Locations Feature Page - Prehistoric Sites

The south-central region probably has more prehistoric sites than elsewhere in England, particularly in Wiltshire, the least populated English county. As southern England’s downland was the only area not covered by ice in the Ice Age, human settlement goes right back to the ‘caveman’ era.
Normallly, due to the extreme antiquity of these sites, nothing is left above ground. However there are still some tumulus [burial] mounds, henge banks, ridgeway paths and a few preserved standing-stone circles from the late Stone Age onward.


Left: A stilll from BBC's Cavegirl pilot, filmed in the New Forest and nearby coast. The setup with the CGI dino skeleton was possibly inspired by the Jurassic Coast, a fossil-rich dinosaurs'-graveyard area running along most of the Dorset coastline.

The post-Ice Age European landscape was originally heathland, and the area is famous for its 'timeless' great heath via the Wessex novels of Thomas Hardy.
 
Pictured: Godlingston Heath (with the 400-ton Agglestone at SZ023/828), part of Studland Heath Nature Reserve.


 

The heathland was slowly overtaken by woodland, first coniferous forest (Caledonian pines etc), and then as the climate warmed up, deciduous forest, with lime, hazel, oak and elm dominating. Both types of woodland still exist locally.

Right: [1] Avon Valley heathland on the E edge of the New Forest, and [2] Caledonian pine wood, Pug's Hole [named for an old smugglers' rendezvous], Bournemouth.


One notable uncultivated woodland site is the Undercliff Wood just W of Lyme Regis [access via by Pound St car park]. It is officially known as the Landslip Nature Reserve as it is a geologically unstable area, and the 6-mile stretch of coast path W to Seaton in East Devon is sometimes closed. It appears onscreen, as itself, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Pictured: The Undercliff appears in the 1972 children's film Wreck Raisers.

Below: Lyme Undercliff Wood, seen from Lyme Regis Cobb. It is said to be as close as one can get to unmanaged prehistoric 'Wildwood.'

Human settlements branched out from the Wiltshire plateau later known as Salisbury Plain, along the "Downland" ridgeways. The high ground was safer for merchant and other civilan travel than the lowland forests below.
Acting as waypoints and rest stops along the ridgeway routes were hilltop settlements. The first settled people, the Neolithic tribes who were as much herders as farmers, lived in communities called by archaeologists causewayed camps or causewayed enclosures, with earthwork banks to contain the herds. The largest causewayed camp in the area is Hambledon Hill near Blandford in north-central Dorset, a 34-acre Neolithic "causewayed camp" with long barrows, at ST 845/125. It was destroyed in an attack c2500 BC, but later re-established.
These also featured long barrows containing communal tombs, and some of these survive in Wiltshire - see Avebury below.

Above: Hambledon Hill, the largest causewayed camp in the area. All that remains are the massive, overgrown ramparts.

Right: the Dorset ridgeway as it appears in Brandy For The Parson [1951]. The standing stones are film props.
Below: part of the Dorset ridgeway route as it appears in Tom Jones [1963]

 
 
Megalithic Sites
In the Stone Age, long-barrows or stone-chambered mounds containing megaliths [from Greek, megas-lithos, large stones], with uprights holding up a dolmen [Celtic, "table-stone"] or capstone, appear, usually clustered near the headwaters of south-coast rivers. These long barrows and their smaller relations, chambered tombs date from 4000 BC to 2500 BC.
Part of the Avebury World Heritage Site, West Kennet Long Barrow is one of the largest, most impressive and most accessible Neolithic chambered tombs in Britain. Built c3650 BC, it was only used for a short time as a communal or clan burial chamber before the chambers were blocked off.
Pictured: West Kennet Long Barrow near Avebury, as it appears in HTV's 1977 Children Of The Stones.


Standing stones called menhirs [Celtic, "tall stone"] were also erected, individually or in elliptical stone circles.

Right: The Mottistone Longstone, the only standing stone on the Isle of Wight, a 3.9m (13 ft) tall sandstone block. The name Mottistone derives from 'moot' or meeting stone.


