Norden the Roman Corfe Castle

Sometimes when we were working at Chedworth Roman Villa… in Gloucestershire.
We were asked about mosaics…where do the bits…the tesserae come from?

Occasionally my mind returned to 1984… and a small trench in Dorset.

2 years and about 50m from the National Trust.

I am in a wood. There are three of us there. We are checking what remains of the Roman archaeology in an area… riddled with 18th century clay pits.

It is Spring. The dappled light filters through the trees. I have worked all morning and am deep down in my 1.2m square test trench. We will meet up at lunch-time but for now I have filtered out the sound of the occasional cars travelling from Wareham to Corfe. The unfolding leaves and flowers of late March are above me.

Down here I have a finds tray, a bucket, a hand shovel..and my trowel.

The soil is light, sandy… and black…enriched by the activity of ancient lives. I am crouched down, contained in a square world. There is not much room here but this is definitely a Roman place… unmolested by the old clay diggers.

The trowel blade skims the soft earth surface and catches… sending a familiar vibration through to the handle. A brown cube flicks out of the ground and I pick it up and put it in the finds tray.

It joins the others, typical of this Isle of Purbeck … This whole area was an industrial centre in the Roman period. So in my tray there are colours  that reflect the varied rock types across this landscape.. a mini geological world, A mosaicist’s dream.

My latest find is a purple-brown gritty Heathstone from the land bordering Poole Harbour…north of where I am crouching. Then there are white cubes dug out of the chalk ridge behind me……there’s an old quarry… just a short distance away. There are also brown mudstone tesserae and various Purbeck limestone ones… dug from the land out beyond the ridge to the south.

You can imagine the patterned floor makers coming to this place and picking up these coloured cubes in carts.. in their thousands.

Norden was the heartland town of Industrial Purbeck. Three lesser villas surround it. High above me are the picturesque ruins of medieval Corfe Castle guarding the gap through the chalk ridge (like a natural rampart dividing Purbeck). The church and Corfe town now lie to the south… but the Roman town lay here at Norden.

Here in my trench are baked clay fragments…briquetage….remains of containers for evaporating brine to make salt from the Poole Harbour shoreline.

There are pieces of a black, greasy, wood-like stone. I find fragments and circles with chuck-holes in (‘coal money’). These are the waste from Kimmeridge shale, turned on a lathe. It outcrops on the north-east coast of the Island. A cottage industry across Purbeck … making bangles, vessels and furniture from this easily worked …unusual material.

The best thing…. I concentrate on making the sides of my trench vertical… is the Black Burnished pottery.

So much of this distinctive pottery was made here that the army took out a contract and used it to supply the troops on Hadrian’s Wall.

My trowel sweeps and defines a curve where the black soil stops and black ceramic begins. In my tray are many small fragments. Some are remains of jars, straight sided bowls, jugs and lids but this find is almost complete… a dish with oval base and a curved handle at each end.

It still has the wavy decoration inscribed by the potter…. 1700 years ago…it resembles a simple spirograph design.

I dust it down and place it on the floor of my trench as though setting a table….

A few years later… I was in the neighbouring field …part of the National Trust’s Corfe Castle Estate. A water pump was leaking and I watched the trench. Here was Roman Norden again two chalk and gravel yard surfaces… one above the other.. laden with Black Burnished pottery fragments and oyster shells.

And later still.. across the road above the NT Castle View visitor centre we geophysed the field and found a Roman temple site.

This whole area is covered in traces of Roman activity…though now only farmers’ fields and modern Corfe has retreated …to the south side of the gap.. towards one of the villas.

Overlooking Norden and Corfe… we found that the high ruins of the Castle were built on another Roman site…at the deepest level against the chalk…we found pottery in the West Bailey but can only guess what type of site it relates to.

Perhaps there was once a Roman watch tower here, its guards gazing out across the activities of the craftsmen of Norden town towards Poole Harbour.

Silbury, Waden,West Kennet & 1976

Yesterday,  the four of us sat at a table outside the Red Lion. George and Erica had just shown us an extraordinary walk. I felt  a little embarrassed… but to be fair I don’t know Avebury very well. Nick and Briony are the NT archaeologists here.


Amazingly, you just cross the road from the NT car park and a path leads you beside a little stream with fantastic views of Silbury Hill,


then turn left, walk up and over the southern curve of Waden Hill and you arrive at the megalithic West Kennet Avenue


which guides you northwards into great Avebury Henge. ..Wow!


