Site Biographies

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.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: