Prehistoric
Up

Stone Age Bronze Age Iron Age

MOBILE PHONE USERS WILL OBTAIN A BETTER EXPERIENCE IF ROTATED TO HORIZONTAL

 

The downland north of Mere runs right across to Salisbury Plain which is crowded with the relics of prehistoric civilisations; Mere lies at the edge of one of the most important areas in prehistoric Britain.

At the base of the chalk downs is a continuous array of springs, giving a constant flow of pure water. The chalk downs suffer from an absence of surface water supplies and the presence of dependable water must have made settlement by the springs an attractive proposition. Mere and its neighbouring hamlets are in fact a classic example of springline settlement.

Lowland

Mesolithic flint cores were found during the construction of the Mere by-pass, and Neolithic artefacts have been found in significant numbers around the parish

A barrow, probably of the Bronze Age, but used many centuries later as the base of a windmill, has been located at W. Knoyle [ST84253214] and a tumulus survives by the old nursery at Burton [ST826326]. Moreover, we have a record of a vanished site. In his "Ancient History of South Wilts" [1812, p254] Colt Hoare records the existence of a number of low barrows on Mappledore Hill [ST805303], right on the Southern boundary of the parish and on the ridge followed by the Gillingham road. He was writing soon after the 1807 enclosure of the common at this site and refers to the barrows as being nearly levelled by cultivation. In cutting a ditch through one of them labourers had discovered some vessels of coarse pottery. These barrows had presumably survived till then by being on the common land which Colt Hoare had described as the haunt of rogues and sheep stealers. Nearly all trace of them has now gone, though archaeologists have identified the site of one of them, but it is tantalising to wonder how many more traces had been obliterated in the previous thousand years of cultivation of the area. With the discovery of a number of Bronze Age artefacts in various parts of the lowland area we are justified in assuming that there was Bronze Age settlement in the Mere area.

Ploughs were primitive, usually just a wooden spike dragged through the ground - pulled by an ox if you were lucky, but more often by the 'wife'. So in this period only a small portion of the heavy clay soils of the lowland had been cleared and brought under cultivation. 

Downland

The downs hereabouts show some of the most concentrated prehistoric activity of anywhere in Europe. Here the natural vegetation on the thin well-drained soils was easier for early man to clear with his flint tools to provide grazing areas for his flocks.

Whilst constructing the car park at Stonehenge a Mesolithic (10,000 years ago) monument comprising huge posts or tree trunks was uncovered. 

Although the Mesolithic is usually associated with hunter-gatherer nomads, there is evidence of continuous occupation in selected sites on the Downs. Carbon dating from an archaeological dig at Amesbury by a team from the University of Buckingham in 2013 found evidence of land clearance and indicates  continuous occupation in every millennium since 8820BC.

The hunter-gatherers gave way to farmers in the Neolithic period. The first farmers arrived in Britain from the Middle East, perhaps via France, and appeared in Kent around 4050BC by 3900BC farming had reached our area. 

Once farming was established, ideas were imported from the continent in its wake. First came long barrows, long crypts which are often found to contain major human bones such as skulls. There are some long barrows, now earth-covered, on the downs between Mere and Kingston Deverill. They appeared around 3800BC. At a time when incoming people lived in isolated farmsteads, these may have celebrated ancient clan links and held relicts of revered people.

Neolithic causewayed camp on the west side of Whitesheet Hill

The surrounding ditch has been highlighted in emerald green.  The road passing through it became the coach road from Hindon to Wincanton.  The round features are later Bronze Age. Image: David Stokes

A causewayed camp remains above Mere at White Sheet Down [ST 802352] - the earliest known construction in the area. The purpose of causewayed camps is believed to be ritual feasting. 

Model of a Neolithic-era hut (Trypillia Museum)

Photo:  Petro Vlasenko

Not too far away, at Durrington Walls just 3km from Stonehenge,  archaeologists recently discover a complex of Neolithic buildings .  It is so far the the largest Neolithic building site  found in northern Europe. The buildings show no signs of day-to-day habitation but there are signs of feasting around the winter and summer solstices. 

So we can surmise that in the Neolithic, people in our area lived in square wattle-and-daub huts and held ritual ceremonies involving alcohol and feasting at the the causewayed enclosure on Whitesheet Down. 

About 3-4000 years ago people from the Black Sea area with the ability to smelt metal, first copper then bronze, migrated across Europe and appeared in the British Isle 3 .

The round burial burrows so plentiful on Whitesheet Down date from the Bronze Age(photo required). Many were excavated by Colt-Hoare circa 1810 and found to contain skeletons, cremations and grave items. (ref reqd) There was active land cultivation as evidenced by the small rectangular enclosures and boundary ditches. 

The Iron Age (approx 3000-2000 years ago) has left us several hill forts. 

Whitesheet Castle

Photo: David Stokes

On the edge of the downs, overlooking Mere [ST804345] is the promontory hill fort of Whitesheet Castle, with its single ditch & bank on the steep slope and triple rings of defences on the flat downs side. It encloses about 5 hectares and finds indicate an agriculture activity with cattle and sheep.

This was the land of the Celtic Durotrige tribe, who occupied all of Dorset and southern Wiltshire.

Running over the top of Whitesheet Hill is a track which leaves the A303 at Willoughby Hedge and continues by way of the Alfred's Tower ridge well into Somerset.This may be ancient ridgeway which until the mid 18c it was still one of the major roads to the West of England.

Photo: Unknown

At various points on Whitesheet Down "cross-dykes" may be seen traversing the ridges of spurs of hills; these may have had a defensive purpose, but could merely have marked territorial or farm boundaries or provided routes for the driving of stock from one valley slope to the other.  (photo needed)

At various places on the downland clusters of low ridges forming a pattern of small rectangular plots reveal the sites of very early agricultural fields. Good examples of these can be seen between Pertwood [itself certainly a very early settlement] and Brixton Deverill. (photo needed)

 


We thus have the picture of a series of prehistoric settlements at the foot of the downs along the spring line with well developed agriculture, defence and ritual sites on the downs.


References:

1 The Neolithic camp on Whitesheet Hill, Stuart Piggott and John Wilfrid Jackson, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 1952 Vol. 54, pages 404-410
2 Professor Mike Parker Pearson, British Archaeology Dec 2006 p7 and The National Trust Magazine, Spring 2009.
3 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 2015