Blick Mead: Stonehenge's sacred spring

by frankbeswick

Archaeological discoveries near Stonehenge throw light upon the origins of this ancient sacred site.

Stonehenge does not stand alone, for it is part of a wider sacred landscape containing a range of features. Moreover, it was not just a monument for local Britons, as scientific analysis of bones indicates that people came from far and wide to avail themselves of the powers of this awesome site.But one tiny spot was until recently overlooked by archaeologists, until they reappraised their strategy. Excavating the spring of Blick Mead has opened up insights into the lives of ancient Britons..

Photo courtesy of hallidayfineart, of Pixabay


We must imagine our way into the distant past. It is before 7000 B.C. The English Channel has yet to be carved out and the climate has not fully recovered from the Ice Age.Salisbury Plain is an open landscape dotted with trees and  is rich in prey for hunters, a band of whom, male and female, young and old,approach a slight rise in the level of the plain. Happily, they find a chalk spring which  seems to maintain an even temperature and when one of the hunters drops a flint tool into the water and retrieves he is surprised that it turns red. The tribe are familiar with red ochre, a magical, sacred substance, so they conclude that the spring is magical. Stories of the magical spring spread over the land and other people want to visit and be blessed and so the seed of a sacred landscape was sown. But we are dwellers in a world that has lost its enchantment. We now know that the red staining is   due to  a rare bacterium, Hildebrandia. No magic for us!

The sacred landscape of Salisbury Plain developed into the location of great neolithic architecture:  the great circles of Stonehenge and Avebury, the artificial hill of Silbury and the cursus, a raised roadway probably for processions, and the tiny magical spring was relegated to a minor role, a sad fate. It was probably a change of cultus that did it. The original hunter-gatherers probably honoured a spirit/goddess of the spring, possibly Elen of the Ways, the deer goddess. But Stonehenge was sacred to a sun cult. It would not have been a case of a new religion supplanting an old one, for paganism has space for a plurality of deities, but rather of a high prestige cult gaining dominance. 

 The rise in the plain was in the sixteenth century wrongly classed as the site of a Roman camp and attributed to Vespasian, later to become emperor. There is nothing Roman about what was once called Vespasian's Camp.The site was neglected by archaeologists due to an error. The area around it had been redeveloped as part of the Marquis of Queensbury's estate, so it was assumed that any archaeology at Blick Mead had been destroyed, but a  reappraisal revealed that Blick Mead had remained untouched.A team from the university of Buckingham set to work and has unearthed material which shows us much about the prehistory of Britain. The dig took a long time as excavation was limited to a few weeks a year, but it was a worthwhile process. 

Issues in Archaeology.

One of the biggest issues in British archaeology has been the ethnicity of the Britons. For many years we were blighted by the belief that incoming populations  massacre or drive out the populations before them. Cultural change was seen as a sign of ethnic change, a belief that has been compared with thinking that the presence of an IKEA furniture store indicates a Swedish invasion! We were aware that there were incoming populations arriving in Britain in prehistoric times and it was customary to think that any cultural novelty indicates newcomers.

In the past we were beset by classical snobbery, the belief that until  the Romans arrived the Britons were primitives just awaiting the civilising power of Rome. Other civilising features were believed to come from the Fertile Crescent running from Egypt to Mesopotamia, a belief that led some scholars to the belief that Stonehenge was produced under the leadership of an incoming elite from the Mediterranean, an idea now comprehensively debunked.Ancient Britons in this view were mere savages running round in skins.     

This incoming culture view overlooked the vast trading networks which existed in Stone Age Europe and the cultural contacts and exchange that they brought.Archaeological sites routinely reveal items from far away,a fact that indicates trade and movement of people.  Bones reveal that people died in places where they were not born and raised, again indicating a mobile population. Stone Age people were as intelligent as we are, so they could learn new ideas.

What has this to do with Blick Mead? Simple. Archaeology reveals that the site was a place of ritual worship right through from the Mesolithic period, when Britain was first re-inhabited after the Ice Age right through into the Neolithic period and into the Bronze Age, when a copper alloy dagger  was ritually deposited in the spring. Even an Anglo-Saxon brooch was found. Continuity of use through thousands of years indicates that there was cultural and probably ethic continuity between the Neolithic Britons and their Mesolithic forebears.  There is evidence of cultural influences from other parts of Britain. A stone mesolith, known as a Horsham point, from a hundred or so miles away was found, but it was made of slate, of a kind that is unknown in the Salisbury Plain region, either as bedrock or glacial erratic, but comes from Cumbria over two hundred miles away. So not only is there evidence of cultural continuity between Mesolithic and Neolithic Britain, but of a widespread shared culture throughout the land,a culture that spread through trade into Europe. There were newcomers, who brought farming, but they seem to have integrated peacefully.



How did the Britons Use Blick Mead?

There is much archaeological evidence indicating that the early Britons liked to worship with feasting. The Mesolithic Britons seem to have fed on aurochs or pig. Aurochs [rarely aurochsen, aurochses] are a breed of wild cattle hunted to extinction in Europe by the first millennium AD. Substantially heavier than domestic cattle, the males weighed one and a half tons, twice as much as a modern beef bull. They were broader at the shoulder and narrower at the rear than modern bulls are, which makes them fearsome fighters. They ranged the woods of ancient Britain and were hunted as prey by the Mesolithic Britons. One aurochs could provide a feast for two hundred people, and the remains  of seven have been found at Blick Mead.A feast for two hundred indicates more than a single hunter gatherer group, but a coming together of tribes. Maybe for great feasts the menfolk of several hunting groups came together to kill an aurochs. A modern hunter with a rifle could take out an aurochs, but in Stone Age times it would have been a team effort.

But the little spring was a victim of its own success, for as the sacred area grew ever more popular the tiny spring became dwarfed by the ritual landscape that developed over a period of fifteen hundred years.Moreover ,as farming intensified the cycle of the seasons began to outweigh animal migrations. Herding domestic animals became a source of meat more important than hunting was. After about four thousand years of use feasting was transferred to a site nearby and Blick Mead was left to guard its relics and await the archaeologists.But it has been described as the first "place" in Britain, which means it might have been the first locus to have a specific meaning in the land after the Ice Age, though this claim cannot be proven.

However, it has demonstrated the continuity between Mesolithic and Neolithic Britain and contributed to the growing awareness that the population replacement view so popular with people with a taste for genocide as an explanation of cultural change should be consigned to the dustbin of history.


Updated: 06/11/2020, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 11/06/2020

I think that Queensbury cared about preserving his possessions, but that's all.

I suppose that the colour fades as the algae dry out when taken from water.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/05/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practical information and the product lines. (It's interesting how face masks can serve as advertising and public relations for Stonehenge!)
Did the Marquis of Queensbury (one of the Douglas family members, no?) not care or know about Blick Mead? The Wikipedia article on Blick Mead mentions the Hildenbrandia algae as pinkening or reddening stones. Would that color change be permanent or ultimately fade?

frankbeswick on 06/09/2020

You have identified the problem with Carbon 14 dating. The only way round the problem is to corroborate the results of different dating techniques and draw an inference. That would give you a more reliable, but still inexact dating.

blackspanielgallery on 06/09/2020

One thing I always question is the accuracy of dating antiquity. It is based on carbon-14, and an assumption about the ratio of carbon-12 and carbon-14 that has to be made. But, was that ratio always the same, for incoming cosmic rays are attributed to maintaining it in the air? Perhaps that ratio was altered in the past, which would give false date estimates.

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