Living with Monuments: life and cultural landscape between the 4th and 2nd millennia BC in the Avebury region, Wiltshire

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Humanities


The great ceremonial and funerary monuments of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (EBA) have attracted considerable academic and public attention, but the wider social worlds of routine, subsistence and settlement within which they were created remain poorly understood and often elusive. Visitors to sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury often ask how and where the people who constructed and used these monuments lived. These have not been easy questions to answer. The scale and permanence of constructions like the Avebury henge, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill contrast markedly with the ephemeral character of everyday activity during the Neolithic and EBA (c.3800-1500BC), and for this reason archaeological narratives of social life during these periods have often been crafted around 'goings on' at highly visible monuments.

The Living with Monuments Project seeks to redress the balance by examining the record of settlement and related activities within a landscape that is famed for its prehistoric ceremonial monuments: the Upper Kennet Valley, Wiltshire, in the Avebury component of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site (WHS). The project aims to identify the extent, scale, density, character and tempo of human settlement in the core of the region during the Neolithic and EBA; the relationship between people's living within the landscape and its progressive monumentalisation, in terms of how monument building may have structured settlement (e.g. drawing people into the region), and the way that settlement imparted a history to places that could lead to their subsequent conversion into monumental spaces; and to better define the environment within which such activity took place. A subsidiary concern is to understand how life within this landscape was lived in relation to certain natural features which we know received especial attention, such as the distinctive spreads of sarsen stone.

In order to explore these issues, a programme of targeted fieldwork will be undertaken on a series of sites in a range of topographic zones. Some are known locations of Neolithic settlement; others locations where good settlement and environmental evidence is suspected to be preserved under hillwash and flood sediments; and at the sites of monuments that look to have developed out of settlement locations. This work will variously involve gridded surface collection of artefacts to map traces of activity, geophysical survey, coring of deposits, test pitting and full excavation. Dealing with the ephemeral traces that routine activity of this date leaves will require new ways of investigating, theorising and interpreting the evidence; a challenge this project seeks to embrace, with the view of developing approaches which can then be applied elsewhere.

In collaboration with the Alexander Keiller Museum, the project will integrate, analyse and bring to full publication for the first time earlier episodes of fieldwork on flint scatter sites in the area. This will include writing up programmes of work undertaken by Holgate and Thomas in the early 1980s, by the National Trust and English Heritage in advance of arable reversion in the 1990s and 2000s, and by early 20th-century collections by amateur archaeologists. Collaboration with the National Trust and a dedicated outreach programme will ensure the results of this work are communicated to stakeholder communities local to international. The work will also inform future management of fragile settlement traces.

The project will be directed by researchers from the Universities of Southampton and Leicester, supported by colleagues from the National Trust, Ghent University and Allen Environmental Archaeology. It will build upon the work undertaken previously by Evans and Whittle on the region's post-glacial environmental history and Neolithic archaeology, and that of the Longstones Project (1999-2003) and, within the wider WHS, the Stonehenge Riverside Project (2004-2009).

Planned Impact

The Investigators have considerable experience of developing impact within the Avebury WHS through their previous work on the Longstones Project, utilised by the AHRC as one of its Examples of Economic Impact from AHRC-funded projects.

Who will benefit:
The communities/interest groups that will benefit from the research include local residents, visitors & tourists, a wider public interested in ancient landscapes, local museums, the National Trust (NT) and other organisations involved in heritage management at a local, national and international level e.g. the Wiltshire County Archaeologists Office, Historic England (HE) and UNESCO.
How will they benefit:
(1) The knowledge generated will facilitate effective management and protection of the region's non-monumental Neolithic and EBA archaeology. This will enable bodies such as the NT (the major landowner), HE and the County Archaeologists Office to generate more effective strategies for the future management of the rather vulnerable traces of settlement, and to assess those areas where preservational conditions are good or where current landuse poses a threat. This is currently a major lacuna. Data will be made accessible via submission to the County Historic Environment Record.
(2) The knowledge generated will enhance the public presentation of the Neolithic and EBA archaeology and visitor experience in the Avebury landscape. With its focus upon lives-lived (spatially and temporally) between the monuments, the project will reveal a new narrative about the landscape and those who occupied it. This will substantially enrich the story presented in the Alexander Keiller Museum (AKM) at Avebury, as well as the content of future guidebooks, leaflets, information boards, guided walks and outreach resources such as the Avebury Monuments Teacher's Kit. The research will also be promoted through websites such as Visit Wiltshire, Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, and the NT.
(3) Following the model established with the Longstones Project, interested members of the public will be encouraged to take an active part in the writing of a unique chapter in Avebury's long history. Through social media (via the NT's FragmeNTs website and associated blog), regular public lectures, site tours and formal open-days they are able to follow the unfolding interpretation of the prehistoric landscapes revealed and take part in the discussions and debates these engender. This leads in turn to a deeper sense of place and more nuanced understanding of the unique character of the lived and worked landscape. This will be further cemented by dedicated finds sessions where volunteers will gain an understanding of the archaeological process and an appreciation of the value of artefacts as sources of evidence for prehistoric settlement. Via research on the collections held in the AKM we also wish to emphasise the role local residents have played in discovering the lithic scatters that mark traces of prehistoric settlement. Engagement of this kind is aimed at enhancing the understanding of the local community of the outstanding universal value of the WHS.
(4) Developing an enhanced understanding of the ancient heritage of the Avebury WHS is a crucial element in encouraging visitors to this remarkable landscape, so contributing to the local and UK tourist economy. As the Longstones Project demonstrated, archaeological excavations serve as a tourist-attraction in their own right, as well as producing results that can be used to market areas in new and interesting ways. Further benefits to the local economy arise from added expenditure arising from increased visitor dwell time and repeat visits, either from the attraction presented by the excavations themselves or the benefits of the new marketing opportunities that emerge from them. There is also expenditure related directly to the fieldwork itself, through the provision of equipment, consumables and accommodation.


10 25 50
Description Communication of results of work to heritage professionals 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentations on the work to-date given to the Avebury and Stonehenge Archaeological and Historical Research Group (ASAHRG: October 2017). ASARGH is made up of people involved in archaeological and historical research in the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site and surrounding area. It is a group of professional curators, academics and freelance researchers who meet to encourage, coordinate and disseminate research in the WHS. The secretariat is run by the WHS Coordination Unit.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Press and media coverage relating to geophysical survey at Avebury 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Archaeological geophysical survey undertaken by the Project within the Avebury henge monument during early 2017 led to the discovery of buried megaliths forming an unusual square monument created around the site of an earlier house. A coordinated press release issued in June 2017 by the Universities of Southampton and Leicester and the National Trust resulted in wide media coverage. This included: the BBC (the Today programme and regional TV news), the Guardian, Times, Independent, Telegraph and MailOnline. There was wide on-line coverage at an international level. The National Trust (the site's guardians) reported interest in the work from visitors, and this led to site volunteer guides being briefed on the work so that they could communicate details to members of the public. A version of the press release was also posted on the AHRC website (see URL below).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Talks to local societies and site visits by public during fieldwork 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public talks on the project and research results to-date were given to the Southampton Archaeological Society (October 2017) and Avebury Society (November 2018). The combined audience was c.150. While the Project was undertaking archaeological excavation on Avebury Down during July-August we received steady numbers of visitors from the general public, and arranged a formal visit to the site for local residents (including landowners and members of the parish council). Combined visitor numbers c.100.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018