Tag Archives: Dr Josh Pollard

SQUARING THE CIRCLE: Archaeological detectives discover ‘secret square’ beneath world-famous Avebury stone circle

New archaeological surveys reveal unique square megalithic monument at the heart of the World Heritage Site.

Archaeologists have found a striking and apparently unique square monument beneath the world famous Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site, cared for by the National Trust, was built over several hundred years in the 3rd millennium BC and contains three stone circles – including the largest stone circle in Europe which is 330m across and originally comprised around 100 huge standing stones.

A research team led by the University of Leicester and University of Southampton used a combination of soil resistance survey and Ground-Penetrating Radar to investigate the stone circle.

Their work was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and supported by the National Trust, as well as archaeologists from the University of Cambridge and Allen Environmental Archaeology.

Dr Mark Gillings, Academic Director and Reader in Archaeology in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, said: “Our research has revealed previously unknown megaliths inside the world-famous Avebury stone circle. We have detected and mapped a series of prehistoric standing stones that were subsequently hidden and buried, along with the positions of others likely destroyed during the 17th and 18th centuries. Together, these reveal a striking and apparently unique square megalithic monument within the Avebury circles that has the potential to be one of the very earliest structures on this remarkable site.”

Avebury has been subject of considerable archaeological interest since the 17th century. The discovery of new megaliths inside the monument was therefore a great surprise, pointing to the need for further archaeological investigations of this kind at the site. The survey took place inside the Southern Inner Circle, contained within the bank and ditch and colossal Outer Stone Circle of the Avebury henge. Excavations here by the archaeologist and marmalade magnate Alexander Keiller in 1939 demonstrated the existence of a curious angular setting of small standing stones set close to a single huge upright known since the 18th century as the Obelisk. Unfortunately, the outbreak of war left this feature only partially investigated.


Model of square stone setting

A possible reconstruction of the stone settings within the southern inner circle incorporating  Keiller’s discoveries and those of the new geophysical surveys


Dr Joshua Pollard from the University of Southampton said: “Our careful programme of geophysical survey has finally completed the work begun by Keiller. It has shown the line of stones he identified was one side of a square of megaliths about 30m across and enclosing the Obelisk. Also visible are short lines of former standing stones radiating from this square and connecting with the Southern Inner Circle. Megalithic circles are well known from the time when Avebury was built during the late Neolithic (3rd millennium BC), but square megalithic settings of this scale and complexity are unheard of.”

Dr Nick Snashall, National Trust archaeologist at Avebury, said: “This discovery has been almost eighty years in the making but it’s been well worth waiting for. The completion of the work first started by Keiller in the 1930s has revealed an entirely new type of monument at the heart of the world’s largest prehistoric stone circle, using techniques he never dreamt of.  And goes to show how much more is still to be revealed at Avebury if we ask the right questions.”

figure_3 (1)

The reconstructed ground plan of the Southern Inner Circle combining the results of the current survey with the 1939 excavation

The archaeologists who undertook the work think the construction of the square megalithic setting might have commemorated and monumentalised the location of an early Neolithic house – perhaps part of a founding settlement – subsequently used as the centre point of the Southern Inner Circle. At the time of excavation in 1939 the house was erroneously considered by Keiller to be a medieval cart shed.

If proved correct, it may help understand the beginnings of the remarkable Avebury monument complex, and help explain why it was built where it was.

The research team is currently compiling their research into a paper for academic publishing.

You can access a full technical report here http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/archaeology/people/academics/gillings/documents/avebury-obelisk-report-2017


The work was part of the ‘Living with Monuments project’, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC).  The Living with Monuments project is five years (Sep 16 – Sep 21)  and AHRC funding amounts to £780,831. It is a collaborative project involving archaeologists from the Universities of Leicester, Southampton and Cambridge, the National Trust, and Allen Environmental Archaeology.

The survey was directed by:

Dr Mark Gillings,  University of Leicester

Dr Joshua Pollard, University of Southampton

Dr Nick Snashall, National Trust, Archaeologist for Stonehenge and Avebury WHS

Dr Ros Cleal, National Trust, Curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury





Avebury Dig 2015 Day 17

Well, here it is, our final day of digging on the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site. I can barely believe its less than three weeks since we started digging.

There’s an air of focused freneticism (the spell check tells me that’s not a word but it seems to describe what’s happening) on site. In Trench 6 the tree-throw hole that is right next to our giant posthole has turned out to be simply enormous; so big in fact that we have more than a sneaking suspicion that the post may have been erected to in some way commemorate (or  replace) the giant of a tree that had once stood there.

