Blick Mead is an archaeological site situated close to the iconic monument of Stonehenge, but it’s nowhere near as famous. It certainly wasn’t somewhere that researchers expected to make a major find. Nonetheless, as they brushed the earth away they were shocked by the scale of their discovery. It was clear this was like nothing they’d found before.
Stonehenge is one of the most famous and iconic sites in the U.K., and experts have long wondered about its history. Who built it? Why did they do it? How? These questions have remained unanswered for millennia, despite many attempts to uncover the definitive truth. But this recent find may fill in a huge piece of the puzzle.
While Blick Mead isn’t that large physically, what it contains is of huge significance. Indeed, it has the potential to completely change our understanding of Stonehenge and the people who built it so many years ago. And we’ll have to look more deeply at the area and its astonishing history to understand why.
Stonehenge and Blick Mead are both found in the county of Wiltshire, which is in the South West of England. It’s an area famous for its ancient sites, particularly around Salisbury Plain. Other famous historical locations include the settlement of Old Sarum, near the modern town of Salisbury, and the Avebury stone circle. That’s why it isn’t just Stonehenge that’s considered a World Heritage Site, but the land surrounding it as well.
Old Sarum was the first settlement at what is now Salisbury and its history dates back over millennia. It started out as a hill fortification in the Iron Age before the Romans moved in to occupy the area. Other peoples including the Saxons and the Normans also left their marks with further settlements, castles and even a cathedral.
Avebury is a stone circle somewhat similar to Stonehenge but even larger and containing a settlement at its center. The 100 stones originally used to build it actually make it the world’s biggest such circle, with a circumference of close to a mile. It was constructed during the New Stone Age more than 4,000 years ago and links to other nearby sites such as the West Kennet Long Barrow.
The importance of Stonehenge has been acknowledged for many years, with its status as a Scheduled Ancient Monument being granted way back in 1882. UNESCO would go on to make it a World Heritage Site in 1986, which confirmed its worldwide importance. English Heritage currently looks after the monument, although technically it belongs to the British Royal Family.
Experts have dated the building of Stonehenge to at least 4,000 years ago, which makes it ancient by any standards. And that’s certainly a very long time to be wondering why the circle was built, or who built it. Some of the stones had to be carried from hundreds of miles away, for example, despite weighing tons.
Indeed, it’s no wonder we have questions about the building of the monument when even the smallest stones are at least 2 tons in weight. And the larger Heel Stone is more like 30 tons, though that “only” came from 20 miles away. The circle itself reaches 13 feet in height.
As Stonehenge is part of such a wide prehistoric landscape, excavations have covered not just the stones but also their surroundings. Indeed, archaeologists want to know about the area’s history even before the monument was built. For instance, an expert at the University of Buckingham by the name of David Jacques looked into the records of local farms.
It was once thought a Roman base had been built near Stonehenge, so the area became known as Vespasian’s Camp. The remnants of a fortification can be found there, and an 18th-century archaeologist believed it had been built in the reign of the Roman Emperor Vespasian.
In the 1800s experts started to claim Vespasian’s Camp in fact dated to the Bronze Age. However, more recent excavations have led to the unearthing of even older Iron Age artifacts. There was more extensive surveying of the area during the 20th century, in the hope that this unusual site could finally be understood.
The fact that so many erroneous conclusions were made about the site over the years shows just how long it has been a place of interest. During the 18th century, however, the camp had been landscaped in an attempt to turn it into a park, which led many archaeologists to believe anything interesting buried there would have been destroyed. David Jacques disagreed, though.
Jacques’ research into the estate subsequently led him approximately a mile from Stonehenge to Blick Mead, which takes its name from a nearby stream. Stonehenge’s builders must have needed a water supply. So by extension, finding that would also mean finding where they lived. It was in 2005 when the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Buckingham started the work, although it didn’t have had an easy ride.
Two major stumbling blocks have delayed the Blick Mead investigations and have led to it taking more than a decade for them to achieve significant results. The first is limited funding for the excavations, and the second relates to the stringent rules about how and when the site can be investigated.
The access rules are so strict, in fact, that the researchers have only been able to excavate for a total of three months over the years, with only one weekend available to them annually during the first half-decade. It’s a wonder they achieved anything on a schedule like that, but they still managed to find more than they could ever have dreamed of.
Among the most impressive finds at Blick Mead are more than 35,000 pieces of flint that were crafted by human hands thousands of years ago. There’s also burnt flint and thousands of animal bones, which mostly come from aurochs. One of these ancient cattle could have fed hundreds people, and it’s likely that large-scale banquets were once held at Blick Mead.
It isn’t always safe being an archaeologist at Blick Mead, however. The aurochs may be long dead, but the tools used by their former hunters have remained sharp over the centuries. As a result, there have been many bloody fingers while trying to uproot the perfectly preserved artifacts. These bones and tools have since been analyzed, including radiocarbon dating to assess their age.
Analysis of the bones was conducted by the Natural History Museum and the University of Durham. And experts found that more than half of the remains belonged to aurochsen. People were eating those animals at Blick Mead some 8,000 years ago, and they were still part of settlers’ diets 2,000 years later.
Aurochsen would probably have had a big impact on the landscape when they were roaming near Blick Mead. There may have been some trees in the area but the land was mostly open, and that’s likely to be because those giant herbivores’ appetites prevented the flora from becoming overgrown. That in turn meant that it would have been easy for prehistoric people to hunt there.
Another bone studied at the University of Durham was revealed to be a canine tooth. It belonged to a dog that probably resembled one of our German Shepherds. A dog like that would presumably have been a good hunter, although he didn’t grow up on Salisbury Plain. Isotopic analysis of the tooth revealed it was a well-traveled animal.
