Max Gate Day 5

Our last day and it has been so good to work at Max Gate.

Lots of visitors came today and some old friends.

Before tea break we worked hard to get as much of the remaining area in the large trench cleaned down to chalk. Lots of mattocking and shoveling and barrowing onto the growing spoil heap.

Fay sifted the soil from out part excavated circular pit and found a piece of pottery which may be Neolithic. It is the only find from the soil we excavated from the half-sectioned feature.

I then laid out my tapes and began to draw the pits, post-holes and faint ditches cutting the chalk.

The deadline was when Robin arrived with the survey equipment to scan the site and GPS fix our trench.

He set up his targets around the trench and produced a point cloud survey. He then took many overlapping pictures to produce a photogrammetric mosaic of images which will be draped over a digital terrain mode. He showed me the result on his ipad.

Robin surveying the trench

Rob and Carol got to the bottom of the ditch opposite the front door of Max Gate. It was almost a metre deep and below the frost-fractured chalk in the lowest filling was a thin veneer of soil including preserved flecks of topsoil trampled there when the ditch was first dug. We peeled it off and the natural chalk rang as we troweled it.

The thin veneer at the bottom of the excavated ditch below the path surfaces.

The finds exclusively struck flint flakes and sadly no charcoal or enough bone which can provide us with a C14 date.

In our large trench we found two 2m diameter pits, one part excavated with a small fragment of Neolithic? pot. In addition two parallel shallow gullies set 1m apart with post-holes where they turned at right angles away from each other? An entrance to a passage over 3m long between ditches leading to somewhere beyond the north-east edge of our trench.

We did not find a convincing continuation of the Middle Neolithic enclosure unless our half-sectioned pit was part of it. We noted that in the 1987-8 excavation the enclosure pits faded and became more distant as they headed towards the Paddock. Perhaps there was a wide entrance here. Perhaps the east side was the less desirable area for the groups that dug the pits. Perhaps it was never finished…

Air photo taken 1988 showing the excavated circle heading for the Paddock and Max Gate. . The excavated dots get sparser as they approach the Paddock (bottom right) where our trench was. Was it ever finished? Was this a less valued compass point of the circle? who knows the mind of the Middle Neolithic? The front door of Max Gate where we found our prehistoric ditch lies in front of the trees bottom left.

The front door trench hit a pit where the circuit should run but we cannot prove that.

A good but puzzling week. We packed up the tools and drove home.

Corfe Castle CBA festival day tomorrow. Minecraft in the Castle on Sunday.

Max Gate Day 4

Eleanor and Poppy joined us and together in a line we cleaned back onto the chalk in our large trench.

Just a corner of the trench to be cleaned to chalk now. Sarah on the right is half -sectioning the pit.

Tomorrow afternoon the photogrammetric surveyors will come and the trench needs to be ready for final recording.

The last part is very rooty as there is a fir tree beside the trench.

Sarah began to half section one of the pits.

In Rob and Carol’s trench, the prehistoric ditch in front of Max Gate front door is deep and looks like it is one of the Neolithic enclosure pits. We decided to make it longer and broader to enable us to see more of it. Several more flints in the filling but no bone or charcoal yet large enough for a C14 date.

Rob expanding the trench in front of the door of Max Gate, which has found a prehistoric pit.

In the evening a zoom talk with Wessex Museums. David in Devizes and Harriet, Michelle and I in Thomas Hardy’s writing study. A great place to hear of Hardy’s archaeology and to talk about our latest discoveries.

Some said they would visit tomorrow…our last day on site.

Max Gate Day 3

We managed to clear the rest of the pit feature in the big trench so there was something to show Digging for Britain when the production team came to the site today.

The pit in our large trench. We lowered the surface by a few cebtimetres but we will leave the archaeology in situ

We worked together and pushed back the remnant of the old ploughsoil to reveal any features in the buried chalk. The line of the enclosure is unclear in our 10m by 12m trench …unless the pit is part of it and most of our area is a large gap until the next off the edge of the trench?

