Ben Robinson flies over Wiltshire to reveal new evidence about Stonehenge that explains the reason for its location and how long ago it was occupied.
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Nothing in our landscape is here by accident.
It's all part of the incredible story of how people have
shaped our country over thousands of years.
Every ridge, every bump, has a meaning.
I'm Ben Robinson, and as an archaeologist it's my job to
unpick the great story we've inherited.
From my perspective, the best way to do that is up here in the air.
I'm flying around Stonehenge, over one of the most intensively
researched landscapes in the UK.
Aerial archaeology is transforming our thinking about these iconic monuments.
We're looking beyond the great hilltop monuments
to the river below,
and it is water that's led us to a very exciting prehistoric site.
Is this proof that people occupied this landscape
thousands of years before Stonehenge was built?
We're flying over Stonehenge in Wiltshire. It's an iconic site,
probably the best-known prehistoric site in Britain,
probably in the world, actually.
The aerial perspective is giving us a whole new
view of the landscape in which it sits.
It's not an isolated monument, it's not on its own - it's in a great
prehistoric landscape, and I can see traces of that all around me.
This is where archaeology from the air really began.
In 1906, Second Lieutenant Philip Henry Sharpe took
a photograph from a tethered balloon - this photograph.
I'm in about the same position that he was in,
and it's a real privilege to share the same airspace.
His photographs caused a sensation in the archaeological world.
People were amazed by what you could see from the air,
but since those days,
aerial archaeology has discovered more than
even he could have dreamt of.
Those early pictures revealed
other ancient earthworks, exciting in itself,
but since then, English Heritage has been building a library
of photographs that show the landscape in ever-greater detail.
We can now see how these individual monuments are linked.
We're realising that there's a difference
between our ancestors' use of the hilltops and the valleys.
Many of the sites on the hillsides relate to burial.
Aerial photography has recently revealed a previously unknown
long barrow, more than 5,000 years old at Damerham, 20 miles south of Stonehenge.
Different colours in the crops hinted that one patch of land
was just a bit drier than the surrounding field.
This site is an interesting case study in aerial archaeology
because on one particular occasion there was a vague,
more enigmatic crop mark.
It didn't fit the usual pattern, but there was enough there to
suggest that something interesting was going on in that field.
You're standing on a massive mound.
A mound that's 80 metres long over there,
and it finishes just where the break of slope is down there.
Helen Wickstead is co-director of the Damerham Archaeological Project,
which aims to investigate this Neolithic burial mound.
It was probably built over 5,000 years ago,
about the time Stonehenge was first created.
And we're still nowhere near the bottom of it.
And imagine all the chalk in a huge ditch
stretching 80 metres over there,
another huge ditch 80 metres over there,
piled up by people using antler picks and baskets, most probably.
Cos we're in the middle of a whole landscape,
an invisible landscape, a kind of hidden landscape of crop marks,
only visible from the air now, and most of those are in that state
because they've been ploughed and they've been flattened by the plough.
It's very unusual today to be able to excavate a barrow that
hasn't been plundered by treasure hunters in the past.
I'm really looking forward to this.
Neolithic long barrows are really, really rare,
and it's even rarer to find one that hasn't been dug into by
antiquarians, or has been totally plough-levelled.
What we've got here is an opportunity to understand
one of these monuments in a modern, scientific way.
The team of amateur
and professional archaeologists only has funding for a few weeks.
They hope to excavate this site and find new evidence of ancient lives.
'The project's other director, Martin Barber,
'told me how he first recognised this almost invisible monument.'
So you could easily mistake this as just another little natural undulation in the landscape.
You could, and obviously the way the mound has eroded over the years has made it
sort of look more natural than artificial,
but once you're standing in this sort of position you can get
a real feel for the size of the mound simply by looking
at the way the height of the crop changes, you know.
The mound starts at the end here, and you can just see this rise
effectively forming a horizon, seeing it particularly
against the backdrop of the trees and continuing past the trench over to the far side.
So we've got a mound that's actually 80 metres long,
two metres high, um, completely artificial,
built 6,000 years ago, that looks like a perfectly natural piece of hillside.
The aerial photographs that I first saw didn't give a hint of it being a Neolithic long mound at all.
