The Flying Archaeologist: Human occupation at Stonehenge revealed to be 5,000 years earlier than previously thought

In 1999, a group of student friends and myself started to survey this area of Amesbury. The whole landscape is full of prehistoric monuments and it is extraordinary in a way that this has been such a blind spot for so long archaeologically."David Jacques, Open University archaeologist
Date: 19.04.2013     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.07
The first-ever proof of continuous occupation around Stonehenge, and that people were there as early as 7500BC, 5,000 years earlier than previously proven, is revealed tonight on The Flying Archaeologist, BBC One (West and South), at 7.30pm.

The programme, entitled Stonehenge: The Missing Link, reveals that the latest excavation, just one mile from Stonehenge, is producing carbon-dated evidence of man's ability to change the landscape, pre-dating known records by nearly two millennia. The discovery has caused huge excitement among archaeologists.

The research project that has uncovered the findings is run on a shoe-string budget, powered by volunteers and sheer determination. Yet it has resulted in one of the most important finds ever at Stonehenge, and a compelling new reason for why Stonehenge is where it is.

Archaeologists now have proof that people were occupying a site near the Henge continuously from between 7500BC to 4700BC. Until now, the earliest evidence of people living here was 2500BC.

Open University archaeologist David Jacques first spotted the site while a student. Aerial photos in an archive at Cambridge University showed a site known as Vespasian’s Camp, just about a mile from Stonehenge. Crucially, Jacques realised that it hadn’t been completely landscaped in the 18th century, as most people seem to have assumed.

David Jacques says: “In 1999 a group of student friends and myself started to survey this area of Amesbury. The whole landscape is full of prehistoric monuments and it is extraordinary in a way that this has been such a blind spot for so long archaeologically.”

The site contains a spring - the nearest fresh water source to Stonehenge itself. Following a theory that this could have been used as a water supply for early man, he believed there could be pristine and ancient archaeology waiting to be discovered.

The site has yielded the earliest semi-permanent settlement in the Stonehenge landscape - 7500-4700BC. Furthermore, carbon dating of material found there has shown that people were there during every millennium in between - these dates now make up over 50 per cent of Mesolithic dates ever found from Stonehenge.

It is the first-ever proof of continuous occupation of the area, and suggests we should be looking at the establishment of the Stonehenge landscape in a completely different way. Jacques believes that this area should not be seen as a place where Mesolithic ideas died out and Neolithic ideas took over a few thousand years later, but somewhere where the two cultures merged.

Jacques says: “In this landscape you can see why archaeologists and antiquarians over the last 200 years had basically homed in on the monument, there is so much to look at and explore.”

He continues: “I suppose what my team did, which is a slightly fresher version of that, was look at natural places – so where are there places in the landscape where you would imagine animals might have gone to, to have a drink? My thinking was where you find wild animals, you tend to find people, certainly hunter gatherer groups coming afterwards. What we found was the nearest secure watering hole for animals and people - a type of all-year-round fresh water source. It’s the nearest one to this place [Stonehenge]. I think it’s pivotal.”

The findings are revealed in The Flying Archaeologist, to be shown on BBC One on Friday 19 April, from 7.30pm, and presented by English Heritage Archaeologist Ben Robinson.

The work is already generating excitement among other leading archaeologists. Professor Peter Rowley-Conwy of Durham University says: "The site has the potential to become one of the most important Mesolithic sites in north-western Europe – sensational."

Dr Josh Pollard from Southampton University and the Stonehenge Riverside Project says: “The team have found the community who put the first monument up at Stonehenge (the Mesolithic post 9th-7th millennia BC). The significance of David’s work lies in finding substantial evidence of Mesolithic settlement in the Stonehenge landscape (previously largely lacking, apart from the enigmatic posts), and being able to demonstrate that there were repeated visits to this area from the 9th to the 5th millennia BC. I suspect he’s just hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of Mesolithic activity focused on the Avon around present-day Amesbury. All very exciting!”

In addition to the findings at Stonehenge, as part of the programme Ben takes to the skies to uncover new discoveries in the Stone Age landscape.

From Silbury Hill and Avebury Ring, Ben follows the river Avon (the ‘Hampshire Avon’) from its source, a pure bubbling spring which never dries up, down to the sea at Hengistbury Head, meeting the archaeologists who are re-interpreting the purpose and meaning of the Long Barrows and Henges still evident from the air.

The view from the air is allowing experts to reinterpret landscapes by allowing them to see sites in context and make startling discoveries that were previously hidden from view.

The Flying Archaeologist will also transmit a four-episode run on BBC Four from Monday 29 April at 8.30pm, with films, in addition to Stonehenge: The Missing Link, looking at Hadrians Wall, The Thames and the Norfolk Broads.

The Flying Archaeologist Stonehenge: The Missing Link goes out on BBC One West and BBC One South on Friday 19 April at 7.30pm and is also available on BBC iPlayer - and on BBC Four on Monday 29 April 2013 at 8.30pm