Archaeologists unearth a skeleton in a Bronze Age burial at the Wilsford Henge excavation near Marden
An Early Bronze Age crouched burial has been uncovered in the Wilsford Henge ditch during excavations centred on the Marden Henge, near Pewsey. Sherds of 'beaker' pottery and a collection of beads that would have made up a necklace have been found with the skeleton.
This extraordinary find comes in the final week of the first part of the three-year Vale of Pewsey archaeological project - organised jointly by Reading University and Historic England. The project, which is centred on Marden, is putting the Vale of Pewsey well and truly on the map of the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Roman history of Wessex.
Theskeleton will enable archaeologists to tell a great deal about the people who inhabited this area of Wiltshire in the Early Bronze Age. Analysis of teeth and bones will show whether the person was native to the area or had lived elsewhere during their developing years.
Speaking to Marlborough News Online about the skeleton, the project's leader, Dr Jim Leary, said: "It's a surprise - a great find. But I shouldn't have been too surprised - there are Bronze Age burials around here."
Dr Leary argues that "The Vale has missed out - it has always missed out" - with the archaeological emphasis being placed on Stonehenge and, to a lesser degree, on Avebury.
Monuments in the chalk landscape have survived. Those in the greensand of the Vale have not. Now Dr Leary believes the three year project working on sub-surface remains will show that in the Vale "We are", as he puts it, "in the heartland of the Neolithic."
Hundreds of students from Reading University joined by others from around the world have been involved in this major dig - and apart from the odd downpour the weather has been pretty kind to them.
They have been camping nearby and for many of the students there have been also courses to attend and lectures in Marden Village Hall.
The public has been able to visit the sites and the teams have held two Open Days - with tours conducted by Research Fellow Amanda Clarke and by Dr Jim Leary.
Finds could be inspected and visitors could learn how Neolithic man knapped flints and children could have their faces painted. And for the second Open Day Wiltshire Museum (in Devizes) laid on a 'Henge Hopper' mini-bus service to take visitors from one part of the dig to another.
The archaeologists were pleasantly surprised when their first Open day on July 4 attracted 165 visitors. They were delighted when the Open Day on Saturday, July 18 attracted over 360 visitors.
The dig's trenches were at four main sites:
1) In the north and at the edge of Marden Henge, the floor of 'Britain's oldest house' (as the newspapers headlined it) had been revealed in 2010 by a team led by Dr Jim Leary. It was not really a 'house' - but was a floor with a circular hearth and may have been a 'sweat lodge' for some form of purification ceremony. There is a lot of charcoal near the floor - which implies that stones were being heated up.
This site was carbon dated from organic material found on the floor to about 2,450 BC.
Now they have re-opened that trench - with its Neolithic floor and wall bases - and extended it. The floor is about eight metres long and 4.5 metres wide. "It is", says Dr Leary, "an extraordinary discovery."
They have revealed much more of the nearby middens - which contain masses of pig bones and plenty of organic material - seeds and tiny molluscs - to keep the scientists busy for months to come.
They also discovered a small cache of pottery sherds which include pieces decorated on the inside as well as the outside of vessels.
And one of this year's prime finds is a bone pin about six inches long - which may have been used as an awl or to pin material together - such as a cloak or a skin covered shelter. The pin has to be kept moist to make sure it does not deteriorate.
They have also found part of a polished flint axe head and pieces of Neolthic pottery complete with residue left by the last contents of the pots - something for the scientists to analyse.
This is still the prime part of the current programme of investigations - perched on the edge of a mini-henge within the main Marden Henge and within sight of a nearby row of modern houses. It now looks as though the hearth was used to heat pieces of Sarsen stone - which could then be carried inside the 'building' or structure.
To the south of Marden Henge there are three more large trenches:
2) Historic England's David Roberts is overseeing the excavation of a large Roman farm settlement. This has revealed 'post pads' showing the outline of a very large farm building or barn - perhaps 12 metres square - and a series of ditches.
They are not quite sure of its size yet as the return wall of the newly discovered barn disappears under what is now the dig's very large spoil heap: "It is," says Dr Roberts, "always the way! But it's clear it is a very big barn - large for round here."
This site is revealing much about the way Roman settlements developed from early, small-scale Romano-British farms, into much larger farms: "We have unexpectedly discovered this large barn - which demonstrates how large-scale and intensive farming was here in late Roman times."
3) Nearby - in fact under the same field of barley - there is the first ever exploration of Wilsford Henge. This Henge - with its opening towards the north and towards the River Avon - was located during a study by English Heritage of existing aerial photographs and by extensive geophysical research in 2012.
The wall of this Henge has been causing a lot of interest - and the excavation has the look of a deep Egyptian dig - they had got down to 2.4 metres which was the Early Bronze Age level. And if time allows, hope to get to the Neolithic level at 3 metres. This dig may produce evidence about the purpose of these strange enclosures called Henges.
4) To the west of the causeway that divides the fields, researchers in 2012 saw what they assumed to be the border of a large Neolithic enclosure. And the top soil was removed and students began exploring the trench.
However, it quickly became apparent that this enclosure was not Neolithic at all, but Roman. This is one of those occasions in archaeology when discoveries raise more questions and answers.
Why did the Romans construct this enclosure and what was it used for? And are other, similar enclosures spotted from aerial and geophysics surveys later than Neolithic?
They have found a great deal of material to keep the laboratories busy till they start the second year's excavations next summer.
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Does Silbury Hill have a whole family of 'little sisters'?
Dr Jim Leary of Reading University has recently been awarded a grant of £265,000 by The Leverhulme Trust to follow up on his work that proved Marlborough Castle Mound was not built by the Normans for their castle, but was a Neolithic mound of the same age as Silbury Hill - and merely used by the Normans to give their valley castle some convenient height. The Marlborough Mound was nick-named 'Silbury's little sister'.
Under the title ‘Extending Histories: from Medieval Mottes to Prehistoric Round Mounds’, the project seeks to uncover prehistoric mounds that were adapted for medieval defence or have been misidentified as later castle mottes – a previously unrecognized phenomenon that could re-write the history of both the later Neolithic and Norman periods.
The Leverhulme grant will fund archaeological investigations involving coring, analytical earthwork survey, scientific dating and detailed environmental analysis, and will determine the date of construction, sequence of development and environmental context of 20 mounds across England.