There was this sort of almost sort of shapeless splodge which was
actually caused by the fact that the soil conditions were so dry
that the crop on top of the mound had died, rather than
producing the normal colour variation or height variation you would see.
It wasn't until I actually came here and drove down the track behind us
and saw the profile for myself that I realised I was actually dealing
with a very large mound that looked like a Neolithic long barrow,
but large enough to make me wonder why nobody had spotted it before.
Because it is very big.
The enormous size of this mound suggests it must contain
a burial chamber, constructed to enclose the dead.
These mounds sometimes have, say, the bones of up to 50 individuals,
not necessarily in the mound as complete skeletons.
Sometimes in the mound there's bits of bone that have been kept
and left there or that have been left out in various ways.
So in the Neolithic we're talking at that time of very interesting
location that obviously has the dead as a significant part of it.
Alongside that, animal bone.
We have things like head and hooves deposits,
so probably hides,
cos those are the bits of cows' skeleton that are left behind.
We have other deposits of work flint and ceramics as well.
And then, so that relatively small little area
is in use for some time, and then this massive mound -
far, far bigger than is necessary to close that building.
Now why, why such a huge mound?
And perhaps one reason why is that the process of building the mound is important.
With only days left to go, little has been found,
but then a skeleton appears.
Unfortunately it's neither Neolithic nor human,
just a mediaeval last sheep.
But that's archaeology for you!
Still, this Neolithic site is another piece of evidence to add
to our understanding of why early people placed their monuments
where they did.
There's a magnificent white horse down there.
it looks as though it could be prehistoric, but it's not.
It was built in about 1812,
and it's really just the whim of a local landowner that put it there.
But there's some very interesting archaeological sites down there.
This is an intriguing landscape.
The horse is perched right on the edge of the downs,
it's visible for miles around.
But there are other features - I can see other,
more subtle, but more interesting, features surrounding it.
All these prehistoric sites occupy the same ridge-top position.
When first constructed, the burial mounds, the barrows,
would have been stark white chalk.
They would have been highly visible, as visible as the white horse
to the prehistoric people that lived on the low lands.
Of course, the view from above is not one the ancients ever saw.
They got their views from the hilltops.
And that's the key to why they chose this dry,
chalky escarpment as the burial crowd for their dead.
I'm here on the edge of the downs.
There's Salisbury plain over there. Knap Hill, with its Neolithic enclosure
is just over there, and right in front of me, Adam's Grave,
great Neolithic long barrow.
This is a really dramatic place, a fantastic landscape.
Very exposed, and that's the idea.
These monuments were meant to be seen,
and they offer great surveillance over the surrounding countryside.
But it's not just up here on the high land where interesting
things can be found, but also down there in the vale,
where perhaps things were a little bit more hidden.
In fact, we're beginning to realise that the valley and especially
the river is every bit as important as the monuments on the hilltops.
Down there is a hidden spring,
and a local man has discovered something very interesting about it.
-So you've got a map to show me.
-I have, yes. This is a 1900 edition.
'David Carson's family has farmed the land here for generations.
'He's found an old map that shows the spring,
'and David thinks it might have been deliberately dug out
'into the shape of a curious three-legged animal.'
So you've already been up in the air, I think,
and seen... There's Adam's Grave there.
That's right, yes, saw that from the air, and also Knap Hill as well.
-So this is on the ridge.
And we've got over here the spring head which we're going to be
looking at shortly, which has been cut into quite an interesting shape,
um, with bits coming off, sticking out,
another bit sticking out there, and then the tail, if you like,
it's almost the shape of an animal leading off down to the south,
which is the source of the River Avon.
And it's not easily seen now
because the trees have grown up all around it. Even from the air you wouldn't be able to see that clearly.
It's a strong indication that the water source was really
important to our early ancestors.
This hidden spring is in fact
the birthplace of the Wiltshire River Avon.
-You can see the water's bubbling even now.
-Right in the centre there.
-There it comes.
So we're just in one corner of the spring complex,
and to our right and to our left, a lot more, so the whole thing
-as you saw from the map, builds up into quite an interesting shape.
-We're just in one arm of it, basically, aren't we?
-That's right, yeah.
We're just in one arm or one leg, or one part of it - whatever you want to call it.
But it's...you know, it's difficult to see in its entirety
from any one spot because of all the trees that are here.
Let's have a look.
Ugh! Still going down.
