1. Neolithic Ground Axe-heads and Monuments in Wessex

Flint is indigenous to Wessex; ubiquitous, both in its nodular form obtained directly from the chalk and as secondary material found in solifluction deposits or river gravels. It is easily obtained, particularly where river valleys cut through chalk deposits or where seams break out on the surface. For millennia prior to the Neolithic it had been widely utilised, and there is much evidence of the material (or at least tools made from it) being carried good distances. The raw material for flint tools found in the Mendip caves, for example, must have come from the Wiltshire Downs and its presence there indicates that the chalk played its part in procurement strategies quite early in the post-glacial period. Upper Palaeolithic sites at Hengistbury Head also used this material, and paths trodden and patterns of movement established during the earlier Holocene may have become traditional by the early Neolithic. Alan Saville (1982) estimated that during the Neolithic over 1000 nodules per year were leaving the Wessex Downs for Gloucestershire alone.

Similar trends can be detected by considering the distribution of tranchet axe-heads, most of which are likely to be Mesolithic in date (Field 2008, 27, fig. 3.1). Although a broad scatter occurs on the chalk, there is a tendency for them to concentrate in the river valleys, notably the Avon and its tributaries, but there is also a particular emphasis on the coastal plain. It is evident that the chalk, with its major resource of natural flint, is no more favoured for settlement than anywhere else. The picture, however, is only partial as the coastline lay much further to the south during the earlier part of the Holocene and sites found along the present shore will have originally lay a good distance inland. Given the underwater work off of Bouldnor Cliff on the Isle of Wight by Garry Momber (2000) that has revealed Mesolithic material, along with accounts of other finds dredged up from around the coast (e.g. Verhart 1995), it might be fair to expect the sort of recovery rate experienced on the present coastal plain to be found right across the more extensive terrain, particularly close to former shorelines. We know that this is likely. While river and beach flint was available in these areas, depending on location, a journey of 40km or more might be necessary to obtain good-quality natural flint nodules from the chalk.

A blue-grey siliceous material known as Portland Chert, after its major source, was a good substitute, which was available from close to the coastal plain at Portland Bill (Palmer 1999), and its aesthetic qualities resulted in it being carried along the coast and inland, reaching as far as Surrey in the Weald. The largest accumulation, however, lies around what is now the mouth of the River Avon in precisely the same location as the greatest cluster of tranchet axe-heads. By the fifth millennium, and probably before, materials were therefore reaching the area around Bournemouth and Christchurch from at least two separate locations. While flint may have arrived from inland via the River Avon, Portland Chert could have arrived by sea.

The jadeite axe-head found alongside the River Avon at Breamore, Hampshire, must have arrived by sea as there is no known source of this material in the British Isles. It is a long slender axe-head, the type formerly described by Alan Woolley and others as the 'torpedo' type (Woolley et al. 1979); a form often depicted on the tombs around Carnac in Brittany. Until recently its age was estimated by comparison with another find of jadeite from beneath the Sweet Track in Somerset and dated by dendrochronology to 3806 BC, but the work of Pierre Pétrequin and colleagues on jadeites has changed that (Pétrequin et al. 2006). Pétrequin suggests that it is an unusual type, but found in association with long tumuli in Brittany between 4500 and 4300 and not used after that date (pers. comm.). Either it was brought to the British Isles hundreds of years later as an heirloom or symbolic relic, or ground axe-heads were in use in Britain much earlier than imagined. There are just a few indications that the latter could be the case. A number of flint mines in Sussex have pre-monument horizon radiocarbon dates of around 4000 cal BC and those are from shafts that appear to represent a mature stage of the sites' development, while a single date of 4230-4190 or 4150-3780 for one of the pits at Martin's Clump also hints at an earlier genesis (Barber et al. 1999). An early date of 4350-3990 cal BC has recently come from a flake scatter of Group VII material beneath a cairn at Graiglwyd (Williams and Davidson 1998, 19; Williams pers. comm.). Some support for these dates is provided by the recovery of a ground flint axe-head butt along with carinated bowl pottery in a well-dated deposit at Down Farm, Sixpenny Handley. At 4250-3980 cal BC (Green 2000; pers. comm., but cf. French et al. 2007 for a note of caution) this is the earliest dated ground axe-head in Britain and, made of indigenous material, its presence implies that the technique of grinding flint came to these shores well before that date. In contrast, there are similarly few hints that items may have been curated for long periods. The, probably cattle, long bone recovered from stone hole 27 of the sarsen circle at Stonehenge produced a radiocarbon date of 4360-3990 cal BC (OxA-4902), while two mandibles and a cattle skull placed on the ditch floor may also have been curated and kept in circulation before being deliberately placed there (Serjeantson 1995, 442, 449). The identity of artefacts is sometimes discussed in the literature (e.g. Edmonds 1998, 263-5), but this serves to emphasise that some pieces could have had very lengthy biographies.

