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The Etton Causewayed Enclosure: its significance within the Welland Valley and broader landscape


Michelle Feasey 2023


This paper focuses on the Etton causewayed enclosure and the Maxey Neolithic complex, and widens the review to include the other three causewayed enclosures in the Welland Valley. Predominantly, it examines how these contributed to the broader understanding of the local Neolithic landscape and its implications on the national landscape.


Causewayed enclosures arise in the early Neolithic period 4000-3300BC (Oswald, ‘Causewayed Enclosures: Introduction to Heritage Assets’, Historic England p.2), and are contemporary with cursus monuments and long barrows. They are the earliest known examples of open land being enclosed.


Causewayed enclosures did vary and appear to have had a number of different functions. However, the key features, which will be detailed in the upcoming discussions, are:·

  • A series of interrupted ditches, with small banks, usually on the outside of the ditches;

  • At least one circuit of ditches, sometimes more;

  • Usually oval or roughly circular;

  • Have one or more formal entrances;

  • Tended to be located in topographically dominant locations, such as hill side or valley ends;Those currently identified tend to be in Southern England, south of the Trent, although there are examples both on the continent, northern England and even Northern Ireland;

  • Appeared over a very short period of 200-300 years.

The first widely excavated causewayed enclosure was that at Windmill Hill in Wiltshire, which was excavated in the 1920s/1930s, by Alexander Keiller. His excavations were not fully written up until the 1960s, when Isobel Smith was engaged to collate and analyse his notes, and when she also undertook a small excavation (Creation of Monuments, Oswald, Dyer and Barber, p.22) At that time it was common to assume sites had a singular function, and based on the archaeology Smith concluded it was a ceremonial site. Due to the pottery and animal bones found, Smith determined it was primarily a site for feasting, trading and general gatherings. Other sites were excavated during this period, predominantly in chalk uplands, such as Knapp Hill and Hambleton Hill. Hambleton Hill in particular did much to expand the understanding of these sites, which were still quite rare.


It was the expansion of aerial photography in the post-War period, coupled with developer lead excavation, that expanded the number of causewayed enclosures identified across a wider geographical spread, although still predominantly south of the Trent Aerial photography at certain times of year can highlight crop marks, which occur when crops are affected by the underlying archaeology. This archaeology can affect the rate of growth of crops planted into the soil above them. For example, ditches and pits provide a greater depth of soil than can be found in their immediate surroundings, leading to enhanced growth of the crop planted in this area. Alternatively, buried wall foundations or compacted surfaces can inhibit growth, due to reduced soil depth and fertility. These cause variations in the rate of crop growth, indicated in differing maturity of the crop, which can be observed from above. (, ‘Formation of Crop Marks’).

Fig 1: Crop Marks at Maxey. A Matter of Time, 1960, frontispiece

During the post-war period, the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments commissioned an aerial survey of the flat gravel flood plains of lowland England, producing A Matter of Time in 1960 (Pryor, The Fens, Chapter 4, p 61). A Matter of Time identified sites in broad terms as enclosures, circles, cursus, pit-alignments and ridges, focusing along the Ouse, Trent and Welland Valleys, resulting in the discovery of previously unidentified sites, including the Maxey complex (Fig 1). It was in the exceptionally dry summer of 1976 when Dr Stephen Upex discovered the Etton site through aerial photography (Pryor, Etton 1982-7, p.7) (Fig 2).


Fig 2: Etton crop marks, photo by S J Upex, (Pryor, Etton 1982-7 p.7)

The Etton and Maxey excavations were triggered by the widespread gravel extraction around Peterborough. Extensive deposits of gravel exist around Peterborough having been deposited by the many rivers including the Nene, Welland and Witham which flow into the Wash.These needed to be extracted to use for the building of the Peterborough ‘New Town’.


