2018 Fieldwork

In 2018 the project shifted its focus to two locations: Butler’s Field, in the Winterbourne valley to the west of Avebury; and Knoll Down, 3km WSW of the henge. Both excavations were aimed at investigating prehistoric settlement and land-use through the excavation of artefact scatters, but were sites of very different character. Butler’s Field is a water meadow that has seen considerable alluvial sediment accumulation since the early Holocene (and especially since the Roman period). Excavation and test pitting by John Evans in the 1980s identified a buried palaeosoil associated with Mesolithic and Neolithic artefacts under a metre of later deposits. At Knoll Down a dense artefact scatter was visibly eroding out of a footpath that runs alongside the Old Bath Road. Whilst the preservation conditions of the two sites are starkly different, the investigation of the scatters indicated that both held the potential to provide detailed insight into the character of occupation of these parts of the landscape during prehistory.

Butler’s Field

Excavating in squares in Butler's Field
Excavating in squares in Butler’s Field (Ben Chan)

In total four trenches were excavated in Butler’s Field. The excavation revealed a uniform sequence at the base of which was a compacted gravel overlain by a yellow-brown silty clay; the prehistoric buried soil identified by Evans known as the ‘Avebury soil’. The interface between these two deposits revealed a scatter of Mesolithic and Neolithic worked flint spread across all of the trenches, but with spatial variation in its density. Overlying these deposits was a thick deposit of alluvium into which was cut Late Saxon and medieval features, in the form of pits, post-holes and numerous ditches. Overlying the alluvium was a thick medieval ploughsoil from which was recovered a large assemblage of medieval pottery and animal bone. The latest deposit above this was a thick and particularly hard-to-dig clay alluvium that had formed while the field was a managed water meadow.

The prehistoric artefact scatter included a number of pieces of refitting worked flint, indicating the scatter has seen little disturbance since the artefacts were original deposited onto the ground surface over 4500 years ago. Other evidence of prehistoric activity was found in Trench 1 in the form of a pit of possible Mesolithic date containing flint and red deer bone. Analysis of the lithic artefacts will provide insight into the type and chronology of the activities that took place on the site in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. Preliminary analysis shows Mesolithic worked flint is especially well represented, including a number of very late Mesolithic ‘rod’ microliths. Material of this date is otherwise sparsely represented in the landscape, so its identification here is important. It indicates a strong stream-side focus to activity during the period. A localised concentration of earlier Neolithic material, including a few sherds of pottery, was present in the northernmost trench where a slight natural ridge juts-out into the Winterbourne valley. This natural causeway was later occupied by the line of the Beckhampton Avenue.

Whilst the principal focus of the excavation was the investigation of the prehistoric buried soil, much detail was revealed about Avebury’s Anglo-Saxon and medieval development. There are hints from this and other fieldwork of a nucleated, but multi-focal, village settlement developing in the later Anglo-Saxon period, the organisation of which was substantially reworked in the 11th-13th centuries.

Knoll Down

Excavating at Knoll Down
Excavating under the trees at Knoll Down (Ben Chan)

The area around Knoll Down was investigated by surface collection, geophysical survey and trial trenching in the early 2000s. This work revealed a large artefact scatter in the fields surrounding the knoll, and also revealed a pit dug into a seam of nodular flint. Investigation of the ground surface in the immediate area of the knoll revealed a dense scatter of artefacts both eroding out of the foot path, and spread throughout the wooded area. In order to investigate the scatter two trenches and eight test pits were laid out to determine the scatter’s extent and character. The excavation revealed an extremely dense scatter of worked flint within the topsoil, which directly overlay the chalk bedrock. Worked flint concentrations here are far beyond any of those excavated within the project to date. The assemblage awaits full analysis but it is estimated that over 20,000 artefacts were retrieved from 31m2 of excavated topsoil, with the densities reaching as high as 1400 pieces of worked flint per square metre. Initial impressions suggest that the assemblage contains an unusually low proportion of tools and retouched pieces. In terms of its technology and composition, the scatter is of uniform character, and unlike the scatter excavated at the Foot of Avebury Down in 2017, it appears to have been generated through a single phase of activity (albeit potentially covering decades), rather than a palimpsest of events spread over centuries or millennia. On the basis of the previously excavated nodule extraction pit, and the character and density of the newly excavated scatter, the current hypothesis is that in the Neolithic Knoll Down was a place where people came to extract flint and to roughout nodules into cores and other workable products for use elsewhere. Analysis of the flint assemblage will confirm whether this was the case and shed light on the likely date of these activities.

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