Thinking about causewayed enclosures (I have been doing this a lot as I continue to write up the work we did in July) has made me think in particular about the original type-site for these monuments, Windmill Hill in north Wiltshire. Not that Windmill Hill is a particularly good parallel for the Whitewell Enclosure: its a long way away, bigger, more circular, has animal bone preservation and lots of pottery. However, since it was first excavated in the late 1920s, Windmill Hill has had a central role in defining what the Neolithic in Britain is. Entirely coincidently, it has also had a big role is defining who I am. I’ll have a go at explaining the archaeology first.

The work in the 1920s was directed by Alexander Keiller. Keiller deserves a post all to himself, but he’s probably best summarized as an archaeological Hugh Heffner crossed with William Randolf Hearst. One of his employees was a young Stuart Piggott, who would go on to be Abercrombie Professor at Edinburgh and one of the 20th century’s most distinguished Neolithic specialists. Piggott’s first major contribution to archaeology was to sort the confusing mass of Neolithic pottery into two styles, one of which could be shown to be earlier than the other. He did all of this, at least in the first instance, by noticing a gap in the sequence in the outer ditch fills at Windmill Hill. One style of pottery only occurred in deposits older than the break and the other only occurred in the layers above.


This is the outer ditch, being re-excavated in 1988. It is no exaggeration to say that, until the widespread use of radiocarbon in the 1960s, that single relationship underpinned the dating for the whole of the British Neolithic.

Keiller was highly energetic, but he wasn’t great at keeping his attention on a job until it was finished. Consequently, after his death, Isobel Smith was given the Windmill Hill archive and the task of publishing the site. To clarify a few confusions in the record she also did her own season of excavations at Windmill Hill.


The narrower slot in this photo is the re-excavated remains of her cutting across the outer bank, once again in 1988. One of Smith’s great contributions to Neolithic studies was her insight that causewayed enclosures could be explained as seasonal meeting places for dispersed populations: somewhere they could come to feast, do each other down in deals over cattle or stone axes and chat up people who weren’t their cousins. This explanation has been extremely influential ever since.

Windmill Hill was next excavated in 1988 by Alasdair Whittle of Cardiff University, as part of a project investigating the Neolithic sequence of North Wiltshire. This dig too had major implications for our understandings of the British Neolithic, it was ultimately one of the things that lead to the recent AHRC funded Gathering Time project, which has re-dated the whole of the Early Neolithic of Southern England.


It had an even bigger influence on me. I was a Cardiff undergraduate in 1988. By that time I had about four months excavation experience, absolutely all of which was on Early Medieval monastic sites, a vague interest in the Iron Age and a strong desire not to dig up any more Saxon monks. Alasdair let me supervise excavations on the outer bank, which was the first time I had been in charge of anything bigger than a section drawing, and we found preposterous quantities of Early Neolithic pottery, flint and bone, as well as a pit containing the almost complete remains of an Early Neolithic man. By the end of the second week I was convinced I wanted to be a Neolithic specialist.

I had also met Julia, and we’ve been together ever since, which has to be the best way an archaeological site can transform your life.


The Sheltering Memory project was devised to look at the links between monuments and natural places in prehistory. We know a (comparatively) large amount about prehistoric monuments so we came to dig here in the hope of getting some good evidence from natural places, particularly from caves. Since then, it sometimes feels, we have done nothing but discover new prehistoric monuments.Peterson_figure_1

This is the location of all the sites on New Laund Hill – exported from the GIS and tidied up a bit in Adobe Illustrator to make a publishable map. The black things are ditches, pits and other assorted holes in the ground, the grey thing is the henge bank. As you can see, there is a fair bit going on. If we begin at the beginning then the earliest parts of the site are likely to be some of the pits on the same ridge as the Whitewell enclosure.


This is the big pit in trench N. At least some of the stone tools from this area look to be Mesolithic so I think that some of the pits were dug before the start of the Neolithic. Around about 4500 BC mobile bands of hunter gatherers may have camped on that bit of the hill. These pits were what they did with their rubbish after they moved onto the next site. They were also a way of marking this particular site and laying claim to it.