We climbed the bank and walked the south-east quadrant (a place of buried megaliths) until the road into the enclosure… which we followed to its centre …where lies the Red Lion Inn.

We drank tea in the weak sunshine, sheltered from the wind, watching the people in this busy place. George asked what motivates us to write. I thought… not necessarily for others….because you want to…because you have to… to capture a moment. You must understand… that for most of the time I write scientific reports…..reference evidence to past papers…filter the strands of the past to move understanding on.. a little..

I remembered my first visit here…

15th May 1976

‘Went to Avebury Stone Ring and Donnington Castle and Stonehenge. We got lots of booklets.


The weather was windy with intermittent rain but it was great walking along the top of the huge earth banks of Avebury, the steep drops to the ditch on one side and the countryside stretching for miles on the other.

The sun shone through the clouds showing moving patterns of shadows flowing across the green wheat fields. The wind blew hard and you could almost lean on it and not fall over.

Walking along a double row of stones that lead from Avebury through the fields of sheep and rough grass.

It started to rain. It was almost horizontal so we sat behind one of the big stones and watched the cars go by, as dry as you like. We waved at the cars and they waved back.

On arriving at West Kennet, we were intent on finding the long barrow. At last, we ran across a huge field of wheat and came to it in the middle of nowhere. I entered first and walked past the side chambers to the back of the tomb and sat down to read the guide book and wait for the others.

Shocked a stranger as they entered to see me there.

Stonehenge was commercialised and festooned with tourists. We sat by the concrete kiosk and ate hot dogs in the biting wind.’

So, Avebury won pretty convincingly over Stonehenge..reduced to two lines in my page a day diary. No consideration at all for the freedom we then had to walk amongst the trilithons …

during that first visit ….but you never know what you’ve got till its gone.

Along the King Barrow Ridge

We needed to go to a meeting and I hate having to dodge the traffic on the A303.

‘Ever walked the King Barrow Ridge?’

Paul said ‘no’ so we risked it.

A dodgy place to be at the end of January. I’ve done it in thunder and lightning… which is not recommended.

This time the weather was gentle, sun and high cloud.. and the light.. low and revealing, teasing out the earthworks.

We parked by the generator and walked from MoD land into the National Trust Estate.


The view west along the 2.8km of the Cursus. The trees have been cut back to reclaim the view. The fence line follows the south line of the bank and ditch of the Early Neolithic monument. In the far distance can just be seen the gap in the Fargo Plantation at the west end.

Just past the gate, I pointed out the Cursus… From this vantage point you can seen the entire length of it. The ends picked out by gaps cut through the trees. Fargo Plantation 2.8km to the west had been cut back in the 1980s and at the east end, where we were now standing…the 100m width of the cursus has been opened up in the last decade.

‘Now we are walking over the Cursus long barrow which marks its east end’

Paul couldn’t see it.

‘the barrow was undamaged until WWI but then the military set up bases here and the barrow was almost levelled for a trackway’


The 1877 Ordnance Survey maps shows the east end of the Cursus and the long barrow before it was damaged for a trackway in the  early 20th century.

We looked back along the track and could just make out the vague swelling of the ground which is nearly all that can be seen of it. On the OS 1877 map it is shown over 100m long. I pointed over the fence ‘the side ditch is still visible. The Early Neolithic people quarried the chalk to heap up the mound from here’

I remembered 1999 when the National Trust first acquired this land. Simon the ranger and I took the Landrover out towing a trailer full of fencing stakes and we enclosed out the burial mounds to protect them from further ploughing.

‘The Stonehenge Riverside Project dug a trench here in 2008, they were lucky and found a piece of antler pick at the bottom of the long barrow ditch, dated it to about 3,500 BC…matched the date of bones found in the Cursus ditch itself’


The excavation of the east side ditch of the Cursus long barrow in 2008 . The line of the trackway follows the trees on the right hand edge of the picture.

Paul asked me what a ‘Cursus’ was

‘Don’t know, William Stukely named it in the early 18th century because he thought it looked like a Roman race track. Processional way some people say but who knows. This one’s a tiddler compared to the Dorset Cursus on the Cranborne Chase which is three times the length’

We walked on past Early Bronze Age round barrows under clumps of beech trees, part of the designed landscape planted for the Marquess of Queensbury.

It is said that the clumps of trees commemorate the positions of ships that fought in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. This may be true but the trees prevented Sir Richard Colt Hoare and William Cunnington digging here in the early 19th century and so these tombs remain. Some were disturbed by the storm of 1990 when falling trees tore up Bronze Age cremation burials in their roots.


