The Henges of Wyke Down, Cranborne Chase

Text by Martin Green.

The currently known distribution of henges on Cranborne Chase clusters in two groups: those associated with the Cursus and those at Knowlton. The two excavated henges on Wyke Down were discovered through aerial photography. Interestingly, they were not immediately obvious as such from the air, appearing as ring ditches with no apparent causeways, so it is likely the number of these monuments in the area has been greatly underestimated. Indeed recent geophysical survey of six mounds in the Wyke Down group has shown that half possess causewayed ditches, suggesting Neolithic origins.

The two small henges of Wyke Down 1 and 2 were excavated in 1983-4 and 1996 respectively. The first, WD1 (see image 1), consisted of a ring of closely spaced pits 20m in diameter, each pit separated by narrow causeways with a three metre entrance gap pointing due south to the site of Chalk Pit Field previously discussed.

The narrow causeways had eroded allowing soil to fill the interstices giving the impression of a continuous ditch broken by a single entrance. The oval pits varied in depth from 1.35-2m and were about 2m across excepting the western terminal pit that was twice the size of the others. The material excavated from these would have been used to create an external bank, no trace of which survived.

After completion a number of objects were placed in the pits which included red deer antler (see image 2), animal bone, flintwork and a few pieces of carved chalk. The pits then started to weather naturally until they half-filled with chalk rubble. Observations during our re-excavation of these pits showed this amount of rubble would have accumulated in less than five years.

The sequence shows that at this point small pits were excavated in the top of the rubble and a number of ritual elements included. These differed from those lower down, with no antler or carved chalk present, but instead contained much Grooved Ware pottery and occasional small amounts of human bone. The upper deposits were covered over and subsequently a clayey silt naturally accumulated in the tops of the pits which contained sherds of Late-Style Beaker pottery and pieces of Collared Urn.

Together, these sherds, also found in WD2, indicate later use of the sites which included the digging of a pit in the centre of WDl, dated to 3460±90BR This activity was probably taking place when the nearby barrow cemetery was under construction. The bulk of the more unusual finds from WDl are concentrated around the entrance. These include parts of the same Grooved Ware vessel and a transverse arrowhead found in both pits flanking the entrance and a fragment of an internally decorated bowl and a small stone axe of group VIII rock from South Wales in the western terminal pit. A few significant finds from pits at the back of the enclosure suggest that the axis of the monument was carefully marked.

Wyke Down 2 was smaller, only 12m in diameter, and more irregular having been constructed in two major segments — a semicircular west side and a banana-shaped east side (46, 63). Where the two met at the north end a very narrow degraded causeway was revealed, weathered and perhaps abraded by the passage of feet to a level just below that of the natural chalk. At the southern end a 2m wide causeway gave the henge a SSE axis.

This monument too had been constructed by digging a series of oval pits, 10 on the fully excavated western side, with a maximum depth of 1.75m. Unlike WD1, the causeways only survived in the ditch bottoms to a maximum height of 56cm suggesting they had not been left to full height between each pit. Like WD1, the south-western terminal pit revealed a special deposit consisting of a dump of organic rich soil on the base within which was a substantially complete Grooved Ware vessel of unique form (see image 5).

Bearing decorative motifs from all three main styles of Grooved Ware it additionally had an externally decorated base and small pellets applied at intervals to the rim. Carbonised food residues adhered to the inside. On the floor of the north-western terminal pit some scraps of Peterborough Ware were retrieved (an unusual occurrence with Grooved Ware) and on the base of another pit was a small carved chalk ball. No recuts were present and the lower secondary fill contained a rich deposit of Grooved Ware, worked flint and a little daub on the north-west side nearest to the buildings discussed on pages 73-5, suggesting contemporaeity (refers to the pages in the book ‘A Landscape Revealed – 10,000 Years on a Chalkland Farm‘).

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