Here is the Whitewell enclosure from above. As I said last week, this is probably Early Neolithic. Of course, on January 1st 3650 BC everyone didn’t suddenly wake up and start farming. The enclosure here probably grew up from the earlier tradition of digging pits on the same site. People were still moving around, staying at this spot for part of the year or coming back at particular anniversaries. The outer circuit of ditches ran through trench Q, at the front left of the picture, back almost as far as the woods before turning and running back along the front edge of Fairy Holes wood, behind our gazebos and through trench P.


This is the outer ditch in section in trench P. As you can see, it is not particularly impressive. Its a bit deeper in trench Q but it would still have been quite ephemeral. I think that the reason there are three different, probably incomplete circuits in this enclosure is because, in a monument like this, what was important was not the finished banks and ditches, but just getting everyone together to dig around the hill.

New Laund reconstruction

Around 1000 years later, towards the end of the Neolithic, the much more substantial New Laund enclosure and timber circle were built on the next ridge up. Although we still think this was acting as a focal point for dispersed and mobile groups of people, it seems to have been a much more permanent structure.


This is the outer enclosure ditch in the rain at the end of our excavations in 2012. At four metres wide and cut deep into the limestone bedrock, this was clearly a visible permanent barrier.


Similarly, the timber circle posts in these holes in trench H  were obviously part of a monument which was designed to last. Despite this, there is still continuity with the earlier sites. The posts in were removed and there are outlying posts and double lines in some places which suggest that building and re-building was still an important part of how the monument was used.


One of the puzzles about all these, apparently Neolithic, monuments is the complete lack of any pottery. We do however have one Late Neolithic pot sherd from our excavations at Fairy Holes cave. This came from just behind where Dan is measuring in this photo. Why Late Neolithic people left pottery in the cave, but not apparently at the henge or timber circle is a bit of a puzzle. Especially as both Fairy Holes Cave and the timber circle seem to have been used for cremation burial.

Urn and Crem bone

In the cave, thanks the our finding cremated bone alongside this collared urn sherd, we know that this was happening in the Early Bronze Age. Presumably by this date there were clear connections between monuments and natural places at Whitwell.


The trouble with excavation is when you are doing it you are often so busy keeping on top of all the tasks that need to be done you forget to think about what it all means. This summer we had some fantastic results, lots of worked stone from the pits we were digging and a mass of geophysical data from the big survey that Mike and his team carried out. Now I have had half a day to do some basic analysis it is clear that, as we suspected a few weeks ago, we have found another important prehistoric ritual monument. (This is a project, remember, that is supposed to be about the use of natural spaces and landscapes).

NL14 gradiometer screenshot

Here are the results of the gradiometer survey as they were plotted out in QGIS. This is the processed data from the survey but it has not otherwise been interpreted. Consequently we are looking at a mish-mash of archaeology, geology and spikes caused by iron objects in the topsoil (usually old horse-shoes and bits that have fallen off tractors). What I have been meaning to get around to doing since late July is to use the results of our digging to try to distinguish between the different kinds of response in this plot.

NL14 gradiometer interpretation screenshot

Ta Dah!

The red things in this image are responses that looked similar to the ones in trenches P and Q. Based on what we found in those two trenches these should be relatively shallow ditches. The blue spots are the ones that looked very similar to the pits in trenches M and N, and therefore it is likely that they are the remains of pits too.

As soon as I had done this, I got everyone into my office to look at the pretty pictures on my computer screen. Straight away, entirely unprompted by me, Vicki said ‘That’s a causewayed enclosure’. We then had a bit of a poke about on our bookshelves looking at possible comparisons.

Other causewayed enclosures

This image of known causewayed enclosures from southern England comes from Alasdair Oswald, Carolyn Dyer and Martin Barber’s book on the subject (which is on the reading list). With a bit of Photoshoppery I have added the outline of the new Whitewell enclosure on at the same scale.

If we are right then the Whitewell Enclsoure should be Early Neolithic. It probably dates to between 3700 and 3500 BC (there has recently been a massive AHRC funded project reanalysing the dates of just these kinds of monuments, published as the two volume book Gathering Time – also on the reading list). It is likely to be about 1000 years older than the henge and timber circle of the New Laund Enclosure that we were digging in 2012 and 2013.

Whether we have got the date right or not there is an important lesson here. In an area where not much previous research has been done then it is not safe to assume that no evidence equals no archaeology. Since we started digging in 2011 we have found two prehistoric enclosures within 500 m of each other. Next summer we need to go back and dig more of the interior of the Whitewell Enclosure and find out about those inner circuits of ditches and more of those pits.