The impact of the introduction of the Breamore jadeite must have been enormous. Aesthetically perfect and of an unusual translucent pale green colour, despite its slender profile it had enormous strength and the inhabitants of Wessex will have seen nothing like it. The biography of the piece, however, may have been of even greater importance, it having been carried from a distant land where, in turn, it may have been thought to have had mythical and potentially supernatural origins. Pétrequin and colleagues have analysed this axe-head and confirmed that it is made from jadeite originating on Monte Beigna, north of Genoa, an area of snow-capped mountains of immense grandeur and far greater height than anything that Salisbury Plain had to offer. Mimicry might be expected. Yvan Pailler has searched for copies of the form and found them (pers. comm.). Since Reginald Smith's analysis in 1921 (Smith 1921-22), pointed butt ground axe-heads have been considered an early form, although with an origin in Scandinavia rather than further south in Europe. It is noteworthy that the flint axe-head from the Down Farm shaft has a pointed butt. This is not to suggest that all pointed butt axe-heads had the same origins and date, simply that there was a mental template available. Other jadeites of different form arrived along the south coast as did axe-heads from a mountain, Teivebulliagh in Northern Ireland, and given the distribution pattern appear to have been moved inland along the river systems. The mouth of the River Avon is thus likely to have become an important locale in the transmission of both materials and ideas.

Axe-heads from Wessex were among the first to be analysed petrologically. The sub-committee of the south-western Museums Association was established in 1936 and Alexander Keiller, Stuart Piggott and F.S. Wallis produced a series of distribution maps depicting the location of artefacts made of rock from other parts of Britain and which they were able to 'group' together as rock types (Keiller et al. 1941). Those of rock Group VI, then thought to derive from the Stake Pass area of Cumbria, were seen to form a concentration in north Wiltshire around Windmill Hill and Avebury. However, more recent analysis of similar artefacts elsewhere in Wessex demonstrates a slightly different distribution and there are in fact as many on the coastal plain as further inland. Similar distribution patterns occur for axe-heads made of rock from Cornwall and Wales, but it is the flint axe-heads that really demonstrate the favoured locales. Christchurch at the mouth of the River Avon is again important and there is also a group along the spring line in Cranborne Chase as well as on the Greensand around Tisbury, along with a massive accumulation around Basingstoke. These contrast markedly with the location of contemporary monuments, long barrows and causewayed enclosures that are located around the fringe of the chalk. Also quite noticeable, particularly given the amount of fieldwork in the vicinity, is the comparative lack of stone axe finds around Stonehenge.

A total of 1175 ground axe-heads of flint have been recorded from the region, many of them broken or in fragmentary condition, and over 400 pecked and/or ground axe-heads made of rocks other than flint. The greater number of these comprise surface finds. Of rocks grouped by the Implement Petrology Committee, few provide certain evidence of archaeological activity in the fourth millennium. Axe-heads of Group VI rock from Cumbria were found in primary levels at Windmill Hill and Group VIII from south Wales was possibly primary at Windmill Hill, and there are fourth millennium dates for Group XVII at Maiden Castle. Aside from those at Windmill Hill, only six other axe-heads of Group VIII rock are present, two of which came from a later context at the Wyke Down henge; the others divided equally between Coastal Plain and Chalk downland locations. Again coastal positions are well represented among Group VI, with a focus in the Bournemouth region, but they are also present along the chalk downland spring line. The intensity of archaeological investigations on the chalk may account for many of the downland finds and without them the contrast is likely to be greater.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The area around the head of the River Kennet in North Wiltshire showing the distribution of broken and complete axe-head finds plotted against the drainage pattern. The great accumulations in the west centre of the map are those on the slopes around Windmill Hill and Avebury. Background illustration by Deborah Cunliffe.

