Britain’s first ‘city’ arose near an ancient spring on Salisbury Plain, and its inhabitants probably built Stonehenge, archaeologists believe.
Blick Mead lies just a mile away from the Wiltshire stone circle, and experts have uncovered more than 70,000 stone tools at the site, as well as an intriguing ceremonial platform suggesting the area held ritual importance for prehistoric hunter-gatherers who lived there 10,000 years ago.
Although hunter-gatherer populations rarely settle in one place, Professor David Jacques of the University of Buckingham, believes the site may have been a permanent encampment where at least the children, elderly and sick lived.
“When you look at Stonehenge you think, ‘but where are the people?’” said Prof Jacques. “It makes sense that if you want to find the people who built it, the obvious idea is to look for where the water is.
“At Blick Mead we found shed loads of stuff. Up until 2006 only 30 finds had ever been recovered from this period at any one site, and now we’re up to more than 70,000, so it’s been a total gamechanger.
“We’re talking about a very small area that people were coming to again and again and I think it was probably some sort of permanent settlement, so all our ideas of how hunter gatherers move around in dispersed communities needs to be revised.
“This makes Stonehenge more interesting because it gives it a longer history, linking it back to people from the Mesolithic. Blick Mead really is the cradle of Stonehenge.”
Today Blick Mead is a small watercourse, but in the Mesolithic period it was at the centre of a flood plain, and a huge river ran through the site, providing reliable water throughout the year. A rare algae called hildenbrandia also grows in the spring, which turns stones red, adding to its magical appeal.
And at a time where most of Britain was covered in a dense forest, pollen samples from 8,000 year old laters show it was open country in which supersized extinct cattle called aurochs roamed.
Archaeologists think that ancient Britons settled in the area because it was where the aurochs were, and they regarded the animals as sacred as well as crucial for food. Just one male bull would have fed 300 people and soil analysis from 8,000 year old Mesolithic layers shows spores from fungus that grows on the dung of cattle.
Aurochs skulls and bones were also placed deliberately in ditches at Stonehenge, suggesting that its builders held the animals as sacred, and provides a link between the people of Blick Mead and the monument builders of the megalithic monument.
The results from recent excavations are presented in a new documentary, Lost Cities, for the National Geographic channel.
Scientist and presenter Dr Albert Lin said: “If there was a lost city of Blick Mead if would have been made of timber which has now rotted away.
“Blick Mead was an important place where the early humans that roamed here, maybe even one of the first manifestations of a human city. Makes sense. A river for transport, for fish, a landscape perfect for hunting big game.
“Aurochs were sacred to the people of Stonehenge and Blick Mead. Perhaps Blick Mead was one of Europe’s first cities.”
Ground penetrating radar recently picked up evidence of a 30ft structure beneath the ground at Blick Meade which when excavated this summer was found to be made from carefully placed flints. And beneath the platform was a perfectly preserved set of aurochs footprints.
“It’s like a jetty and I think it had multiple uses,” said Prof Jacques. “It has a gentle slope down to the water so it would have been useful to pull up a boat. But the interesting thing is it’s made of stone. Other examples of platforms from this time are made of wood, so this suggests it had an air of permanence.
“I don’t think it’s all about the practical. I think the surface is a focal point for worship, a sacred surface that predates Stonehenge by about 2,000 years and placed to run alongside the waters edge. The hoof prints could well be like a relic in a cathedral and they are trying to imbue the surface with the qualities of the aurochs.
“Just this month we have found another occupation layer beneath it so it goes back even further.”
Dr Jacques believes that Stonehenge may represent a god in the landscape and was probably built after early farmers from continental Europe met up with hunter gatherers from Blick Mead and merged the two cultures.
But the site is in danger from plans to build a tunnel beneath Stonehenge which could harm areas waiting to be excavated.
“We’re right in the firing line,” added Prof Jacques, “The tunnel will run just five metres from one of our trenches.”