Field Trip

Celebrating the life of William Cunnington

On Thursday 27 July The Foundations of Archaeology Project organised a walk to celebrate the life of William Cunnington, the Heytesbury wool merchant, early archaeologist and close collaborator of sir Richard Colt-Hoare, illustrious owner of Stourhead.


Cunnington’s humbler origins make his life more difficult to trace than his wealthy land-owning fellow Wiltshire archaeologists such as Colt Hoare and General Pitt Rivers. However, everything fell into place, as it often does, thanks to the support of several key individuals –  two Heytesbury local historians (Anthony Wilson and Penny Copland-Griffiths); an ideal walk leader (Nick Cowen, senior Wiltshire footpaths officer, author and Cunnington enthusiast); a very helpful local farmer, Mr Collins (Manor Farm, Codford) and, finally, the owners of Cunnington’s largely unaltered house.

The walkers made for the higher ground above the Chitterne Brook, from which a number of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments explored by early archaeologists could be seen. The rich finds from some of the barrows have ensured that their names are known to generations of archaeology students, though few have visited the sites themselves. The party then left the beaten track and dropped down through a beautiful dry valley, past some ‘celtic’ fields (prehistoric field systems), which have fortunately escaped modern ploughing, and towards a barrow cemetery sitting, uncharacteristically, on the Ashton Valley floor and investigated by Cunnington and Colt Hoare in mid-winter in 1809. As Nick Cowen explained, Colt Hoare would have stayed at the Angel in Heytesbury and, together with his colleague Cunnington, set out for the barrows together. A good deal earlier than this on the same morning, two much humbler Heytesbury spade and dirt archaeologists, Stephen and John Parker (father and son) would have walked over to Codford and opened the barrows, awaiting the inspection of Cunnington and Colt Hoare.

The Parkers are even more difficult to find out about than Cunnington, but it is known that they became excellent excavators, fully trusted to work on their own. Sadly John Parker died in poverty and obscurity in 1867 aged 87.

Following a picnic in the gardens of Cunnington’s attractive brick-built house, which housed his ‘Moss House’ collection, the afternoon was devoted to a tour of the village of Heytesbury, culminating, appropriately, at Cunnington’s grave and plaque in the church.

So many people wished to take part in this walk that a second one has been organised in September and is already booked up. It is encouraging that Cunnington, who did not have an easy life – his doctor famously said he should ‘ride out or die’, and who made such an important contribution to archaeology, should at last be recognised in his local area rather than only in text books on the development of  the science of archaeology.


Walk at Hamshill Ditches – 24th June 2017

On a sunny Saturday June 24th, a group of 12 intrepid enthusiasts braved badger holes and thick nettles to explore Iron Age earthworks and tracks in woodland on the Great Ridge, north of Barford St Martin. Roy Wilde prepared us with images of the Hamshill Ditches earthworks which had been clearly visible on open land when Colt Hoare and Cunnington visited in 1812, and from Crawford’s aircraft in 1928. Now, largely covered in trees, many can only be seen on lidar images or by  exploring them at close hand, as we enjoyed doing. We were also fascinated to visit Roy’s excavation of the neck of a banjo enclosure, one of the very few ever carried out, with it’s unexpected discovery of the remains of what appears to have been a pottery kiln. There are still opportunities for volunteers to help complete the ‘dig’.  The visit was a great opportunity to appreciate the size and complexity of this Durotrigian site.

Guided Walk at Great Ridge Saturday 3rd June 2017

Join the Foundations of Archaeology project for a guided walk around the archaeology at the heart of Great Ridge Saturday 3rd June 2017 at 10.30 am – join us for a 5km walk around the prehistoric and Roman archaeology at the heart of Great Ridge (located 2km north of Stockton in the Wylye Valley). Please note that the walk starts with a steep 1km climb up a track onto the top of the ridge.

Booking essential please email or email 01747 870810

Visit to Down Farm – Sunday 30th April

On Sunday 30th April, with threatening clouds to the south, 25 volunteers set off with Martin Green to explore the considerable archaeological resources of Down Farm and, when the rain did finally arrive, Martin’s museum collection. How many farms in the UK possess a linear cursus monument, long barrows, a variety of round barrows, funerary enclosures, henges, pits, banjo enclosures, settlement evidence for the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages, and, just to complete the picture, a Roman road and shrine or temple? It might be objected that one or two of these features actually lie just outside Martin farm, but certainly not outside Martin’s ken. The richness of the archaeology was only matched by the depth and scope of  Martin’s interpretation, informed by his intimate association with this, overwhelmingly ritual and funerary, landscape over several decades.Martin’s complementary knowledge about geology, ecology, flora and fauna, grazing regimes, etc.produced a day that could not fail to entrance any lover of the countryside or heritage. The museum and, not to be underestimated on a rainy day, additional facilities for eating and making hot drinks, etc. completed the picture. The museum contains an important collection of finds for all prehistoric and historic periods, including a collection of rural life and farm implements, some of which were still in use in Martin’s youth. The personal touch and commentary of the curator made that vital link between artefacts and the landscape that produced them.


Visit to Stockton Woods – 16th March 2017

On Thursday 16 March a group of volunteers explored the trackways and other landscape archaeological features in the vicinity of Stockton Camp. We examined the large circular feature in Stockton Woods with its entrance, or at any rate gap, to the North – also the side with the most pronounced ditch and bank

Not far to the South and very close to the A303 we followed a section of Grim’s Ditch and pondered why this linear feature should make 2 sharp 90 degree turns in quick succession for no apparent topographical reason.

We also considered the ancient trackways which meet just to the West of Stockton Camp, one traversing directly North South from the Wylye to the Nadder Valley and the second traversing from the North-West to the South East. In both cases, whenever the trackway encountered a pronounced gradient the effect of many centuries of passage and consequent erosion had produced a sunken or hollow profile. In the case of the valley crossing at Sherrington Pond this actually produced multiple sunken profiles on either side of the valley, a common occurrence on the chalk. In the case of the North-South trackway the sunken profile can be seen where the trackway crosses Grim’s ditch just short of the A303. Little frequented today, these trackways were intensively used until relatively recently and may well have their origins in prehistory. Ironically, the Roman road, dating to the same period as Stockton Camp, could not be observed anywhere on the ground in the area we covered.


Walk in Vernditch Chase 4th March 2017

On a sunny Saturday we ventured into Vernditch Chase on the northern edge of Martin Down Nature Reserve. Hidden within the Medieval woodland we discovered the story of two Neolithic Long Barrows, examined the changes in the Bronze Age Grims Ditch, marvelled at the Roman Road of the Ackling Dyke, and finally learnt about the saxon estate of Damerham and how the Saxon Charter which defined its boundary can still be traced on the ground.

Download the Walk in Vernditch Chase Saturday 4th March