The North Wiltshire Downs provide some contrast to Salisbury Plain. Depicted (Fig. 1) is the watershed of the River Kennet, a tributary of the Thames, but it is also the source of other Thames tributaries as well as the Bristol Avon. Nevertheless axe-heads of all groups can be seen distributed along watercourses. There is one cluster in the north-east around Aldbourne (material in Devizes Museum), but the major accumulation is on the southern slopes of Windmill Hill near Avebury, adjacent to the well-known causewayed enclosure (material in Avebury and Devizes Museums). Here an enormous number of stone axe-heads have been recovered, most of them broken or fragmentary, 14 of which were among the first analysed by Wallis for the Implement Petrology Committee. A massive number of flint axe-heads accompany them from the same slopes, while large numbers have also come from excavations in the causewayed enclosure ditches on top of the hill (Smith 1965, 100-3; Whittle et al. 1999, 318-37). Finds of other types of flint tool from the slopes are equally impressive, notably arrowheads – leaf, petit tranchet and barbed and tanged are all present, which numerically reach several hundred and match the large numbers found at Christchurch (Gardiner 1987) and around Basingstoke. This seems to point to similar activities taking place on these slopes over a very long period of time, even after new monuments at Avebury and West Kennet might be expected to have taken precedence.

Most of the material from the enclosure itself came from the upper levels of the ditches, only three pieces being in a primary context, two fragments of Group VI, a piece of Group XI material, with the possibility of a piece of Group VIII rock from a late stage of the filling (Smith 1965, 110-24; Whittle et al 1999, 338-41). Otherwise Groups I, IIa, VI, VI, VIII, XI, and XII are all represented, although Groups VI and VIII have the greatest presence. All of the ditches contained some material but the greatest intensity was in the Middle Ditch, from where 12 pieces were recovered. What this means in terms of dating is best left until the results of the new dating programme by Alex Bayliss, Alasdair Whittle and Frances Healy are announced, but broadly we can expect Groups VI and XI to have arrived by the second quarter of the fourth millennium.

Being situated on Middle Chalk, Windmill Hill is not a flint source and the nearest fresh flint is several kilometres away. It is of no surprise that flint artefacts and waste are relatively small, even broken axe-heads being reused as cores and scrapers. In fact almost all of the axe-heads are broken or fragmentary and consequently it is difficult to be absolutely certain of form, although it is possible to make out at least ten with facetted sides. Isobel Smith felt that, because of the high quality of the flint, like the stone axe-heads, the flint axes had been almost entirely imported as finished tools. Certainly the pearl grey material stands out visually as distinct from local material and seven fragments from the 1988 excavations were described by Josh Pollard as being 'creamier' in colour than the rest of the assemblage. Six flint axe-head fragments came from primary levels, though it was thought that many of those in such positions also derived from earlier occupation. Josh Pollard analysed them and found that 28 derived from the Inner Ditch, 31 from the Middle Ditch and 12 from the Outer, a distribution similar to that of stone axe-heads (Pollard in Whittle et al. 1999). The remarkable point about these axe-heads is that, in contrast to those deposited in rivers, they are broken and fragmented and unless breakage was deliberate, might be taken to indicate utilitarian use on the site rather than ritual activity. Equally, Pollard has pointed out that they were not being passed onwards and so the enclosure did not appear to have a marketing function in terms of axe-head redistribution.

Elsewhere in Wessex there are equally few firm associations. Other causewayed enclosures at Knap Hill, Robin Hood's Ball, Rybury and White Sheet Hill are devoid of ground axe-heads, though numbers occur at both Maiden Castle and Hambledon Hill. Single jadeite and nephrite axe-heads have been recovered from Hambledon Hill along with at least 21 broken axe-heads and flakes (Smith 2008), including material from Groups I, IV, VI, VII, XVI and XVII; 33 flint axe-heads, almost all of which are fragmentary; as well as three complete flint axe-heads from an excavation by Desmond Bonney that are now, unfortunately, lost. Material from the excavations at Hambledon awaits publication, but it may be that the site performed a similar role to Windmill Hill and fieldwalking on the flanks may reveal similar quantities of material. Fewer pieces were recovered from Maiden Castle. Just eight ground flint axe-heads were found in fieldwalking, mostly to the north of the causewayed enclosure, while Wheeler's excavation (Wheeler 1943) produced six broken and fragmentary ground flint axe-heads along with fourteen stone axe-heads, four of which were of Group IVa. More recent excavations by Niall Sharples (1991) revealed a further two stone axe-heads, again of Group IVa, only one of which was complete.

