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13 June 2015

The same issue of British Archaeology magazine, June 2015 (see www.britisharchaeology.org/bmpdupdate) has an article on Blick Mead, fleshing out what has been discovered at the site – and explaining it all a bit more comprehensively. It is being excavated under the care of David Jaques of Buckingham University.

The site itself is outside the modern town of Amesbury, close to the river Avon. Immediately west of the site the land rises steeply to form a narrow knoll which is capped by an Iron Age hill fort known as Vespasian's Camp. The town is on the other side of the river and the site itself is in the grounds of what was formerly Amesbury Abbey (now a privately owned property). Jaques had hoped to prove a pet theory that Late Roman activity and early A/S settlement was continuous – without a break. Even the Iron Age hlll fort would have been viewed as part of this sequence of continuous settlement at Amesbury, people moving down to the river side in the Roman period (and remaining in the general vicinity in the subsequent A/S period). The owner of the hill fort, however, suggested that rather than digging holes at the top of the hill they were more likely to strike it rich if they excavated below the hill. This they did, starting with a couple of test pits in what is known as Blick Mead, a low lying hollow in woodland between the river and the embankment of the A303, the main road to the west country. First of all they came across Roman pottery and prehistoric pottery (Iron Age etc) but then they hit some 200 worked flints – which completely altered the course of the excavations. They realised, after a while, the site was an old spring that once fed a pond, and the Avon. Since 2005 local volunteers, a necessity in cash strapped times, as well as professional archaeologists and their students, have been digging out the site and the focus has shifted first to the Neolithic, and then to the Mesolithic period (via the Bronze Age and all points between) as well as the suspected A/S artefacts as originally expected.

It was the flint that changed the focus of the excavations and some 30,000 pieces were collected by the end of 2013 (and it is still accumulating). Most of it comes from Mesolithic contexts, which included animal bones and charcoal which were C14 dated between 6000 and 9500 years ago – well into the Early Holocene. Blick Mead was somewhere Mesolithic people gathered near the banks of the river Avon. The critical deposit has been found to be a stickly silty clay layer that can be seen at the bottom of four trenches and 1m belwo the surface (within the hollow). It is now partly under water which is not a surprise as water percolates through chalk but moves horizontally when it meets a clay layer.  The clay itself had accumulated as a seam by the process of running water – the spring or a channel set back from the main flow of the river. It is not a prime site however or a camp as people appear to have been sat around higher ground and used the hollow to throw in their debris from flint knapping. There was also a considerable body of burnt flint – more than would have come from a hearth or camp fire. The burnt flint was also dumped in the channel and it appears it has an origin in stones heated up to boil water – presumably for cooking purposes. The amount is much smaller than found in Neolithic contexts when communal feasts were all the rage – but Mesolithic people gathered in smaller numbers which means smaller feasts. This further strengthens the idea Blick Mead was part of a seasonal gathering place, a tradition that continued into the Iron Age as that is one of the roles attributed to hill forts. As two thirds of the animal bones found come from aurochs (wild ox) that is likely the animal that was being cooked and eaten, more often than not, although bones of red deer and other animals were also found. This discovery fits in with evidence at other Mesolithic sites in Britain, where aurochs were the favoured beast of communal meals (and a preference for beef among the indigenous people has persisted all the way down to the modern world). 

Away from roast beef and two veg, with a slice of yorkshire pudding cooked in the dripping, we may note that various other Mesolithic sites have been found in Wiltshire and surrounding counties. At Downton, 20km to the south and still on the Avon, 38,000 flint artefacts were found spread over 80 square metres. To the east, on the river Kennet, there is a group of sites around Newbury and Thatcham where flints and animal remains have been periodically unearthed in silts and peats along a 15km stretch of the Kennet valley. The latest test pit, in a park in Newbury itself, still has an intact Mesolithic stratigraphy (and British Archaeology will have an article on this excavation later in the year). The topography of the mid Kennet valley is remarkably similar to that of the mid Avon valley, an alluvial floodplain between chalk hills.

Nearer to Blick Mead, on the other side of the A303, Wessex Archaeology found Mesolithic flints in buried soil on the higher flood plain level. Even the recent Stonehenge Riverside Project (on the Avon) came across ancient soils containing a few Mesolithic flints (600 flint blades came from disturbed ground where later prehistoric activity had been digging holes and ditches etc but they do not count in this evaluation). See www.archaeologyUK.org

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