The Digging for Britain team setting up this morning.

It does have the look of the filling of an Iron Age storage pit rather than a Neolithic ditch section. At the end of the day Sarah found a second chalk filled pit. The bottom edge of linear ditches, almost ploughed, are also evident but only as a slight hollow in the chalk.

Clearing the ploughsoil together in our large trench with the information marquee and visitor soil sieving activity in the background.

Carol and Rob have been looking for Thomas Hardy’s original path surface of Max Gate driveway. It is hoped to replicate this when it is replaced in the next few months.

These small 1m square trenches lies close to the line of the circular Middle Neolithic enclosure as it passes the front door of the house.

At lunch time we noted that the chalk bedrock here sloped steeply down and the filling was a typical prehistoric light yellow ochre chalky clay. A patinated flint flake was found in it and when Alice got into the trench she found a fragment of bone. We will see what else can be found in the filling. Hopefully something for a radiocarbon date.

The front door of Max Gate. We found the 19th century binding lime, brick dust and and surface to the right of the front door where the bollards are. The trench in the foreground has the chalk bedrock cut by a ditch. Is this part of our Neolithic enclosure. It is in the right place along the projected line of this 100m diameter, 5000 year old enclosure..

Max Gate Day Two

On the first day I arrived early and marked out the 12m by 10m trench.

Lee the digger driver arrived, put on a flat edged bucket and we watched as the garden and ploughsoil was scraped off and placed to one side with just few centimetres above the chalk.

We found clay tobacco pipe stems and willow pattern ware right down to the natural chalk surface.

Today we formed a line and worked backwards from the NW (compost heap) end of the trench and revealed the chalk bedrock cleaning and revealing the white blocky surface.

Chalk is nice but for the first 5m of our trench was that’s all there was… no archaeology at all. My imagining of an intricate intercutting, multi-period feast of the past was not working out.

Then the chalk disappeared along a curving edge and by the end of the day a 2m diameter pit and a couple of post-holes had been revealed. We hope for more by Digging for Britain turn up tomorrow.

The trowel lies on the pit filling. The post hole is a little to the right of the point of the trowel.

Digging for a SM, Max Gate, Dorchester

The car is loaded with tools and tomorrow early I drive to Dorchester in Dorset.

Five days in the Paddock at the back of the house that Thomas Hardy designed for himself at Max Gate on the outskirts of the county town.

Max Gate soon after construction with its view of Early Bronze Age Conquer Barrow built on the bank of Late Neolithic Henge, Mount Pleasant

He found Iron Age and Roman burials. Told his visitors of the Roman soldiers beneath his garden. A megalith was also uncovered which he set up on the lawn beside the house.

Thomas Hardy beside the megalith he found beneath his garden.

It took another 100 years to find out what that was all about.

During the Dorchester by-pass construction in 1987-88, the land west of Max Gate was stripped of topsoil following a geophysical survey, and, 50% of a 100m diameter circle of ditch segments was found. Radiocarbon dating revealed it to be Middle Neolithic and contemporary with the similar enclosure surrounding Stonehenge…about 3000BC. Some of the pits contained sarsens and the largest was given to Max Gate.

Max Gate is a Grade 1 listed building because of its designer. A unique building.. a writing power house where Tess of the Durbevilles, Jude the Obscure and so much poetry was written.

Freya worked with the property team in West Dorset and created a Conservation Management Plan which articulates the significances of this land and blends them to create management actions which will enable the conservation of these significances.

Thomas Hardy, his house, his interest in the past and the archaeology he bumped into when he bought an area of arable in the 1880s.

The archaeology stacks up on itself.

Some of the earliest British pottery found anywhere c.3800 BC was found in pits cut by the enclosure. An early Bronze Age ring ditch was constructed near the centre. The enclosure itself has labyrinth type patterns inscribed on some of the chalk cut walls of the ditches. Then there are the Durotrigan burials and the Roman inhumations.

We have carried out geophysical survey to detect the other half of the enclosure where it should cross the Paddock and garden but without success. This, despite trying: earth resistance; magnetometry and ground probing radar.