Still going down...it's stopped.
I've stopped sinking, mercifully with only a few inches to go
to the top of the wellies, but I'm actually standing on quite firm chalk.
And every so often a little bubble comes up...from the ground,
and it is mystical, it is magical, it's incredible.
But the water's so pure, it's so clean, it's wonderful.
And pure, clean water,
would've been tremendously attractive to prehistoric people.
You can see, as well as a practical purpose, that there could well
be symbolism here as well.
This is the very source of the Avon, and the very start of the river.
And if I was to turn around, and walk in that direction,
I'd end up on the south coast.
I'm not going to do it, because this welly has a leak on it,
and it's already going cold and wet,
and it's a very long way in that direction!
So what part might the river have played for our ancestors 5,000 or more years ago?
The vale and the downs seem like two different worlds to me.
And I'm sure that difference would have been even more marked to
The vale feels like it's a nurturing place, it's about life.
The downs and plains - well, I think they can be quite unforgiving.
I think they're more about death and commemoration.
It's not too fanciful to imagine early man having
a connection to the river as a mystical force.
And so many of the new sites we're discovering,
many of them from the air, are close to the River Avon.
One of the most exciting is far, far larger than Stonehenge.
I'm looking for traces of another large prehistoric site,
a massive henge at Marden.
It's basically a great, big enclosed area of bank and a ditch.
It's massive. It's actually quite difficult to spot,
but I think I've just seen it down there.
Yes, there it is. There it is.
I can see a curving line of houses, and there's some interesting
earthworks in the field next door, that's got to be it.
The excavation of Marden Henge in 2010 made world news.
The dig unearthed one of the earliest buildings ever found in Britain.
It was constructed at least 4,000 years ago.
The archaeologists speculate that they found a very early
version of a sauna, complete with a large fire hearth.
With a big hearth like that, one wonders
whether it's perhaps a sweat lodge, a purification ceremony,
before they go into the henge and conduct their ceremonies.
The concept of a sweat lodge or sauna could explain why
a relatively small building would contain such a large hearth.
It's far too big for cooking.
The theory suggests a low wooden hut would've been covered over
with animal skins to contain the heat.
The excavation has ended,
but Jim Leary is still working on interpreting life
in the henge 4,000 years ago.
This is a huge monument. I mean, it's difficult to understand
-how you'd go about constructing this in the Neolithic.
It almost beggars belief, doesn't it, the sheer size of this.
You have to remember that this is 10 times the size of Stonehenge,
and the ditches, although they appear shallow now, of course,
that's 4,500 years of erosion into them,
so you have to imagine them three, perhaps even four metres deep,
and then that material you need to put on the bank,
so the banks were much bigger, the ditches were much deeper,
and that really makes it a very monumental site.
What we do know is that these are ritual, or if you like,
Religious enclosures. Something that was going on here
involved ritual or religion in some way.
We then have the magnificent stone settings of Stonehenge,
but we have something so much more vital.
We have evidence for feasting, and buildings, and people living.
Stonehenge is very much a monument where cremation burials were placed.
It's about the dead. This is about living.
This is the living, breathing people.
These our ancestors, and they created this.
This monument is the archaeologist's, er, dream.
The investigation continues across Marden Henge.
This is a geophysical survey which uses a powerful magnetometer to map
traces of human activity beneath the soil.
We're looking at relatively small areas,
compared to the very huge areas that the aerial photography can
cover, but we are looking at them in great detail, hopefully.
And over this sort of geology we should be able to find something.
And we keep our fingers crossed, we'll have some good results.
Their computer instantly conjures up a ghostly impression
of what lies underground.
The most prominent feature of this plot is obviously the large white circle.
You can see it in the middle here. Now that's a henge monument.
This is the huge ditch. Circling henge.
And that was spotted as a crop mark by our aerial photography
colleagues, but what we think we've got that they hadn't
spotted from the air
is a circle of very subtle post pits within the henge.
And then what was a surprise was,
I don't know if you can see these white straight lines,
they're almost certainly much later Roman ditches, perhaps
enclosures marking out paddocks and that sort of field around a farm.
We'd need to do more investigation to really confirm that.
That's just speculation at the moment,
but it's promising - very promising.
The incredible array of finds included pig bones,
very early pottery, flint tools and arrowheads,
all indicating this site was an important central meeting
place for Neolithic people, and therefore of huge significance.
