About 1.5 miles from Stonehenge, an ancient spring in Amesbury has yielded evidence of repeated human gatherings dating back over 9,000 years. Work at Blick Mead began as a small-scale Open University investigation headed by Professor David Jacques (now at the University of Buckingham) in 2005, initially exploring the remains of an Iron Age hillfort known as Vespasian’s Camp. Despite a shoe-string budget and a position made increasingly precarious by the recently halted Stonehenge tunnel scheme, the project has gone on to transform our understanding of the Mesolithic period in the Stonehenge landscape.
Until around a decade ago, about 30 Mesolithic findspots were known within the entire area of the World Heritage Site, yielding only a few dozen artefacts of this period. The Blick Mead excavations have completely flipped this balance, producing tens of thousands of pieces of struck flint – including tools ranging from blades and burins to tranchet axes and tiny microliths – as well as cores, knapping debitage, and evidence of every stage of the production process, pointing to the presence of a long-lived Mesolithic ‘home base’ that was returned to for generations. Life at Blick Mead was not ‘all work and no play’ for the nomadic groups who visited it, however: as well as episodes of evidently extensive tool-making, the spring also hosted significant feasts. To-date the excavation team has recovered more than 120kg burnt flint, as well as thousands of pieces of animal bone. Many of these come from aurochsen, a kind of extinct wild cattle that weighed twice as much as a modern cow and each would have provided food for some 200 people.
The project’s discoveries have been appearing in CA since 2012 (see CA 271, 293, 324, and 325), and when I returned to the site in October, their trench was proving as productive as ever. The latest dig was nearing the end of its two-week run, and some 90-odd boxes of animal bone had been recovered so far, with preliminary analysis suggesting the presence of red deer, wild boar, and plenty of aurochs meat on the Mesolithic menu. Dozens of buckets were also lined up to go through the sieves, and, as I watched the team hard at work, numerous flint tools (as well as pieces of burnt flint with their characteristic blue-and-white ‘crazy paving’) emerged from the cold water. ‘It feels like we have more finds than mud,’ David Jacques commented.
Back to the spring
The latest excavation marked a return (almost) to business-as-usual following a COVID-necessitated hiatus. As Blick Mead lies in the grounds of a nursing home, the team had not been able to access the site for the safety of its residents – though work had not stopped altogether. Instead, project volunteers spent some of last year surveying local back gardens on Stonehenge Road (outside the World Heritage Site), working in small ‘bubbles’ as restrictions at the time permitted. Their efforts bore some interesting fruit, and were followed up with geophysical survey this season. For 2021, though, the team has been able to return to the large spring-side trench that they were excavating when CA last visited the site two years ago.
Standing next to the trench, I was constantly aware of the rushing of traffic, with the course of the A303 lying just beyond a stretch of vegetation. The tops of vehicles could also be seen through gaps in the foliage, making it all too obvious how close the road was, and how vulnerable the spring would have been had the proposed tunnel works gone ahead as planned. The footings for a flyover intended to form part of the scheme were set to be installed so close to the spring that it was feared that they might impact the local water table, destroying the organic layers that have been yielding so much information. Now that the campaign to protect the site is over, though, the project’s legal representative is not resting on his laurels: solicitor Mark Bush, who volunteered his time for free to represent Blick Mead during the judicial review process, was still on site at the time of CA’s visit – this time, manning one of the sieves.
The excavation team has been working through organic- and artefact-rich layers, recovering the large quantities of flint tools, burnt flint, and animal bone that I was shown in the finds tent. Having exposed the sticky clay beneath these layers, the volunteers were also investigating an intriguing series of depressions which they believe may be more aurochs hoofprints to add to those identified in 2019. Coring by the University of Southampton has confirmed that the ancient spring lay at the bottom of a natural bowl, which would have provided a useful lure for the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers using the site, as well as a perfect ‘kill zone’ where they could overpower their prey. Aurochs and other animals who visited the spring to drink could have been driven into the water, or chased back upslope to make it easier to catch them, David Jacques suggested.
It was not just prehistoric finds that had emerged during the latest investigations. A short distance from the spring, beside one of the paths within the nursing-home grounds, traces of 13th-century activity were emerging. In 2019, the installation of a fibre-optic cable had revealed a little strip of medieval floor tiles in this area so, when plans were announced more recently to dig up some shrubs and plant cherry trees beside the same path, the Blick Mead team carried out a watching brief to see if any more archaeology was revealed. They were not disappointed: these latest works uncovered two sections of robbed-out wall foundation, as well as the edge of a wall with a colourful tile floor adjacent. The in situ tiles were decorated with what are thought to be peacocks, while other loose tiles preserved more motifs, including fleur-de-lys designs, griffins, and a possible lion. Some of these are thought to date to the mid-13th century. The site was visited by the deputy county archaeologist as soon as the tile surface was revealed.
Such an ornate floor would have belonged to a high-status building, but the tiles’ presence on the site did not come as a complete surprise. The nursing home in whose grounds they were found is called Amesbury Abbey, named after the religious complex that once occupied the site (although the grand Palladian-style country house was never part of this institution; it was built for Sir Edmund Antrobus in the 1830s to preside over an estate that, until the monument’s sale in 1915, included Stonehenge). The land was initially home to an Anglo-Saxon community of Benedictine nuns that was founded in the late 10th century by Queen Ælfthryth, wife of Edgar the Peaceful (r. 959-975) and mother of Æthelred II (‘the Unready’, r. 978-1013 and 1014-1016.) In 1177, this was refounded by Henry II as a priory and a daughter-house of Fontevraud Abbey in France, a site that was particularly favoured by Plantagenet women including Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who took up residence at Fontevraud after his death. Many of the Amesbury nuns were also of aristocratic birth, including Eleanor of Provence, queen consort of Henry III, who retired to the priory during her widowhood. She died in Amesbury in 1291 and was buried within the priory, though the location of her grave is unknown – as was that of the abbey, until recently.
Like so many other religious institutions, the Dissolution of the Monasteries saw Amesbury Priory’s community dispersed, its buildings largely demolished, and their materials sold off. Its lands were given to a nephew of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, and the priory’s precise location faded into history. It had previously been suggested that the complex could have lain further south, close to Amesbury’s parish church, St Mary and St Melor’s, which has been suggested as the priory church. However, the tiles’ location – on a sandbank rising from a former floodplain – would also have been a sensible spot on which to build. Geophysical surveys have now been carried out in the field adjacent to where the tiles were found, and it is hoped that their results may reveal more of the complex’s layout. Until then, the tiles represent a tantalising clue to the location of a long-lost religious community – and the burial place of a medieval queen – as well as a colourful reminder that this site still has many stories to tell.
ALL photos: C Hilts.