On Keiller’s excavation of the West Kennet Avenue and why we wash flint…

Whilst going through the archive in the Alexander Keiller Museum I came across some boxes of worked flint from the West Kennet Avenue. The material consists primarily of flint flakes, some of which is waste material from making stone tools, some of which are tools in their own right. The latter would have been flakes used for cutting and scraping a variety of materials such as wood and animal hides. The material in the finds archive in the Museum is conspicuously clean and carefully boxed and packaged, but for some reason this material was only poorly washed with mud still adhering to many of the artefacts. The objects needed a wash and the following is a long winded explanation of why!

One evening in 1934…

Two men met in the Red Lion in Avebury. The two men were Alexander Keiller and Stuart Piggott. Their first encounter was in 1928 when Piggott, then only 18 years old, was already a keen archaeologist with an interest in Neolithic pottery. By 1933 Piggott had taken up an appointment to help Keiller study the Windmill Hill pottery. He had also suggested to Keiller that small-scale excavation could reveal the course of the West Kennet Avenue, which at that stage had only a few standing stones remaining. The majority had been either fallen, been buried, or were broken up for building stone centuries before. Keiller thought that Piggott’s idea was excellent, and in typical Keiller fashion, took it and expanded it exponentially.

When Keiller and Piggott met in the Red Lion that evening in 1934, Keiller told Piggott that he had decided to buy the whole of the Avebury monument and as much of the West Kennet Avenue as he could, all with the aim of excavating and restoring the monument to its former glory.

It was a grand vision of a type that few could have resourced or even begun to imagine. The work began with the excavation of the West Kennet Avenue in 1934. The primary aim was to track the course of the Avenue by uncovering stone-holes and buried stones. The most efficient means to do so was through the excavation of two long parallel trenches on the alignment of the two rows of stones that made up the Avenue. Quite unexpectedly, during the course of the excavation a large artefact scatter was uncovered in the middle of the Avenue. The scatter is located towards the southern end of the section of the Avenue that Keiller subsequently restored. Thousands of visitors still walk across it every year without ever knowing that it is there.

The West Kennet Avenue during the excavation, Photo Album A, 78510300_006_d.

Keiller was interested in the scatter, which he deemed to be the remains of a prehistoric settlement, and extended the area of excavation to further investigate it. Ultimately the excavation retrieved over 1000 flint tools, associated waste flakes, and 600 sherds of pottery known as Peterborough Ware. The pottery indicated that the site was a Neolithic settlement site (later work showing that it dates to around 3000BC), and the scatter was named the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site.

The West Kennet Avenue excavation in 2015.

The artefacts were later studied by Isobel Smith, who published them in 1965 along with the results of the rest of Keiller’s Avebury excavations. Archaeologists have known about the site, and particularly the excellent state of preservation of its artefacts, ever since but very little else was done with the material or the site until 2013 when Mark Gillings and Josh Pollard reinvestigated it over three seasons of excavations.

Mark and Josh’s team retrieved many more artefacts (over 16,000!), and also revealed two reasons that the artefacts are so well-preserved. The first is that, presumably due to the presence of the Avenue and its buried sarsens, there has been no significant ploughing of the area. This is good for archaeologists as it means that the artefacts have not been moved around in the soil, not only preserving their spatial distribution, but also the objects themselves, which can become abraded and worn by the action of the plough. The second was that the soil in the area of the Avenue had become decalcified, with the calcium carbonate that is ever present in chalky soils having been leached out of it.

This is great for those of us that study chalkland flint assemblages, as flint from chalky soils are normally heavily patinated. That means that there normally black or dark grey lustrous surfaces have become white and dull. But, this makes it hard to study the edges of stone tools, where we are often looking for fine traces of use. This is important because when flint tools are used to conduct tasks such as scraping hides, grooving bone, or processing plant fibres, their edges become worn.

At a microscopic level that wear will vary in character according to the types of materials that a tool has been used on. The technique for studying these traces of wear is rather unimaginatively called use-wear analysis, and it is very useful at revealing the range of craft and subsistence activities that took place on a site.

A photo of a serrated flake from the West Kennet Avenue
The microscopic wear present on the teeth of a serrated flake

I have previously analysed Mark and Josh’s assemblage from the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site and sure enough the tools in the assemblage did preserve use-wear traces. These tell us that varied activities took place on the site, including hide working and the processing of the fibres of plants such as nettles.

When Keiller was excavating the Avenue, use-wear didn’t even exist as a discipline, so they had no idea what the analysis of the flint from the site could add to their understanding. This may explain why they didn’t feel the need to wash the flint from the excavation!

Me talking to the APEX Team (its not just an empty room, honest!)
The washed flint being dried out and ready for rebagging

Well, we need clean flint for use-wear analysis, and rest assured, thanks to the efforts of Briony Clifton of the National Trust and her team of volunteers (the brilliantly-named APEX team!), the flint is now all shiny and new-looking. Now I just need to analyse it all.

Once this has been done we will hopefully know much more about the types of activities that took place on the site, and whether they differ between the areas excavated by Keiller, and the more recent trenches.

This will aid our interpretations of the settlement. Was it permanently or seasonally occupied? Was it a short-lived occupation, or something more long term? Was it a settlement at all, or just a working area? These are all questions that we hope to be able to answer once the analysis has been completed.