We’ll set up a ring of white posts where it should be next week

The Conservation Management Plan recommended the site be given the status of nationally significant Scheduled Monument….but the application failed. Historic England fed back that the geophysics had not provided sufficient evidence that the site underlay the Max Gate property.

What could we do?

Some years ago three small test pits were dug across the Paddock.These revealed that ploughsoil continued down to the white chalk bedrock. Within this disturbed soil, were all the jumbled remains… cut up by hundreds of years of cultivation: Roman pottery; prehistoric flint; bone fragments and 19th century nails.

In black the archaeological features found in 1987. The other half of the Middle Neolithic circle lies almost exactly over the Paddock and Garden of National Trust Max Gate. The blue rectangle is our proposed excavation.

Why not temporarily lift off the lid of ploughsoil, clean back the chalk and show the archaeology where the dark soil fillings of features show clearly against the white.

We will precisely record the surface photogrammetrically to get our proof for Historic England …

We’ll do it during Festival of Archaeology and get visitors to sieve the spoil heap to see what evidence of ploughed up archaeology lies within it.

We’ll talk about the site, read some of Thomas Hardy’s poems, backfill the trench and go home.

No need to dig the features. We already have a good idea of the archaeological phasing of the site. We’ll look at the surface of some of it… then cover it up again… leave it for posterity in the more certain knowledge of what lies beneath.

Who knows for what new archaeological techniques it might be saved for decades or perhaps centuries into the future.

We’ll use the evidence to apply for Scheduled Monument status again of course!

The Mound

For a moment pause: —
Just here it was;
And through the thin thorn hedge, by the rays of the moon,
I can see the tree in the field, and beside it the mound —
Now sheeted with snow — whereon we sat that June
When it was green and round,
And she crazed my mind by what she coolly told —


And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
     And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
     "He hears it not now, but used to notice such things?"
One of the Iron Age pots accompanying one of Thomas Hardy’s Durotrigan burials. He gave a talk on his discoveries at Dorset County Museum, Dorchester.

R7: Ogbourne St George to Devizes, Oldbury Camp 22.2 miles

Walking back down Ogbourne’s High Street.

Ogbourne St George

This would be the longest day so far.

I’d started early and the sun was up.

A car passed, stepping to one side, my foot caught on something in the verge.

Suddenly, I was pitching forward with the rucksack giving me momentum….

and found myself heading face down to the tarmac.

This could have been unfortunate but my hands were not cut, my knee grazed but jeans intact. I reached up to my forehead and it was wet and sticky. A bit of blood but not much. My nose was OK.

So, I walked on with just a bruised left hand, knee and shoulder but branded with a bloody mark above the eyebrows which was plainly visible to a questioning world.

I must be more careful… particularly when walking alone.

The day was beautiful and I was soon climbing over a stile and back into and up through Wiltshire farmland. This became a horse-land full of gallops, a world of wooded plantings and paddocks. A formation of four riders in identical uniform jogged towards me.

The Gallops before Barbury

I met a man with a dog. We praised the morning and he told me of his walks and… one day… he would walk the whole Ridgeway.

Soon I was at Barbury Country Park. A school mini-bus was in the car park. I rested at a picnic table on top of the downs. A bit further on was the hillfort. A good but faded information board told me to look over my right shoulder to see Liddington and Uffington …. and sure enough there they were… in profile etched onto the escarpment edge. Three hillforts in a row.

Barbury has two ramparts and ditches enclosing 4.5 hectares. Trenches were dug here in the 1800s and in WWII. They revealed evidence of Iron Age occupation confirmed by an English Heritage geophysical survey which showed the circular drainage gullies of many round houses.

I walked across the hillfort through the opposing east and west entrances to the sound of children engaged in hillfort activities and emerged at the edge of a spur of land with extensive views. The countryside vivid as I walked downslope to join a track… on this increasingly hot day.

