04 Oct 2011

Open University student discovery changes understanding of Stonehenge

Stonehenge. Photo credit: Luke Beaman

Stonehenge. Photo credit: Luke Beaman

A group of students from The Open University has unearthed evidence which may change our understanding of Stonehenge.

Led by David Jacques, a tutor at The Open University, a number of OU students undertook a small-scale excavation near to Stonehenge which uncovered a large number of artefacts from the middle of the Stone Age. Among the findings were the remains of a substantial Mesolithic-era feast which suggests the Stonehenge area could have been an important centre for prehistoric people several thousand years before the giant stone circle was built.

The site has also produced what are believed to be the oldest carved figurines found in the UK, indicating a continuity of human presence in what seems to have been a sacred spot for thousands of years.

Of the discovery, David Jacques said: “We thought it was probably a mixed cache of early prehistoric tools, and assumed some were contemporary with Stonehenge. When we took them back to Cambridge and a number of experts suggested they were all Mesolithic, we started to get very excited.”

“Mesolithic people were nomadic hunter-gatherers who would have had temporary settlements. Salisbury Plain would have been something like the Serengeti with herds of animals roaming across it, and people could have used the hills that sort of create a basin around it as vantage points from which to see the movement of animals.”

With the tools were animal remains which radiocarbon dating placed at around 6250BC, in the Mesolithic period and more than 3,000 years before construction on Stonehenge began. Further excavations followed and, by September this year, the team had uncovered a rare Mesolithic hoard of more than 5,500 worked flints and tools from just two small trenches.

As well as the tools and tool production debris, large quantities of burnt flint were found, indicating a fire, and more than 200 cooked animal bones, which came from at least one aurochs.

“An aurochs was something like a large minivan in size,” explained David, “To catch an animal this big would have been a major feat. It would have fed a lot of people. It’s likely there was a large gathering, possibly as many as 100 people, who cooked and feasted on the aurochs.”

The discovery was especially significant since only a few handfuls of Mesolithic material have ever been found in the Stonehenge area. Tom Lyons, one of two field archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology East supervising the project, said: “It’s really exciting to get such a cache of material. This certainly makes this find nationally important, if not internationally important.”

Notes to editors

The project has been led by David Jacques, a tutor at the Open University, since 2005. After getting permission from the landowners, Sir Edward and Lady Antrobus, to survey a site just north-east of a previously unexcavated Iron Age hill fort known as Vespasian’s Camp, he was awarded a research fellowship by the Uuniversity’s Department of Classical Studies with a small three-year grant. Jacques chose to dig in a number of areas along the bed of a spring and recruited students from his Open University course on culture, identity and power in the Roman Empire,along with local people from the town of Amesbury, to do the excavation work.
The Open University (OU) is the largest higher education institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning. Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught more than 1.7 million students and has more than 264,000 current students, including 20,000 overseas, learning in their own time using course materials, online activities and content, web-based forums and tutorials and through tutor groups and residential schools.

The Open University climbed 23 places to 43rd in the UK’s last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), securing a place in the UK’s top 50 higher education institutions. Results showed that more than 50% of the University’s research is internationally excellent (3*), with a significant proportion world-leading (4*).

The OU has been highly rated for teaching quality, and has been at the top of student satisfaction rankings in the National Student Survey since it was introduced in 2005. 70% of students are in full-time or part-time employment, and three out of four FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff to take OU courses.

Regarded as Britain’s major e-learning institution, the OU is a world leader in developing technology to increase access to education on a global scale. Its vast ‘open content portfolio’ includes free study units on OpenLearn, which has had more than 11 million unique visitors, and materials on iTunes U, which has recorded over 31 million downloads. The OU has a 40 year partnership with the BBC which has moved from late-night lectures in the 1970s to prime-time programmes such as Life, Bang Goes the Theory, James May’s Big Ideas, Can Gerry Robinson Save Dementia Care Homes?, Saving Britain’s Past and The Money Programme.

The OU offers the following modules in archaeology:

World archaeology A251

Archaeology: the science of investigation SA188

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