Travel & Archaeology

Stonehenge and Wessex

Britain’s richest archaeology

The cradle of England

The region of Wessex covers most of south-western England and contains much of Britain’s richest archaeology. In fact Wessex is regarded, more than any other region, as the cradle of England.

Prehistory: There is a deep heritage to this ancestral land, stemming from a strong Stone Age legacy. At its heart lies a fertile plain where an impressive spectrum of Neolithic and Bronze Age sites bear testament to the skills and ideals of societies who first made this region a centre of prehistoric power and prestige. The famous centrepiece is, of course, Stonehenge, where recent investigations have begun to reveal how this World Heritage monument was originally integrated into a wider landscape of even older sites and monuments.

Another landscape cluster of impressive ancient sites occurs around Avebury, Silbury HIll and West Kennet. Indeed, the museums at Salisbury, Devices and Dorchester display the treasures excavated from numerous mounds and monuments throughout Wessex. By later prehistory the continued success of the region led to the development of impressive Celtic hillforts, such as Maiden Castle in Dorset, Danebury in Hampshire and Old Sarum in Wiltshire. Their massive earthwork ramparts reflect the warlike nature of tribal society before the arrival of new social and economic conditions with the Roman Empire.

Roman Wessex: Winchester grew into one of the largest towns in Roman Britain, a busy international marketplace connected to important harbours on the south coast. Much of the region’s farmland was converted into agricultural estates with large villas. Excavations at Fishbourne Palace near Chichester, for example, have unearthed one of the largest and richest villas of Roman Britain.

Arthurian Legend: After the collapse of Rome, Wessex continued to feature as the scene of resistance to Saxon invasions. The legend of King Arthur belongs to this period and may be represented in sites such as Cadbury Castle, perhaps his fabled Camelot.

The Saxon Kingdom: As the Saxons established themselves across southern Britain, their western territory became known as West Saxon land, or ‘Wessex’. By the 9th and 10th centuries AD, under Saxon King Alfred the Great and his descendants, Wessex was the most influential kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England. Its capital at Winchester became the first capital of a unified English nation, finally confirming Wessex as the cradle of English culture with a leading role in the country’s political and cultural development.

For more on Ancient Wessex read our Recommended Publications