|ISSN 1357-4442||Editor: Simon Denison|
David McOmish finds prehistoric and Roman village streets, country lanes and fields on Salisbury Plain
Today Salisbury Plain is a wilderness - a bleak, windswept grassland plateau, largely devoid of human settlement, and much of it maintained almost solely for military purposes. It hasn't always been so.
From the early Neolithic, the Plain was an intensive focus of ritual and monument building, and contains some of the best-known prehistoric monuments in England including Stonehenge. Then intermittently for 2,000 years, from the middle Bronze Age to the post-Roman period, it was densely settled and farmed. But it was later abandoned for settlement within a very short space of time, to leave one of the most remarkable surviving prehistoric and Roman landscapes in Europe.
The Plain's isolation today is symbolically reinforced by the lie of the land. Some of those who don't know Salisbury Plain imagine it to be a flat low-lying area - a `plain'. In fact, as you approach from the north, it stands proud, towering over the Pewsey Vale. Likewise, when approached from the south along the Wylye Valley, and from the west, its escarpment edge is very prominent. Through this area the River Avon flows north to south, providing one of the great arterial routes in southern England, which facilitates connections across wide areas of the country. The valley still provides the main access route through the Plain by road.
The MoD's first interests in Salisbury Plain developed towards the end of the last century, when changes in warfare necessitated large-scale practice manoeuvres for infantry and cavalry. The War Department began a series of land purchases, which has now led to the creation, in effect, of a massive archaeological reserve. Occasional destruction of archaeology inevitably takes place in the parts of the Plain under military control, particularly in the `impact zones' used for artillery training; but it is striking to realise that had much of the Plain not been controlled by the military this century, its prehistoric and Roman landscapes would no doubt have suffered the same fate as in other areas of English chalk downland - wholesale destruction by modern agriculture.
Over recent years, the archaeology of the Salisbury Plain Training Area has been mapped by the English Royal Commission (RCHME), through the careful integration of aerial, geophysical and ground survey. The project has brought a new understanding of long-term changes of land use throughout prehistory and into modern times.
The Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments of the Plain as a whole - including long and round barrows, causewayed enclosures, henges and the two Stonehenge cursus monuments - have been well known for decades. Less well known is the evidence for agriculture and settlement beginning in the middle Bronze Age that still survives in the Training Area. Great swathes of field system, traditionally termed `Celtic' fields, survive in good condition, cloaking the downs like a chequerboard of small rectangular paddocks defined by little scarps or slopes known as lynchets.
The lynchets were caused mainly by soil movement as a result of ploughing; where the ground slopes, the lynchets tend to be bigger. The great height of some lynchets attests to the longevity of the fields and their intensity of use.
The origin of these fields can be dated to about 1500-1400BC, by discoveries of well-dated pottery and by stratigraphic association with other datable features. Large extents of fields were laid out at this time and there must have been some form of overall cohesion to the process. Remarkably, the fields share a common axis of alignment, north-east to south-west, and in many instances the axis ignores the underlying topography, making the fields harder to plough. This axis, facing the mid-winter sunrise, is also seen at the Plain's most famous archaeological site, Stonehenge. The opening up of the landscape was presumably regarded as being legitimised by this alignment and by its association with important earlier communal monuments.
Many of these fields lie in distinct blocks covering, say, 2km2, and separated from other blocks by about 2km. I suspect these blocks represent the lands worked by one large middle Bronze Age farm, or by a small community of farms.
In the following centuries, both settlement and agriculture changed. From around the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, a rise in the importance of sheep husbandry appears to have led to a wholesale change in the use and exploitation of the Plain. Sheep bones become dominant in midden deposits, taking over from cattle and pig bones (as elsewhere in the country). Large areas of field system were abandoned, as the landscape was sub-divided by new linear boundaries, perhaps partly to Yarnbury hillfort on Salisbury Plain: the fort is surrounded by surviving Iron Age field systems create larger enclosures for sheep-grazing. Meanwhile, other areas of land between the blocks of earlier fields were filled in by more small fields, this time irregular and not all aligned in the same direction.
New forms of settlements were also founded. Settlements of the middle Bronze Age are ephemeral and rarely found; one, however, at Dunch Hill on the east side of the Plain, was found to be an unenclosed group of roundhouses, dating from about 1200BC. In the 1st millennium, enclosed settlements appear (see `When land first became private property') - small, square enclosures up to 70m across, defined by large banks and a ditch, with a simple gap in the bank as an entrance. Around 20 have now been found on the Plain, although none has been excavated in modern times. It is assumed they contained timber roundhouses.
The scale of change that marked the initial opening up of the Plain is dwarfed by developments which took place in the centuries following Roman invasion. The RCHME survey has revealed a landscape of exhilarating completeness and complexity, in which substantial communities lived and thrived. Large areas of pre-existing fields were re-used and developed further. Elsewhere new fields were created, and hand-in-hand with this large nucleated settlements developed, often with 70 or 100 houses. On Charlton Down, the largest settlement sprawls over 22 hectares and contained over 200 buildings. It is now a `ghost town', bigger than the majority of existing villages in the river valleys nearby. Several of these settlements, which in terms of earthwork survival are unparalleled elsewhere in the country, contain dating evidence from the 1st century AD (some go back to prehistory) to the 4th century or even later.
In all we have found a dozen deserted settlements of Roman date, each surviving now as close-knit jumbles of flint and chalk building platforms, divided by major streets and smaller paths. The building platforms exist within compounds, so that the impression one gets in these settlements is of walking past people's garden boundaries rather than straight past their front doors.
This Roman landscape in many places survives so intact that it is possible to walk through the streets of the settlements and to follow them out into their surrounding fields, where features such as field entrances and field barns are well preserved as earthworks. This level of preservation allows a vivid sense of first-hand contact with the past, unmatched at least in lowland England, and in all likelihood beyond.
This grand Roman colonisation of the Plain, prompted perhaps by the agricultural intensification of the Roman period, lasted for no more than a few centuries. The majority of medieval settlements favoured the shelter of the river valleys within and beyond the Plain. The plateau lands were divided between their new parishes and tithings, and given over to sheepwalk or poor, often temporary, arable, which is nevertheless represented by extensive ridge-and-furrow, sometimes ploughing within pre-medieval fields and sometimes over-ploughing them.
A vigorous influx of new farmsteads, cottages and field barns colonised the downland in the 19th century in an age of agricultural improvement; but they disappeared again after only one or two generations with the large-scale land purchases by the military. Villages in the Training Area, such as Larkhill, Tidworth and Bulford, became garrison settlements. Finally the village of Imber was depopulated in 1943, its crumbling ruins now providing a setting for training soldiers how to fight in built-up areas.
David McOmish is a Field Investigator with the English Royal Commission
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