The excavation at Etton was undertaken over a five-year period from 1982-87, enabling the whole site to be excavated, with the exception of a small section which runs under the Maxey Cut (a part of the Welland River which has been straightened). The enclosure is oval shaped and approx. 197m by 145m, forming a single ring of ditches (Fig. 9). The high-water table in the area, meant that the early excavations revealed considerable amounts of organic matter, which on other sites would have decayed. Therefore, as well as the pottery, stone tools and animal bones typically found in the ditch ends, string, birch bark (used as mats), and some 5,000 pieces of worked wood were found ( ‘Maxey and Etton Neolithic landscape’). In one pit a complete quern was found, with leaves and twigs packed round it, showing that it had been carefully and purposefully placed (Pryor: Etton, 1982-87, p.23). The extensive and well-preserved wood resulted in more accurate dating of deposits through radiocarbon dating. The site was within a meander of the River Welland, and would have regularly flooded, a factor which must have been known to those building it (Pryor, Etton 1982-87, p.21) The organic matter revealed a substantial timber gateway at the north entrance, together with evidence of a ‘fence’ or other dividing structure down the west side of an area to the south and east of gateway F of the causewayed enclosure (Pryor, Etton 1982-87, p.100). It is possible this dividing structure served as a divide between the seasonal camp and the ceremonial heart of the enclosure, or potentially between the commercial/market/feasting part and the area used for excarnation or other religious functions. As it was possible to dig the inside of the enclosure, it confirmed that enclosures more generally were not used for permanent habitation, although there may have been some seasonal occupation, with some possible structures as well as screens. One entrance seems to have a ‘guardhouse’ attached (Pryor, Etton 1982-87, p.102), although due to the ditch on the outside it would be difficult to defend, therefore, this may have been accommodation for a ‘caretaker’ or some form of religious guardian. Also revealed were many small pits, however, whilst some contained high status items, flint and animal bones, many were very small, with little to determine their purpose. Human bones were found in the outer ditches, which may have previously been excarnated, a method of disposing of bodies where they are left to be picked clean by birds and other animals, but the site does not appear to have been a primary burial site (Pryor, Etton 1982-87, p.353). It was soon evident from the excavation of the ditches that soon after they were first dug, and the first items placed in, they were then filled in, before subsequent excavation down to the level of the first deposits, new deposits were made, and then again filled in, on a cyclical basis (Pryor, Etton 1982-87, p.67).


The Etton site appears to have been used intensively for a period of about 100-200 years in the second quarter of the fourth millennium BC, thereafter less frequently, with renewed activity in a limited area when the cursus monument was constructed (F Pryor: Etton 1982- 1987, p.353). As referenced above, the ditches were infilled and then reopened on a cyclical basis, with the deposits becoming smaller but more extensive with each level. One potential explanation for these ditches is that each one belongs to a particular family; as they aged, the families grew from the original ‘nuclear’ family to include cousins etc - hence, more offerings, and smaller, as there was less room (Pryor, The Fens, Chapter 4, p.98).


Over a five-year dig of this extensive site, so much was found, as detailed in the 429-page report. However, the discussion above has focused on the finds and observations that are most appropriate and insightful in helping to expand our knowledge of these monuments and our understanding of the other sites in the Welland Valley.


Fig 3: Maxey landscape, based on crop marks; Pryor, The London Magazine

Etton is unique from the other three sites, in that it seems to be part of a much larger ceremonial site, which includes cursuses at both Etton and Maxey, together with the Maxey Henge (see Fig 3 above). The cursuses are of a similar date to the causewayed enclosures, being long narrow corridors bounded on two sides by a ditch and bank. Their usage is unclear, but would seem to be some form of ceremonial pathway. There are two on this site: one to the southeast of the Etton causewayed enclosure, and ending within the monument; the other to the west running parallel to this from the Maxey cut up to the current River Wellend. The henge was dug multiple times in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and cuts across the Maxey cursus. At 126 metres in diameter its size would indicate that this was larger than the more famous one at Stonehenge. It is unusual as it had a central round mount and an oval barrow in its entrance (Historic England research records, Monument No.1030942). Whilst the Henge would have been built some years after the causewayed enclosure, it would seem to indicate that this was a site of particular importance to the people in the area. Although very little has been dug outside the Maxey/Etton complex there is aerial photographic evidence of cursuses at both Barnack and Bainton, also within the Welland Valley, and so cannot be excluded as part of this ritual landscape. Maxey church, which is located in the North-West corner of the complex, sits on a small rise, which could be the remnants of a barrow, possibly a Neolithic long barrow.


It is, though, how Maxey and Etton fit into and help explain the wider Welland Valley at this time that is of particular interest in this case. The Etton causewayed enclosure is one of five that are within a 5 km area: Uffington, Barholm, Northborough, Etton and Upton. Whilst Upton is within this radius, this paper’s specific focus is on the Welland Valley, and Upton, together with another enclosure at Southwick, would seem to be part of the Nene Valley area, hence they will not be included in this study.

The Etton causewayed enclosure is of similar size and shape to the others in the Welland Valley, so it would seem reasonable to assume that there was communication between the different communities that built the enclosures, and if they were liaising with each other in regard to the size and shape, it would not be unreasonable to assume at least some similarities in their usage. As the others have not been dug (with exception of the small dig at Northborough), the Etton excavation provides invaluable help in understanding the other three.


