Tours from Antiquity


Stonehenge from the Heel Stone looking towards the Slaughter Stone (foreground)

I have recently refound my love of giving guided tours through a company that aims to provide archaeologist guides around the most famous Neolithic sites of Wiltshire. Unlike the big tour buses, who herd their charges to the Stonehenge bus armed with an audioguide to explain the construction and purpose of this unique five thousand year old monument, Tours from Antiquity aims to provide a “real-life” archaeologist on small tour groups full of discerning travellers.

The power of TripAdvisor cannot be underestimated. Edward Shepherd, who set up Tours from Antiquity and has been leading tour groups on his own for the last five years, has needed to take on some help (including me) this year as his business reputation grows on the platform. There is demand from tourists who want in depth, detailed and accurate information about these amazing Stone Age sites. What also helps are the small group sizes (no 60-seater buses where half the group is talking over the tour guide), an early start to avoid the Stonehenge mania and providing more of a context for Stonehenge by taking in more of the World Heritage Site. On my tour on the Day of Archaeology, we got there and got out well before the queues started to build. It’s great that Stonehenge is so popular, but if you don’t like crowds, you’ve got to get there early.

I do love digging and discovery in museum collections, but I adore talking to the wider public about archaeology, when they’re interested. My tour group on the Day of Archaeology was made up of people from the US, Canada, Argentina, and India, and I’ve also had people from Singapore, China, Sweden, Norway, France, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. All this international interest in Stonehenge! I would have liked to have talked to some Brits, but I guess they get to these sites under their own steam for the most part.

The act of talking to people about the archaeology challenges me to find a narrative, a reason for things, that is often missing from the standard literature (with its talk of ritual curation of the landscape into blah, blah, blah). It makes more sense when talking to actual people to have a story, a thread to hold on to in the flood of information. It’s no good telling people a load of disconnected facts. It’s easy to connect Durrington Walls and Stonehenge by their respective avenues and alignments on the solstices, for instance. Another strand in my story is the development of archaeology from William Cunnington and Richard Colt-Hoare to Maud Cunnington to Mike Parker-Pearson and Nick Snashall. The group loved to hear about the recent ground penetrating radar work by the University of Birmingham that might have located buried stones under the Durrington Walls bank.

It can be dangerous, though, to tell too neat a story as if its the truth. So I’m careful to point out the various interpretations, and the limitations of what we can do with the evidence, too. I think there was an expectation from most of the members of the tour group that, as an archaeologist, I would also throw out certain theories without hesitation. Some of the visitors came pretty well-informed already, and had adopted a little of the old-fashioned scorn of fringe archaeology that characterised some of the previous generations of archaeologists. I know I don’t speak for everyone in archaeology when I keep an open mind about the survival of Neolithic practices into historical times, and look outside the strict boundaries of archaeological literature for ideas (anyone who has listened to my podcast knows I love Bernard Cornwell’s theory of Silbury Hill). Ley-lines and aliens can take a running jump, though. There is a limit. We saw another tour group making a crop circle in a field just north of West Kennet long barrow, and I’m afraid I couldn’t control my dismay.


Silbury Hill from West Kennet long barrow

The other thing I felt I needed to be careful about was the chronology. While many of these monuments were being constructed/used at vaguely the same time, there is the danger of presenting the ‘story’ as if there were two competing tribes trying to outdo each other on a day for day timetable. A lintel goes up at Stonehenge one day, the next day the people up at Avebury raise Silbury Hill by another ten metres. Maybe not.

I have always found that talking out loud about the archaeology helps my brain work. I’ve had a few ideas for research projects. One guy on my tour on the Day of Archaeology asked me whether there was a time of year for burying the dead under round barrows and whether the body would be buried then and then the mound built later when people had time in the agricultural year. While radiocarbon dating couldn’t detect this kind of short time scale, I need to look in the literature for pollen date of the primary burial and the encircling ditch to see if this indicates quick burial and barrow-digging at leisure.

I was able to direct my tour towards Salisbury Museum to see the Stonehenge and Amesbury Archers having mentioned them earlier in the day, a bit of bluestone potentially from Stonehenge, finds from Durrington Walls. Only one guy took me up on that suggestion, though, most people preferring to see the cathedral and have a rest from the Neolithic in the middle of the day.


The Amesbury Archer in Salisbury Museum, buried with wrist bracers, arrows, early copper and bronze implements, beakers, shale belt ring, boar tusks and more.

Over the course of the day (which starts at 7.30am) I got to bond with my tour group over a mutual interest in prehistory, and the beauty of this tour is ending in the Red Lion pub inside Avebury stone circle and henge, with a pint of Avebury Well Water, the local brew, still chatting about the nature of the past, conservation, oral history and so much more. By the end of the day I’m always sad to see them leave, knowing we won’t bump into each other again, apart from perhaps a nice review on TripAdvisor. I just hope I’ve been a good enough ambassador for these World Heritage Sites.