No axe-heads have been recovered from long barrows with the possible exception of King Barrow in Wiltshire, where a fragment of purple stone, illustrated by Philip Crocker (Crocker, mss Devizes Museum), was among the finds recorded by William Cunnington (Eagles and Field 2004) and there is an axe-head from the Roman levels of Wor Barrow ditch, excavated by General Pitt Rivers (1898). Two ungrouped greenstone axe-heads were also found in the bank barrow matrix at Maiden Castle (Wheeler 1943, 164-6).

Aside from the flint axe-head butt from the Down Farm shaft already mentioned, the earliest dated axe-head in the region is from a pit known as 'the Anomaly' on Coneybury Hill overlooking both the Avon Valley and Stonehenge Bottom. Only the butt was placed in the pit, along with plain and carinated bowl pottery and cattle, deer, pig and beaver bone. It is of a type that appears to have come from a flint mine rather than being made of the local material and has a radiocarbon date of 4040-3640 at 2 sig or 3980-3708 1 sig (Richards 1990).

Excavations at Durrington Walls revealed a complete ground flint axe-head with lenticular cross-section recovered from beneath the bank, along with a leaf arrowhead, scrapers and plain bowl pottery (Wainwright and Longworth 1971), while an axe-head was found in a similar position at Mount Pleasant (Wainwright 1979). Numbers of ground flint axe-heads have been found in the fields around the Avebury henge, but as at Durrington there is little to link them with the monument itself, and there is consequently little evidence of the henges having played a major role in distribution.

There continued to be a symbolic fascination, however. It may be worth mentioning the two small chalk axe-heads with pointed butt and triangular shape from Hole A16 at Woodhenge, almost certainly made for immediate burial, and a fragment of another from Stonehenge. At Upton Lovell G2a, two skeletons were found in a pit beneath a shallow barrow, one lying on its back and the other in a sitting position. At the feet of the prone skeleton was a group of over 36 sharpened and perforated bones along with three pointed butt and partly reflaked ground flint axe-heads (Hoare 1812, 75-7). The larger skeleton had a battle axe-head at the chest and with these items were a broken shale or jet ring and a dished stone, now thought to have been used for gold working, that is, after c.2005 BC. Whether interpreted as the burial of a shaman or goldsmith, it suggests that ground axe-heads were still being used for certain special or ceremonial purposes at the beginning of the metal age. A specimen of bos primigenius found in peat at Burwell Fen, Cambridgeshire, with an edge-ground axe-head embedded in its forehead (Babbington 1864) and a radiocarbon date in the third millennium, might represent the kind of activity ritually undertaken.

Despite the presence of metal, use of ground axe-heads continued well into the Bronze Age and a series of finds of fragments in round barrows – Woodlands G5, Hurn G1, Wimborne St Giles G9, and Collingbourne Kingston G6 – may be residual or remnants of once treasured and curated heirlooms (Clough and Cummins 1988).

Whether the early flint mine at Martins Clump on Porton Down had origins in the Mesolithic is unknown at present. In contrast to the Sussex sites the land here is not particularly high or awe-inspiring, but it lies at the head of a bowl or natural amphitheatre where flint is relatively close to the surface. Its location, situated within a secret research establishment, has resulted in limited archaeological investigation, but enough has been done to determine that it differs from other flint mines in the south of England. The small pits are discrete and widely spaced and the site did not develop the monumentality that others did, and construction of a long barrow on the fringe of the site might conceivably have announced the end of extraction.

