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Ancient mound of sheep bones

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Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent
Monday May 6, 2002
The Guardian

Other archaeologists find gold or silver, Roman temples or Viking longships. David McOmish found a pile of sheep bones, the size of a hill.

A week later a file of Chieftain tanks would have lumbered through the hill, and would have destroyed an extraordinary piece of history, one of the most startling of thousands of sites newly identified in the first comprehensive survey by English Heritage of the military training lands on Salisbury plain.

Mr McOmish is an archaeologist at the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, now part of English Heritage, and one of the three authors of the survey. He believes that at East Chisenbury they have found a 2,600-year-old ritual feasting area, established on the site of an even older abandoned settlement.

Finds included pottery bowls with traces of food, and human skulls suggesting that the Iron Age people brought their ancestors to join the feast.

It was the hill itself, however, that was the astounding discovery. It still stands several metres high, and covers an area of 2.5 hectares. It consisted almost entirely of sheep bones. From the trial trenches they dug, he believes it contains the remains of at least 500,000 sheep.

"The vast number of animals consumed must suggest a startling level both of human population and of stock keeping," Mr McOmish said.

"This is a site which obviously had a ritual importance to them, to which people regularly returned for special occasions. I think we have to imagine a great annual fair where deals were done and matches made."

The survey, mapping 5,000 years of archaeology on an area the size of the Isle of Wight, will be slightly overdue in its publication this week. It was in 1901, 10 years after the army began buying up thousands of acres, that an inventory was first suggested "of the tumuli and other objects of antiquarian interest on Salisbury Plain".

In the 1970s, Wiltshire county archaeologist Roy Canham recalled, the training lands were regarded as a no-go area for archaeologists. Occasional horror stories filtered out such as the Bronze Age barrow marked with a red warning flag, which was mistaken by the troops for the target - the mound was destroyed.

"There has been a complete change of heart since then on the part of the military establishment," he said. "It's fair to say that I now have far more anxieties about the survival of archaeology outside the training area."

Knook hillfort, where the survey has shown that the wriggly ditches built 2,500 years ago follow the bound areas of even more ancient Celtic fields, has now been fenced off. Trees keep tanks away, and a new road, completed 18 months ago, was expensively re-routed to keep it well away.