Now things were looking familiar as I entered the Avebury landscape… clumps of hedgehog tree plantations, often over barrow groups, spaced along the slope edge. I was on the White Horse trail at Hackpen Hill. I asked a cyclist where the horse was. ‘You need to be downslope to see it’ she said ..but there was no time to do that so I pressed on.

As I reached Monkton Down and then Fyfield Down, the landscape became dotted with sarsen boulders ‘grey wethers’. It was from here that the great stones were chosen to be erected inside the inner ditch of great Avebury henge. I walked past the Green Lane route down but I would need to retrace my steps before entering Avebury. I must press on south another mile to Ridgeway end.

My plan to get there by lunch time had failed and I was walking past increasing numbers of converted horse-boxes and vans. Long braided hair, the sound of drums and bright coloured ribbons and streamers. The travellers were starting to assemble. Just a few weeks to midsummer solstice.

The Overton Hill car park has the final Ridgeway map sign just a short distance from a field of finely rounded Bronze Age burial mounds …but the place was busy with the solstice settlement …so I crossed a dangerous road and found tranquility in the Sanctuary with its view west along the Kennett Valley. The extraordinary Late Neolithic Silbury Hill rose out of the river bed about a mile way. I remembered being taken to Silbury’s centre. The organics were so well preserved that turf and ant wings were found dating to c. 2400 BC. blog Inside Silbury Hill).

The Sanctuary, like Woodhenge near Durrington Walls in the Stonehenge landscape, is set out as a series of concentric concrete markers and these placed to interpret the excavations by Maud and Benjamin Cunnington in the 1920s and 30s. Each marker shows an excavated pit or stone hole. The site was first recorded by John Aubrey in 1649 when many of the sarsen stones making up the circles were still in place.. but the site was subsequently plundered for building stone, particularly in the later 18th and 19th centuries.

I took my boots and rucksack off and drank a long drink and knelt on the manicured English Heritage grass …enjoying this high point.

The Sanctuary marks the end of the great West Kennett Avenue, a double line of sarsens stretching over a mile to link this place to Avebury henge and then below me were the great palisaded enclosures of West Kennett. A more recently discovered Neolithic/Bronze Age complex (in and around the National Trust rangers’ offices at West Kennett Farm).They roughly consist of two large timber circular enclosures which are linked by long timber avenues to smaller timber circles.

Perched on the hill behind them, the c. 5,700 year old megalithic long barrow of West Kennett, which, has a set of stone burial chambers you can walk into and sit inside, unlike Wayland’s Smithy (so many miles back along the Ridgeway now).

This, the most ancient of the archaeological places visible in this extraordinary landscape.

On the high hill horizon, far away and beyond Silbury Hill, was the needle-point of the Landsdowne Monument….I needed to get past this to reach Devizes… such a distance still to go.

Illustration of the Sanctuary looking west into the prehistoric landscape. Silbury Hill beyond the West Kennett Palisades with West Kennett Megalithic long barrow above and to the left. Illustration by Peter Urmston copyright Historic England.

So, the Ridgeway conquered, I backtracked a mile and found my first faded Wessex Ridgeway dragon marker on the public footpath post … and ate lunch there.

2pm and I headed down past the farm, dodged a tractor, and walked across the eastern causeway, through the great ditch and bank of Avebury. I remembered the buried megaliths that Chris, Jeff and I had detected by resistivity in 2003 (blog Avebury Buried Megaliths).

That was October/November, now it was steaming and full of visitors cooling on the recumbent sarsens.

It was hot, I had almost run out of water. Walking past the Red Lion, I headed for the NT Cafe beside the Great Barn…..not really ready for polite society….’a paltry thing’…’a tattered cloak upon a stick’ and why was there a graze on his forehead?

I ordered a large tea and an ice cream and asked to fill my water bottle. The water dispenser was too short for my bottle and water sprayed everywhere… I mumbled that I was an NT staff member… the woman behind the counter gave me a disbelieving and disdainful look… and my staff card proof lay deep in the heart of my rucksack.

I retreated outside and rested at a table gulping ice cream and tea in alternate bursts.

