Excavating the CA Archives – Wiltshire II

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Excavating around Salisbury Plain

Last month I began a tour around the final county of the UK that I had yet to visit in these pages: Wiltshire. I began in the north and headed south as far as the Vale of Pewsey. This month I will continue into what is popularly seen as the most fertile of all archaeological hunting grounds, the county’s central belt around Salisbury Plain. I will devote future columns specifically to Stonehenge and Avebury, so we will pass through these on this occasion in order to commence a stone’s throw from the former’s eastern edge, in Amesbury.

THE SLINGS AND ARROWS OF OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE 
CA 184 image
The rich archaeological sites of Amesbury are sometimes lost in the shadow of their more famous neighbour – Stonehenge – but there have been some amazing discoveries there over the decades, including the ‘Amesbury Archer’, who made the cover of CA 184.
The rich archaeological sites of Amesbury are sometimes lost in the shadow of their more famous neighbour – Stonehenge – but there have been some amazing discoveries there over the decades, including the ‘Amesbury Archer’, who made the cover of CA 184.

I used to live near Amesbury, and I was always of two minds about the town – is it to its advantage, or rather disadvantage, that it has Stonehenge on its doorstep? It always felt unfairly overlooked in favour of its neighbour, for the town has some stunning archaeology that in any other context would make it famous. Amesbury’s archer featured as the cover story of CA 184 (February 2003), shortly after his discovery. The first finds made on that site came from a Romano-British inhumation cemetery, but then came the early Bronze Age finds, including the burial of a man aged between 35 and 45, who had died around 2300 BC. He was quickly nicknamed ‘the Amesbury Archer’ because of the many arrowheads buried with him, but the grave contained far more than just these – indeed, more artefacts than any other British burial of this period, including the earliest known gold objects ever found in England. CA 251 and 265 (February 2011 and April 2012) delve into the detail of both this site and also of a burial at nearby Boscombe (more of which in a moment) but there was also an update on the former in CA 384 (March 2022), when advances in DNA analysis since the Archer’s discovery revealed he was a first-generation immigrant born in the western Alps along the modern-day Franco-Swiss border. 

CA 195 image
The sarsen circle made the cover of CA 195.
The sarsen circle made the cover of CA 195.

Back in the early 2000s, another Bronze Age find was then made at nearby Boscombe Down that has become inextricably linked with that of the Archer: the ‘Boscombe Bowmen’. CA 193 (August 2004) focused in on this site, where a mass grave of commensurate early Bronze Age date to the Archer was discovered nearby. In total, seven individuals were buried there – three adult men, a male teenager, and three children – and their burial rite was unusual. Analysis of the skulls suggests that the men and the teenager were related to each other and originally came from Wales, and the eldest man was buried in a crouched position with the bones of the others scattered around him, their skulls resting at his feet. They became known as the ‘Bowmen’ because several flint arrowheads had also been placed in the grave. CA 195 (December 2004) provides the link between the Archer and the Bowmen sites (which lie only a few hundred metres apart): the discovery of a previously unknown sarsen circle 50m in diameter. And as I mention above, CA 251 and 265 examine the complex interconnections of place and people within the wider prehistoric landscape there.

Amesbury is, of course, also associated with the Mesolithic discoveries at Blick Mead, but we will cover that site in more detail next month.

ARCHAEOLOGY ON AND OFF THE BATTLEFIELD

A few miles northeast of Amesbury lie the settlements of Bulford and Tidworth, whose ancient origins are obscured by the modern-day mass of military might built up since the area was developed into a training ground in the late 19th century. I will head on into Salisbury Plain proper in a moment, but I’ll pause here first since there have been some excellent finds made not associated with its military use; most notably, as reported in CA 315 and 316 (June and July 2016), a 7th-8th century cemetery that provided unique insights into a tight-knit local community, with burials of men, women, and children ranging in age from newborns to elderly adults and everything in between. 

CA 354 image,
Operation Nightingale has dug extensively in the county, including at a Second World War Camp associated with the ‘Band of Brothers’ at Aldbourne, which featured on the cover of CA 354.