There were also henge sites with one or more earthwork rings which appear ceremonial rather than defensive (the ditches are inside the banks).

Knowlton Rings in E Dorset was a Neolithic (one dating is 2500-1700 BC) ceremonial henge site, later taken over by the Church in the Norman Era, under a policy of building over pagan sites. English Heritage cleared away the underbrush, so the site is now fully accessible.


Stone Circles were the final development of the Megalithic, these being dated from 3500 to as late as 1000 BC (Bronze Age), evidently with lunar or solar alignments. Dorset has only one extant, Winterborne Abbas's Nine Stones at SY 611/904, a small circle in a wood by a busy road, but there are several large sites in Wiltshire, most famously Stonehenge and Avebury.
Right: Avebury - the village was built over the original henge site, but the ring of stones remains partly intact. It played 'Milbury' in HTV's 1977 SF serial Children Of The Stones, its most extensive onscreen use so far.

Part of Stonehenge & Avebury World Heritage Site, Silbury Hill is a unique giant artificial chalk mound, at 39.3m (129 ft) high the tallest such in Europe; comparable in size to some of the smaller Egyptian pyramids. Built in stages by a huge workforce during the 24th C BC, its purpose is unknown.

Right: Silbury [1] as it first appears in HTV's 1977 Children Of The Stones, and [2] as seen from the roadside opposite.

 
Some Avebury stones appear to have faces. In Children Of The Stones, some polystyrene stones were added for story purposes, but the photos at right show the actual stones. You can also see faces in the stones in the still from the made-for-TV romantic drama Walk Away And I Stumble [2005], below.
Stonehenge World Heritage Site

Stonehenge is the best-known prehistoric site in Britain, perhaps in the world, and needs no introduction here. It has appeared on screen many times, most often in adaptations of Hardy's Tess Of The D'Urbervilles since the finale (Tess's capture) takes place there. (Right: Stills from BBC 2008 version.)

Below: Stonehenge's earliest dramatic appearances onscreen were probably in The Small Back Room [1948] and Night Of The Demon [1957].

 

Above:
Stonehenge made early colour widescreen appearances in the opening scene of The Moonraker [1957] and the honeymoon-trip sequence of The Tomb Of Ligeia [1964].
Right: As it appears in the 2006 Rosamunde Pilcher romantic drama Die Liebe ihres Lebens made for German state tv ZDF.

Stonehenge now regularly appears in fantasy films and tv series. Sometimes this is a replica, as in Stonehenge Apocalypse [2010], but usually it is the actual site with location filming enhanced by CGI effects, cf in Doctor Who -'The Pandorica Opens' [2010], Thor: The Dark World [2013], and Transformers - The Last Knight [2017].

Pictured right: Doctor Who S05E12 'The Pandorica Opens' - [1] a location scene and [2] a CGI-enhanced flashback scene.


Bronze Age
At the start of the Bronze Age, sometime between 3000 and 2000 BC, the Neolithic communal long barrows were increasingly replaced by the individual-grave round barrows of the first metal-workers, the Beaker Folk, whose skulls show them to have been a shorter, more round-headed people. (The archeologists' truism is long barrows = long heads; round barrows = round heads.) Their development of metal working means that their sites are classed as both Stone Age and Bronze Age. The designation Beaker People comes from their funerary rite of burying their dead, including children, with a beaker or cup. The fact these are individual graves means that there are far more of these (over 2,000 in Dorset).

Above: the Cursus Barrows in the field opposite Stonehenge, and below, the NT interpretation signboard.


Above: a round barrow on Swyre Head in the Purbecks. Many were dug into by treasure hunters before they were protected by legislation. They were almost always constructed on headlands or ridgeway routes. For example, Nine Barrow Down, running between Corfe Castle and Studland in the Purbecks, actually has 9 large and 8 smaller round barrows. Around 1200 BC, round barrows were abandoned in favour of unmarked flat graves called Urnfield cremation sites.