Fig 4: Map showing location of the four causewayed enclosures (blue ovals)

As previously referenced above there are three other sites within the Welland Valley, as shown on the map above (Fig 4).


Fig 5: View across the enclosure at Uffington towards the Welland

Uffington is probably the most impressive in its location, sitting on a rise above the River Welland. With clear views across the valley, to what is now Burghley House, it would also have been visible from the other side of the valley. It is not situated at the very top of the hill, which suggests its location was chosen to be visible from the river and across the valley which would not be possible if it was at the peak of the hill. Identified through crop marks, though it must be noted the crop marks are incomplete, its dimensions are most likely around 130m by 150m with two ditches approximately 8m apart. ( ‘Uffington Causewayed Enclosure’).


Fig 6: Barholm, across the enclosure towards Uffington and the Welland

The Barholm site sits on a slight rise above the River Welland, most likely just above the Neolithic flood plain. It is similar in size and shape to that at Uffington (Fig 9). Based on aerial photography the ditches have a ‘sausage-link’ shape, which may indicate larger ditches having been amalgamated over time ( Lincolnshire HER, Barholm and Stowe). Excavations of the area in the late 1960s to the southwest of the Causewayed enclosure revealed evidence of Late Neolithic settlement (EAA 61, The Fenland Project, No.7: Excavations in Peterborough and the Lower Welland Valley 1960-69).

Fig 7: Northborough enclosure, looking West towards Village, and Maxey beyoind

The Northborough site is the closest site to the Fen edge, with the Welland running to the north and east, on a flat site, only marginally elevated above the river. As with Uffington and Barholm, the Northborough site has two circuits of ditches and is approximately 170m by 130m (Fig 9) but with the addition of an outer enclosure of ditches measuring 230m by 180m (Fig 8) (Wessex Archaeology, Northborough Neolithic Causewayed Enclosure, p.1). This is the only one of the four sites discussed to have two rings of ditches and to have been partly excavated (completed as part of the Channel 4 Time Team series released 2004).

Due to time constraints, the Northborough dig excavated only a small number of pits.

However, these did reveal one very interesting item: a pot shard. Although it is not unusual to find pots in these pits, it was evident this pot had only been partially fired, so would have not been useable for cooking wear (Time Team, 2004). Therefore, this pot seems to have been specifically made to be placed in the pit, which could reveal an element of pre-planning and a pragmatic approach to the items to be deposited, i.e. whilst respecting the ancestors or Gods to whom the offerings were made, there is little point wasting time finishing something to a high standard to put it in the pit.


Phosphate analysis was higher in the eastern half of the enclosure, which could indicate stock-related activities (Wessex Archaeology, Northborough Neolithic Causewayed Enclosure, p.16). This could represent a number of different uses for the site; as seasonal cattle market, a place to bring in the livestock for some form of seasonal health check, or marking, or for some ceremonial purpose. Again, solidifying the argument that these enclosures had a multifunctional and significantly varied purpose.

Fig 8: Artistic impression of Northborough, Channel 4, Time Team (Victor Ambrus)

Three of the sites, at Northborough, Etton and Barholm, would have experienced seasonal flooding due to their low-lying locations. It would, therefore be unlikely there would have  been any permanent settlement within the sites, and the lack of any evidence found at both Etton and Northborough would further reinforce the view that these sites were used seasonally and not for any permanent settlement.


It is worth noting that two excavated causewayed enclosures at Kingsborough, Isle of Sheppey are within70m of each other, and of similar size, shape and timescale. However, one is oriented to look over Kent, the other over the sea. Finds within these sites seem to indicate differing methods of usage. Whilst there are still deposits within the ditches, they vary in type, and one site seems to have hosted grand ceremonial activity, with the other, having a quieter more private existence (Allen, Leivers, Ellis; Prehistoric Society, Causewayed enclosures and later Neolithic Farming). So, whilst there are numerous similarities between the four causewayed enclosures in the Welland Valley, it is entirely likely, that the different groups had some individuality in the way that they were used.

Fig 9: Plans of the Causewayed enclosures; The Creation of Monuments p.110.

What do these four monuments tell us, then, about settlement in the Neolithic landscape of the Welland Valley?

The Early Neolithic period has left very little evidence of settlement, yet, settlements have been located at both Maxey and Barholm: two at Maxey, one about 500m north of the causewayed enclosure and the other, Etton Woodgate, about 80m west ( ‘Maxey and Etton Neolithic landscape’).