One of the many inspired things in Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is a long list of celebratory antics for football supporter’s New Year, which should be held in May, on the evening of the Cup Final. People who work in education have their own special New Year too, at least in the UK, where almost all academic institutions start their new teaching intakes in September. We started teaching this week and so I have been celebrating by giving my lecture notes for the coming semester a much needed brush up.

Nowadays, of course, all these notes are PowerPoint presentations. I don’t really see the value of a PowerPoint presentation unless it has got a lot of pictures in it. Mostly with my teaching this is not a problem; archaeology is a very visual subject after all. However, one of the courses I have been tweaking this week is Archaeological Theory. Some of the lectures there are a bit tricky to illustrate. For example, what does a paradigm look like exactly?

My stock solution to this problem is to use Google Image search to turn up photos of the great and good of academia. These I then use to brighten up the slides – I’m not sure how precisely looking at a photo of Thomas Kuhn helps students understand paradigm shifts but it deals with my fear of text-only slides. All these portraits, of course, come from one of two sources. Either publisher’s blurbs for books or university web-pages. What I have noticed this week is that the real superstars in the Pannini Album of academia always pull the same pose for their publicity shots, even over a thirty or forty year career.


There is often a head/hands combination thing going on. Pierre Bourdieu favoured the hand supporting the chin, presumably because otherwise his mouth flopped open in astonishment at the dazzling brilliance of the concepts in his head.


By contrast, Paul Feyerabend needed to use his hand to keep the enormous contents of his brain from leaking out.


Louis Althusser often used a pipe in what was either an Inspector Maigrait or, surely much more plausibly, an Eric Morcambe tribute.


Bruno Latour is clearly much too busy using his hands to talk with to ever put them anywhere near his head.


Oh no! Someone has spilt Michel Foucault’s pint.. …again.

lewis binford

Continental thinkers are obviously more relaxed about having ‘smartarse’ as their job description. By contrast, the Anglophones are determined to show that they are not just a dazzling intellect. Lewis Binford takes the golf buggy for a spin.


Julian Thomas dressed for machine watching at Stonehenge.


David Clarke gets on with some DIY at Great Wilbraham.

Normal service should be resumed next week.


Last week I didn’t go to Istanbul. Obviously, I haven’t been to Istanbul on many previous occasions too, but last week the European Association of Archaeologists conference was taking place there. The EAA is one of the major academic conferences for archaeologists in Europe (there’s a clue in the name). When the venue was announced about a year and a half ago the glamour of the East enticed us all to such an extent that we spent many coffee breaks planning a mass UCLan presence at the conference.

If you want to speak at an academic conference like this then a certain degree of advance organisation is needed. First of all you need to propose an outline version of the paper you want to give to the organising committee. It also has to fit into one of the themed sessions that are part of the conference (unless you are so organised as to be able to propose a whole session’s worth of papers). Once the papers are proposed they are accepted by the organising committee and you can get on with making sure you register for the conference on time.

Given all these hurdles it’s not really surprising that by the time registration closed for the EAA the proposed mass UCLan presence had reduced down to two of us giving two papers. By the time the conference actually started it was just me and, because of the previously mentioned work/life balance thing, I didn’t actually go. Lindsey, who was one of the session organisers for ‘Caves as Ritual Spaces in Later Prehistoric Europe’, very kindly agreed to read my paper for me.

‘Do caves have agency?’ was the title of my paper. ‘Agency’ is a concept we have loaned from sociology and cultural anthropology. It describes the ability that people and things have to influence other people. In its original formulation, by the sociologist Anthony Giddens, agency is the contribution of active, thinking individuals which helps create the structures of society. Agency has also been used in anthropology, particularly by Tim Ingold, who would see it as something that animals and landscapes can also have.

In my cave research I have been very interested in the idea of environments and natural places have the power to influence people in quite profound ways. The idea I had when I agreed to do the EAA paper was that I would be able to explore the theoretical background to all the different kinds of agency theory. I hoped this would both let me come to a conclusion about how plausible it was to say that caves had agency but also think about some of the practicalities of what that might mean for archaeological evidence from caves.


I came to the conclusion, heavily influenced by Bruno Latour’s book Reassembling the Social, that, provided we carefully sidestep the thorny question of whether something needs to have intentions in order to act (geological formations not generally being known for having opinions), then it is useful to think of caves as acting on people. In particular, the physical properties of the cave, the associations between all the different finds in the cave and how these thing change over time, can help us understand the way that caves structured people’s actions in the past.


