The henge was not extensively or systematically excavated until the investigations of Gray and Keiller this century, but there have been a number of smaller excavations over the last two centuries. Finds made prior to Keiller’s work are in general not held by the Alexander Keiller Museum, which was not founded until 1938.
Reported 1829: Record of digging at the foot of the Cove stones to the depth of a yard or more, but ‘nothing peculiar was observed’ ( Hunter 1829). Hunter was reporting this episode and was not one of those involved.
Reported 1833: Record by Henry Browne of digging at the Cove and finding ‘the place of burnt sacrifices’; probably therefore encountered the burning pit of the northern stone (Browne, H. 1833 An illustration of Stonehenge and Avebury; information taken from Smith 1965).
1865: Excavations on behalf of the Wiltshire Archaeological Society by A.C. Smith and W.Cunnington, which lasted for a week. They recognised the burning pit for the northern stone of the Cove and also examined the bases of the surviving stones of the Cove, digging on both west and east sides of the western stone (the back stone) and close to the southern (side) stone. Apart from the Cove they also trenched through an earthwork in the SE part of the NE quadrant, finding part of a ‘stag’s horn’ and pottery. In the SE quadrant they dug a trench at the centre of the Southern Circle, and across it to the north, south-west and east of the centre (each trench c. 60 ft (18.3 m)). In the centre was a large quantity of burnt sarsen, including fragments and chips, and ‘charred matter’, and there was similar material in all the trenches.The excavators presumed a large central stone in the middle of the Circle, but found no evidence of an interior setting to the Circle. Several trenches were dug into the bank, although locating these is difficult from the report and they do not appear to have been substantial. The largest trench was dug into the bank of the NW quadrant and extended ‘many yards’ into the bank; the buried soil proved to be a stiff, red clay. There were no finds from this trench and only one pottery sherd from the smaller trenches (Smith 1867, 209–6). In total, 14 excavations were undertaken. No human remains were found but finds did include sheep, cattle and horse bones, some of which were clearly modern. Modern glass and pottery was also recovered, but British pottery was also found. The buried sites of three stones in the south-western quadrant were also recorded, having been revealed by parching of the grass.
1881: Probing by workmen with iron bars (directed by A.C. Smith and W.C. Lukis) revealed 18 buried stones (16 in the Outer Circle and two in the Northern Inner Circle), half of which were in positions noted by Stukeley as representing stones which had been destroyed. These were Fig. 5 Antler pick and rake from Windmill Hill uncovered to show the size of the stone, and then re-covered, the sites marked with wooden pegs (Lukis 1882, 153). Lukis found much coarse pottery, and also records the finding of an ‘entire vessel of the same kind of clay’ near to the centre of the Southern Inner Circle when a hole was dug for a flagpole (ibid.).
1894: Excavation carried out for Sir Henry Meux, under the direction of his steward, E.C. Trepplin, and supervised in the field by another of his staff, Thomas Leslie. Between the 4th and 19th of July a trench was dug through the bank in the SE quadrant, and an extension of 6 ft (1.8 m) was made along the ditch.These works were not published, although an account is given in the record of the fiftieth general meeting of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society (WAM 33 (1904), 103) and also described by Gray (1935, 103–4). He estimated the trench to have been 8 ft (2.4 m) wide by 140 ft (42.7 m) long, with a 6 ft (1.8 m) extension along the ditch. Gray describes the excavation from Leslie’s ‘rough diary’, which he possessed. Leslie recorded what ‘appeared to be the grass surface line of an inner rampart, defined by a curved line of vegetable mould 3½ in. in thickness’ (ibid., 104).The turf line beneath the bank was also recognised, reaching a thickness of nearly 2 ft (0.61 m) in the ‘middle of the inner slope’. It appeared to have been burnt, with wood ash visible, and was said to be 2.25 ft (0.69 m) below the level of the adjoining field (ibid.). (A pencil sketch of the bank section, with a report of the dig, probably from Leslie, exists in correspondence with the Cunningtons in the library of the Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Society, Devizes; information from M. Pitts). There were few finds, all apparently dispersed, although two antler picks were bought by the Society at a subsequent sale of Meux’s effects (Gray 1935, 105).