Left: a screenshot from Children Of The Stones showing ley lines converging on the village.
"Ley" lines shown as map alignments remain elusive as to their real existence as well as to date. On the ground, existing sites demonstrating intervisibility i.e. they visibly line up from hill to hill in an almost straight line over miles of countryside, are taken to represent "site continuity," with the site used from the Neolithic through the Mediaeval eras. Prehistoric straight-line tracks were often characterised in old maps and guides as later "Roman roads," but Alfred Watkins, author of The Old Straight Track [1926] and the main proponent of ley lines, felt strongly that they were pre-Roman. (Ordnance Survey maps now list actual Roman roads more reliably.)
Research into ley-line alignments has come up with a useful mnemonic acronym which embraces the various site types -- SCEMB: Stones (standing stones or stone circles), Cairns or Camps (pre-Roman "causewayed camps"), Earthworks, Mounds, and Barrows (including dolmen stones).


Henges (earthen rings with ditches inside) actually became more common in the Bronze Age. Some archaeologists argue there was a fundamental change around 2400 BC from lunar to solar calendars and rituals, demonstrated by the new orientation of earthwork sites, from lunar (rising-moon set-points etc) to solar (solstice set-points etc).
Chalk figures, i.e. figures carved in hillsides by exposing the chalk underlying the turf, are a landscape feature associated with the prehistoric period, though they are in fact undateable, and have to be annually recut to avoid their becoming overgrown. There are a number of chalk horses on the Wiltshire Downs, though many of these were carved in historical times, in emulation of earlier figures.
Most famous and controversial is a human figure, the Cerne Abbas Giant, in central Dorset, who is of unknown antiquity.
Right: the Cerne Abbas Giant, as he appears in an episode [S06E06] of Men Behaving Badly.

 


Badbury Rings
Iron Age
Taking the end of the prehistoric era as the start of written history in the Roman era (in 43 AD), we can also include the Celtic Iron Age, with its many tribal hillforts. These are characterised by massive ditch-and-bank combinations. The earth excavated to form a defensive ditch is built up as the base of an earthen wall, atop which a timber palisade would be built. (Obviously, the latter are long gone, though they can be recreated onscreen by CGI.) The Keltic towns were often hill-forts, whose final style, involving multiple dykes [to defeat sling-stone attacks], was called multivallate (as at Maiden Castle).
The Celtic hill-forts were the battle-sites in Vespasian's campaign of AD 44-5. Some were taken over by the Romans for use as signal or police posts (eg Hod Hill, Dorset's largest hillfort), as temples, or even sports arenas (as at Maumbury Rings at Dorchester). Badbury Rings [ST964/030], an 18-acre Iron Age fort, pictured above, became a Roman crossroads strongpoint.

After AD 45, Roman roads appeared, though these were not necessarily straight, and often overlaid simply older tracks. Puddletown Heath for example has a mile of Roman road on Forestry Commission land. Major roads were built on an agger or bank, and resemble disused-railway embankments. Lowland roads were developed when the woods were cleared more substantially using the heavy iron axe and plough introduced by the Celtic Britons after 500 BC as primary Iron Age technology, and whose effects are also seen in the spread of "Celtic fields" or strip lynchet terraced fields still visible on some hillsides.

Iron Age Britons lived in round thatched-roof huts, as shown by reconstructions, e.g. at Upton Country Park in Poole, or at Butser near Petersfield in Hampshire, pictured right.


Britain's prehistoric era came to an end with the Roman occupation. Although it lasted for centuries, surprisingly little survives in the way of physical remains above ground. Roman towns known as "colonia" were established, as with Dorset's County Town of Dorchester (Roman "Durnovaria"), but only a few town-house foundations, plus a ludus or sports arena, have survived.

 
Above: Maiden Castle hillfort ramparts as they appear in Far From The Madding Crowd [1967]


Above: South Cadbury Hillfort in Somerset. The main surviving feature of the dozens of hillforts in the region are the vistas in every direction.

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