Revived, I pressed on through the west part of the village, past the Saxon church and then weaving on footpaths through Avebury Truslow onto a track where there were a pair of sarsens known as the ‘Long Stones’.

These are all that survive of Avebury’s other megalith avenue, illustrated in the early 18th century drawing by William Stukeley. It is known as the Beckhampton Avenue and excavations along its route have found stone setting pits. Like other monuments in the area… some still contain deliberately buried stones and many others just sarsen fragments… where the megaliths have been broken up for building stone.

The grass whale-back of the Beckhampton long barrow was just beyond the Long Stones and then I was climbing steadily. Along a section of A4, across a car park and then through open downland following the line of an old linear earthwork west to the jutting outline of the Lansdowne Monument. A slow, hot, long climb.

The walk up to the Lansdowne Monument

The Monument is a grade II* listed building designed by Charles Barry (architect for the Houses of Parliament and the last phase of Kingston Lacy House). Erected 1845 for 3rd Marquis of Lansdowne and in need of repair (it is a current National Trust project).

It lies within Oldbury Castle, a fine Iron Age hillfort built on the crest of Cherhill Down. Within and surrounding it are many archaeological sites… long and round barrows, cross-ridge dykes, linear earthworks and flint mines.

The stile into Oldbury Castle with its Wessex Ridgeway dragon way marker

A great National Trust property full of wild flowers. I was glad to get there at last.

I was worn out and dry and very much in need of a large orange from Ogbourne St George which I peeled and devoured before taking the path south down the hill which joined the line of a Roman road running through wheat fields for two miles until it converged with the Wansdyke.

Today was just full of archaeology. The Wansdyke deserves a blog of its own. A huge east to west ditch and bank boundary running for many miles. It is thought to date to the 5th-8th century, a division between political areas. So much effort to make it. I gazed briefly along its length as I walked across it.

Over a hill, filled with butterflies and then dodging golf balls across a course to the club house. Roundway Down separated me from Devizes. A long steady ascent…a bleak, hot and open arable country.

The Battle of Roundway Down was fought on 13 July 1643 during the English Civil War. Despite being outnumbered and exhausted after riding overnight from Oxford, a Royalist cavalry force won a crushing victory over the Parliamentarian Army of the West. Lead musket shot and other debris from the battle is still ploughed up or washed out of the fields after heavy rain.

There was Devizes in the distance at last, Emma rang and we shared the progress of our days as civilisation loomed.

Through a housing estate, along a tree lined avenue to the Kennett and Avon canal. I entered the town, walking swiftly past a drunken argument and then Jan phoned. She had just arrived. My path was along a hidden narrow side road and I spotted her a long way off… at the bus stop in the square….I teased her by describing as I approached her…. and eventually she looked around, spotted me and smiled…. then frowned.

‘What have you done to your head?’

Festival of Archaeology July 16th-31st

National Trust properties across the countries and regions are taking part in the Festival of Archaeology

These are some of the events taking place in the South West Region.

Max Gate Dorchester

Opening Festival of Archaeology weekend at Badbury Rings Dorset Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th July. Although the Saturday guided tours of the archaeological landscape are sold out there will be archaeological activities to enjoy including new interpretation of a Bronze Age barrow, the Roman temple and hillfort. British Museum Facsimiles of the Badbury Barrow Stone carved with daggers found in the 1840s and the Badbury rapier found in the 1850s. Excavated finds from the KIngston Lacy Estate will be on display and there will ancient technology demonstrations.

Badbury Rings, Kingston Lacy Estate, Dorset.
Chedworth Roman Villa
Prior Park, Bath

The National Trust closing event will take place with the Council for British Archaeology at Corfe Castle on the 31st July. There will be a range of story telling, guided tours and various stalls representing the archaeological work of many organisations. Minecraft will display their digital rebuild of Corfe Castle.

On Saturday 30th there are training sessions on finds, landscape and geophysical survey by National Trust archaeologists Nancy Grace and Martin Papworth with guided tours of Corfe Castle. A few places are still available contact for further details.

