For a town which has such a close association with Stonehenge, a history of royal patronage, military activity and Arthurian legend, it has always seemed strange to me that there was no museum or interpretation centre.
In 2012 that situation changed when the Town Council purchased Melor Hall on Church Street and with the help of a team of volunteers created what has become the Amesbury History Centre.
The centre is open from 10am until 3.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday, and is an excellent starting point for your exploration of this remarkable area. Tour groups and educational visits are welcomed and you can book in advance to have exclusive access to the facilities.
Exhibits and displays tell you about the discovery of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer settlement at Blick Mead which dates back at least 10,000 years and has led the Guinness Book of Records to label Amesbury as the longest continually inhabited settlement in Britain.
Finds from the University of Buckingham’s archaeological digs from the last several years are on show, from Mesolithic flint tools and bones of prehistoric cattle called aurochs through to the astonishing magenta pink flints that are found in the spring.
You can also learn about the discovery of the Amesbury Archer, a Bronze Age burial found in 2002 when a new housing estate was being built in the town.
This man was obviously someone of huge importance because he was buried with extensive grave goods including five beaker pots, three copper knives, 16 barbed flint arrowheads, some boar’s tusks, a flint-knapping and metalworking kit and two beautiful gold hair ornaments – the earliest gold yet found in England.
Analysis of the Archer’s teeth indicates that he wasn’t a local man, but had travelled from central Europe. He may have been one of the first metalworkers to bring his skill to Britain.
Amesbury’s fascinating history continues through the Iron Age, Roman Britain, Anglo-Saxon times and beyond. There is a tale that the legendary King Arthur’s wife Guinevere retired to a convent in the town.
Outside of legend, Henry III’s wife Eleanor of Provence was buried within the grounds of Amesbury Abbey in 1291 although her burial place has been lost and she is the only Queen of England with no known grave.
In more modern times, the military have had a large presence in the surrounding area beginning over 100 years ago with the use and eventual purchase of land on Salisbury Plain for their training.
Nearby, military aviation began at Larkhill in the early 20th century and later Boscombe Down airfield – Britain’s “Area 51” – was the site of the development of many types of experimental aircraft.
All these stories are told in the History Centre, which also has an extensive reference library, maps, interactive models and souvenirs as well as excellent tea and cakes.
Outside in the car park there is the famous mural that used to adorn the wall of the underpass that led up to Stonehenge from the old visitor centre, so if you’ve ever had your photo taken pretending to climb over the stones into the middle of the monument, you can recreate it here.
The Amesbury History Centre has its own website (http://www.amesburyhistorycentre.co.uk/) where you can find out more.
Article submitted by local historian Simon Banton
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