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Open Eye: You never know what you might unearth

How students found evidence to change the way we think about Stonehenge. By Yvonne Cook

Stonehenge holds many mysteries, but although there are plenty of competing theories about its purpose, experts agree that the site chosen for such a monumental construction project must have held a very special significance for our ancestors. Now evidence is emerging that the Stonehenge area could have been an important centre for prehistoric people several thousand years before the giant stone circle was actually built.

The revelation emerged from a small-scale excavation undertaken by Open University archaeology students, which has uncovered a huge cache of artefacts belonging to hunter-gatherers from the middle of the Stone Age, including the remains of a gargantuan Mesolithic-era feast, which took place close to Stonehenge.

The site has also yielded what are believed to be the oldest carved figurines yet found in the UK, indicating a continuity of human presence in what seems to have been a sacred spot for thousands of years.

The shoestring project has been led by David Jacques, a tutor at the Open University, since 2005. After getting permission from the landowners, Sir Edward and Lady Antrobus, to survey a site just north-east of a previously unexcavated Iron Age hill fort known as Vespasian’s Camp, he was awarded a research fellowship by the university’s classical studies department with a small three-year grant. Jacques chose to dig in a number of areas along the bed of a spring and recruited students from his Open University course on culture, identity and power in the Roman Empire, to do the excavation work.

“Last year, we dug a trench in the south-east area of the spring, and as we went down the trench we found a late Roman layer, then Iron Age, then early Bronze Age – then we found all these flint tools packed together in a 12cm layer,” says Jacques. “We thought it was probably a mixed cache of early prehistoric tools, and assumed some were contemporary with Stonehenge. When we took them back to Cambridge and a number of experts suggested they were all Mesolithic, we started to get very excited.”

With the tools were animal remains, including what Jacques and his team thought was a cow’s tooth, which they sent away for radiocarbon dating. The result was an astonishingly early date of around 6250BC, firmly in the Mesolithic period and more than 3,000 years before construction on Stonehenge began. Further excavations ensued and, by the end of September 2011, the team had uncovered a rare Mesolithic hoard of more than 5,500 worked flints and tools from just two small trenches 35m away from each other. As well as the tools and tool production debris, large quantities of burnt flint were found, indicating a fire, and more than 200 cooked animal bones, which came not from a cow, but from at least one aurochs – a gigantic creature resembling a buffalo that is now extinct. “An aurochs was something like a large minivan in size, to catch an animal this big would have been a major feat. It would have fed a lot of people. It’s likely there was a large gathering, possibly as many as 100 people, who cooked and feasted on the aurochs,” says Jacques.

“Mesolithic people were nomadic hunter-gatherers who would have had temporary settlements. Salisbury Plain would have been something like the Serengeti with herds of animals roaming across it, and people could have used the hills that sort of create a basin around it as vantage points from which to see the movement of animals.”

The discovery was especially significant since only a few small scatterings of Mesolithic material have ever been found in the Stonehenge area. Tom Lyons, one of two field archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology East supervising the project, says: “It’s really exciting to get such a cache of material. This certainly makes this find nationally important, if not internationally important.”

He and the team are linking the finds to the mysterious Stonehenge “totem poles”, three colossal Mesolithic post holes found during the excavation of the Stonehenge car park some years ago, which indicate the area was important to people in the Mesolithic era. He said what has been lacking until now is evidence of the people who used them.

The flint hoard is being analysed by Barry Bishop, an independent lithic specialist, who will publish his findings in a 2012 report co-authored with Jacques. He believes the size and nature of the assemblage of tools suggest that Mesolithic people kept returning to this one site over a long period of time, probably attracted by the spring water.

“Springs are very rare in this chalk landscape, and the spring would have probably seemed unique and quite mysterious,” explains Bishop. “People in Mesolithic communities saw the world as a very spiritual place, and even saw the landscape as being alive in itself, and they would have been very attuned to any differences and sensed great significance in this. “These might have been the very conditions which gave rise to Stonehenge – people seeing certain places in the landscape as being more spiritual in some way could have led to the creation of monuments thousands of years later.”

Evidence that the spring was considered sacred in the Bronze Age comes from other objects found by Jacques’ team that the archaeologists believe were deposited there as offerings to a particular god or goddess. They include a ceremonial dagger, dated to 1400BC, and two stone carvings in the shape of ducks, dated to around 700BC. This makes them the oldest figurines yet found in the UK, says Dr David Barrowclough, director of studies in archaeology at Wolfson College Cambridge, who is writing a research paper with Jacques about these objects. “In Europe in the Bronze Age and the start of the Iron Age, there was a cult, associated with the Celtic people, of making models of waterfowl and throwing them into ponds and springs. These are the first ones ever found in Britain, and the oldest figurines ever to come out of the UK,” he explains.

Jacques’ team’s findings could be a major boost for the local town, Amesbury, which is currently developing a historic tourist trail as part of a regeneration programme. In the best Open University tradition, Jacques has made a point of engaging the public on the dig and by giving talks to local people, who have traditionally had little involvement with the archaeology taking place on their doorstep.

The town mayor, Andy Rhind-Tutt, who is spearheading the regeneration campaign, says: “I hope we can secure funding to create our own museum/exhibition centre to showcase Amesbury’s heritage and this remarkable find.”

The local unitary and town council, English Heritage and the cash prize Jacques received as part of his 2010 Open University teaching award, have provided financial support for the work, but Jacques says more funding is now a priority. “We have done all of this on a shoestring budget of a few thousand pounds. We urgently need to get funds that reflect the stature of the finds.”

For Open University courses information, call 0845 300 6090; or see www.open.ac.uk/courses