You Never Know What You Might Unearth
Cook, Yvonne, The Independent (London, England)
How students found evidence to change the way we think about Stonehenge. By Yvonne Cook
Stonehenge holds many mysteries, but although there are plenty of competing theories about its purpose, experts agree that the site chosen for such a monumental construction project must have held a very special significance for our ancestors. Now evidence is emerging that the Stonehenge area could have been an important centre for prehistoric people several thousand years before the giant stone circle was actually built.
The revelation emerged from a small-scale excavation undertaken by Open University archaeology students, which has uncovered a huge cache of artefacts belonging to hunter-gatherers from the middle of the Stone Age, including the remains of a gargantuan Mesolithic-era feast, which took place close to Stonehenge.
The site has also yielded what are believed to be the oldest carved figurines yet found in the UK, indicating a continuity of human presence in what seems to have been a sacred spot for thousands of years.
The shoestring project has been led by David Jacques, a tutor at the Open University, since 2005. After getting permission from the landowners, Sir Edward and Lady Antrobus, to survey a site just north-east of a previously unexcavated Iron Age hill fort known as Vespasian's Camp, he was awarded a research fellowship by the university's classical studies department with a small three-year grant.
Jacques chose to dig in a number of areas along the bed of a spring and recruited students from his Open University course on culture, identity and power in the Roman Empire, to do the excavation work.
"Last year, we dug a trench in the south-east area of the spring, and as we went down the trench we found a late Roman layer, then Iron Age, then early Bronze Age - then we found all these flint tools packed together in a 12cm layer," says Jacques. "We thought it was probably a mixed cache of early prehistoric tools, and assumed some were contemporary with Stonehenge. When we took them back to Cambridge and a number of experts suggested they were all Mesolithic, we started to get very excited."
With the tools were animal remains, including what Jacques and his team thought was a cow's tooth, which they sent away for radiocarbon dating. The result was an astonishingly early date of around 6250BC, firmly in the Mesolithic period and more than 3,000 years before construction on Stonehenge began. Further excavations ensued and, by the end of September 2011, the team had uncovered a rare Mesolithic hoard of more than 5,500 worked flints and tools from just two small trenches 35m away from each other. As well as the tools and tool production debris, large quantities of burnt flint were found, indicating a fire, and more than 200 cooked animal bones, which came not from a cow, but from at least one aurochs - a gigantic creature resembling a buffalo that is now extinct. "An aurochs was something like a large minivan in size, to catch an animal this big would have been a major feat. It would have fed a lot of people. It's likely there was a large gathering, possibly as many as 100 people, who cooked and feasted on the aurochs," says Jacques.
"Mesolithic people were nomadic hunter-gatherers who would have had temporary settlements. Salisbury Plain would have been something like the Serengeti with herds of animals roaming across it, and people could have used the hills that sort of create a basin around it as vantage points from which to see the movement of animals."
The discovery was especially significant since only a few small scatterings of Mesolithic material have ever been found in the Stonehenge area. …