One of the round barrows which still has its c.1800 beech tree planting.

We turned the corner and could see little Stonehenge far below us.. etched sharply in winter sunlight. Stopping by a sign and pedestrian gate I told Paul that this was the true way to the Stones.

Why?…because this is the route of the Avenue.. its route was deliberately set out to dramatic effect. The way leads down into the valley bottom where the monument is hidden and then turns and leads you up.. and the trilithons rise from the ground in front of you as you are drawn towards midwinter. The days can only get longer once the high trilithon has caught the sun.


The line of the Avenue pointing towards Stonehenge with ditches on either side as revealed during excavation, part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project in 2008. 

Now, we were almost there… and we walked beside the line of high King Barrows..alive and etched by low light filtering through the army strands of long grass…amber pink flicking in the wind.

WP_20190130_011On a mound top, a black silhouette appeared, stood still, gazed out and fell away.



The Wessex Hillforts & Habitats Project

Early morning last week…a drone took off over Hambledon after light snow. Perfect conditions, the snowflakes had settled into the valleys of the great encircling hillfort ditches… and streets of round house platforms became visible as rows of hollows outlined in white.

Hambledon Hill light snow shows the dimples where Iron Age round houses once stood.

These photos help illustrate the majesty and awe of this vast archaeological site and has helped us launch the National Trust’s Wessex Hillforts and Habitats project. With the help of Marie, our project officer, the People’s Postcode Lottery have granted over 100,000 pounds to get the project started.

The primary purpose of the project is to enhance the conservation of 13 NT Iron Age hillforts scattered across Dorset and South Wiltshire …but it will also inspire people to get involved and to carry out monitoring and research. It will also create new interpretation to bring these grassy hill top earthworks to life as places to be appreciated, valued and better understood. Alongside this.. to highlight nature, particularly the plant and insect life. Each hillfort’s unique topography nurtures precious habitat undisturbed by agriculture for over 2000 years.

Purple spotted orchids growing on the sheltered slopes of a hillfort ditch

So.. where are these places. I’ll list them out for you…. and as some have featured in previous blog posts I’ll reference these while we have a quick tour.

We’ll start in Wiltshire and from there head south and west and eventually end at the Devon border.

Figsbury Ring, north-east of Salisbury. A circular rampart and ditch with a view back to the great cathedral spire. Strangely, Figsbury has a wide deep ditch within the hillfort ..potentially Neolithic but there is no rampart.. where did all the chalk go?

Figsbury Ring from its rampart top showing the wide deep ditch inside the hillfort.

South of Salisbury, Wick Ball Camp above Philipps House, Dinton.. NT only owns the outer rampart.

Then there is the icon of Warminster, Cley Hill (blog posts “Upon Cley Hill’; Upon Cley Hill 2”), a flying saucer shaped chalk outlier with two round barrows on the summit..a strange hillfort.

To the south west, at the source of the mighty River Stour, is the Stourhead Estate with its two hillforts. These are Park Hill Camp, its views hidden by conifer plantation and Whitesheet Hill  (blog Whitesheet Hill Open at the Close) with wide prospects across the Blackmore Vale towards Hambledon and Hod. We’ll follow the Stour to reach them.

Hod is the largest true hillfort in Dorset, the geophysics has shown it full of round houses…a proto town… and there are the clear earthworks of the Roman 1st century fort in Hod’s north-west corner (blog post Hod Hill Camp Bastion)

Hambledon is close by, just across a dry valley, perched high on a ridge, surrounded by the Neolithic, you feel like you’re flying when standing there. (blog post Archaeology SW day 2014, Hambledon Sunset)

Follow the Stour further south and you reach the triple ramparts and ditches of Badbury Rings on the Kingston Lacy Estate. From here you can see the chalk cliffs of the Isle of Wight (blog post Badbury and the Devil’s footprint)

Now from Badbury take the Roman road west to Dorchester and keep going beyond the county town, glancing at Maiden Castle as you pass(Duchy of Cornwall, English Heritage).

The Roman road continues straight towards Bridport but branches from the A35 road before you reach the village of Winterbourne Abbas.

It has now become a minor road.. a couple of miles on… it branches again..still straight but this once arterial Roman route to Exeter has dwindled to a narrow trackway with grass sprouting from the tarmac.

Don’t lose heart…keep going…and you will break out onto the chalkland edge and the multiple ramparts of Eggardon Hill.

From Eggardon, the other hillforts emerge as sentinals ringing the high ground overlooking the Marshwood Vale, and, to the south, the cliffs of Golden Cap.. and beyond, the sweep of Lyme Bay and the English Channel.