At Barholm the settlement is about 1km to the east of the enclosure. Here, excavations took place in 1965, revealing five periods of occupation: late Neolithic, early Iron Age, Romano- British, Medieval and late Medieval/early Modern. The discovery of post-holes, pits and ‘working-hollows’, together with Grooved ware and Mortlake pottery, clearly showed occupation during the late Neolithic period, so probably during the later period of the causewayed enclosure. However, the site was not fully investigated due to the open drain to the east, the inhibiting presence of a large amount of topsoil dumped by the quarry to the north and significant time constraints. Thus, early occupation cannot be discounted (Simpson: The Excavation of a Late Neolithic Settlement at Barholm, Lincolnshire).


Using Tim Darvill’s suggested settlement distribution model, the causewayed enclosures would be set within a community of farms spread along the Welland Valley providing a focal point for those dispersed farms, with Northborough being the last one before the sparsely populated Fens. These theories have grown from geographical theories such as the Thiessen Polygons (also known as Voronoi diagrams), the theories of primarily urban population distribution by Christaller, and latterly in the 1960s the advent of Quantitative Geography.

These were then applied to prehistoric populations and expanded upon by both Cunliffe and Tim Darvill. Christaller claimed that cities, towns and villages developed within a hierarchical network where each location would fit a certain functional niche that defined its size and character (Ducke & Kroefges; Identifying Settlement patterns and territories, 2007, p.2). The Voronoi diagram uses classic point pattern analysis, however, this is quite a rigid method and has many limitations.

The difficulty with many of these distribution models is the assumption that there is a hierarchy of settlements, which in the early period of the Neolithic seems unlikely, with settlements being very small and generally self-sufficient, with the exception of limited trading in pottery and other consumables. The existence of these monuments, though, does suggest some form of hierarchy within the population, which would organise, communicate and manage the sites. Even if the enclosures were built over a period of time, their size and the effort involved in construction with basic tools, would suggest there was a reasonable population available to carry out the work, and as mentioned previously some level of management and organisation.


The sites at both Etton and Northborough seem to have provided evidence to support the theory that the enclosures were a multifunctional hub for a dispersed farming community, probably providing a central ‘home’ for the fledgling tribal system. However, these monuments were built in the early part of the Neolithic period as the population transitioned from the Mesolithic nomadic hunter gathers to the settled farmers of the Bronze Age. It is entirely possible, therefore, that there was still some nomadic activity, possibly after the harvest. This in some ways underlines the importance of these monuments to the communities that used them, providing a spiritual and ancestral base.


If this is then extrapolated along the Welland Valley, it would indicate a relatively well populated area, with each causewayed enclosure supporting the community around it, with the river very much providing a link between these communities as a possible method of transport and a focal point. The Welland Valley is a fertile agricultural region now, and this is likely to have been the case in the Neolithic period, with the wooded ‘uplands’ (if one can call the small hills in the region uplands) and the fertile river valley, with the close proximity to the Fens with their fish and wildfowl for food, as well as reeds for thatch and fodder and peat for fuel. Unsurprisingly, then, the area was described as well populated in the Iron Age/Roman period, as evidenced by the sheer quantity of Roman archaeology found in the area, and the intervening Bronze and Iron Age period also shows plenty of occupation, with both settlements and barrows.

Yet can these conclusions be expanded and extrapolated to the wider Midlands and Southern England region? Most probably. Previously, it was believed that in the prehistoric period the main areas of population were in the uplands, where the absence of ploughing has left hillforts, barrows and evidence of settlement. However, work done to produce A Matter of Time, and subsequent aerial photography has revealed considerable crop marks in the river valleys and the lowlands, which would suggest the reverse is indeed the case, and that these areas were the main areas of population. New crop marks are being revealed each year, which can only increase the number of sites identified or at least identifiable.


The river valleys then, as now, were ideal sites for occupation, with fertile soils, availability of water for domestic use and fishing, together with the woodlands in the upper reaches of the valleys. Our Mesolithic ancestors will have travelled extensively throughout England, and these sites may already have been locations for summer camps, or sites to track the migrating herds. There is growing support for the idea that such enclosures were built at places which were already important features of the humanly perceived landscape, as long- term patterns of cyclical and routine behaviour produced landscapes which had become socially inscribed with meaning long before the construction of the first Neolithic monuments (P Topping (ed.) Landscapes, The Neolithic, and Kent 1997 ref: Bradley 1993, Tilley 1994). Therefore, with the advance of agriculture to a more settled existence, the valleys would have made an attractive place to settle, with sites close by already of importance to the population.


