Excavating the CA Archives – Wiltshire I

5 mins read

I have now examined the archaeology of every county in Britain bar one – Wiltshire. This was no accident, for I have a confession to make: Wiltshire’s archaeology terrifies me. There is so much of it, so many famous names, such passion aroused. It is the toughest archaeological nut to crack in the United Kingdom, and so I left it to last. To ease my burden, I will split my examination into four different parts, with two columns on the county and two others on Stonehenge and Avebury. Alas, Wiltshire is a case-study of famous sites like these eclipsing others that are less well-known but equally important. There is surprisingly little reported in the magazine, for example, on the Vale of Pewsey, and some notable urban absences. Bar mention of its excellent museum, for example, Devizes barely gets referenced. So I begin with a plea: if you’re working in Wiltshire away from you-know-where, then please let us know. We’d love to report more from the wider county.


I will begin my explorations in what is, in a strange sense, the centre of not just the county’s but also the country’s heritage: Swindon. To explain, although Swindon is sometimes denigrated as a town, it has some excellent historical sites, and it is also a political powerhouse, with the head office of the National Trust a scone’s lob from the offices of English Heritage and Historic England, including the latter’s archive – what used to be known as the National Monuments Record (see CA 140, September 1994, and CA 371, February 2021). Take a weekday peak-time train through its station, and you stand a reasonable chance of bumping into the senior management teams of all these organisations. And all of them are based within the former GWR railway works, which originated in 1843 and continued in use until 1986, with much of the remains still in place and listed Grade II and II* (see CA 216, March 2008; CA 271, October 2012; CA 301, April 2015; and CA 367, April 2020).

Further afield, the wider Swindon area has no shortage of sites, among them an Iron Age enclosure on the northern edge of the town in Groundwell (see CA 177, January 2002); a hoard of 12 Iron Age cauldrons discovered immediately south of the town at Chiseldon (see CA 214, January 2008, and CA 229, April 2009); and an enigmatic Roman site at Blunsdon on the extreme northern edge of the town (see CA 163, June 1999).


As I head south-west from Swindon, first up is Yatesbury, halfway between Calne and Avebury. CA 171 (December 2000) paid a visit there to explore not its prehistoric origins but its later Saxon and Viking communities, which were at that time under examination by a team from University College London. Further west still lies Lacock, best known for its picturesque village and manor house. CA 296 (November 2014) focused not on these, though, but rather on the spectacular 15th-century silver drinking vessel long associated with the parish church of St Cyriac, diving into its origins and complex life history.

The next natural stopping-place on my itinerary would be Avebury, but as I mentioned in my introduction, I am saving that site for a column all of its own. Heading east along the A4, therefore, Fyfield Down is a fine place to pause. CA 16 (September 1969) includes an article well worth reading in depth, on fieldwork begun there in 1959 by Peter Fowler, which revealed a wealth of sites ranging from the Neolithic to the medieval period. This is the type of long-term interdisciplinary fieldwork that the magazine has championed from its outset, and the article is one of the finest expositions of such an approach, undertaken in a post-war, pre-rescue, pre-commercial period that now seems impossibly distant, but which produced results that stand the test of time. Immediately south of Fyfield are the West Woods, long thought to be the source of the Stonehenge sarsen stones. I will not dwell on these – Stonehenge, like Avebury, will get its own column in due course – but for those of you who are interested, the major mentions come in CA 311, CA 345, and CA 367 (February 2016, December 2018, and October 2020).

CA 16 reported on a multi-period site – spanning in time from the Neolithic through to the medieval period – at Fyfield Down, excavations of which first began in 1959,
led by Peter Fowler.

In Marlborough itself is the extraordinary Neolithic mound in the grounds of the eponymous college, second only to nearby Silbury Hill in terms of height. I am ashamed to admit that this site was new to me – as I mentioned in the introduction, the risk in a county like Wiltshire is that the famous sites obscure others equally deserving of attention, as was the case here. Thankfully, there is a charitable trust devoted to its care – see www.marlboroughmoundtrust.org. CA 257 (August 2011) visited the site when its early origins were first being properly appreciated (it had previously been thought to be a late 11th-century motte associated with the Norman Conquest), and CA 337 (April 2018) usefully puts it in its wider perspective, examining the large round mounds of England.

CA 257 paid a visit to Marlborough Mound, the smaller cousin of the more famous Silbury Hill.

Heading further south still, I come to my personal favourite part of the county: the Vale of Pewsey. CA 316 (July 2016) summarises the archaeological significance of this area, rich in prehistoric monuments, and CA 234 (September 2009) its wider appeal, especially its numerous chalk-cut hill figures. Like many, I love it for its wide views and rolling downlands: see CA 329 (August 2017) for perspectives on the wellbeing benefits of such places. If anyone is in any doubt of its merits, then meet me for a walk along the footpaths of its northern escarpment around Martinsell Hill fort. But these have never featured in the pages of Current Archaeology – until now – so I cannot report more on them here.

Down in the valley, it is a different matter. Two significant archaeological sites demand our attention: Marden Henge and Wilsford Henge, a few miles west along the valley from Pewsey. As explained in CA 316, these sites and this area had historically been under-examined until Geoffrey Wainwright excavated the former in the late 1960s, producing in the process one of the most terrifying front covers in terms of site safety in the magazine’s history (see CA 17, November 1969). Wainwright’s work put Marden on the map, alongside the other three great ‘superhenges’: Avebury and Durrington Walls in Wiltshire, and Mount Pleasant in Dorset. It remains the largest Neolithic henge enclosure discovered to-date in the UK, enclosing a total area of 10.5ha, but visitors will be disappointed: there is little to see there, bar a modest interpretation board amid the rough pasture. Current Archaeology then went quiet on the site until CA 247 (October 2010), when a team from English Heritage uncovered more of its history, including a previously unknown henge within the henge, and a well-preserved Neolithic house and associated middens: CA 253 (April 2011) followed up on this find in the context of other such discoveries.

Even less well-known than Marden is Wilsford. This site’s significance is not helped by the fact that there are two prehistoric Wilsfords in Wiltshire: this one, and the Wilsford Shaft, a prehistoric feature near the village of Wilsford cum Lake, 15 miles to the south on the eastern edge of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. The former comprises a rich array of prehistoric sites on the downs around the village, including a Bronze Age round barrow and cemetery (see CA 368, November 2020), and also the Neolithic henge itself (only visible as a cropmark in aerial photographs), which was excavated in 2015. This work uncovered a Bronze Age burial of a boy aged 14-15 years old, wearing a necklace of well-crafted amber beads. The burial is possibly associated with the larger Bronze Age barrow cemetery mentioned above (see CA 316, July 2016).

That, then, is it for the first of my forays into Wiltshire. In next month’s column, I will head further on into central and south Wiltshire, examining the wider area around Stonehenge and Salisbury Plain, as well as going down into and around Salisbury itself.

CA has reported frequently from the Vale of Pewsey, including in CA 17 and CA 316, which featured the henges at Marsden and Wilsford, as well as in CA 329, when we highlighted the wellbeing benefits of archaeological sites.

Joe Flatman

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and – most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on X: @joeflatman.

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