Dr Pollard (Josh) and Professor Pike (Alistair) ponder on the subject of the enormous tree throw hole. The part  Shannon is standing in is about a third of the whole thing,

Dr Pollard (Josh) and Professor Pike (Alistair) ponder on the subject of the enormous tree throw hole. The part Shannon is standing in is about a third of the whole thing,

We were joined by Prof. Mike Parker Pearson who returned to give us a hand with his favourite pursuit of seeking out stakeholes in the bedrock of Trench 6. When we join the dots and analyse the finds and samples we’ve taken this may help us to work out whether a structure once stood here.

The team have been cleaning down (for the last time) and recording in both trenches.Without recording archaeology is (literally) just a pile of (very) old rubbish!

Trench 4 was a hive of recording activity. Planning, surveying in levels and ensuring we have all the necessary points on our site grid (courtesy of  Digital GPS).

Trench 4 was a hive of recording activity. Planning (Mark in the red t-shirt), surveying in levels and ensuring we have all the necessary points on our site grid (courtesy of Digital GPS).

And to complete our recording we had Adam Stanford of Aerial Cam who it would be an understatement to say is a bit of a whizz with airborne archaeo-photography.

Adam Stanford of Aerial Cam setting up to take our aerial shots of the trenches

Adam Stanford of Aerial Cam (head in the back of the Land Rover) setting up to take our aerial shots of the trenches. While George and Josh enjoy their break from the mega-posthole.

And that was that. Or nearly. Tomorrow we backfill the trenches.





Avebury Dig 2015 Day 16

We’re on the countdown now, with only one day of digging left before we backfill the site on Friday. And as ever at the end of any excavation the pace is hotting up.

For most of today we were thronging with visitors. This morning we welcomed Avebury World Heritage Site residents to take a look at where Avebury’s past  residents chose to spend their time. And this afternoon we were joined by members of the WHS Steering Committees, the WHS Partnership Panel and the Avebury & Stonehenge Archaeological and Historical Research Group,

Meantime the team are working like Trojans (did Trojans work particularly hard? Maybe a classicist out there could enlighten me). And today was a tale of two holes. In Trench 4 we have Emily’s pit (the one which produced no less than eight chisel arrowheads, three flint scrapers and some Peterborough Ware pottery).

Emily's pit in Trench 4

Emily’s pit in Trench 4 has been giving up its secrets

Its clear now that there are two phases to this pit. It’s definitely Middle Neolithic in date – possibly being dug towards the end of the occupation of the site. But then a short while later – still in the Middle Neolithic – someone re-dug the pit. So it obviously continued to have some significance. In the 1930s  Keiller found some rather strange features  that he initially thought were postholes because they had a dark middle that he thought was the post-pipe (the dark soil where a rotted post once stood) but then he discovered they contained fragments of brushwood (not a good solid timber post). We think now that what he actually found were more pits like this one that were dug and then recut at a later date. So eighty years on mystery solved!

Our other star hole of the day is over in Trench 6. Josh and George have been ploughing down, and down, and down for several days now and have finally just about reached the bottom.

George delving deep into the underworld in the posthole in Trench 6

George delving deep into the underworld in the posthole in Trench 6

What we have is an absolute whopper of a posthole. Its getting on for 1.5 metres deep and originally contained a post approaching 0.6 metres in diameter.

George and Josh's Mega-posthole, with its sarsen packing stones removed

George and Josh’s Mega-posthole, with its sarsen packing stones removed

The post it contained is likely originally to have stood something in the region of 6 metres or more tall. It had been packed in place with large sarsen stones (some of which were as much as 0,5 metres wide). Then chalk had been rammed in between the gaps and water added (possibly deliberately) creating a concrete hard mixture that would have ensured the giant timber was going nowhere.

We’ve had a few pieces of charcoal from the interface between post and fill which we’ll be radio-carbon dating in due course. And tantalisingly it produced one incredibly small piece of pottery that from its fabric may just be Grooved Ware (we need to get Ros to cast her expert eyes over it).

If that’s the case it would mean that this is Late Neolithic (it could be later, but not earlier) when we know they had a penchant for creating enormous timber monuments such as the West Kennet Palisade Enclosures.

If you want to see this monster of a posthole for yourself, and checkout the rest of what our team have unearthed you’ll need to hurry. Tomorrow is our last day digging on this site. So pop along and see a once- in-a-lifetime dig that none of us are going to forget in a hurry.