Where did the people who built Avebury back in the mists of time actually live? It’s the burning question that has drawn archaeologists to the Wiltshire site cared for by the National Trust this summer.
An area lying within the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site is being investigated by archaeologists in a bid to solve one of Avebury’s greatest mysteries.
The site being dug, right next to the West Kennet Avenue, was first discovered by millionaire archaeologist Alexander Keiller eighty years ago and is crammed with Neolithic stone tools and pottery lying just inches below the turf.
Currently in the middle of a three week dig, a team of experts from the National Trust, Southampton and Leicester Universities and Allen Environmental Archaeology have spent the last three years investigating the site which is finally beginning to give up the secrets of Avebury’s prehistoric inhabitants.
“Avebury’s prehistoric monuments are justly world famous but one of the questions I’m most often asked is where the people who built and used them lived,” said Nick Snashall, the National Trust’s archaeologist for Stonehenge & Avebury World Heritage Site.
‘This landscape has been studied by antiquaries and archaeologists for almost four hundred years, which makes it all the more astonishing that we had no idea where its Neolithic and Bronze Age residents lived or what they did in their daily lives. So a few years ago a group of us decided it was about time we changed that and teamed up to form the Between the Monuments Project.
“We’re trying to put the people back into Avebury. It sounds straightforward, but the houses the first farmers built are incredibly rare and difficult to spot. Finding stone circles and burial mounds is a doddle in comparison.”
The team sifted through the records at the Avebury museum and Keiller’s trail led them back to the West Kennet Avenue site. Using his journals and drawings together with twenty first century geophysical survey techniques they relocated the spot. What they found when they stripped back the turf amazed them. The remains of daily life five thousand years ago lay perfectly preserved beneath their feet. They found arrowheads, clusters of scrapers for working hide and plant materials, miniature flint saws and pottery.
Nick added: “It’s quite astonishing, millions of people have visited this site over the years but few of them can have guessed what they were standing on. The finds have been coming up three or four at a time – in clusters. It’s as if the people were sitting here working away making arrowheads, scraping skins and carrying out their daily tasks and then they just got up and walked away.
“As well as the ancient artefacts the team have unearthed the remains of a structure which they think may be an ancient house. If this does turn out to be a house we’ll have hit the jackpot. I could count the number of middle Neolithic houses that have been found on the fingers of one hand. This site dates from a time when people are just starting to build the earliest parts of Avebury’s earthworks, so we could be looking at the home and workplace of the people who saw that happening.”
Top, the dig scene at Avebury. Below, Ros Cleal holding up an arrow head found on the site. Photos by Abby George