Looking Back on the Festival of Archaeology

on Monday, 07 September 2015. Posted in Archaeology

As many of you are no doubt aware, the Festival of Archaeology was held from 11th to 26th of July 2015. This celebration of the diverse and intriguing archaeology present in the British Isles was 25 years old, and comprised a series of events to allow people a chance to engage with all aspects of archaeology. As part of this, the Wiltshire Council Archaeology Team held two guided walks to explore different parts of the county, and to show off some of the spectacular sites that can be enjoyed here in Wiltshire!

The first walk was held on 11th July at Cherhill, which lies between Calne and Avebury, and principally investigated Oldbury Hillfort and the White Horse hill figure. The day dawned sunny and bright and a party of 30 or so enthusiastic visitors (complete with several dogs!) set off up the hill to explore the Iron Age hillfort and the surrounding landscape and monuments. The intrepid walkers learnt how the distinctive Cherhill White Horse is one of 13 such hill figures in Wiltshire but is the second oldest having been created in 1780, possibly to imitate the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire.

Once the steep climb to the top of the hill was complete, there was a discussion of the Landsdowne Monument, the 120ft high obelisk that many of you will have seen from the A4 Bath Road in your journeys across the county! This was built in 1845 by the Landsdowne family as an ‘eye-catcher’ to commemorate their adventurous relative, Sir William Petty, who made his fortune through trading, banking and ownership of land in Ireland during the 17th century. Looking down to the road also brought to mind the infamous Cherhill Gang; a group of notorious highwaymen that robbed stagecoaches in the 18th century. The group were amused to learn that the robbers carried out their crimes entirely naked so as to conceal their identity – but even this didn’t prevent them from being caught and executed at Devizes!

Last, but by no means least, the group were able to explore the extensive Oldbury Iron Age Hillfort which dominates the local landscape. This intriguing and very extensive enclosure (covering an area of 20 acres) was constructed in multiple phases, being elaborated on over time. The double circuit of ramparts, constructed from banks and ditches up to 2.5m high and deep, dates to 500-100BC. As the tour group moved around the top of the rampart circuit, everyone was impressed by the size and manpower needed to create these defences. Luckily nobody required rescuing from the ditches or later quarry pits dug into the hillfort during the post medieval period to retrieve chalk! After an enjoyable and question-filled two and half hours everyone dispersed, with an appreciation of this archaeology.   

The second walk was held on the 19th of July at Littlecote Roman villa, near to Ramsbury. This offered the chance to explore a well preserved Roman villa, complete with an intact mosaic floor! The large group of enthusiastic attendees were guided round the site, which now lies within parkland associated with the Littlecote House Hotel. The villa had been excavated in the 1980s by Bryn Walters and this work shed light on its origins and evolution.

It was explained that the principal villa structures dated to the 2nd century AD, and replaced earlier huts and buildings on site. This villa was set out with a winged corridor style and had a lavish integral bath suite. As so much of the villa survives, the group were really able to appreciate the grandeur and scale of such a building which would have been two storeys high and very carefully constructed. It was demonstrated that there were subsequent rebuilding phases and (most notably during 270 AD) the erection of detached workshops, barns and a gatehouse.

However the most famous element of the villa is the wonderful Orpheus mosaic which was first discovered in 1727 by the steward of the Littlecote Estate. The mosaic dates to the 4th century AD, at which point the villa complex had acquired a religious use. It depicts scenes relating to the god Orpheus, but also to Bacchus and Apollo and was set out in a hall-like structure. All of the attendees relished the chance to see the beautiful details at close hand (including running dogs and swimming dolphins!) and to understand how it related to the other architectural features, some of which may have hosted pilgrims to this Roman shrine. The site subsequently suffered demolition and dereliction from 400 AD onwards, but what does survive is still exceptional and well worth a visit if you are in the east of the county! Everyone went away enthused about Roman Wiltshire and keen to visit other sites in the county.

All in all the walks were very successful and the Wiltshire Archaeological Service will doubtlessly be doing similar walks in the future – so keep your eye on the History Centre Blog and the various newsletters we send out! In the meantime, do investigate the archaeology of your local area and further afield. Many attractions are open to the public and have a fascinating history to explore. Who knows what you might find out! In the meantime if you’d like to know more about Wiltshire’s archaeology then why not check out our Historic Environment Record (HER) at www.wiltshire.gov.uk/wsher.htm

Tom Sunley

Wiltshire Archaeology Service



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