The vanishing of prehistoric monuments is due to various causes. Avebury had at one time within a great rampart and a fosse, which is still forty feet deep, a large circle of rough unhewn stones, and within this two circles each containing a smaller concentric circle. Two avenues of stones led to the two entrances to the space surrounded by the fosse. It must have been a vast and imposing edifice, much more important than Stonehenge, and the area within this great circle exceeds twenty-eight acres, with a diameter of twelve hundred feet. But the spoilers have been at work, and “Farmer George” and other depredators have carted away so many of the stones, and done so much damage, that much imagination is needed to construct in the eye of the mind this wonder of the world.
Every one who journeys from London to Oxford by the Great Western Railway knows the appearance of the famous Wittenham Clumps, a few miles from historic Wallingford. If you ascend the hill you will find it a paradise for antiquaries. The camp itself occupies a commanding position overlooking the valley of the Thames, and has doubtless witnessed many tribal fights, and the great contest between the Celts and the Roman invaders. In the plain beneath is another remarkable earthwork. It was defended on three sides by the Thames, and a strong double rampart had been made across the cord of the bow formed by the river. There was also a trench which in case of danger could have been filled with water. But the spoiler has been at work here. In 1870 a farmer employed his men during a hard winter in digging down the west side of the rampart and flinging the earth into the fosse. The farmer intended to perform a charitable act, and charity is said to cover a multitude of sins; but his action was disastrous to antiquaries and has almost destroyed a valuable prehistoric monument. There is a noted camp at Ashbury, erroneously called “Alfred’s Castle,” on an elevated part of Swinley Down, in Berkshire, not far from Ashdown Park, the seat of the Earl of Craven. Lysons tells us that formerly there were traces of buildings here, and Aubrey says that in his time the earthworks were “almost quite defaced by digging for sarsden stones to build my Lord Craven’s house in the park.” Borough Hill Camp, in Boxford parish, near Newbury, has little left, so much of the earth having been removed at various times. Rabbits, too, are great destroyers, as they disturb the original surface of the ground and make it difficult for investigators to make out anything with certainty.
Sometimes local tradition, which is wonderfully long-lived, helps the archaeologist in his discoveries. An old man told an antiquary that a certain barrow in his parish was haunted by the ghost of a soldier who wore golden armour. The antiquary determined to investigate and dug into the barrow, and there found the body of a man with a gold or bronze breastplate. I am not sure whether the armour was gold or bronze. Now here is an amazing instance of folk-memory. The chieftain was buried probably in Anglo-Saxon times, or possibly earlier. During thirteen hundred years, at least, the memory of that burial has been handed down from father to son until the present day. It almost seems incredible.