Prehistory: Landscape

Georgian landscape gardeners were by no means the first individuals to create ‘designed landscapes’. More than 5,000 years earlier, Neolithic people in many parts of Britain were linking complexes of man-made monuments into artificial landscapes, often incorporating natural features like rivers, springs and hills.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, the largest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, the largest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe

THE AVEBURY LANDSCAPE

Among the most easily traceable are the ‘ritual landscapes’ developed over a long period in the Kennet valley around Avebury, Wiltshire. The earliest components, dating from about 3650 BC, were Windmill Hill, a causewayed enclosure, and chambered communal tombs including West Kennet Long Barrow.

Over a millennium later, Avebury Henge and Stone Circles, the largest in Britain, were constructed nearby. Initially it was an immense ditched earthwork ‘henge’, just over three-quarters of a mile in circumference. Soon afterwards its interior was ringed with about 100 standing stones, enclosing two more stone circles.

Aerial view of West Kennet Long Barrow

One of the largest Neolithic chambered barrows in Britain, West Kennet is over 100 metres long and was built in about 3400 BC. Now covered with turf, it originally had bare chalk sides, which would have been visible for miles around.

MAKING LINKS

The henge’s builders connected it to at least two other pre-existing sacred sites. West Kennet Avenue’s standing stones, which extend for 1½ miles, link it with The Sanctuary; Beckhampton Avenue connects it to the Longstones.

The most striking feat at Avebury, however, was the creation between 2400 and 2300 BC of Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, on the valley floor near the source-springs of the river Kennet. Still visually dominant, it may have been the central focus of the whole landscape.

Stonehenge was also the focus of a ritual landscape of earlier and later monuments, in which the river Avon, linked to the stones by a 1½ mile long ceremonial avenue, played an important part. Visual links with natural features were clearly important to monument-builders: Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria is dramatically sited near the centre of a natural amphitheatre surrounded by mountains.

Aerial view of Windmill Hill

Part of the Avebury World Heritage Site landscape, Windmill Hill is the largest known causewayed enclosure in Britain. It consists of three concentric but intermittent ditches, and is thought to have taken 48,000 hours of labour to build, over several years.

ENDURING SANCTITY

Landscapes accumulated sanctity over long periods. Stanton Drew Circles in Somerset were raised over an earlier long barrow; and Arbor Low henge in Derbyshire may owe its siting to nearby Gib Hill barrow.

Existing Neolithic landscapes certainly became a focus for raising Bronze Age round barrows. Over 260 survive within a 2 mile radius of Stonehenge. Elsewhere, round barrows were carefully sited on prominent hilltops and ridges. Even with their original gleaming white chalk covering grassed over, and their height much reduced by time, they still dominate the landscape in many upland regions.

Aerial view of Arbor Low Stone Circle

An extensive henge monument, Arbor Low Stone Circle lies on the high moors of the Peak District. Consisting of a giant earthwork bank and ditch enclosing a circle of 50 limestone slabs, it would have dominated the Neolithic landscape.

DIVIDING THE LANDSCAPE

From about 1700 BC people devoted their energies to creating physical land boundaries: walls, banks and ditches, sometimes on an enormous scale. In lowland areas these have generally been overlaid by millennia of farming, but on the moors and uplands, where cultivation was later abandoned, they are still clearly visible.

Among the best surviving examples are the prehistoric Dartmoor ‘reaves’ – long, straight stone walls or earthen banks defining systems of large rectangular fields – as for example around Grimspound and in the Upper Plym Valley.

During the Iron Age, much more substantial dykes – Grim’s Ditch in Oxfordshire, Bokerley Dyke in Dorset, and Argam Dyke in east Yorkshire – probably defined entire tribal territories, as hillforts strategically dominated their surrounding countryside.

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