Henges and Stone Circles in Somerset: Recent Research.

Report of a talk given by Dr Jodie Lewis on 8 May 2012

With Dr Jodie Lewis of Worcester University we got two for the price of one as she told us of her excavations at Priddy circles and the project at Stanton Drew.

The 3rd and 2nd millennia BC were noted for a range of circular monuments built in a variety of materials: earth, timber and stone. Various types have been identified. “Proto-henges” comprise an external ditch and an internal bank. These are contrasted with henges which have a circular bank with a ditch on the inside. Timber circles have been identified by the evidence of post holes. Stone circles make up the fourth category. Sometimes more than one type can occur at the same site as at Stanton Drew.

Noted sites in northern Somerset include Stockwood (near Keynsham), which is a recent discovery, Stanton Drew, Gorsey Bigbury (near Charterhouse) and Priddy Circles.

Concentrating first on the Priddy Circles, Jodie pointed out that they are best seen from the air. There are four circles distributed over 1 kilometre on the plateau to the north east of the village of Priddy on the Mendip plateau. Each has a single entrance though they do not face one another. The distinguishing feature of each is that they have an internal bank surrounded by an external ditch. Their diameter varies from 175 to 192 metres, making them the largest such features in Britain. Circles number 1, 2 and 3 are fairly close together and more or less in a straight line whereas the fourth is further away and somewhat offset.

In 1818 the Rev. Skinner had described them as “Druidical circles formed of a single trench and agger, about 6 feet high by 10 feet wide now little more than 3 feet high.” Even today there is no general view as to what these features are. The dating is much debated and anywhere between the neolithic and medieval periods has been suggested!

In the 1950s some early excavations took place involving the Taylor brothers and E.K. Tratman of the University of Bristol Speleological Society. There seemed to be some evidence that the bank had been enclosed by timber posts. There were no “finds” and the weather conditions were awful. On the basis of his studies Tratman argued that they were henge monuments of the Neolithic period.

In 2008 English Heritage granted Jodie’s team a licence to carry out a new excavation at the site. The brief was to re-open one of Tratman’s earlier trenches. “Cutting 3” was agreed upon. In addition they were permitted to dig a further one metre in each direction beyond the original dig in order to try and clarify the phases of construction and to identify some dating evidence. They found confirmation of the earlier dig in old survey pegs and old trenches. The new excavations revealed that the ditch had not been fully excavated in the 1950s, which allowed them to remove a further 0.5 metres. The dig showed that the structure of the bank was a complex mix of turf and stone. Post-hole spoil was found below the bank and finally, the post-holes had been sealed by a new level of turf. It was therefore possible to discern two phases of construction. In the first a bank composed of stone and two layers of turf was enclosed by timber posts. Subsequently the timbers were removed and the bank was refashioned. Dating evidence was retrieved from the radiocarbon dating of charcoal found in lenses in the ditch fill. Two dates were quoted: 2920-2870 Cal BC from the lower ditch fill and 2880-2500 from the upper ditch fill.

Jodie then discussed the Mendip landscape in which the monuments occur. She referred to the high number of sinks and swallet holes to be found in the area, some even within the circles, and suggested that they would have been of great significance to early people. Quite likely they were viewed as entrances to another world, one inhabited perhaps by the gods, the dead or the ancestors. They would have been seen as an ideal location for placing deposits and making burials. It appears that these holes actually began to open in the Neolithic and it is likely that the people of the time could have actually seen this happening. They must have thought they were witnessing a a supernatural event. Even today new holes are formed and there are accounts of cows disappearing down them. A local farm has produced finds including grooved ware, a skull, and a polished axe-head which originated in central or southern Europe and must have been 500 years old by the time it got here.

Pollen analysis showed that the late Neolithic landscape on Mendip was open and largely unwooded. As at Stonehenge and Cranborne Chase the Priddy circles were built in a setting that had been cleared long before. The sourcing of the timbers was clearly a major operation. Each circle had an estimated 400 posts which would have needed to be transported some distance.

