Living relatively mobile lives in small groups, the earliest known occupants subsisted by hunting, gathering and fishing. Their flint tools, dating from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age, from around 10,000 BC) have been found throughout the Vale.
From around 4,000 BC (the Neolithic or New Stone Age) people began to grow domesticated wheat and barley, to herd animals, and make pottery. The period saw the construction of large-scale long barrow tomb monuments such as Adam’s Grave on the northern escarpment and early ceremonial meeting places like the adjacent Knap Hill. On the valley floor, a long barrow and timber hall at Cat’s Brain has recently been uncovered and excavated.
The Late Neolithic period (c. 2800-2300 BC) witnessed the construction of the massive ring bank and ditch monuments, sometimes incorporating stone circles as at the nearby Stonehenge and Avebury, collectively known as henges. One of the largest in Britain, Marden henge s a vast enclosed complex next to the River Avon, with the smaller Wilsford henge across the river that forms part of its boundary.
The Early Bronze Age (c. 2300-1500 BC) brought metalworking on a substantial scale. Burial practices also appear to have changed, with individual graves under round burial mounds. Impressive grave goods include Beaker pottery, bronze daggers, and gold jewellery, and groups of barrows would have dominated many landscapes across Britain. Although most of the round barrows in the Vale have been ploughed out, they remain visible as crop marks from aerial photographs as at Wilsford close to the henge and the cluster of 16 near the village of Charlton.
With the Late Bronze Age (c. 1500-800 BC) came widespread construction of fields and other boundaries, together with substantial houses, usually in the distinctive ‘roundhouse’ form. The earliest hillforts appear, large communal gathering places probably built both for ceremonial and refuge purposes. The period is also represented in the Vale by midden sites such as that at All Cannings Cross. The purpose of middens remains a mystery. Containing animal bones, pottery and other cultural fragments, they are quite obviously something more than mere rubbish dumps: they often include structural elements such as chalk floors, posts, hearths and pits in their make-up, with clear evidence of feasting in the darkened soil.
Iron was introduced to the British Isles around 800 BC. Harder than bronze and better suited to making durable tools, it greatly facilitated construction. Hillforts were erected on a large scale in many areas and roundhouse settlements dominated the landscape. There are several Iron Age hillforts on the chalk scarp overlooking the Vale of Pewsey, while in the valley the ditched enclosures visible as cropmarks on aerial photographs, while generally unexcavated and therefore undated, are likely to be Iron Age/Romano British farm and settlement enclosures.
The period from the arrival of the Romans in 43AD to their departure in 410 saw a complex mix of changes, with the native British responding to and coming to terms with rule imposed by an army and administration drawn from all corners of the empire. As fertile then as it is now, the Vale would have been very attractive to Roman farmers. Existing Iron Age settlements and enclosures no doubt continued in use, but new settlements and farms also sprung up such as at Wilsford henge, which was probably levelled at this time to make way for the extensive fields recorded across this area and marked by boundary ditches. The Roman villa built next to and encroaching on the Charlton barrow cemetery was one of several in the Vale, evidence of the wealth to be gleaned from this rich and lush landscape.
One of the its most prominent features, the Wansdyke runs along the ridge of the Vale’s northern escarpment. An impressive linear ditch and bank earthwork, its purpose remains uncertain but was possibly built as a defensive structure made redundant by the victory at Mons Badonicus over the West Saxons (associated in legend with King Arthur) in 490. The wave of Germanic invaders from across the North Sea arriving in the 7th century named the wall after Woden, confirming that it had by then lost any local significance. These Anglo-Saxon settled in England and became the dominant cultural and political influence.
The social, economic and environmental changes that followed this transition had a profound effect on the landscape of Wiltshire. The chalk uplands were emptied of settlements, and farmsteads along the valley bottoms were deserted. Long established cultivation patterns were also abandoned, altering the way the landscape was worked and managed. At Marden and Wilsford, cropmark evidence suggests the Romano-British fields had been abandoned before the medieval land units were set out in a process of regeneration.
It was during this period that many of the villages in the Vale took on their current form. Marden, derived from the Old English merg ‘marrow, fat’ and denu ‘valley’, is first mentioned in a charter of 941 as ‘Mercdene’, and documented again in 963. Clearly renowned as a productive agricultural region, the population figures recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 suggest a relatively large pre-Conquest population.
When the Norman conquest of 1066 brought Anglo-Saxon rule in England to an end the economy of the Vale had been expanding for some time, with larger towns developing encouraged by commercially self-sustaining markets. Recorded in Domesday as ‘Meresdene’, the ‘fertile valley’ of Marden continued to prosper alongside its neighbours throughout the medieval period. The attraction is clear: a ready supply of water, good quality farmland along the valley bottom and lower escarpment slopes, expanses of meadow along the river edges, and easy access to open pasture on the higher slopes providing valuable grazing for cattle and sheep.
the modern era
The villages within the Vale continued to develop and prosper, especially along the Avon and its tributaries where fertility and yield were enhanced by the creation of elaborate water meadows in the early 18th century. For centuries the social landscape likewise remained substantially unchanged, until enclosures, new farming technology, and economic volatility drastically reduced agricultural wages and threatened farmworkers’ livelihoods. The Vale was a prominent location of the Swing Riots of 1830, an important contributory precursor to the Great Reform Act of 1832.
By far the most important development in the Vale was its emergence as a transportation corridor. A triumph of entrepreneurship and engineering, completed in 1810 by the spectacular Caen Hill flight at Devizes, the Kennet & Avon Canal provided for the first time an economical and secure link from London to the West. This monopoly however was short-lived. The Great Western Railway opened in 1841 and by 1852 had so diminished water traffic that it was able to purchase the canal and manage trade in its own favour. Painstakingly restored in the late 20th century, the canal is now an important leisure resource.