The Neolithic Complex at Monkton Up Wimborne

The Discovery

Text by Martin Green.

I noticed this site on one of my periodic trawls through some aerial photographs housed at the National Monuments Record Centre in Swindon. Studying aerial photographs in libraries, or even better, taking them yourself, is a wonderful way of getting to know an area. I am constantly amazed at how new sites and information continue to appear even when conditions are seemingly unhelpful for crop or soil marks. I never tire of the thrill of spotting a new site from the air, capturing it on film, and adding another small piece of information to the gigantic jigsaw.

The site in question appeared as a crop mark consisting of a clear ring of pits, some 35m across, which enclosed a massive central feature. I was most excited by this as I knew there were few, if any, parallels for such a monument. It lay in an area just south of the Cursus that through our continued fieldwork was beginning to reveal a major new complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments. Following my visit to Swindon I persuaded Mike Allen to visit the site and auger the central feature. After much effort we eventually succeeded in auguring through it to a depth of 1.5m before natural chalk was reached. Confident I was not going to be dealing with a very deep feature, I commenced excavations the following year (1997) and uncovered a site which exceeded even my high expectations.

The outer perimeter was defined by a ring of 14 unevenly spaced oval pits broken by wide entrance gaps to the East and West (see images 1 and 2). Eight were selected for excavation and revealed considerable variability in depth from 38 to140cm and it was clear they had never held posts or stones but had been allowed to silt up naturally. Finds were few but included occasional large blocks of chalk deliberately placed at the pit bases together with, in one instance, a large cattle bone. Occasional finds within the upper fillings included a fine, kite-shaped arrowhead and scraps of Peterborough pottery. Lying just outside the Eastern entrance a partially surviving line of eight shallow postholes may have formed a fence that screened this entry point to the monument. Beyond the fence lay two larger postholes which could have acted as markers to those approaching the site from the East. One contained a chiselled arrowhead.

The interior was dominated by the huge central pit F1 (see image 5) 10m wide,which had been dug 1.5m into the solid chalk to a level where a natural joint was reached in the bedrock. Digging seems to have deliberately ceased at this point, leaving a smooth natural surface at the interface between the upper rubbly chalk and the much harder blocky chalk. The surface when first revealed had an almost polished appearance as if worn smooth by the passage of feet.


When newly created it would have been a very impressive sight with its vertical sides and smooth even floor, and perhaps even surrounded by a low bank created from its excavated spoil. Shortly afterwards it seems to have been sanctified by a remarkable, perhaps sacrificial, multiple burial inserted into its Northern edge. Thanks to specialist work sponsored by the BBC during the making of a Meet the Ancestors programme about the site (Richards 1999), we know a great deal about the buried individuals including an impression of the facial features of the adult (see image 7).

The oval grave (see image 9) had been carefully dug into the wall of the great central pit partly undercutting it. Four individuals in a crouched posture had been placed within, two at either end, consisting of two girls aged about 5 and 10 years respectively, a boy of 9 years and a woman aged about 30. Great care had been taken to conceal the grave when it was backfilled, firstly with large blocks of chalk and these had then been rammed with small shattered chalk to produce a surface practically indistinguishable from the surrounding natural bedrock.

DNA analysis carried out on the bone has shown that the youngest, a girl, was the offspring of the woman and the other girl and boy were probably brother and sister although unrelated to the mother and daughter. The youngest girl had suffered from poor health, as revealed by the discovery of a tooth abscess and a tumour on her skull, and all three showed signs of iron deficiency. None of these signs of disease were sufficient however to explain their deaths.

Isotope analysis

Isotope analysis of trace metals, which are absorbed by the body from the underlying geology through the food chain, produced remarkable results. The interpretation of these chemical ‘signatures’ suggested that woman had originally lived on a high lead level geology, the nearest match to which is found on Mendip, some 40 miles (60km) to the North-West. She then travelled to Cranborne Chase where she stayed for some time before returning with the two older children whom she had ‘acquired’. Back in Mendip she gave birth to her daughter, the younger child, and later still all came back to Cranborne Chase where they ended their lives.

