East Chisenbury: Ritual and Rubbish at the British Bronze Age-Iron Age Transition

By McOmish, David | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview
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East Chisenbury: Ritual and Rubbish at the British Bronze Age-Iron Age Transition


McOmish, David, Antiquity


The repertoire of site-types for later English prehistory has not changed for a generation. Now, from East Chisenbury on Salisbury Plain, a new type is defined, a midden of refuse so large and strange it re-defines the concept of 'rubbish' and its 'disposal'.

The term midden, Scandinavian in origin, conjures up familiar images of dung-heaps like the kitchen-waste or compost heaps of today. Our knowledge of large-scale waste disposal in prehistory is based on the habits of farming communities, who store domestic and farmyard detritus in advance of spreading it on fields as manure. A number of midden sites dating to the 1st millennium BC, principally in central southern England, are not mere collections of discarded waste awaiting dispersal on fields; they are deliberately curated accumulations of feasting debris, and their morphology, history and artefactual associations call into question our understanding of what constitutes a rubbish deposit.

The East Chisenbury midden

The East Chisenbury midden is located on the Salisbury Plain Training Area in central Wiltshire [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. This is on the western fringe of the area known as 'Wessex', crowded with spectacular prehistoric earthwork monuments such as the well-known Iron Age hillforts of Maiden Castle and Danebury. On the chalklands of southern England there is a strong tradition in the prehistoric period for the construction of monuments, such as henges and hillforts, on a massive scale which goes beyond the purely functional (Bowden & McOmish 1987). The presence in Wessex of chalk soils which respond well to cropmark formation have allowed us to recognize and record a large number of sites within their landscapes which would otherwise be lost. These circumstances have left us with an exceptionally important and well-known archaeological heritage: Stonehenge, for example, lies approximately 10 km to the south of the site under discussion here. Much of Salisbury Plain is now owned by the Ministry of Defence and as such, has escaped the worst ravages of modern farming; the area therefore survives as a largely intact multi-period archaeological landscape of international importance. The military ranges have received detailed investigation recently by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (henceforth RCHME) and Reading University (Bradley et al. 1994), and this work has enabled a complex landscape development sequence to be identified and interpreted. A wide range of site-types are represented here, from Neolithic long barrows through to post-medieval farmsteads; however, it is the range of prehistoric fields and settlements which are most startling, and prominent amongst these are the remains of major land divisions, known as linear earthworks.

Recent work at East Chisenbury is, in a sense, a re-discovery since the area of the midden, though not the presence of the midden mound itself, has been known to field-walkers since at least the Second World War, when personnel stationed at near-by Upavon aerodrome collected pottery and bone implements from local fields. Grinsell's archaeological gazetteer for Wiltshire records finds of distinctive pottery of the late Bronze Age-Iron Age transition known as the 'All Cannings Cross style' from the site but reported that no earthwork existed (1957: 69), and the Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division noted no monument along with the known artefactual scatter. Recent work in 1992 on the site, resulting from a series of fortunate coincidences, led to the recognition of a massive mound covering a large area. It was no surprise that previous field-workers had failed to see the midden; it is so large that it has the appearance of being merely part of the natural hilltop [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. The subsequent survey [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED] revealed that the mound was circular, and spread over an area 200 m in diameter, 3-5-4 ha in extent. It has been truncated on its northern and western sides by a 'Celtic' field lynchet and, to the east, overlies the bank of a circular enclosure, itself first noted by Colt Hoare in the early 19th century (Colt Hoare 1810).

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