A ritual landscape at Boscombe Down

By Andy Manning
Boscombe Down has yielded some major discoveries in recent years; the Amesbury Archer and the Boscombe Bowmen. But why were those men buried there? The discovery of contemporary ritual monuments in the latest excavations has begun to provide an explanation.
A ritual landscape at Boscombe DownA ritual landscape at Boscombe Down
Previous work had already identified a significant ritual landscape in this future housing estate on the outskirts of Amesbury, Wilts. In 2002, the Amesbury Archer, the richest Early Bronze Age or Beaker burial in Britain so far known was found. Within a year, the mass grave of the 'Boscombe Bowmen' was found. These men are likely to have originated in Wales. Inevitably, links have been drawn between these two discoveries and the building of the stone circles at Stonehenge, less than three kilometres to the west. But why were the burials made at Boscombe Down, rather than close to the contemporary temples at Stonehenge, Durrington Walls or Woodhenge? Preliminary results from major excavations covering over 13 hectares adjacent to the grave of the Amesbury Archer undertaken in 2004 are exciting.
The pit circleThe pit circle

Pit circle

A prominent plateau, which gradually falls into a dry valley, further to the east was partially encircled in the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age by a shallow angular ditch with a possible external bank and a series of short ditch segments and pits. More significantly, a large pit circle, estimated to have been at least 63 metres in diameter, occupied the crest of a plateau. Thirty-one pits spaced 3-4 metres apart were uncovered, most with no evidence for having supported timbers. Instead, they contained a wide variety of worked flint, bone and pottery, including Late Neolithic Grooved Ware and a small number of placed deposits. However, ramps on the sides of four of the larger pits here showed that substantial timbers had been slid into position before erection. The timbers may have only been in position for a short period, although the presence of Beaker and Collared Urn in some pits indicates that the monument was in use into the Early Bronze Age.

Early Bronze Age Barrow

The pit circle and enclosure were the focus of ritual activity. An Early Bronze Age barrow had the body placed in a timber mortuary structure. Shortly afterwards, the grave was reopened and the remains of a neonate and perhaps one or two other young adults were interred. The articulated human remains of the original burial were rearranged, with two fragmentary Beakers, a barbed and tanged arrowhead and part of an antler in the backfill of the grave.
The Early Bronze Age barrow, ring ditch and enclosure at the edge of the plateauThe Early Bronze Age barrow, ring ditch and enclosure at the edge of the plateau
A small shallow ring ditch, possibly a small hengiform feature, lay a few metres south of the barrow, close to the terminal of the enclosure ditch. The tightly crouched burial of an infant had been placed within the ring ditch, and the grave was filled with tightly packed flint nodules.
The barrow grave and the semi-articulated remains of the main burialThe barrow grave and the semi-articulated remains of the main burial
There were three other crouched burials and a semi-articulated burial within a conical shaft. In addition, pits containing fragmentary human remains were found in close association with both monuments. In one case, a pit that contained only an upturned skull was flanked by two further pits that each contained a complete Beaker. The disarticulated human remains suggest excarnation. A possible excarnation platform is represented by a four-post structure with a central pit lying between the two monuments and other clusters of postholes, both within the enclosure and throughout the plateau, may have served a similar purpose.

Placed Deposits

Auroch remains within a rectangular pitAuroch remains within a rectangular pitNumerous scattered pits were found concentrated near to the monuments. These contained charcoal, flint, bone and pottery that may represent placed deposits. The presence of Grooved Ware and Early Bronze Age Beaker and Collared Urn material show that these deposits were made over a long period. One rectangular pit contained the carefully arranged remains of a juvenile auroch or wild cow with the limbs detached, the lower limbs being placed close to the head.

Ritual landscape

It is within this ritual landscape that the Amesbury Archer and the Boscombe Bowmen can now be viewed. They were not buried in isolation, but close to monuments, constructed in the Late Neolithic or the beginning of the Early Bronze Age. These monuments were probably still standing when the Archer and Bowmen died in the Early Bronze Age.
Ritual activity then ceased. Generations later, the plateau was briefly occupied by a small Middle/Late Bronze Age farm and later it was divided by a massive Bronze Age boundary ditch. It may be coincidence, or not, that the plateau was chosen as the setting for the cemeteries of the Late Romano-British village and returned once more to a ritual landscape.