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All Cannings project

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Programme of work scheduled for 8 September - 21 September 2003

Project Directors: John C Barrett and David McOmish


An initial field investigation will take place of the archaeological deposits at All Cannings Cross between September 8 – 20 2003. This will be the preliminary stage of a wider fieldwork programme designed to investigate landscape, social, and economic change around the Vale of Pewsey in the late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. In the long-term it is intended that the project will contribute to our wider understanding of this important period of landscape and settlement development around the northern chalk lands of Wessex in particular and in southern Britain more generally.

This document is intended to outline the scope of the project and the objectives of the first season’s work. A full research design will be prepared in light of the results achieved this year.

The project has three interrelated aims:

To significantly advance our understanding of the wider historical context of the transition to iron technology.

To review the definition of the substantial but spatially diffuse ‘midden’ deposits, characteristic of the period in this area, and so contribute to the future management and conservation of this resource.

To establish a public outreach programme that achieves a high degree of ownership in the project including practical participation in the investigation and future conservation of the relevant archaeological deposits.

The project will be developed in partnership with relevant local and national bodies including Wiltshire County Council, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, Devizes Museum, Avebury Archaeological Research Group, Avebury World Heritage Site (and Alexander Keiller Museum), NFU, Defra, and English Heritage.

Research context

A remarkable feature of the Avebury area is the way the archaeological landscape is zoned by period. At the centre lies the late Neolithic ceremonial complex framed by later field systems to the north, east and south. These include the field systems on Overton, Fyfield, and the Marlborough Downs, the latter being integral with a notable settlement concentration of Middle Bronze Age settlement. A number of distinctive Early Iron Age sites also lie around the Vale of Pewsey. They comprise large scale surface deposits of material that have been characterized as middens, and they are accompanied by laid floors and cut features. Excavated examples include Potterne and East Chisenbury, and chronologically the sites appear to date to the very end of the late Bronze Age with the major periods of deposition possibly corresponding with the widespread adoption of an iron technology. It is possible that the deposits partially investigated by Maude Cunnington at All Cannings Cross belong to this class of site.

The landscape zones of Neolithic ceremonial structures, field systems with middle Bronze Age settlements, and the Late Bronze Age midden deposits, describe in outline the transformation of the landscape from one of ritual elaboration to one of seeming domestic utility. By the end of the sequence the earliest Iron Age hillforts of the ridgeway to the north had been established. In this lengthy period of landscape change, marking changes in agricultural production, social identity, and settlement organization, there occurred other more rapid changes, such as the adoption of an iron technology by the eighth century BC.

If these late Bronze Age / early Iron Age sites are indeed middens, then they represent a period of agricultural and artifact deposition on a quite massive scale. The East Chisenbury site for example remains as a clear 2.5m high and 140m wide mound in the landscape despite erosion, cultivation and tree planting. The material recovered from all these sites includes substantial quantities of animal bone and pottery, but also worked bone, stone, clay and metalwork. In a period of relatively rapid change affecting the working of the land, the appropriation and control of resources, technological traditions, and new forms of political and ethnic identity, a number of places may have witnessed repeated and large scale acts of feasting. If so these events will have consumed a considerable proportion of the land’s produce, and they took place between the productive and well-watered soils of the Vale and the hills on which were located the dramatic and ancient remains of Neolithic monuments. We might expect that the earlier monuments were incorporated into the histories and oral traditions of the later activities.

Specific issues

Current models for archaeological research designs presume that each design should demonstrate the adequacy of its intellectual programme in terms both of the historical issues to be investigated and the nature of the available data set. To this end, a resource assessment is recommended as a means of establishing the character of the data set. Our work in 2003 will represent such a resource assessment.

An issue fundamental to our understanding of these apparent midden sites concerns the extent to which they do indeed represent a single category of monument and whether All Cannings Cross is a member of that category. This must involve an understanding of the range of practices and depositional events leading to the formation of the deposits that comprise these sites, and the range of materials that were involved in those events.

This work can only take place once we have established the scale and extent of the All Cannings Cross Site. The site was investigated by the Cunningtons in 1911 as a result of the discovery of a large number of hammerstones on the surface of the ploughed field. It lies at the foot of the chalk slope in the Vale of Pewsey, with the undated enclosure of Rybury Camp above. Further excavations followed in three seasons in 1920-22. In all, 15 weeks of excavations took place. We know little either of the excavation techniques used or the scale of clearance. It seems likely that the areas trenched could be re-located with some certainty and the recent re-excavation at The Sanctuary on Overton Hill has revealed more about Maude Cunnington’s field techniques. In light of the work at the Sanctuary it seems likely that deposits remain in the areas which Cunnington trenched, and she admits to not locating the limits of the All Cannings site.