The Keep and South West Gatehouse, Corfe Castle, Dorset

R6: Sparsholt to Ogbourne St George 18.1 miles UFFINGTON

Once, in the Chilterns, we’d discovered a glade with an abandoned rope swing. We’d laughed at each other as we’d swung and glided among the trees.

Best accommodation… quirky Wendover

Best sleep…..cave-like Streatley

Best food …. our beginning at Aldbury

We hugged.

Emma got into her electric Green taxi and waved as it took her soundlessly out of Streatley towards Wantage and on to London.

I trudged back along the quiet lane up to where we had left the Ridgeway yesterday.

No Strada today… but my key aim and objective of the walk was ahead.

Rejoining the path west at Sparsholt Firs

A dog walker with earphones approached and I asked how far to Uffington.

‘Just 4km along the path’ he said ‘that’s where I’m parked, not far now’.

Twenty minutes later, a father and daughter approached…they were a little younger than me and Emma… but these were serious walkers, I spotted a tent and accosted them.

Yes they were walking the Ridgeway and had camped in a farmer’s field last night. He had just come back from a successful bid on the Pennine Way. I asked whether many people do it these days and he said that it was now fashionable to take it in as part of the Land’s End to John O’ Grotes trek.

Really…the peat bogs and the hypothermia….all my struggles over it and eventually the final conquest in 89…So now it was just a snack in a greater challenge !

A good conversation and a nice couple… but I felt chastened… and quite honestly a bit of a ‘light-weight’ as I walked on with my tentless rucksack and my fancy B & Bs…. it wasn’t a competition of course.

I paused for a drink… and the dog walker caught me up again.

‘Almost there’ he said.

I said that I wanted to see the White Horse because I was employed by the National Trust and had worked on the Cerne Abbas Giant.

‘ They’ve recently dated that’ he said ‘ I heard a podcast on it. A great thing to listen to when you are walking the dog’ He walked on.

I began thinking that perhaps I should listen to podcasts rather than just contribute to them. No twitter no instagram…I am falling behind. But my current conclusion is … in the time that I have… better to write this.. writing’s fun…a diary of sorts.

And then I was upon it….a National Trust Omega sign announcing White Horse Hill.

I crossed the long grass and sat on the escarpment edge and ate a picnic bar from the snack pack as I chatted to Jan on the phone. I could see the upper edge of the Horse’s head but the figure itself was roped off. A sign pointed to Dragon Hill.

Remembering the Cerne Giant viewing lay-by and the need to protect chalk figures from visitor foot fall erosion. I respectfully followed the signs down to Dragon Hill. There it was below me, a perfect viewing platform. How had I not read about this? I would check my David Miles book when I got home.

What a fine, prehistoric, designed monumental landscape this must be. The later Bronze Age uniquely flowing white horse lines etched in the hillside (OSL dated over 20 years ago and the inspiration of our Cerne Abbas sampling), created so that people could assemble on this high flat-topped mound looking back at the Uffington Horse.

Dragon Hill

A group of grumpy people were coming down Dragon Hill. An American woman was carrying a small dog. They looked disappointed.

I climbed the hill and my theory fell apart. I got sort of an oblique view of the horse. I should have listened…the dog walker had told me… ‘the best view is from the car park’

The disappointing view of the Horse from Dragon Hill

I sat on the grass and the wind blew my map away. It landed out of reach, I walked casually towards it and another gust sent it spinning to the edge of the platform. I dived after it and just caught it. Time to retrace my steps.

I headed back through Uffington hillfort which lies on the crest of the hill above the White Horse. It consists of two ramparts either side of a ditch with a western entrance. It once had an opposing entrance on the east but it was later blocked. This is a common pattern. It was built 8th-7th century BC and was used through much of the Iron Age and overlay Bronze Age evidence. A lot of Roman pottery had been found here.. and Anglo Saxon burials. A busy place archaeologically.

