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Excavating in the Vale of Pewsey

Why did the University choose the Vale of Pewsey for the Field School excavation? Watch Dr Jim Leary explain the story so far.
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The reason we chose the Vale of Pewsey, as opposed to any other bit of landscape, is because it is a very under-researched area. We’re looking at a patch of land between two of the most important prehistoric monuments in the world. We’re looking at an area between Avebury and Stonehenge. And one might imagine that those areas have been very well researched and we know an awful lot about them. And that to a certain extent, that is true. The gap between them, however, has been overlooked, and the gap is the Vale of Pewsey.
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So what we wanted to do was provide context to these iconic monuments to the north and to the south by looking at this, focusing on this area in the middle. What’s absolutely key with the field school, and in fact with any excavation, is that it has to have really strong research questions. We don’t just go and excavate anywhere. We excavate in a particular area to answer very specific research questions. Excavation is a destructive process. Archaeology is a finite resource. And we have to treat it with respect and with all due care. So we never dig anywhere without first understanding why we’re digging there. There has to be a really good, strong reason why we’re going to go into the field.
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It’s very expensive, it’s very destructive, there’s lots of reasons why you shouldn’t actually dig in the ground. So we have to have these questions that can only be answered by excavation. Some years ago historic England mapped aerial photographs, over the Vale of Pewsey. And what we were able to see was that the prehistoric monument complex up on the Avebury Downs, they flow down into the Vale of Pewsey and then up onto the other side to Stonehenge. But clustered at the very head of the river Avon was a particularly coherent group of monuments.
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And so we realised that we were looking at a landscape that had been very little understood, very little researched, but quite possibly of absolute crucial importance for understanding these iconic monuments either side. Marden Henge is a very, very big monument. It’s actually the largest henge in the country. It encloses an area over 15 hectares. At Marden we have evidence for feasting. It gives us this very wonderful, tangible link with the past where we can see, you know we can almost smell the smells of the cooking meats and we can imagine the fire roaring and perhaps the music and the dancing. So by excavating these sites, it gives us these wonderful links back to the past that we can start reconstructing.
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But one of the aspects of looking at these remains is that they seem to be indicating that people are using their resources in a very unsustainable way. And we can see this with the feasting activity. We can see this with the huge size of Marden Henge, far bigger than anything you need. These are people trying to make massive statements on the landscape, but in a sense destroying that landscape in the process. We saw it when we were excavating at Silbury Hill. They literally removed a huge amount of soil from active, productive use, bringing the stones from Wales to Stonehenge. And we don’t really understand that process. But it required vast amounts of resources and people.
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There’s a monument just to the north of Marden called the West Kennet Palisade Enclosures, which was made up almost entirely of tree trunks placed up by it. That would’ve required probably an entire wood to create that monument, a wood that’s been destroyed and removed. So we get this sense as the Neolithic is getting towards the end, that people are trying to create these ever-grander statements. And in the process they are leading an ever-more-unsustainable lifestyle. We wonder whether that might be connected with the first metals that are coming across from the continent at this point in time.
In this video, Jim Leary explains why we chose to dig within the Vale of Pewsey, which is crucial in our understanding of the nearby historic monuments at Stonehenge and Avebury.
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Archaeology: From Dig to Lab and Beyond

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