Winter woods at Coney’s Castle

Next to the west is Lewesdon Hill, a small fort but occupying the highest land in Dorset, nearby is the second highest, the flat top of Pilsdon Pen, surrounded by double ramparts and enclosing Iron Age round houses, Bronze Age round barrows and the pillow mounds of  the medieval rabbit warren.

The last two in the Project guard a gap through the Upper Greensand ridge at the Devon border. Coney’s Castle has a minor road running through it and on its south side are wonderful twisted moss covered oaks… and beneath them the deep blue of bluebells in the Spring. Lambert’s Castle was used as a fair up to the mid 20th century, remains of the fair house and animal pens can be seen there ….but once again the views are spectacular, particularly in early morning after frost with the mist rising from the lowland.

Lambert’ s Castle after frost.

A baker’s dozen of hillforts of the 59 the NT looks after in the South West.

One might imagine that these huge works of humanity look after themselves… but they need to be cared for.. we must have farmers willing to graze the right number and type of stock on them….at the right times;  NT rangers and volunteers to cut regenerating scrub and fix fencing and gates…

If not, these nationally important scheduled monuments and SSSIs will deteriorate. The earthworks will become overgrown and grassland habitat will be lost, archaeological knowledge locked in the layers beneath the soil will become disrupted… and the views into the landscape and across and within the hillforts will become hidden.

The Wessex Hillforts and Habitats Project promises to be an exciting time of conservation and discovery. The work has now begun!

Sounds of the past

View Eastwards from Golden Cap, Portland in the distance

We have worked with a few art projects over the years, involving objects, processes and site specific projects. One I remember fondly was ’26 and 7 Bones’ in 2012  A contemporary arts project about hands and feet, people and place –  a mapping of connections across place and time – an action, a journey, a collection – and was commissioned as part of the Jurassic Coast Earth Festival 2012, with artists Sue Plamer and Sally Watkins

We had excavated quite a few sites along the West Dorset coast so Sally and Sue asked if they could work with us, to join the coastguard, blacksmith, herbalist and ornithologist already recruited. Part of the project involved walking up Golden Cap,  talking along the way about what we do as archaeologists and how we feel when working on a site. We had excavated the Bronze Age Barrows and Napoleonic signal station right on the top of the hill over a couple of seasons, with an amazing view as we worked. It was hard to remember that the Bronze Age people would not have had the same view, as the coastline would have been about a mile further out to sea.

As part of the project we were asked to choose a favourite word or place associated with what we did along the coast of Dorset. I chose the word prehistoric, as West Dorset, to me, feels prehistoric, with its hill forts, barrows and stone age objects eroding from the cliffs. It was then turned into music, by punching holes into card in the shape of the word and then fed through a musical box mechanism, a magic moment!



Kingston 1372 New Year & Sir Gawain

In the last blog, I invited you into the middle of Kingston Lacy north park, asked you to set your time machine to 1371…and to descend almost 1m down onto the floor of the medieval hall.


The Location  of medieval Kingston Lacy manor house, in black, from earthwork and geophysical survey. The present Kingston Lacy House is bottom centre

New Year approaches and the time for medieval gift giving is almost upon us. Very soon it will be 1372 and we still haven’t reached John of Gaunt, his father Edward III and the array of knights and nobility who are assembled beneath our feet. We cannot get there…

Though…we arrived at that level in 1997, via archaeology, our present most effective form of time travel.

This archaeology time machine was not a gismo with circuits and wires but a small band of brothers and sisters wielding spades and trowels.


Cutting the turf in Kingston Lacy Park in 1997

Guided by earthworks and geophysical survey.. we chose our spot and cut a window in the grass. Dark topsoil, yielded to scattered small fragments of stone and lime mortar.. then larger pieces. At 0.2m down, a chunk of immovable brown stone and mortar rose like a tooth from the trench. The rubble peeled off to gradually reveal a ruined wall. Someone, centuries ago, hacked a hole in it and carted away some of the stone for another building but the foundations survived. Increasingly, as we dug deeper, we found white plaster, frost-fractured from the wall in the years of its ruined exposure to the elements


The 1.0m wide medieval Kingston Lacy wall foundation emerges from the rubble

Then, at 0.7m down.. a sudden change, the ragged gritty orange brown rubble stopped. At this level, there was a rich dark loam. Discoveries flicked out of the dirt as we touched them with the tips of our trowels. A small black brown sherd of cooking pot; part of a green glazed jug.. fine enough for the table; oyster shells and many meat bones…roe, fallow and red deer, hares and rabbits, song birds and poultry. At 0.8m, we arrive at what remains of the floor…the yellow and brown shiny surfaces of glazed ceramic tiles.


