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The Ridgeway’s rich heritage inevitably draws archaeologists to the area, from the ‘father of archaeology’ and the first female archaeologists through to modern day researchers and the Young Archaeologist Club. Whilst Avebury World Heritage Site obviously has a rich, ongoing legacy of archaeological study, other locations along the Trail are benefiting from greater depths of study too. The ‘Beacons of the Past‘ project has encouraged hundreds of people sitting at home to scrutinise online LiDAR images of the Chilterns for signs of hillforts and other earthworks hidden under tree cover, whilst the Lowbury Hill university research project has utilised the latest bone analysis technology to learn more about the people buried there thousands of years ago. Read on below to find out more….

Banner image: Sketch by Stukeley of The Sanctuary near Avebury. Kind permission of Historic England archives.

Known as the ‘father of archaeology’, William Stukeley’s most important contributions relate to Avebury and Stonehenge where he dedicated hours of fieldwork between 1721 and 1724. Whilst his contemporaries went abroad to explore ancient sites on ‘The Grand Tour’, Stukeley chose to ride on horseback around the British countryside in search of archaeological monuments and other features to observe, measure and sketch. In Stukeley’s time, archaeology had not yet developed as a discipline and his interest in the past made him a student of antiquities or an ‘antiquarian’.

With a background in medicine, Stukeley related excavation (digging in and around archaeological sites) to the scientific practice of anatomical dissection, whilst his religious interests gave rise to spiritual or mystical interpretations. In this way, Stukeley’s ideas have had a mixed reception. For example, it was Stukeley who promoted the connection between druids, the cosmos and places like Avebury and Stonehenge, but he also proposed more practical ideas including the use of sledges, timber cradles and levers to erect the stones. However, few would dispute his drawings to be a rich visual legacy  demonstrating keen observation skills (Stukeley often included himself in his drawings – look for the man on horseback!). His drawings are particularly important in the case of Avebury as a unique visual record before many of the stones were removed for the construction of buildings. One of his drawings shows the destruction of stones at The Sanctuary at the end of The Ridgeway (see image gallery above).

Witnessing the destruction of monuments inspired Stukeley and others to push for their protection. Sir John Lubbock was a key figure, having introduced a Bill to Parliament in 1873 as well as purchasing land at Avebury to prevent part of the ancient stone circle from being built on! Years of campaigning secured the first legal protection of monuments in the form of The Ancient Monuments Act 1882. This protection was restricted to 68 monuments and included several along The Ridgeway – Avebury stone circle and avenues, Silbury Hill, Barbury Castle, Devil’s Den, West Kennet Long Barrow, Wayland’s Smithy and Uffington Castle.

Whilst Stukeley recorded the loss of The Sanctuary, it was many years later that a female archaeologist re-discovered its location: Maud Cunnington (1869 – 1951). Cunnington identified the site’s exact location and preserved it for future generations by purchasing the land and giving it to the nation. At this time, archaeology was undertaken exclusively by interested amateurs and so, unlike other professions where a degree was required, Cunnington could participate despite higher education opportunities not being open to women. In 1948, she was honoured with a CBE for services to archaeology, making her the first woman archaeologist to be recognised in this way. She bequeathed almost all her property to Devizes Museum (now Wiltshire Heritage Museum).

Another female archaeologist, Molly Cotton (1902-1984), made her mark at the eastern end of the Ridgeway at Ivinghoe Beacon. The Cotton and Frere excavations of 1963 – 65 identified the hillfort there as Iron Age. In 1936, Cotton was one of the first to take a postgraduate diploma at the newly founded Institute of Archaeology in London.

The mapping of hillforts such as Ivinghoe Beacon and also The Ridgeway as archaeological features is largely the work of O G S Crawford (1886 – 1957) who combined his interest in prehistory with flying. Crawford’s interest in archaeology was first cultivated by a teacher whilst he was a student at Marlborough College near The Ridgeway, including trips to sites such as Avebury. His interest in aerial photography came later during the First World War, when he was involved in ground and aerial reconnaissance along the Western Front. By 1920, he was employed as Archaeological Officer with the Ordnance Survey and his task was to tour Britain plotting the location of archaeological sites. In the process, he identified several features that were previously unknown and he claimed ‘aerial archaeology was to archaeology what the telescope was to astronomy’. Crawford also developed a new type of map called ‘period maps’ which proved popular with the public, including the ‘Neolithic Wessex’ map for example.

Numerous other archaeologists have since followed the lead, including the future generation of archaeologists involved through the Young Archaeologist Club. In 2023 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Ridgeway, a group of youngsters worked with the National Trust to learn how to conserve the Uffington White Horse with trowels, hammers and buckets as part of the annual scouring event. Long may the archaeological study and conservation of The Ridgeway’s heritage continue….

Notes: More information about the archaeological highlights of The Ridgeway including Lowbury Hill are available in other Top 50 entries (not all Top 50 entries will be available until end of December 2023).

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