The mine on Easton Down is rather different. Its location, around the upper end of a narrow coombe is unusual; the shafts are larger in scale, but there are fewer of them and they are irregularly spaced. Indeed, of the six shafts excavated by J.F.S. Stone in the 1930s, only two encountered a flint seam and one of those continued down, evidently in search of a better product. The others were abandoned at relatively shallow depths. This is curious given that flint must have outcropped around the coombe sides and so was easily traced. The seams may even have acted as a perched water table and provided a potential spring line in wet weather. With so many abortive shafts it may be worth considering whether flint was in fact the prime objective or whether it was water or perhaps the chalk itself (?for paint). Discussion in recent years has highlighted the Neolithic interest in cavities in the ground. A 7m deep shaft was excavated through a curious sunken barrow floor at the centre of a pit circle at Monkton up Wimborne on Cranborne Chase (Green 2000). A thin flint seam at the base was unusable but would have held back water and the excavator suggested that white body paint may have held a certain symbolic value (pers. comm.). Similarly, an estimated 45 shafts reaching over 6m in depth were cut into the base of the henge ditch at Maumbury Rings with placed deposits of carved chalk, bone and pot fragments at the base (Bradley 1976). It has been suggested that the shafts at Eaton Heath in Norfolk may be sink holes (Healy 1986, 57-8). Nevertheless, in the Mendips, a landscape of natural sink holes, some at least were entered in the Neolithic (Lewis 2005), while Ann Woodward (2000) has drawn attention to barrow cemeteries in association with sink holes at Poor Lot, Bronkham Hill and Bryants Puddle Heath in Dorset. Jodie Lewis (2005) has described Neolithic material, including grooved ware fragments, found placed at various depths in Mendips examples and, crucially from our point of view, a complete ground and polished greenstone axe-head with pointed butt and triangular form, apparently in imitation of a jadeite, placed in a niche some 10m below the surface. Others have described the common links between these kinds of sites, caves, and fissures as an interface with a supernatural domain and there is little point pursuing the matter here, but it is worth noting that similar perceptions and mythologies have also been applied to flint mines.

None of the Wessex flint mines appear to have developed in the same way as those in Sussex and, in contrast to Martin's Clump, based on artefacts and a single radiocarbon date, both Durrington and Easton Down are thought to be relatively late complexes, although there is some uncertainty about Easton Down (Barber et al. 1999). Given the small size of the pits at Martin's Clump, and the abortive pits at Easton Down, it seems rather unlikely that the bulk of the Wessex axe-heads came from these sites, and a remaining option is that flint axe-heads were being transported from the huge Sussex mines. Interestingly, this would accord with the trace element analysis carried out by Paul Craddock and colleagues at the British Museum in 1983. In that analysis, axe-heads from Windmill Hill were compared with surface flint from nearby and found to have a different signature, one that compared closely with that of Sussex mines (Craddock et al. 1983). Of course there were problems inherent in this, not least the restrictions noted by the authors, but it is nevertheless interesting that over 50% of Wessex axe-heads were considered by them to come from Sussex. Despite the ubiquity of flint in Wessex there continues to be something distinctive about ground axe-heads and their source material that takes us back to the ridiculously long axe-heads depicted on Carnac tombs, to the enormous numbers ritually thrown into the River Thames at London, and evidently deposited in inaccessible submerged landscapes at the Dogger Bank (Clough and Cummins 1988, 216: IPC Yorkshire Nos 700 and 701 Skipton Museum Accession Nos A 38a and b), or the Brown Bank (Jan Glimmerween pers. comm.), which must have been 10m below water at the time that these deposits took place. It may be that further investigation of the river margins in Wessex and the submerged landscape off the south coast may bring to light similar material.


While the distribution of flint and stone axe-heads in Wessex is mirrored in other tool types, aside from the exceptional cases of the three major enclosures, Windmill Hill, Maiden Castle and Hambledon Hill, it contrasts quite markedly with that of the well-known monuments. Instead, the epi-centre of activity is at the mouth of the River Avon, from where axe-heads of non-local stone may have been introduced and dispersed, rather than inland around Stonehenge, while there are other important concentrations of activity around Tisbury and Basingstoke. In the search for explanations the monument concentration on the chalk of Wiltshire can be seen to be a product of medieval and post-medieval land-use, which has produced a biased survival record. This reveals some exciting prospects. It is evident that the search for settlement, at least in part, has been misdirected and there are now some interesting new locales to investigate.


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