From the mysterious stone circles at Stonehenge, to Roman cities and fortifications, to the medieval ship burials at Sutton Hoo, English archaeological sites suit every age and interest.
Don’t miss these top ten sites the next time you visit the UK.
The 10 Best Archaeological Sites in England
Table Of Contents
By garethwiscombe – http://www.flickr.com/photos/garethwiscombe/1071477228/in/photostream/, CC BY 2.0, Link
The most famous archaeological site in England, Stonehenge was built between 5000 and 4000 years ago, though there are signs of human activity as long as 10,000 years ago.
Precisely how it was built, and why, remains somewhat of a mystery.
To form the sacred circle of stones, the builders of Stonehenge had to haul stones weighing up to 25 tons from 20 miles away, quite an amazing feat!
Less famous than Stonehenge, but no less important, is Avebury, another neolithic stone circle (dating to 2850-2200 BCE).
It is actually larger than Stonehenge, and uniquely, the stone circle actually contains a traditional English village, where you can have lunch, shop, and enjoy village life while admiring the neolithic site.
The National Trust, which manages the site, organizes guided walks focused on the historical and natural features of the region.
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Well known from antiquity as a spa town, an identity which it retains to this day, Bath is home to some of the best preserved Roman baths anywhere in the world.
Walking through the baths, some of which still have water in the pools fed by underground springs, visitors can easily imagine the luxuries enjoyed by those who have frequented these baths throughought the ages.
People came to the baths for many reasons, not only to enjoy the thermal waters. They were also a popular place to deposit curse tablets in the ancient world, as wells were thought to be a conduit to the underworld.
Hundreds of these curse tablets, scratched onto thin sheets of lead, have been found in the wells of Bath, and are on display in the archaeological museum at the Roman baths.
While you can no longer bath in the same pools the Romans did, there are modern spas in Bath which use the same thermal springs, the perfect way to end a day of historical sight-seeing.
Vindolanda was an outpost of the Roman army along Hadrian’s wall.
The site is best known for the remarkable collection of writing tablets which have been found there. Ancient Romans wrote on a variety of materials, including wooden tablets, which rarely survive because of the perishable nature of wood.
But, miraculously, they survive in vast numbers at Vindolanda, because of the particularly wet conditions of the environment.
These tablets are a unique treasure trove of information about the lives of ordinary Romans, because many of them are letters written by soldiers stationed at Vindolanda.
At the museum at the site, you can read about the day-to-day concerns of Roman soldiers, in the letters they wrote to their loved ones, often far away in Italy or other parts of the Roman Empire.
Then, wander through the barracks where the soldiers spent their days, along the ancient streets, and let the past come to life at this remote Roman army camp.
5. Hadrian’s Wall
By Velella – Personal photograph taken by Velella., Public Domain, Link
Vindolanda is only one of many Roman army camps along Hadrian’s wall, which extends from the East to West coast of England, close to the Scottish border.
Hadrian, who ruled the Roman Empire from 117-138 CE, may have had the wall built to keep out hostile Scots, but it is actually more likely that the wall was merely a project to keep the soldiers busy, at a time when there were few military threats.
Now, it is possible to visit sites along the wall, such as Vindolanda, or to walk the entire length of the wall, from coast to coast, a total of 74 miles.
The Hadrian’s Wall Path runs continuously along the wall, and along the way, walkers can observe the different construction materials and methods used in the wall as the landscape changes.
The path is best walked during summer, as winters in the North of England can be harsh.
6. Bignor Roman Villa
This 3rd century CE Roman villa in West Sussex must have housed a very wealthy family, to judge by the fabulous mosaics which have been preserved.
The villa even had its own Roman bath, and visitors can admire the engineering used to create the heating system underneath the bath floors.
Keep an eye out for the fearsome head of Medusa, with her hair of snakes, which adorns one of the rooms.
7. Bloomberg Place, London
Dubbed the “Pompeii of the North,” this ongoing excavation at the site of the Bloomberg Place building in London, on the banks of the River Thames, has already uncovered thousands of artifacts from Roman London.
Because of the wet, muddy environment, materials such as leather and wood have been preserved here, including hundreds of ancient Roman shoes!
While the site is not yet open to the public, the spectacular finds can be viewed at the Museum of London.
8. Portchester Castle
Continuously used since ancient Roman times, Portchester Castle began as a fortress in the 3rd century CE, and later used as a Norman keep and a British palace.
It was even used to imprison French soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars.
The ancient Roman walls remain, to a height of 6 meters, and for this reason Portchester Castle is considered the best preserved Roman fortress in England.
9. Sutton Hoo
Sutton Hoo is the site of a magnificent Anglo Saxon ship burial from the 7th century CE., as well as dozens of other medieval burials.
Within the ship, a warrior was buried with his elaborately decorated armor and many precious objects.
The burial mound has been reconstructed, following the excavation of the ship, at the site, although the most spectacular finds must be seen in the Sutton Hoo gallery at the British Museum in London.
10. Jorvik Viking Centre, York
In order to see what life was really like in Viking times, a visit to the Jorvik Viking Centre in York is a must.
Instead of simply housing the finds from the excavations at Jorvik, a Viking village, in a museum, archaeologists took an innovative approach, and reconstructed the village itself at the very site it was 1000 years ago.
Visitors can see not just Viking houses and shops, but also historical re-enactors, dressed in historically accurate Viking clothing. This is an ideal archaeological site to visit with children.
The archaeological sites of England are utterly unique, not just because of the long inhabitation of the island, but also because of the climate, which has preserved rare materials such as wood and leather.
No visit to England is complete without taking in some of these sites, many of which, such as Stonehenge, Avebury, and Bath, can be easily reached from London.
Walking along ancient roads, reading the letters of Roman soldiers, and meeting a Viking in the flesh make the past come vividly to life, an unforgettable experience of history.