The wider archaeology of Salisbury Plain has then been repeatedly explored in the pages of Current Archaeology, first in CA 135 (August 1993), again in CA 247 (October 2010), and most recently in CA 408 (March 2024). CA 135 reported on the discovery of a large Roman village at Charlton Down near Upavon, and of a late Bronze Age/early Iron Age settlement at nearby East Chisenbury; CA 247 on the remarkable survival of the remains of First World War practice trenches just north of Larkhill; and CA 408 on the famous ‘lost village’ of Imber, to the east of Westbury, which was requisitioned by the military in December 1943. The latter two sites involved the work of one of Current Archaeology’s most consistent contributors: Richard Osgood, who has worked for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) since 2004, caring for historic sites on their estates across the UK. Richard was, most deservedly, awarded an MBE in January 2021 for his contributions to both archaeology and to the military communities with whom he works and serves; in particular, since 2011, his work on Operation Nightingale, an initiative involving wounded, injured, and sick service personnel in archaeological fieldwork. The book of that project, Broken Pots, Mending Lives, was published in 2023 and is a stunning testament in terms of both its archaeological discoveries and its wider social value (you can read a review in CA 404, November 2023). But Current Archaeology has reported on Operation Nightingale from the outset, both in Wiltshire and more widely. CA 338 (May 2018) provides an insightful overview of the project’s national progress at that time, and within the county alone the project’s roll call of outcomes is impressive: a Neolithic long barrow near Heytesbury (see CA 400, July 2023); a Bronze Age roundhouse at Dunch Hill near Bulford (see CA 383, February 2022); a Bronze Age barrow and Saxon cemetery at Barrow Clump (see CA 306, September 2015; CA 338, May 2018; and CA 343, October 2018); a First World War chalk-cut kiwi near Bulford (see CA 342, September 2018); a Second World War bomber crash site near Lyneham (see CA 276, March 2013); and a Second World War camp associated with the ‘Band of Brothers’ at Aldbourne (see CA 354, September 2019 and CA 397, April 2023).

TALL SPIRES AND TIME FLIERS
Cover of CA 14, black and white photograph of Gomeldon dig site
In south Wiltshire, the deserted medieval village of Gomeldon made the cover of CA 14.

Finally, I will turn to south Wiltshire. The surprise to me when I was researching this column was the relative absence of content from this part of the county. I fear that the richness of prehistoric sites both further north in Wiltshire as well as south into neighbouring Dorset has overshadowed finds made around there, primarily Roman and medieval in date, which feels unfair: Salisbury and its environs, for example, have not only the splendid cathedral (see CA 188, October 2003 and CA 194, October 2004) and the neighbouring museum (see CA 295, October 2014), but also the medieval settlement of Old Sarum – originally an Iron Age hillfort – to the north (see CA 219, June 2008 and CA 299, February 2015). And let’s spare a moment too for the area’s more recent heritage: Old Sarum Airfield has a serious First World War-era pedigree and beyond (see CA 374, May 2021), and is sadly under threat at present from a redevelopment being fought doggedly by the campaign group Save Old Sarum in the best traditions of community action (see www.saveoldsarum.co.uk/). 

Heading south from Salisbury there are also some superb medieval sites and finds, notably Clarendon Park (see CA 115, June 1989 and CA 215, February 2008), Gomeldon (see CA 14), and further south still is then Downton, with its fine Roman villa (see CA 92, June 1984 and CA 251, February 2011). Right on the Wiltshire/Dorset border is then the prehistoric landscape of Cranbourne Chase that I covered in my column on the latter county (see CA 406, January 2024), especially fieldwork around Down Farm, whose land straddles the county boundaries and where the landowner, Martin Green, led work over many years exploring its places and peoples – see CA 67 (June 1979), CA 138 (April 1994), CA 169 (August 2000), and CA 279 (June 2013).

Pages of CA 169 article on Down Farm
Extensive excavations led by Martin Green at Down Farm featured in CA 14.

In my next column, I will finish my tour of the archaeology of the UK by focusing my attention on two of the ‘big beasts’ of not just the county’s but also the country’s archaeology: Stonehenge and Avebury.


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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