Pre-history

PRE-HISTORY HISTORICAL BACKGROUND & ENVIRONMENT

Following the end of the last glaciation, some ten thousand years ago, forests spread across southern Britain. The people who inhabited them were hunter-gatherers whose presence is indicated by the flint tools they left behind: in the immediate area the naturally occurring flint of the West Woods seems to have been especially important for tool-making. Early attempts to clear parts of the forest may have taken  place at this time.

Around 5,000 – 4,500 BC the spread of agriculture brought domesticated crops and animals into the area. Although areas of land were cleared for cultivation, forest management was very important to ensure vital supplies of timber. Pottery was now being made and the population was building earthwork enclosures and long barrows. It is impossible to know how large the great sacred landscape of the Avebury area was in the eyes of its creators but the inhabitants of our area cannot have been untouched by it.

Forest clearance and subsequent soil erosion led to the setting out of formal field systems in the middle bronze age – between about 1,500 and 1,000 BC. These can still be seen on Overton and Fyfield Downs; areas which are agriculturally marginal and were only exploited in arable terms when population or political pressure made it advantageous. Environmental evidence indicates that the area was by now largely open rather than forested, with many of the hedgerow species with which we are familiar common then also.

With the Roman invasion came new politics and new features in the landscape. The London to Bath Road sliced through the area, unusually built on a stone-revetted causeway to cross the marshy Kennet Valley. The downland to the north of the area was once again under the plough to produce the grain demanded in tax by the new government. Throughout the Roman, post-Roman and Anglo Saxon years the area was important for communications and movement of goods, people and troops. It was in the late Roman or immediately post-Roman and Anglo Saxon years that Wansdyke was started but never completed.

The shape and area of the modern civil parishes were set by Saxon times and probably, like the network of tracks in the area date back into prehistory. Today’s Overton once comprised two estates which became ecclesiastical parishes with the spread of Christianity. Tenth century charters reveal that East Overton was centred around the church and manor; its mediaeval remains are still visible in Rings Close. The original Saxon West Overton village started life on the parish’s western boundary with East Kennett but with time and settlement shift was re-established on its eastern border close to East Overton. At the time of the Charters the manor of East Overton belonged to Wulfswith, a nun at Winchester, and eventually passed to the Bishops of that Cathedral. West Overton is recorded as being gifted to lady Aelflaed, possibly  also a nun, at Wilton to which establishment the property passed.  Fyfield, mentioned first in Doomsday, belonged to the Sacrist of Winchester Abbey and was often managed in conjunction with East Overton. Of the four surviving villages Fyfield may be the only one to be able to claim a Roman origin.

Within the parish there were further settlements. Lockeridge grew from several foci and was much influenced by the running of the estate there belonging to the Templars between the 1150s and their dissolution in 1308. Shaw, its earthwork remains still visible, is mentioned in Doomsday and was probably at its most active in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is last referred to in 1377; it may have been abandoned shortly after this. To the north, adjacent to Wroughton Copse, a farmstead was established in the twelfth century. As during the middle Bronze Age and the Roman period, the need for extra arable production meant that it was economically viable to plough up some of the marginal downland; the resulting ridge and furrow can still be seen in places.

Following the Dissolution the parishes experienced a wide variety of mostly absentee landlords, in particular the earls of Pembroke, Dukes of Marlborough and the Meux family. Boundary stones set up by Henry Meux can still be found in the West Woods.

Today’s landscape of Fyfield and Overton has evolved over ten thousand years though it would essentially be recognisable to its Saxon inhabitants. In the north the chalk downs, have been mainly used for grazing and only ploughed at times of high agricultural need. Today much of this area falls within the Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve, designated originally for reasons of its landform and its sarsens, accidentally thereby preserving valuable archaeology. The more recent recognition that the sarsens host rare lichens has led to the status of Site of Special Scientific Interest being applied to the NNR and to nearby Piggledene. Some of the area also falls within the Avebury World Heritage Site and all of it is part of the North Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

To the south lie West Woods, once the western reaches of the Royal forest of Savernake. Research indicates that there have always been woodlands here, for many centuries a carefully managed resource.

The third land division, the Kennet Valley, has been shown through excavation to have been used as an agricultural resource since at least Neolithic times. More recently it had a water meadow system, the remains of which can be seen at Overton alongside a relict Withy Bed, created for the growing of willow withies.

Gill Swanton and other archaeologists are always interested to visit when the surface earth is being disturbed by garden works or building. The County archaeologist has commissioned a report on the George Bridge site which she has promised us we can see.

For further reading see: The Land of Lettice Sweetapple. Peter Fowler and Ian Blackwell. Tempus Publishing Ltd. or Peter Fowlers detailed book Landscape Plotted and Pieced. Society of Antiquaries.

Gill Swanton and other archaeologists are always interested to visit when the surface earth is being disturbed by garden works or building. The County archaeologist has commissioned a report on the George Bridge site which she has promised us we can see.

Gill Swanton.