But I'm especially curious about its links to the river.
What about the connection of this place with water?
Well, there's an absolutely integral link between the henge monument
and the River Avon. The monument itself is actually only D-shaped,
it's not a complete enclosure, and in fact
the whole of the southern side is formed by the River Avon -
a great big meander in the River Avon.
So there's an absolutely integral link with this river, and in
fact there are a number of springs in the middle of the henge as well,
so this is all about water.
This is Hengistbury Head, where the Avon flows into the sea.
Dave Field is the guru of the archaeology along the river.
He's developed a theory that it held powerful magical symbolism,
and that our prehistoric ancestors had a mystical relationship with it.
Can you imagine people gaping at one of these bubbling springs
wondering where the source of life comes from,
and it must be very magical, very magical.
-Well, it seems to come from the centre of the earth.
-It does, it does indeed.
So these things must have been revered in some way.
And I think that's probably why we often find
accumulations of archaeological material around springs.
There would have been some sacredness attached to the water,
perhaps in the same way as we see sacred rivers around the world, the best-known one being the Ganges.
But there are others, South America, all over the place.
And it's very probable, I think, that our rivers were sacred in the
same sort of way, and that people in different parts of the landscape,
along the route of them, celebrated the river in different ways.
You can perhaps imagine that the earlier part of the river
reflects life's journey.
It's youthful, it's young.
Then it grows into middle age, in our sense, around Downton and so on.
And then, down here at Christchurch, it's almost an old person, you know.
It's slow and sluggish, and as it passes into the sea,
it's a different world.
The sea is a different world. And this might be...
might reflect beliefs in society, your passage through life and so on.
So it's easy to see how the river will become a symbolic artefact.
And very, very important for life as well as death.
So if water is central to prehistoric life,
there'll be many more undiscovered sites down in the valleys,
which takes us back to the place where we started - Stonehenge,
but to a time long before it was built.
The site of an excavation in the valley, barely a mile away,
takes us to one of the most important recent discoveries.
We're over Stonehenge,
and I'm looking at the town of Amesbury off in the distance.
There's some parkland on its western fringe and some woodland.
There's a very interesting archaeological site in there,
but there's also some very interesting excavations going on,
and they may be extending the history of this landscape back
thousands of years before Stonehenge was built.
Thinking that water was important led archaeologist David Jacques to
look at an area near a site called Vespasian's Camp.
In 1999, a group of student friends
and myself started to survey this area of Amesbury.
The whole landscape is full of prehistoric monuments,
and it is sort of extraordinary in a way that this has been such
a blind spot for so long, archaeologically.
This is the aerial photographic picture
of a crop mark which really was the trigger for the whole project.
We're very close to the River Avon here.
Vespasian's Camp is just to the other side of it.
In fact, it actually comes all the way down to the river,
but if we have a look at this Ordnance Survey picture,
maybe get a better sense of things.
And you can see just how close Stonehenge is to it.
Works out to be about, um, just over a kilometre away.
In this landscape, you can see why archaeologists and antiquarians,
over the last 200 years, have basically homed in on the monuments.
There is so much to look at and explore.
I suppose, what my team did, which was a slightly sort of fresher
version of that, was look at natural places.
So where were there places in the landscape where you would
imagine animals might have gone to, to have a drink?
You know, my thinking was where you find wild animals,
you tend to find people, certainly hunter-gatherer groups,
coming pretty much afterwards.
What we found, essentially, is the nearest, secure watering hole
for animals and people - a type of all-year-round fresh water source.
It's the nearest one to this place. And I think it's pivotal.
The dig is hidden in a wood which has been in private hands for 400 years.
So it's totally protected from treasure hunters.
Vespasian's Camp was imaginatively named after a Roman emperor.
There's so much coming out of this strata.
But the finds are all suggesting there was regular human activity
here since the Mesolithic period,
several thousand years before the Roman occupation.
Open University students and local volunteers have been washing
and sorting the vast quantity of flint tools and wild
animal bones being unearthed.
Being in a spring at the bottom of the valley means that David's trenches soon fill up with water.
We've got about 12 centimetres packed full of Mesolithic tools,
work flints, um, over 300 animal bones.
