David Jacques, a tutor on Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire (AA309) and U211, describes the results of eleven small excavations he directed with over 100 of his students at Amesbury, Wiltshire, 2005 - 2012. The work has resulted in the discovery of a site, situated about a mile from Stonehenge, which has been described as being “potentially one of the pivotal places in the history of the Stonehenge landscape”, by an inspection team from English Heritage. The uncovering of the earliest place of residence ever found in the Stonehenge landscape is the stand out discovery, but the fact that the site also provides evidence for ritual activity in the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British periods, and possibly beyond, means that a rare and special ‘multi phase’ site has been discovered.
Stonehenge: Vespasian's Camp is to the left of the monument, facing the tree clump.
These excavations were carried out with support made available through David’s Research Associate award (2004-08), further OU Associate Lecturer Development funding 2007-10, and grants from Amesbury Town Council (2009 – present) and English Heritage (2011). David received an Open University Teaching Award for 2010 and has used the cash prize from that to support further work on this project.
From Easter 2012 a team from Reading University’s Archaeology Department will be joining the project and leading the environmental science investigations at the site.
On May 1st Her Majesty the Queen was presented with a selection of tools found at the site during her visit to Salisbury. The whole team are amazed and humbled that our work was chosen as one of the gifts to celebrate the 60th year of her reign.
1st of May 2012- This picture was taken outside Salisbury Cathedral shortly after Her Majesty had been presented with the selection of Mesolithic tools discovered at Vespasian’s Camp by our team.
L-R Queen’s Equerry holding flint tools in a presentation box, Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire, Her Majesty the Queen, Mayor of Amesbury Andy Rhind-Tutt. (Picture Roger Elliot, Salisbury Journal).
Simply because of its geographical location Vespasian’s Camp might have been expected to have had some cultural and phenomenological significance in the prehistoric and early historical periods (see OS map below) The hill on which it stands rises to around 95 metres above sea level and, through its history, it would have had excellent intervisibility with important prehistoric and historic monuments and sites to all points of the compass in the Stonehenge landscape. It also commanded extensive views of the river Avon. But until our small scale excavations the place had received very little academic attention. Why?
OS Map of the area around Vespasians' Camp and Stonehenge: Vespasian's Camp is on the bend of the river Avon, at the place marked 'fort'.
Despite being a scheduled monument on account of it being an Iron Age hill fort, Vespasian’s Camp’s archaeological potential only began to be fully revealed between 1999-2005 as a result of my detailed research of the site’s Estate and nearby farm records. This revealed that widespread assumptions about the extent of Charles Bridgman’s 18th century landscaping of the Camp and surrounding area, which had led to similarly widespread assumptions that the site’s earlier archaeology being largely destroyed, had been wrong. The fact that the site has been in private hands since Tudor times, and that successive landowners have been understandably keen to safeguard the tranquillity and beauty of the place, also helped to create and reinforce the conditions where Vespasian’s Camp became an archaeological blind spot.
Our field work started in 2005 after Sir Edward and Lady Antrobus, the site’s owners, kindly agreed to a meeting on site between their Site Custodian Mike Clarke and me. Mike is a key player in this story because having worked on Vespasian’s Camp for over 30 years he is the most astute observer of its flora, fauna and landscape features. Mike is a natural archaeologist, and when we met it was clear that many of his questions about the site were essentially archaeological ones. We got on very well in that first meeting, and have since, and after whittling six possible targets down to one, he agreed, on the Antrobuses behalf, to allow a small team of 20 to test pit and survey an area north east of the Camp, which lies outside of the Scheduled Monument, known as Blick Mead.
This work went on over a long weekend in the autumn of 2005, and the results pointed to this place having real archaeological potential. We have been invited back to dig there, and to survey other areas of the Camp, every year since, and are the first team to ever be invited back more than once.
Mike and Gilly Clarke, the Custodians of Vespasian's Camp, at one of our OU dig ‘Saturday night curries’ in ‘Tandoori Nights’ in Amesbury.
My examination of the property deeds and the Estate records of this area had in fact revealed that it hadn’t been part of Charles Bridgman’s 18th century landscaping plans at all. Indeed the water feature at Blick Mead, hitherto assumed to have been an 18th century pond, was identified by our geologist, Peter Hoare, as an ancient spring, and the largest of a complex of springs in the immediate area. Springs have the potential for excellent preservation conditions, and with this one’s close proximity to other archaeological sites and the River Avon, as well the fact that springs are increasingly being regarded as ‘special places’ in the early landscape, it was clearly the best target for a close investigation. We have since learned from Reading University’s Head of Environmental Science Nick Branch that this spring might have once been part of a seasonal lake, which only adds to the interest...
The spring at Blick Mead