Cunnington records a ‘dark humus’ of variable depth across the area excavated. This deposit, from which artefacts were recovered, was deepest to the east against the slope of the hill (where it is anything up to 0.5m deep), thinning away to the west. It was also deeper in gullies in the chalk. It seems clear that the deeper parts of this deposit extend outside the area excavated by Cunnington. Structural features include rectangular chalk floors, at least one overlying occupation debris, and these floors were often adjacent to rectangular spreads of burnt clay. There are also a few post built structures recorded (including one circular structure), along with hearths and pits, some of the latter with clay capping. Surface stratigraphy and intercutting pits are recorded, including a sequence of pits and two overlying floors occurring on the south-east corner of the site amongst the deepest deposits of ‘dark humus’. In general, the excavation plan would indicate that the pits tended to cluster around and mainly to the south-east of the central area excavated where the floors were mainly located. There is some record given by Cunnington of the material from the pits and of the structures, but the accounts are schematic.

Our initial work must be to assess the remaining deposit. Only on this basis will it be possible to design an adequate programme of research and intervention, and only on this basis will it be possible to specify an adequate programme of management and conservation.

Assessment will be undertaken in this season by means of a limited number of interventions by either test pit or by auger. The location of these interventions will be determined by Cunnington’s record and the site’s topography. The area to the west of the site that is currently under cultivation will be fieldwalked. The fieldwalking programme will conform with the specification currently drafted for the Avebury World Heritage Site.

In addition, some re-survey work will take place on the East Chisenbury site. Recent clearance has resulted in a greater level of surface definition being given to the enclosure that the midden deposit appears to overlie. The form of the enclosure will be reviewed as a first step towards further investigation. Current indications would indicate that the enclosure belongs with the very early hillfort type enclosures that are now known elsewhere on the northern downland.


A fundamental principle in this project is that archaeological research, and the material heritage, is a public resource. Recent English Heritage and DCMS statements place considerable emphasis upon developing policies of social inclusion in relation to heritage matters and access to the built environment. We begin by accepting that this emphasis is correct, but that it presents a particular challenge to archaeology. Archaeology is practiced as a highly technical and professional procedure, and despite the success of much that now appears on television and elsewhere in the media, a certain tension exists between these ‘popularising’ projects and the professionalism of current field archaeology. At the same time, the profession’s response to public interest often focuses upon the production of ‘popular’ and ‘accessible’ accounts of archaeological work.

The value of the archaeological experience lies in the physical engagement with material, an enquiry that seeks to understand the historical significance of the conditions that are uncovered. This value, although quite particular to the archaeological process, is close to the value experienced by living and working in the historic environment. This value is something that archaeologists themselves well understand, even if they find it difficult to express. It is a value currently denied to many members of the public.

It is the active engagement and enquiry, the possibility of finding something new that is attractive and stimulates interest. The public will queue to seen an excavation and visit ancient remains. The description of results, however elegantly presented, does not deliver the same value. Value is therefore lost during the archaeological process in the move from enquiry to presentation, from excavation to publication.

We need to understand more clearly how this loss of value occurs and this will be a research theme central to this project. We will develop an outreach project that aims to make the processes of investigation and interpretation available. We regard this as a vital pre-requisite to conservation policies, where those policies and their implications may be more widely appreciated.

We are particularly interested in developing this part of the project in the context of the rural community as well as with reference to nearby urban centres. We recognise that rural policy in relation to conservation matters and archaeological impact are lively issues, and we hope that this programme of work will have a contribution to make to the debate. We also hope that the research theme, concerned as it is with the major changes in agricultural practices that occurred in the early first millennium BC, will be one that is of interest to those who live and work in today’s rural community.

Department of Archaeology,
University of Sheffield,
Northgate House,
West Street,
Sheffield S1 4ET.

Contact Details (LiveLink)

Multiple Contacts:
eMail: Sarah.simmonds@wiltshire.gov.uk
Telephone: 01225 718470
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Last updated: 26 January 2015



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