But certainly, Ben, what is sort of pretty much from the waterline
down, from my point of view, I think we're all thinking it -
is sensational archaeology.
I think I can see just a little flake or something,
poking out of that section there.
Well, yes. You've got a little flake and, of course, you've got this nice...
something that's very typical of Mesolithic flint where they've
retained the cortex here, so you've actually got a natural grip,
-you know. You've actually got some real purchase on it.
-They really do stand out amongst the natural stones, don't they?
I mean, people just say, "Oh, look. That's just any other old bit of stone."
-But once you know what you're looking for, they really stand out.
-No. Well, what a thrill for us!
You know, this is the first time in, let's say,
8,000 to 9,000 years that anybody's touched that, you know.
The last person, bar two, that held that
and put that in there was a Mesolithic person.
'Even while we're filming, a huge wild boar tusk is found.'
That's a really big one.
You look at the gradient on that, how big that tusk is going to be.
-And was that from the same layer?
-It's the important 71 there.
-Right, right, right.
It's just what we've been talking about. It's basically just below this flint horizon,
where you've got this 12-14 centimetres' worth.
I mean, that is an incredible find!
I mean, doesn't it just underline, Ben,
the sensational quality of the archaeology here?
Wild boars were once common in Britain
and always a delicious source of food.
But Mesolithic hunters also regularly hunted and butchered the aurochs,
the original, gigantic wild cattle, almost twice the size of modern cows.
Alas, the poor aurochs were later driven to extinction.
-Are you visualising the beast that this belonged to?
And since we knew that some of them were being cooked, you're then
thinking about how people would have cooked it,
what techniques they used, you know.
They didn't have pots at that time, so presumably, roasting, and...
-It does set your imagination going.
-These are huge animals, aren't they?
Massive and quite ferocious. How do you think they brought something like that down?
There must have been an awful lot of teamwork involved.
But it's hard for us to imagine, isn't it?
David is very excited because all the evidence
so far points to this place having been occupied by our ancestors
at least 3,000 years before Stonehenge was built.
Samples of the animal bones have been sent to the laboratory to be carbon dated.
If David is right, it will prove his theory of continuous
occupation at this site, long before Stonehenge was even thought of.
-I mean, this must have been a special place.
2,000 years of activity are coming back again and again and again.
Right. I mean, you know, it blows your brain.
You just think, well, that's sort of how long London's been settled for.
It's just on that scale, you know.
Most of the oldest cities in Great Britain, you know,
can't go back that far, and yet, here we are, in this little nook
at the bottom of a hill with a river running round it, and it probably had more people
coming to it in the Mesolithic than it's had people coming ever since.
This type of thing throws up far more questions than it answers,
but the very few answers that we've got are incredibly significant.
Some sort of seed or plant of some sort.
Then David gets the latest results from the carbon-dating laboratory.
Well, we all know that we've been really struggling to be able to fund...
to get the funds for carbon dates.
So we've had two so far that are Mesolithic,
so they're between 6,250 BC and 4,700 BC.
Um, I mean, those dates are brilliant,
but definitely it's a case of three being a lot more than two.
So I can now give you the results.
I've just come off the phone from the Glasgow lab.
And the date is 5,400 BC,
which is a fantastic date!
It's a fantastic date. It means that we've got...
You know, that we've got people here 6,250 BC, 8,000-plus years ago,
we've got people now living here 5,400 BC, so that's 7,500 years ago.
And we've still got people living here 4,700 BC,
so 6,000, nearly 7,000 years ago.
So people have been settling,
residing around that spring area for nearly 2,000 years.
It's just absolutely superb!
So thank you, everybody, so much. Thank you!
-Thank you! Thank you!
-Oh, thanks a lot, Richard. Thank you.
David has now proved what archaeologists have long suspected,
that people knew this place is special 8,000 years ago.
Today, the great prehistoric monuments still hold
their mysterious attraction,
and I think that to recognise the significance
of our ancient surroundings needs imagination as well as science.
We're getting a deeper understanding
of how our earliest ancestors lived
and of what they might have believed.
The history of human progress is written in our landscape.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Archaeologist Ben Robinson flies over Wiltshire to uncover new discoveries in the Stone Age landscape. Sites found from the air have led to exciting new evidence about Stonehenge. The discoveries help to explain why the monument is where it is, and reveal how long ago it was occupied by people.