I roll the little piece of flint over once more in my hand. Chipped in places and cold to the touch, it’s hard to believe that this little piece of stone has lain undiscovered and buried under the dirt for over three and a half thousand years. That this teeny tiny piece of rock was most likely worked by human hands in Neolithic times… We’re standing in the very middle of an ancient site that could be as important as Stonehenge. North of Stonehenge, and South of Avebury Stone Circle, we’re at Cat’s Brain Long Barrow to be precise. (I know. I too am wondering who named the site!)
Cat’s Brain Long Barrow: ‘House of the Dead’
For thousands of years, the site has been lost and long forgotten… Well, that was until recent aerial footage revealed a long forgotten secret buried mere inches below the soil. For, located in the very middle of a farmer’s field, just outside the Vale of Pewsey, there’s a site so ancient that its original intended use has been long since forgotten.
Experts believe the site could date back as much as five thousand years (just like the Neolithic site of Stonehenge). The flattened site was originally mound-like in its shape but has likely been flattened as a result of centuries of farming. Cat’s Brain Long Barrow is being excavated for one month only, in collaboration with the University of Reading.
Around twenty meters square in total, the excavation area comprises of a central building flanked by two crescent-shaped ditches. Students from the University dig away at the soil of the two trenches and in the main structure, there are undoubtedly countless treasures and secrets just waiting to be discovered.
Visiting Cat’s Brain Long Barrow
A couple of weeks ago, there was an open day at Cat’s Brain. This was an exciting opportunity (genuinely, though) as members of the public rarely have access to such important archaeological sites. Whilst there, we were given a short informal presentation, as well as the chance to take a peek around the site and chat with the archaeologists undertaking the excavation work.
While there, we were informed that it’s thought that the Neolithic site originally consisted of a long barrow (probably a wooden structure covered in turf) flanked by two crescent-shaped ditches. Like most ceremonial sites in the area, the front entrance to the Long Barrow faces the rising sun at the summer solstice.
We also saw some of the animal remains that have been found on the site (including bone fragments and pig’s teeth, as well as small, worked pieces of flint). A Saxon brooch and Late Neolithic Pottery have also been found at the excavation site.
Although no one can give an exact date for the mound, one thing is crystal clear: just like every other neolithic site in the UK, no one is quite sure what the mound was used for. Some have said that it was purely for ceremonial purposes, others that it was used as a burial ground for the builders of nearby Stonehenge and Avebury Circle.
After all, the site is situated between the two sites and could well have been used as a burial mound, hence the name ‘House of the Dead’. Soil samples have been sent off for testing but it could be months before we know if any human remains have been found…
Other historical sites of importance near to Cat’s Brain
Less touristic than nearby Stonehenge yet just as impressive, Avebury consists of the largest stone circle in Britain (so big that it encompasses the whole of the village of Avebury), as well as two smaller concentric circles. The stones were erected between 2850 BC and 2200 BC and were changed a lot during the Neolithic period.
The white chalk plateau which is Salisbury Plain is one of the highest points in the landscape. Home to gems such as the abandoned village of Imber, a settlement which the army forced residents to evacuate during WWII and views onto the Pewsey Vale white horses, it’s well worth taking a tour of the plain to get more of a feel for the area.
Located on the fringes of Salisbury, the Iron Age Hillfort of Old Sarum is now owned and managed by English Heritage and can be visited for a small fee (members go free). To the exterior of the Motte and Bailey section, it’s also possible to view the first Salisbury Cathedral. A lack of water and supplies meant that the new cathedral has subsequently been moved closer to the river.
The most famous prehistoric site in Britain is that of Stonehenge, a ring of standing stones surrounded by a landscape of tumulus. It’s believed that the stones were erected some five thousand years ago, with each stone standing at around 13 feet high, and weighing 25 tonnes.