It’s only six weeks since I promised a more detailed post on the results of this summer’s excavations ‘in a few days’. Sorry about that. The life part of the work/life balance has been getting some much needed attention over the summer. However, now is the time to focus on work again, so I am going to go back to blogging instead.

I realise that I described the results of this summer’s work fairly thoroughly in my last post but one, so I will try to concentrate in this one on giving some interpretation and context. There are two main components to the archaeology we have been investigating this summer.


First, there are the medium and large bowl-shaped pits we excavated in trenches M and N. This is the big one in trench N. Pits of this shape are typical of the Neolithic period in Britain, many large clusters of them have been excavated all over the country, particularly on excavations in advance of quarrying. There is a very good summary of the archaeology of these pits in Regional Perspectives on Neolithic Pit Deposition, edited by Julian Thomas and Hugo Anderson-Whymark, which includes all the papers from a Neolithic Studies Group conference in 2010 ( I have put the full details of this on the reading list page).

As always in archaeology, there are lots of complex regional variations but the over-riding theme is that these pits mark areas where people lived. We believe that most of the population was still at least partly mobile at this date so these are unlikely to have all been permanent  settlements (and the pits are often not found near houses). Where the soil conditions allow good preservation then archaeologists see complex patterns of associations between, stone tools and waste, animal bone and pottery. It is likely that these structured dumps of rubbish were put into the pits at the end of each temporary occupation of that particular part of the landscape.

Our soils are quite acid (despite the limestone bedrock) and so no animal bone survives from the pits but we have found a lot of stone tools and tool making waste. We also found lots and lots of charcoal but, surprisingly, no pottery. Despite the lack of pottery I am reasonably convinced that our pits are examples of this sort of thing: dating, if I was to stick my neck out, to the Early Neolithic.


The other big discovery of this summer was, of course, the series of shallow ditches running around this part of the hill. This is one of them after excavation in trench Q. They are nothing like as impressive as the Late Neolithic Henge ditch further up New Laund Hill. They are shallow, sometime discontinuous (at least they are on the gradiometer plot) and there seems to be at least two circuits one inside the other. If this ditched enclosure is also Neolithic (and that is what the finds from trench P seem to suggest) then it might be related to a kind of monument called a causewayed enclosure.

Actual causewayed enclosures are Earlier Neolithic circular sites which were surrounded by rings of non-defensive ditches with lots of gaps in them (hence causewayed enclosure). They are most common in southern England, where they seem to have been a central place for people to meet and exchange all kinds of things. There is another Neolithic Studies Group volume, also on the reading list, edited by Tim Darvill and Julian Thomas with some good papers on these sites. What we have is not a causewayed enclosure, it is the wrong shape, and in the wrong bit of the country, but it may have been used in a similar way.

Wildlife of the day has to be Toads because I have to go back into work tomorrow.


We got to work this morning, on the penultimate day of the project, to find that the swallow fledglings in our barn have grown up and left home. If you read a metaphor this clunky in a novel you would fling the book away in despair. Sometimes, I suppose, life really does have to be like a box of chocolates.


Today was tractor day. We have all been working like crazy to get all the sites completed so that Tom could help us backfill them. This will just be a short post with lots of pictures and then I will post some more considered thoughts on the results from each trench over the next few days.


The largest archaeological task we still had to complete at the start of the day was to finish digging and recording the giant pit in trench N. Once we had dug out all the surviving fills we had left so we could draw the sections we needed to clean up the base of the pit, which Kayla is just finishing in this photo, before adding all the final spot heights to the plan.


Once all this was completed and Tom had hoisted all the spoil back into the holes it needed a lot of spreading about with shovels.


A bit of trampling and then a lot of re-turfing. Despite the complicated grass and thistle jigsaw we managed to get all the grass back on the trenches by the end of the day.


We made another use of the big pit over dinnertime to grab a group photo. Thanks to everyone for all their fantastic hard work over the last four weeks. Left to right: Chloe, Tom, Connie, Scott, Kayla, James, Josh, Sammy, Laura, Katie, Chelsea, Mike, George, Ashley, James, Alex, Phil, Jack and Mike.

We found our mascot tiny toad again, hiding in the turves as we put them back, to be wildlife of the day.



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