Chapter 5 – Old Sarum

Book Extract……………………………..

If we use the Southern Station Stone as a direction marker from Stonehenge, it points South by South East. If we then follow the line on a map of our Mesolithic landscape, showing the raised river levels of the past, we find that it points to a fantastic site just 10 km away from Stonehenge: an island in the middle of an extensive waterway.  This island would be located quite easily by boat. But even so, we have found that barrows and other sites serve as markers on the shoreline, to allow boats to navigate to this island from Stonehenge even at night or in bad weather.

Figure 64– The Island of Old Sarum in the Mesolithic Period

The positioning of this site is most interesting, as it lies very close to the English Channel which would have taken boats off to the continent. It is quite possible that this was Britain’s first seaport, as it seems to be the last known occupied Mesolithic island. If so, it would have been one of the most critical sites not only in Britain but in what we call Europe, as it would have been involved in nearly all Mesolithic imports and exports to and from France, Spain and the Mediterranean countries.

Figure 65– Lidar Magnetometry Survey showing two Dykes

The island of Sarum would have been a magnificent sight, sitting in a vast river as wide as the eye could see. At the time of Phase I of Stonehenge’s construction, the groundwater around Sarum would have reached higher than the outer ditches we see at Old Sarum today.  This gives us our first clue as to when the ditches were constructed, as it would be an impossible task to dig ditches if the area flooded twice daily. It also explains one of the anomalies at Old Sarum, a large deep ditch in the South of the site that serves no defensive purpose and was originally believed to be an old landslide.

When we look at the only survey of the site, we notice that there are two deep ditches that lead from the outer to the inner ditch, both of which, have been partially filled. During the Mesolithic, the groundwater would have flooded both, the outer, and because of the dykes (canal) cut in between the moats also the inner. Current theories on this site speculate that the central moat was dug for the motte-and-bailey castle that stands there today, but without firm evidence, this is just speculation – although as the centre of the site is now raised, it would be probable that both the Romans and then the Normans, cleaned out the prehistoric ditch and then extended further down to the new water table, to keep the inner ditch as a defensive moat, placing the excess spoil in the inner area of the site.

Looking at this island in Mesolithic times, the raised groundwater tables would have filled the original inner ditch, which is some 7 metres deep, in the same way as the moat that surrounded Stonehenge in Phase I of its construction. We, therefore, suggest that the moat was first dug in the Mesolithic Period. The Romans, and then the Normans, would have used the existing moat or enhanced it for their requirements.  The current archaeological belief that the Romans or the Normans dug the ditch does not stand up to scrutiny, as the outer ditch already existed at the site during their occupation, and it would have been simpler and cheaper for them to use the existing structure than to ignore it and make another.

The site at Old Sarum is much bigger than Stonehenge and is of a similar size to Avebury. One can only guess at what would have been in the centre of the Mesolithic island. From the amount of reused Sarsen stone found in the remains of the Norman castle and the original cathedral, we can infer that a megalithic structure like Stonehenge or Avebury stood at Sarum during prehistoric times.  If you extend a line from the centre of the motte-and-bailey at Old Sarum through the centre of the church (the original Salisbury Cathedral), it points to Stonehenge.

Churches built on prehistoric sites are not uncommon. There are many instances of pagan religions crushed by Christianity taking over their sacred sites and using the stone circles as a building material for their churches.  So, we believe that in prehistory three stone circles existed at Sarum: one large outer circle and two smaller inner circles, indicating the way to Stonehenge. Later, as the groundwater fell, our ancestors built Sarum’s outer banks to keep their sacred site an island. At Avebury, a similar configuration can be seen, with two smaller stone rings inside the large ring that borders the outer moat.

In the Neolithic Period, the groundwater table dropped by about 10 m, and the island of Sarum was joined to the mainland by a peninsula. Our ancestors, therefore, built giant ditches 12 m deep, to keep the site surrounded by groundwater. The Southern and Northern mooring-points could no longer be used, as the groundwater had receded too far, so the Neolithic people created a new landing point to the West. They left a gap in the considerable ditch, so that people and goods could enter the island; this would have looked very much like a bridge across the water.

At the end of this footpath, they built another mooring station that protruded from the edge of the moat-like a peninsula, so that boats could be moored safely around the feature.  For some bizarre reason known only to early archaeologists, the platform is shown on some maps as a Roman road connected to a road some 200 metres away on the West side of the island. Unfortunately, for that theory to be correct would take a leap of faith and nature.

The landing platform, which is shown as a lumpy protrusion on maps, has a 1:2 slope, with a vertical drop of over 30 metres. I would suggest that a Roman horse and cart would not be an advisable means of transport for this terrain unless they were equipped with ABS brakes and a parachute.

Figure 66 – Neolithic Loading position with a pathway cut over the outer moat to the interior

The historical record does give us some clues to Old Sarum’s deeper past and the ways in which the groundwater that surrounded the island dictated its history. The original Salisbury Cathedral was built here, only to be moved down to the valley a few hundred years later. Can you guess the reason for the move? That’s right, the lack of water! It seems that even over the cathedral’s brief history at Old Sarum, the groundwater continued to subside. As this story is well known, why did no-one wonder how deep the rivers might have been thousands of years ago?

The Maths

Currently, the groundwater table around Old Sarum is 56.5 m above sea level. The well in the Norman fort is 70 m deep from an altitude of 130 m, which shows that the groundwater is today 3.5 m below the Norman well. Therefore, the groundwater table in 1000 AD – when the well was first constructed – must have been at least 60 m, so in 1,000 years the groundwater has fallen 3.5 m.  If we multiply this thousand-year drop in groundwater table by 9, then add 56.5 m to account for the existing groundwater table, we can estimate the groundwater table 9,000 years ago, i.e. in 7000 BC. That would make the groundwater table (9 x 3.5 m) + 56.5 m = 88 m.

The outer banks of Old Sarum are 89 m above sea level – close enough, I think?

Figure 67 – Plan of Old Sarum – with ‘impossible’ Roman road to Bath with a 1:1 vertical drop

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