Tag Archives: house

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.”

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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

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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

 

 

 

 

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Avebury Dig 2015 Day 9

A busy day on site.

A busy day on site.

Well it’s been a bit of a media day here, everyone is keen to know what’s going on and what is being discovered at this intriguing site.  Dr Nick Snashall (National Trust) did most of the interviews including with ITV News West Country, the Gazette and Herald, BBC Radio Wiltshire and Western Daily Press; however, a reluctant Dr Josh Pollard (University of Southampton) was roped in to give a further radio interview with BBC Radio Wiltshire while Dr Alistair Pike (University of Southampton) gave Marlborough News Online an in-depth description of the discoveries so far in Trench 6.

Dr Nick being interviewed by ITV News West Country.

Dr Nick being interviewed by ITV News West Country.

Josh being interviewed by BBC Wiltshire.

Josh being interviewed by BBC Wiltshire.

Trench 4 has now been taken down to the next level, revealing the top of the occupation layer, and has produced not only the wonderful macehead found yesterday but more fragments of Fengate Ware pottery as well as lots more worked flint.

Excitement is also building in Trench 6 as the post holes that are visible in the surface of the geology suggest that a structure (hopefully a house) will be discovered within the next few days.

Certainly this is one of the busiest sites I’ve been on, and today was particularly so.  There have been many members of the public visiting to see what is going on, the National Trust guides are doing a wonderful job at escorting people to the site and explaining the archaeology.  Watch this space for what tomorrow brings or better still come and take a look for yourself.

A few shots of the day.

A few shots of the day.

Avebury Dig 2015 Day 3

Day three and we’re making good progress in both of our trenches.

Trench 4 is new this year, which we’ve positioned between the paired standing stones of the West Kennet Avenue itself. That’s the trench that Ros unearthed the beautiful British Oblique arrowhead in yesterday.

Down we go in Trench 4 where we found yesterday's arrowhead and a small flake from a polished stone axe

Down we go in Trench 4 where we found yesterday’s arrowhead and a small flake from a polished stone axe

Trench 3 is one that aficionados of the Between the Monuments Project may recognise as the first one that we opened when we started digging on the site in 2013. This time round we’ve reopened a small part of Trench 3 and extended it to try to help us make sense of a collection of stakeholes that we found in its north-west corner the first time round.

Trench 6: with our dig team working their way back down to bedrock in the corner of what was Trench 3

Trench 3 and beyond: the team working their way back down to bedrock in the corner of Trench 3 that we first dug in 2013

What you may well ask is a stakehole and why are we so excited by them that we’ve come back to shovel more dirt in the same area? Well a stakehole is the hole that’s created by driving the end of a wooden stake into the ground (as opposed to a posthole which is a hole dug to receive a post which is then packed around with stones and soil to keep it upright – today we’d use concrete).

One of the things we noticed when we looked at the results from our excavations in Trench 3 in 2013 was that the area within the stakeholes was virtually free from finds. In contrast the area outside the stakeholes was densely packed with stone tools and pottery.

That set some bells ringing because in 2007 we’d excavted part of a small field called Rough Leaze just outside of the south east bank of Avebury henge. It produced Middle Neolithic Peterborough Ware pottery (the type of pot we’ve found at our West Kennet Avenue site), flint tools and arcs of stakeholes. Infuriatingly, like the ones in Trench 3, they also disappeared off into the side of the trench. Rule 1 of archaeology if you find anything interesting it will always disappear a) beneath the section edge or b) be beneath the spoil heap.

And that combination of the remains of a fairly lightweight structure and with a ‘clean’ interior is exactly what you might expect to find if you were looking for a Middle Neolithic house.   And they’re as rare as a rare thing on a rare day. So we’re keeping all of our toes and fingers crossed. Though that does make trowelling awkward.