Priddy circle

So what were the Priddy circles and what were they for? Jodie preferred not to use the term henge to describe them on the grounds that the ditches were relatively shallow and because of the different relative positions of bank and ditch. The dating evidence from here and elsewhere suggested that they were somewhat earlier and so she proposed the term “proto-henges”. These were the largest yet found in Britain and there were only 10 in Britain as a whole. Although no human remains have yet been found it seems very likely that they were were associated with the dead. Their form very much fits in with the European western seaboard tradition and comparison can be made with the Stonehenge Aubrey holes, where cremated remains have been dated to the early third millenium BC. Indeed Mike Parker Pearson, who was involved in the recent excavation of Aubrey Hole 7, thought that the Priddy circles could be at least as important as Stonehenge as far as this period of its history is concerned.

Stone circle Stanton Drew

Stanton Drew is the other site with which Jodie Lewis has recently been involved. It lies just east of Chew Magna on the River Chew and is known for its stone circle. In reality there are three circles, two stone avenues and some stone horseshoe arrangements. Geophysics has produced some dramatic results showing nine concentric rings of postholes, suggesting the largest timber circle in western Europe. It also revealed a henge ditch with a disproportionately large entrance which had been completely filled in. It was known that the monuments imply a sequence of events over time rather than a single episode.

The project was known as the Stanton Drew Environs Project and it had three elements. The first was the excavation of an area around a recumbent stone. The second was a programme of field-walking and the third involved taking auger samples in the floodplain of the River Chew.

The reason for excavating the Recumbent Stone was to try and establish whether the stone had fallen near its present location. If so it might be possible to retrieve some dating material. What actually emerged was a collection of smaller stones which were clearly the remains of a building. The building had been demolished by the early to mid thirteenth century as revealed by the pottery finds. The origin of the building was uncertain but it was felt to be well made, though not very large, and probably of agricultural origin. The hole in which the tree lay appeared to have been caused by a fallen tree rather than human action and the stone had been removed from the megalithic complex, rather than being in situ. In other words it was a deliberate act of burial - a rather unusual event in medieval times. A further unexpected outcome from the excavation was the exposing of a wide yet shallow ditch running under (and thus earlier than) the medieval building. The fact that it was of the right proportions for a cursus ditch caused much speculation. The stone has now been granted a new lease of life as a gatepost on the neighbouring farm.

The fieldwalking operation covered six fields around the monument complex. In passing it was noted that there were no Roman remains although there was a large amount of post-medieval material. The main objective however was to collect flints, and 900 were found ranging from the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age (dates 6000-1500BC). The finds were widespread with few concentrations and of poor quality, being of shoddy manufacture. Some were imported and some were made from poor quality local pebbles. There appeared to be a concentration of early Neolithic styles.

The operation in the floodplain took place in very wet conditions and revealed about four metres of alluvium. Most of this had been deposited since the Middle to Late Bronze Age. The exciting implication of this was that the river could have been on a different and rather lower course bringing it closer to the monument itself. This in turn would have had much more impact, appearing to stand much higher in relation to the river than it does today. This brings to mind the arrangement at Durrington Walls with its sudden drop into the floodplain of the Salisbury Avon. Although very speculative this suggests the possibility of parallels with the Wiltshire landscape. Could Stanton Drew have had a similar role to the currently understood one of Durrington Walls in the disposal of the dead? Interestingly Stanton Drew stands about half way along the Chew at about the limit of navigability. The wide opening in the surrounding ditch might represent the course of a processional avenue leading to the river.

In conclusion Jodie took the bold step of suggesting that there may even be a link between the landscapes of Priddy and Stanton Drew. They are two of the largest Neolithic monuments of their type in Western Europe. In that context it can be seen that they are in fact very close together. The river Chew rises in the Mendips at two springs with associated Neolithic long barrows. A curious feature of the river is that the influx of local soil after heavy rain causes the river to run red - a phenomenon that would have made a great impression on earlier inhabitants of the area.

Altogether an enthralling talk and a subject to return to, one suspects.

The Excavation at Priddy Circles is written up in The proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society Vol. 25 Number 2, May 2011. These can be viewed as a PDF at www.ubss.org.uk/resources/proceedings/vol25/UBSS_Proc_25_2_133-163.pdf

See the write-up of the Stanton Drew project on the 'visit' page,

Peter Johnson