchingley. It dates to the Mesolithic period, the middle Stone Age and Neanderthals had died out by this point.

Is this what the Blackweater Valley looked like 30,000 years ago? Neanderthals and mammoths together. By Randii Oliver [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Is this what the Blackweater Valley looked like 30,000 years ago? Neanderthals and mammoths together. By Randii Oliver [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When farming appeared in the Neolithic, people started building huge monuments. There was a big enclosure at Staines Road Farm near Shepperton, in which a woman’s body was buried at the entrance, which faced to the Midsummer Solstice sunrise. Surrey’s one and only known long barrow at Badshot Lea would probably have had a wooden mortuary chamber to start with that several people were interred in, and only later would a long lozenge-shaped mound have been constructed on top of it.

The Bronze Age saw the beginnings of hilltop enclosures, and there was one excavated under Queen Mary’s Hospital at Carshalton. For many years it was thought that most prehistoric people lived on hills, but it was the seminal excavation on the site of a new motorway bridge at Runnymede that changed that view. A late Bronze Age riverside settlement, complete with wharf, was excavated in the 1970s. It had been preserved by waterlogging, and was sealed under several feet of alluvium or riverine silts.

Colin Smith [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eroded bank and ditch of the hillfort on St Ann’s Hill. Colin Smith [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A hillfort proper, St Ann’s Hill can be visited (Chertsey Museum below does guided walks to it). Some excavation in the 1990s confirmed that it dated to the early to middle Iron Age and contained post-build roundhouses. Not everyone lived in hillforts in the Iron Age, though, and there are numerous smaller villages or hamlets such as the one at Runfold Farm near Tongham.

Recently Schools Prehistory was invited to a Learning on My Doorstep event at Brooklands Museum and we met all the museums and organisations in Surrey that are preparing to run workshops on Stone Age to Iron Age Britain and lend out loan boxes of prehistoric artefacts, real and replica.

  • Farnham Museum has been preparing some objects for their loans boxes and have a good range of materials in there, from flint to bone and skins. They plan to run workshops in the museum as well as take objects out to schools. Their main thrust is to see how things changed over time in the Stone Age to Iron Age. Sophie Smith from Farnham Museum is on our Experts on your Doorstep list.
  • Surrey Heritage at the Surrey History Centre is providing loan boxes of Stone Age artefacts and can lend out mini-digs to use in school to learn about archaeological techniques. These will require a £25 returnable deposit. Contact kate.jenner@surreycc.gov.uk for more information.
  • Chertsey Museum also has mini-digs for schools to borrow or can do a big dig when you visit the museum and is working on a prehistoric loans box. They also take guided walks up to the local Iron Age hillfort on St Ann’s Hill.
  • Guildford Museum also lend out loan boxes on archaeology and Stone Age axes. They cost £10 for three weeks and schools have to collect the boxes and drop them off.
  • Spelthorne Museum, Staines, are currently developing their offer, but already ran a Secrets of Stone Age Spelthorne day in July so it won’t take too much for them to prepare a new session.
  • Elmbridge Museum have a new Stone Age workshop for the autumn, and have created a discovery box of real Stone Age artefacts too, including a stone mortar that children will be able to see has been well used.
  • Haslemere Museum are well-known for their Ancient Egyptian session and have extensive prehistoric collections. They are in the process of developing a prehistoric session to support the new curriculum.

There is another very small museum known as the Abinger Mesolithic Pit Dwelling Museum. This was set up in the 1950s when it was thought people lived in pits. A more up-to-date view of Mesolithic dwellings has now been installed, thanks to the Surrey Archaeological Society.

A great book that has lots of up-to-date research about Surrey’s past, but doesn’t entirely focus on prehistory, is Hidden Depths: An Archaeological Exploration of Surrey’s Past.

If there’s anything we’ve missed, let us know in the comments below.

Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Yorkshire

In honour of Yorkshire Day, 1st August, we’re starting a new category of blog post here on Schools Prehistory – the county round-up. Although schools aren’t all tied in to their local authority quite so much, the county is an easy way to divide up the country into local areas, so here goes.

Yorkshire has some amazing archaeology from the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. One of the most famous sites is Star Carr in the Vale of Pickering in North Yorkshire. It dates to the early Mesolithic, just after the end of the last Ice Age around 9000 BC. We’ve shared some resources about this before, but the main sites are Star Carr project and Spencer Carter’s Microburin blog for general Mesolithic goodness. Star Carr could be used as the hunter-gatherer site to contrast with the farmers at Skara Brae.

The spectacular Neolithic (late Stone Age) to Early Bronze Age henges (embanked circular enclosures without stone circles) at Thornborough in North Yorkshire are the largest such complex outside Wiltshire. We talked about Thornborough when we discussed the north-south divide in prehistoric archaeology. There’s more information about the henges and past research from the University of Newcastle. They could be studied for Stone Age to Bronze Age religion.

Three Thornborough Henges seen from the air. By Tony Newbould [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Three Thornborough Henges seen from the air. By Tony Newbould [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Yorkshire, and indeed much of the north and Scotland, is littered with rock art, which is mostly considered to be Bronze Age. Cups, circles and spirals were cut into stones all over, and can be seen in woods, on moors and even in public parks, like Crowgill Park in Shipley, West Yorkshire. The best way to find some rock art near you is to look on the Northern Antiquarian blog, or on the Megalithic Portal, which is a wiki that anyone with an interest can add to. What the rock art meant is not known, though it could be to do with travel (as waymarkers?) or religion.

Several logboats that might date to the Bronze or Iron Ages have been found in Yorkshire, the Ferriby boats on the north bank of the Humber being the most famous. Obviously good for studying Bronze Age travel and trade, they could also be used to look at technology. How can you make a hollowed-out log float? And how do you fell and shape it with bronze tools? What other ways are there of making a boat e.g. a coracle?

Coracles on the River Teifi, near Cardigan in Wales, 1972. By Velela via Wikimedia Commons.

Coracles on the River Teifi, near Cardigan in Wales, 1972. By Velela via Wikimedia Commons.

During the middle to late Iron Age the East Riding of Yorkshire was inhabited by the Parisi tribe who had links to the continent and incorporated one idea from their Gaulish cousins, chariot burials. The wonderfully named village of Wetwang seems to have been the centre for the Arras Culture and the most spectacular burials in Iron Age Britain, like this one of a woman that is now in the British Museum.

Some great museums to visit are:

  • Hull and East Riding Museum to walk through a reconstructed Iron Age village, see the Hasholme logboat, and wonder at what the Roos Carr figures were used for.
  • Ryedale Folk Museum has a reconstructed Iron Age roundhouse and runs school sessions in it.
  • Yorkshire Museum in York currently has an exhibition about Star Carr and will run exhibitions on Bronze Age and Iron Age Yorkshire in the next two years.
  • Scarborough Rotunda Museum has some prehistoric collections on display, including Gristhorpe Man who dates back to the Bronze Age.
  • Malton Museum which also has prehistoric collections and runs school sessions with artefact boxes.

Some great websites to look at include:

The Historic Environment Records, which can be contacted or searched online to find out what prehistoric archaeology is near you are:

Finally, some prehistoric workshop deliverers in Yorkshire include:

Get in touch if there’s a resource or organisation that’s not on the list, or if you want to read or be on a round-up for another county.