In conclusion, the Etton causewayed enclosure is incredibly important to the understanding of this type of monument due to the extent of excavation possible, together with the high level of preservation of organic matter. This enabled analysis of the use of the majority of the site as a whole, together with more accurate dating of activity. Within its setting of the Welland Valley, with the three other causewayed enclosures at Uffington, Barholm and Northborough, it provides a complex that give us the opportunity to interpret these monuments in the wider context of the landscape, and how this can impact our understanding of the territorial settlement patterns of the time. The evidence of some settlement at both Maxey and Barholm lend support to the theories that these enclosures formed a central hub for the dispersed farming and semi-nomadic populations at the time. The number of these enclosures in such a small area, together with the physical effort required to build them and the level of organisation needed, suggests that the population in the region would have been relatively high and have some degree of organisation and a possible fledgling tribal system.


With improved photographic techniques, together with Lidar and other ground penetrating radar analysis, more sites should be identified. In some areas of Southern England, such as large parts of Kent, virtually no causewayed enclosures have yet been found. As more sites, and hopefully clusters such as in the Welland Valley, are identified and excavated, our understanding of both these monuments, the people that used them, and the communities they supported can only increase.



Records and Archival Sources


Historic England, ‘Research Records: Monument No: 1030942’ (2012), <>[accessed 2/12/2022].


Secondary Literature


Allen, M., Leivers, M., Ellis, C., Stevens, S., Clelland, S., Bayliss, A., . . . Stevens, C., ‘Neolithic Causewayed Enclosures and Later Prehistoric Farming: Duality, Imposition and the Role of Predecessors at Kingsborough, Isle of Sheppey, Kent, UK’, in Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (74) (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 235-322.

Oswald, A Ed. Flatman,J., Herring, P., McOrmish, D., ‘Causewayed Enclosures: Introduction to Heritage Assets’, Historic England (Swindon, 2018).

Barber, M., ‘Landscape, the Neolithic and Kent’ in P. Topping (ed.), Neolithic Landscapes.

Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Papers 2 (Oxford, 1997), pp. 77-86.

Darvill, T., Prehistoric Britain (London, 1987).

Ducke, B., and Kroefges, P., ‘From Points to Areas: Constructing Territories from Archaeological Site Patterns Using an Enhanced Xtent Model’ in A. Posluschny, K. Lambers and I. Herzog (eds.), Layers of Perception. Proceedings of the 35th International Conference on Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (Berlin, 2009).

Healy, F., ‘Causewayed enclosures and the Early Neolithic: the chronology and character of monument building and settlement in Kent, Surrey and Sussex in the early to mid-4th millennium cal BC’, in South East Research Framework resource assessment seminar (Cardiff, 2005), pp. 1-29.

Oswald, A., Barber, M., and Dyer, C., The Creation of Monuments, Neolithic Causewayed Enclosures in the British Isles (London, 2001).

Pryor, F., et. al., Etton: Excavations at a Neolithic Causewayed Enclosure near Maxey, Cambridgeshire, 1982-7 (Liverpool, 1998).

Pryor, F., The Fens: Discovering England’s Ancient Depths (London, 2020).

Pryor, F., ‘The Ritual Landscapes of Pre-Roman Britain’ in The London Magazine (London, 2022) < roman- britain >[accessed 28/12/2022].  

Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, A Matter of Time; an Archaeological Survey(London, 1960).

Simpson, W.G., Gurney, D., Neve, J., and Pryor, F., 'The Fenland Project No.7: Excavations in Peterborough and the Lower Welland Valley 1960–69' in East Anglian Archaeology 61 (1993).

Wessex Archaeology, ‘Northborough Neolithic Causewayed Enclosure, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire: Archaeological Evaluation and Assessment of Results’ (Salisbury, 2005).




‘Formation of Crop Marks’, Historic England (2020), < of-cropmarks/> [accessed 20/11/2022].


‘Maxey and Etton Neolithic Landscape’, Peterborough Archaeology (unknown), < >[accessed 12/11/2022].


‘Neolithic Causewayed Camp: Barholm and Stowe’, HeritageGateway (unknown), >[accessed 20/12/2022].


‘Find a Site’, The Megalithic Portal < >[accessed 2/12/2022].


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‘A Neolithic Cathedral?’, Time Team (Channel 4, 2005), < >[accessed 19/12/2022].


 A print version can be downloaded HERE



This research essay is published with the permission of the author. SDLHS is not responsible for its content.

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