Further analysis revealed a high protein diet most likely based on dairy products, which probably explains the almost perfect condition of the adults teeth. The pathological evidence for iron deficiency present in the children would make it extremely unlikely that much meat was eaten. Sophisticated computer imaging was used on the Cranbourne woman’s skull to enable an accurate reconstruction of her facial characteristics. An artist can then fill in the remaining details and we can gaze in amazement at the finished portrait of someone who lived so long ago (see image 7).

A radiocarbon date showed that they had lived around 3300 BC, during the period when the huge Cursus was being constructed. Perhaps we have here for the first time hard evidence for the movement of people required to help construct such massive earthworks. Continued excavation in the central pit uncovered a further astonishing feature – a 7m deep shaft cut into its Southern edge associated with a chalk rubble platform built around the Northern edge contained within the central pit (see images 5, 6 and 10).

This platform reached the edge of the pit on the South side, giving access to the mouth of the shaft. Stratigraphic relationships showed that this had been dug shortly after the completion of the central pit, completely altering the monument. What had happened to cause such a drastic remodelling? Perhaps some catastrophe had overcome the inhabitants and invoked the need to dig deeper into the earth to placate the gods of the underworld who controlled nature itself.

Certainly a series of carefully placed deposits, recalling those already seen at Fir Tree Field and Wyke Down, were made at intervals within the shaft. These included an association of a cattle skull and red deer antler beam. Nearby lay a fragment of human skull and two exceptional arrowheads of chisel and leaf style. Additional deposits incorporated further animal bones and a number of natural although unusually shaped flints, which from their patina were clearly not found adjacent to the site.

Close to the base of the shaft lay a remarkable block of worked and decorated chalk. From its careful design it was clearly a special item, perhaps a cult object or totem . A 10cm deep, carefully smoothed hole, possibly a socket, had been cut into the unworked flat side of the block with the remaining worked surfaces bearing a series of pecked lines and arcs. This kind of decoration occasionally features on Neolithic stone tombs in Western Britain and Ireland and is sometimes described as ‘passage grave’ or ‘Megalithic’ art. This form of decoration may have been much more widespread on perishable materials such as the chalk plaster found at Wyke Down, and wood, but as these materials rarely survive, we are unlikely ever to know for sure.

Image 10 - the platform within F1.

Image 10 – the platform within F1.

The shaft base had been dug though a think seam of flint (see image 5) which was visible in the lowest level of the wall. The final surface of the floor was thus a ‘natural’ unmade surface as it bore the imprint of the removed flint. Revealing such surfaces as this and then leaving them unmodified is a feature we have seen before in the F1 pit through which the shaft was cut. Exposing such natural surfaces seems to have been a deliberate act.

The shaft walls close to the base bore tool marks of two distinct forms – long diagonal grooves and areas of shallow scalloping which were left by the use of a polished flint or stone axe. The former marks were too wide to have been produced by an antler and were most likely made by a pointed stake being hammered into the wall to lever out blocks. Animal bones, mostly derived from a single piglet, lay scattered on the floor. A few of these bore clear butchery marks from a flint knife and three larger vertebrae had been carefully tucked into the angle between the base and wall together with a worked sandstone ‘ball’.

Examination of the platform within F1 showed it had been carefully constructed in at least four separate phases (see image 10). Initially a 2m wide dump of coarse rubble (L16), derived from the shaft, covered much of the remaining floor area of F1. This was perhaps left for a season for a thin weathering horizon to develop (L15A). Further rubble was then piled up (L14) and both these dumps were supported by a turf revetment (L15). This was then stabilised before the predominantly earthy layer 13 was added. The latter may represent cleaning out of topsoil that had fallen into the shaft from its Southern and Eastern sides.

Finally a further layer of rubble (L12) was added which sealed the earthy layer 13 and increased the overall width to over 3m. The top of the platform maintained a width of about 1m and was highly compacted and puddled in nature. Around its Northern edge large quantities of animal bone, much burnt and with a high percentage of cattle, was uncovered. It seems likely that not only did the platform provide an access point to and from the pit, but it formed a focal area for ceremonial feasting and from which special offerings could be placed deep within the earth.

Earlier we saw how some of the outer pits contained large lumps of chalk that had been deliberately placed on their bases. This blocky chalk could only have come form the deeper levels exposed during the digging of the shaft; this strongly suggests the digging of the outer pits was contemporary.

Text © Martin Green.

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1 Response

  1. o1kric says:

    Monkton Up Wimbourne is the source of the Allen River.

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