Isotope analysis can be used to look at chemical elements in bone. The oxygen molecules in this dog’s tooth made it clear that he’d spent much of his life far north and east of Blick Mead. In fact, he may have even been in Scotland for a time. There were other isotopes on the tooth as well, which suggested that the dog had been eating aurochs, just like humans of the time.
It was between 2014 and 2016 that the excavations at Blick Mead began to really bear fruit. That was when the focus narrowed to an area on the edge of the spring, and it was there that archaeologists found a spot that once contained a felled tree. This might not sound too promising, but humans had modified the location for a very specific purpose.
There were more tools and bones around the tree, which included ocher pods that could have been used as a paint or dye. One pebble may even have been a kind of ancient meat softener. Another particularly significant find was a scoop unlike anything else from the time period. And it certainly added fuel to the new theories being put forward by the archaeologists.
Putting together all their discoveries from Blick Mead led the archaeologists to realize just how important their excavations were to their wider understanding of the area’s history. The sheer number of artifacts found and the confirmation from radiocarbon dating that they came from several different millennia meant it was unlike any other site in Europe, let alone around Stonehenge.
Blick Mead may have been the first settlement in the area and as such it could be the “cradle of Stonehenge.” The evidence makes it clear that many people lived there and used it as a gathering place for thousands of years. They may even still have been occupying the site during medieval times, in fact, so the research offers a unique look at how the place and its peoples changed.
Moreover, not all the tools found come from the Wiltshire area. And that suggests people traveled from far and wide to come to Blick Mead’s banquets. Some materials are associated with Sussex in South East England, while the slate used may have come from Wales. That’s along with the dog that somehow came to Salisbury from the far north of the country.
It isn’t the first time an ancient settlement has been found close to Stonehenge, but it may be the most significant. Durrington Walls is a nearby site that has also been considered a potential residence of the monument’s builders. The thing about Durrington Walls, though, is that it’s from the New Stone Age – like Stonehenge – while Blick Mead is from the older Mesolithic Period.
Nonetheless, Blick Mead does have some Neolithic features, including a collection of blades and the aforementioned mysterious scoop. Other radiocarbon dating, however, shows the presence of Mesolithic artifacts, too. The dates of the Neolithic (or New Stone Age) and Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) eras vary with regards to where you are in the world, but the line between them is generally considered to have occurred when agriculture started.
One of the distinctive aspects of the Mesolithic Period is that humanity was still a hunter-gather species at the time. Prehistoric humans wandered from place to place following the animals they hunted and the plants they foraged through the seasons. Settled villages and farms are a characteristic of the Neolithic and were first built around 9000 B.C. in Western Asia and North Africa. In Northern Europe, however, the Neolithic era began closer to 4000 B.C.
The Neolithic Period is one of the most significant moments in human history, then, because it’s when humanity began to take up farming. And the fact that Blick Mead appears to bridge the gap between the Mesolithic and Neolithic is a huge part of what makes it unique – and therefore valuable.
Blick Mead has yet to yield any remains of humans, but this is where that dog’s tooth becomes significant. The fact that the dog had been eating the same sorts of food as the people of Blick Mead suggests that he journeyed there with humans. It seems that his tooth hadn’t just been a charm someone hung round their neck.
This all suggests that Neolithic settlers weren’t the first humans to stay close to Stonehenge and also that they didn’t build on an empty land. Instead, they were building on the traditions of the Mesolithic hunters who’d gone before and who were possibly their ancestors. Moreover, this theory fits in with yet another nearby site called the Coneybury Anomaly.
There’s a pit on Coneybury Hill that dates back to roughly the 4th millennium B.C., and it was probably used for ceremonial purposes. It’s known as the Coneybury Anomaly and is filled not only with the remains of wild animals that Mesolithic hunters may have eaten, but also with Neolithic arrowheads, pottery and farmed grains.
It’s possible that hunter-gatherers weren’t just moving around but did in fact return to specific places such as Blick Mead deliberately. Not only does it have water and grazing for animals, but it also appears to have been a place of ritualistic significance. Were feasts accompanied by trade and conversation? It could certainly have provided shelter to the elderly and infirm as well as kids too young to hunt.
Furthermore, it appears that a Mesolithic home may have been situated where the fallen tree once lay. Animal skins or thatch could have been used to make a roof over the space. Pebbles pressed into the sides may have reinforced the walls, along with wooden posts. The structure may have been used for work, shelter or something else.
You might think that archaeological sites as important as Blick Mead would receive the maximum amount of protection possible, but there are worries about its future safety. For example, plans exist for alterations to the A303 road that passes near Stonehenge. They may reduce congestion but could also damage delicate ancient sites.
The planned road-works include the building of both a tunnel and a flyover, with the entrances to the proposed tunnel all being located within the World Heritage site. Opponents of the project argue that there hasn’t been a proper assessment of the potential impact on Blick Mead, with the map of the development plans not even showing the site in its right place. And damaging drilling may have already begun.
In addition, hoof prints of the aurochs that once lived at Blick Mead have been preserved under a piece of stone. If humans placed the stone there, it indicates that they were deliberating protecting the prints, which may mean they worshipped the cattle in some way. This is supported by the deliberate, ceremonial way cattle skulls were sometimes positioned.
The proposed roadworks could also interfere with local water levels, which would be particularly damaging for organic materials such as the hoof prints. That in turn could stop archaeologists from discovering more about Stonehenge’s builders. Protests continue about the project and how it may damage this invaluable site, where excavations will continue for another two years.