A Landscape Through Time

English Heritage

Knowlton Church and Earthworks

Knowlton’s Origins
Knowlton Church and Earthworks is a remarkable site. Located in the Allen Valley on Cranborne Chase, Dorset, it is part of a landscape that shows evidence of human activity over more than 4,500 years.  

The most prominent feature of the site is the church itself. It was built in the 12th century and was in use as a parish church until the 17th century.

The church served a small hamlet that has long disappeared, and now it stands alone in the landscape.

Surrounding the church is a Neolithic henge monument known as Church Henge.

Henges were built in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age, between about 3000 and 2400 BC. They consist of an outer bank, internal ditch and either one or two entrances.

It is clear that these structures were not defensive, as the ditch is inside the bank. Defensive structures tend to have the bank on the outside to create a more challenging approach for an attacker.

There are nearly 100 known henges in Britain and Ireland. Among the most famous are Stonehenge and Avebury.

At sites like these, the stones themselves were added at a later date within the original bank and ditch.

Knowlton Church and Earthworks sits in a landscape that includes many other prehistoric features.

This plan shows these features as crop marks in the fields. The bank and ditch of Church Henge were not ploughed in the Middle Ages, because the church had been built within them. This means that the henge has survived well compared to Knowlton’s other earthworks.

More than 170 burial mounds (barrows or tumuli) are known to lie within a 1.5 kilometre radius of Church Henge.

Knowlton’s Ritual Landscape
It is not clear what henges were used for. While not defensive, they could have served a number of functions over time, as ritual sites, meeting places and later possibly even cattle enclosures. It is thought that they represent a complex society centred around strong tribal leaders. 

In this reconstruction, Church Henge has been interpreted as a meeting place.

It is possible that people from different tribal groups might have chosen sites like these as neutral places to meet.

There are very few archaeological finds to suggest that they were trading centres.

As at Knowlton, the henge at Avebury in Wiltshire is associated with a series of later mounds. This includes the monumental Silbury Hill.

Silbury Hill sits within a complex ritual landscape that many archaeologists think is associated with the relationship between the living and the dead.

Woodhenge is closely associated with the complex ritual landscape of Stonehenge.

Woodhenge consists of six concentric rings of posts surrounded by a single bank and ditch. Current theories see these monuments as sacred spaces in the landscape that relate to the commemoration of ancestors.

But henges are not always what they seem. The discovery of Seahenge on the Norfolk coast in 1998 caused huge excitement in the archaeological world.

It comprised a central inverted oak tree encircled by 55 wooden posts, and was built about 4,000 years ago, in the early Bronze Age.

The circular nature of the monument and the upstanding posts led to the site being known as Seahenge. However, without the typical outer bank and inner ditch, technically it is not a henge at all.

Because the site was being eroded by the sea, it was excavated and the timbers were removed for conservation. It is now on display at the nearby Lynn Museum.

Recent Excavations
Excavations at Knowlton over the past 25 years have begun to uncover more of the development of the wider Allen Valley landscape. They have shown a complex relationship between earlier henges and later Bronze Age burial mounds, or round barrows, which were being built for more than 1,000 years after the henges had been completed.

Knowlton Church and Earthworks is part of the Knowlton Group of sites close to the river Allen.

The concentration of sites along the east bank of the river suggests that this landscape feature was significant – perhaps as a means of transporting the dead either physically or ritually in the afterlife.

There is still uncertainty about the function of the henge and its influence on the Bronze Age barrow builders.

But more than 2,500 years after the barrows had been constructed, Knowlton was still thought to be significant enough for a church to be built here.

Through the Neolithic period, the Bronze Age and into Christian times, this site has remained both enigmatic and inspirational.

Credits: Story

Contributors
Matt Thompson, Win Scutt, Rose Arkle

Visit Knowlton Church and Earthworks

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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