The latest from the past: Re-excavating Boles Barrow

Over the course of a very rainy week this past March, Wessex Archaeology and volunteers from Operation Nightingale, led by DIO archaeologist Richard Osgood, carried out a small-scale excavation of Boles Barrow (also known as Bowl’s Barrow), a Neolithic long barrow located near Heytesbury, approximately ten miles west of Stonehenge.

Boles Barrow was first investigated in 1801 by the antiquarian William Cunnington, with subsequent excavations carried out first by John Thurnam in 1864 and then by William Cunnington Jr (the original Cunnington’s grandson) in 1885. It is perhaps best known as the hypothesised origin of the bluestone now on display in Salisbury Museum, supposedly found during the elder Cunnington’s work on the site, although evidence for this link is tenuous at best. There are still intriguing aspects to the barrow, though, as all three 19th-century excavations recovered human remains, and osteological analysis (both historical and more recent) of these indicates that the individuals possibly suffered violent deaths.

This year’s excavation, the first in over 130 years, aimed to find out more about the site, but also to assess how successful recent efforts to prevent badger damage to Salisbury Plain heritage sites have been, as well as to see how much of the archaeology was still intact after all the 19th-century digging.

 Image Credit: Harvey Mills 2023

All three aims proved successful. While stripping the overlying turf, the team quickly found that the mesh that had previously been laid over the site to deter badgers had not only done its job, but had also held up remarkably well with little signs of corrosion. They also determined that the site remains very well preserved despite the three previous investigations. In this latest excavation, the team dug a 15m x 3m trench right at the top of the mound, soon uncovering the chalk layer mentioned by antiquarians, which is believed to encapsulate the entire barrow. They then came across the dark layer of soil that their predecessors had also noted (and had dramatically described as a layer of ‘congealed blood’); analysis of this layer’s composition is still ongoing, but it is highly doubtful that the antiquarians got this one right.

As for the finds, a small number of flint scatters and animal teeth were recovered. While no bluestones were found, a few small sarsen stones were, which seems to coincide with Cunnington’s description of the stones he found at the site in 1801, writing: ‘The stones that composed so large a part of this ridge over the bodies are the same species of stone as the very large stones at Stonehenge.’ These newly discovered sarsens are now undergoing analysis to investigate their origins.

In addition to the Neolithic discoveries, the team also found evidence of some more modern offerings: cans of steak and kidney pudding, which were probably interred by infantrymen on the site, perhaps hoping to add to its history. Research linked to the project has also uncovered a lot of archival evidence hiding in plain sight, including Stuart Piggott’s photos of the site from the 1930s, which show that a water tank had once sat on top of the mound; and a scrapbook, found in the Wiltshire Museum archives, with photos and plans of the 1880s excavation.

With post-excavation analysis still ongoing and a possible future excavation in the works, this will not be the final word on Boles Barrow.