The Red Lion pub inside Avebury henge and stone circle, one of a kind

Digging Diaries – The House As Old As Stonehenge

Following on from the wonders of Star Carr, here’s our next video, ‘The House As Old As Stonehenge’

A digging team has uncovered the remains of a building which is over 4000 years old. It’s been found on the vast Neolithic landscape of Marden Henge situated within the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire.

The University of Reading Archaeology Department have been carrying out the excavations in collaboration with Historic England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council and the Wiltshire Museum.

Subscribe to our channel and follow us on Twitter (@DiggingDiaries) to keep up to date with all  the new exciting digs and dives happening all over Britain this summer.

Happy Digging from all the team!

Bob Clarke’s Varied Day of Archaeology

Like many archaeologists I wear more than one hat. I am a qualified aircraft engineer as well as a professional archaeologist – aviation and archaeology – strange bedfellows but very fulfilling!  This morning I was busy supporting engineering students at a local training college. This was interspersed with a rationalisation of some bags of finds from last weekend’s ‘Dig Devizes’. This was a community dig over two days. Running the children’s trench was a rewarding experience however; five year olds can produce very full finds trays! I’ve just weighed in and analysed a mass of CBM, not so informative unfortunately however there is also a substantial range of coins – everything from 1889 to 1991, clay pipe, a small silver bar and my favourite – ring-pulls. As part of my PhD I’ve been working with ring-pulls, a very important part of modern material culture (watch out for the paper!). Later today I will be writing up the context sheets for test pit DD 13 601 and forwarding them to the PM Jon Sanigar.

IMG_8589 - Copy  Now this afternoon I have been busy recording a recently discovered well  in my village. I run a community project, The Broad Town Archaeological Project (BTAP), encouraging locals to report and get involve in their local environment. Last Monday two guys taking down a fence discovered a cap-stone with a chalk blocked lined well below. This afternoon I will be recording this for our project and so we can submit the feature to the Wiltshire Building Record. After that I need to complete a watching brief report on some work I oversaw for the National Trust at the Sanctuary (Avebury). That was a nice day well spent. I work occasionally for a small archaeological contractor who specialises in small watching briefs in North Wiltshire – this allows me to build up a small pot of money to cover my fees for my part-time PhD at Exeter. Now depending on the time I get finished on reports I might well squeeze in a couple of hours on the thesis – I’m currently mapping cold war bunkers against a heterotopic/secret landscape/taskscape.

IMG_7984 - Copy

So that’s my day – no spectacular digs or discoveries, more a community orientated effort. And that is archaeology for me – we often work in a position of authority but we should always remember the local community’s history we are digging. I have always enjoyed involving the local community; then I would do as one of the UKs foremost community archaeologists shaped my formative years – Professor Mick. He also told me ‘archaeology is a beautiful mistress but she brings a poor dowry’, Never a truer word spoken.

Bob Clarke

PS I’ve popped links to Broad Town and Dig Devizes if you want a peep.

Returning to archaeology

In my ‘day job’, I’m an IT professional at the University of Nottingham: my alma mater from which I graduated in Archaeology and Geography some time ago. However, I’ve retained my fascination with archaeology and I’m excited to be starting a part-time MA in Archaeology here in September. In the year leading up to this, I’ve read academic books and papers voraciously, enjoyed the regular research seminars in the Department, joined The Prehistoric Society  and attended some fascinating conferences. I’m really looking forward to studying the subject again in depth over the next two years.

Today, however, archaeology had to be set aside for the morning, as my wife and I attended a friend’s funeral. It was an occasion to share happy memories with her family and to celebrate her life, so in that sense, it was a positive event and we were glad to be there. Recently, I was reading some of the papers regarding the Neolithic landscape of Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire and Mike Parker Pearson’s suggestion of the landscape being divided into domains of the living and of the ancestors, with the transition from life through death to the realm of the ancestors perhaps being related to ritual passage through the landscape. During moments of reflection at the graveside before the committal, I realised that the ritual in which we participating was one which people and communities have shared for thousands of years and that, just at that moment, we had something intangible in common with our Neolithic predecessors.

On a happier note, my archaeological activity today involved some preparation for a conference on Deer and People which is being organised by our zooarchaeology lecturer in the department, Naomi Sykes. It’s to be held in September in Lincoln and I volunteered to help. We’ve discussed some issues for supporting the conference, so I’ve set up an e-mail address for it and provided a link to the conference web page on the University’s web site. Today, I’ve done some work on Powerpoint slides for the conference to be displayed on screen before or between speakers, themed to the colours of the various sessions in the programme.

Lastly, we’re packing tonight for our regular family holiday in Northumberland, my home county and the original inspiration for my interest in archaeology, with its landscape rich in remains from the past. I’m looking forward to the luxury of some time to sit and read. I have some papers in PDF format to catch up with on my laptop and iPad while we’re away but I won’t be able to resist packing a few of the archaeology books I have on loan from the University Library and of course there’s Barter Books to visit in Alnwick. Can one have too many archaeology books? My wife may disagree but I think not!