Medieval glazed floor tiles and food remains below the demolition rubble found in 1997

We touch the remain of their food… the surface they walked on. Nobody has been here since the medieval period. The great hall, the many chambers and St Stephen’s chapel lie all around us.

Close your eyes.

‘Wyle Nw Yer was so yep that hit was newe commen, that day doubble on the dece was the douth served..’

Another thing ..if we could reach 1372, language would be a problem…

In fitting fashion with splendid revels they rode to the court to dance carols. For there the Christmas feasting was continuous for fully fifteen days.

While New Year was so new that it was only just arrived the company was served with double portions. The singing of mass in the chapel having come to an end, loud cries were uttered there by clerics and others. Christmas was celebrated anew, called out by name again and again. And then nobles ran forward to give presents, cried aloud ‘New Year’s gifts’, offered them by hand’.

When they washed their hands, politely they went to their seats, the man of the highest rank always more highly placed as seemed best; On the high dais were Edward III with his sons: John of Gaunt and the Earl of Cambridge with their Spanish wives Queen Constance of Castile and Princess Isabelle. The room adorned with tapestries and the table decorated all around with fine silks and a rich canopy over the high table.

Many true men sat at the side tables and there was music of horns and noble pipes; wild and vigorous trillings wakened echos so that many noble hearts soared high with their strains; dainties were brought in with the music made up of most excellent foods an abundance of fresh meats and on so many dishes that it was difficult to find room in front of the people to set on the cloth  the silver that held the various stews. Each man as he desired helped himself without restraint.


A contemporary painting of a medieval feast from the Luttrell Psalter.

It was time for a story and the late 14th century was a period when the romantic tales of King Arthur and his knights of the round table were very much in vogue.

Here was the King of England with his princes and an assembly of knights from across Britain, France and Spain. Was not this assembly the equivalent to Arthur’s chivalrous court.

A bard steps forward dressed all in green and starts to unravel the tale of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. A story which begins and ends during the New Year’s festivities.

He describes the wonders of Arthur’s court… his famous knights all assembled… the 1372 listeners imagine the scene…surely with good wine, Kingston, on a night such as this, can be imagined as Camelot….They are arrayed in their finery, the men noble, brave and handsome, the women gentle and beautiful.

What if their feast was interrupted….Suddenly, before the music has come to an end…there is a sound… a commotion ….. and in strides a fearsome knight dressed all in green. Huge and awesome, he challenges the shocked assembly.

‘Renowned knights of the Round Table, a blow for a blow and a strike for a strike’

He raises the two handed battle axe which he has carried into the hall.

‘On this day, I will submit to take a blow from this axe from any chivalrous knight …..on the condition that I will return the blow in a year and a day’

The room falls silent and nobody moves. The Green Knight begins to taunt them.

‘Is this the famous Camelot?’

King Arthur steps forward but a young and noble knight, Sir Gawain, who is seated beside Queen Guinevere, is shocked into action. His king cannot take up the challenge.

‘I will accept the challenge’ he says.

Sir Gawain takes the axe and severs the head from the Green Knight. It falls to the floor and rolls to the corner of the room.

A pause…. and then, to the shock of the assembly…the Green Knight rises from his knees, strides across the room, picks up his head and says. ‘Seek me at the Green Chapel in a year and a day and receive the return blow from my axe’ and with that he mounts his horse and rides out into the countryside.

One can imagine the hush in Kingston Hall as the bard tells his New Year story. Sir Gawain has a year to live.. as a chivalrous knight he must keep his promise…and the seasons come and go moving towards the next New Year and the journey Sir Gawain must take…riding out towards to his nemesis….

The late 14th century manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was only rediscovered among some documents in the 19th century. The language is beautiful and from  its description of the medieval courtly life we can understand a little better what it would have been like to be at Kingston Lacy on New Year’s Day.

Of course, the tale continues… travel in the depths of winter, arrival at a castle …where the Lord offers him hospitality …and his Lady offers herself …while her husband is out New Year’s hunting. Will Sir Gawain remain noble and true? Will he find the Green Knight and what will be his fate?

Well worth a read.

Anderson, J.J.(ed), 1996, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness and Patience, Everyman, J.M. Dent, London

Papworth, M., 1998, ‘Medieval Kingston Lacy’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol 120.