A Roman shrine at Beckhampton?
Mark Gillings and Joshua Pollard describe some unexpected finds in Wiltshire. Fragments of Roman armour at the socalled Beckhampton Cove suggest that 2000 years after its construction, this group of megaliths may have become a shrine to the god of war. The Beckhampton Avenue, leading from the famous Avebury henge and first noted by the antiquary William Stukeley in the 1720s, was rediscovered in excavations in 1999 (CA 167). Work in 2000 included an investigation of another element of Stukeley's Avenue, the Beckhampton Cove. Today, this is just a single stone, but Stukeley recorded a box-like setting of three mighty sarsens set within the course of the Avenue, similar to the Cove that still survives inside the Avebury henge.
Our excavations showed the Cove to have comprised not a three- but foursided rectilinear construction of sarsens, about 15 by 10 metres, aligned northwest - south-east, with splayed sides 'opening' to the south-east. The long sides of the 'box' were set on the northern line of the Avenue, with the Cove's axis at a right angle to it. On the basis of their relationship to an earlier enclosure and a later Beaker burial, we believe the Avenue and Cove settings date to the very end of the region's Neolithic, around 2600-2300 Be. The Cove, which is a remarkable prehistoric monument in its own right, may have marked the original terminal of the Late Neolithic Avenue: excavations at Beckhampton in April (in progress as this issue goes to press) have failed to find megalith pits further west.
Only one stone of the Cove remains; the other three were destroyed by local farmers in the eighteenth century around the time of Stukeley's record.
Far left. Excavating the barrow ditch at Ringlemere Farm. Photo: KParfitt.
Left. Cliff Bradshaw at the dig. Photo: English Heritage.
The Cove under excavation in 2000 (above) and the iron spearhead, thought to be Roman (right). Photo: M Pitts. Drawing: J Pollard
Our excavations revealed both the original prehistoric stone sockets and dramatic evidence of the postmedieval stone destructions. But it would be a mistake to assume the monument lay forgotten in the intervening four millennia: other finds indicate a complex history. During the early Bronze Age at least one burial was placed against the stones, a practice also documented for the West Kennet Avenue. Perhaps more surprising, given their absence elsewhere in the field, are Roman finds from the Cove's interior: these include Sam ian ware, animal bone, a fine iron spearhead and pieces of lorica squamata, a distinctive form of scale-armour.
So what was all this Roman material doing here? Roman votive offerings have sometimes been found associated with earlier Neolithic chambered tombs, such as the nearby West Kennet long barrow. In its original form the Cove would have closely resembled such megalithic chambers. We also know of votive deposits in shafts around the base of Silbury Hill, perhaps linked to a ritual complex centred on this massive u 5
L---'-_L---'-_L--" eM. o prehistoric mound and adjacent springs. Was the Cove appropriated as a Roman shrine? Could these military deposits have been dedicated to Mars, as evidenced by carvings on the menhir at Kervadel, Brittany? What remains clear is that the Cove, like Avebury itself, has a complex history that extends beyond its prehistoric origins.•