As much as I can say. The 1989-95 Uffington Project is published in the 2003 Oxford Archaeology book.. (see reference below)

The hillfort was being looked after well by NT. Rough grass and a few mole hills but nothing to see in them. I walked back to the stile and met a cyclist who had propped his bike against a black Ridgeway sign. He said he was cycling the 350km King Alfred’s Way and was loving it.

Just 2km west was Wayland’s Smithy an English Heritage megalithic long barrow managed by NT. It lies within a grove of beech trees and the legend tells how Wayland, the invisible Smith, will shoe your horse if you leave money. I didn’t have a horse so sat on a log and had lunch there. Looking at the stone facade and the burial chamber… where someone had left some flowers.

The site is an Early Neolithic communal burial monument but when Stuart Piggott and Richard Atkinson excavated here in 1962-3 they found two phases of burial, the first was an oval timber-chambered barrow containing the remains of 14 people and built around 3600 BC. The later was the stone chambered barrow of about 3400 BC. This too had bones representing family or clan groups but the megalithic barrow had been badly robbed. The site looks well preserved today but it is a reconstruction. Early 20th century photos show the large stones fallen and the mound dug over and damaged.

Waylands Smithy Megalithic long barrow

A quiet place, National Trust rangers had repaired erosion to the barrow mound and it looked good. I finished lunch just as a group of cyclists crashed into the clearing. I slipped away and a short while later stopped to take a photo of the information board…but there was no phone in the front pocket of the rucksack. I retraced my steps found the phone lying in front of the long barrow. Wayland had left it for me ( I must concentrate). Top tip always double check you have everything before moving on.

So… I was half way through the day and I was 8km into a 28km walk. I had devoted too much time to the archaeology and needed to push on.

I went past a large converted horse box on the path, tucked into a verge by the path… bicycle, car, chairs all overgrown.. a bit Mary Celeste.. What had happened here?

The abandoned horsebox beside the path

It was becoming overcast and there was a chill wind. I started to cough so put on extra layers. I got to a road, saw a pub but it was now an Indian restaurant… I looked too unsavoury and I was too late for hot drinks apparently.

I was tired by the time I crossed the M4, did a dog-leg across the Swindon road and threw myself down on a verge before the ascent to Liddington Castle.

I’d crossed the border into Wiltshire and was back in the South West! I peeled an orange in celebration as two blokes wandered down the hill towards me. One of them looked at me and said ‘Are you alright ?’ (oh dear, I must look rough).

‘I’m just resting, I’ve come a long way today. Is it OK to walk round Liddington Castle?’

‘Yes you just need to go right on the field boundary at the top of the hill. We live in Swindon and often go for walks here. We’ve been looking at the WWII decoy site up there. The diversion to stop them bombing the town and the railway works.’

We talked of barrows as monuments to be seen by a community and they talked of a grove of trees clearly visible from Swindon where people came to remember loved ones.

‘The trees are full of pictures and flowers and ribbons they said’

They wished me good luck and went on their way.

A few hundred metres on and I walked off the map. 170 went back in the rucksack and out came 157 Marlborough and the Savernake Forest.

No time for Liddington. I left its double ramparts behind me as I turned south. This is Wiltshire’s candidate for the 5th-6th century sub-Roman battle of Mount Badon. There are Badbury place names nearby. Being a Dorset archaeologist, the true location is Badbury Rings of course…..but there are other places available.

Liddington Castle from the black bench

I needed another Ridgeway black bench and one emerged in a perfect location sheltered by trees with huge views across the countryside. I looked back toward Liddington on the horizon. Emma rang, she was safe back in London.

The last part was a wearisome slow descent and encirclement of Ogbourne St George. I plodded along noticing how the patterns of blossom, floated down, settled on the ponds and were blown to the edges. One path had stripes where white and pink blossom alternated.

I needed a rest.

At last I found Ogbourne High Street and walked its length to get to the pub.

As ever, but particularly it seemed tonight…it was so great to be shown a room and to just crash out on a bed.

I still had a long way to go.

Miles, D., Palmer, S., Lock, G., Gosden,C. & Cromarty, A.M., 2003, ‘Uffington White Horse and Its Landscape, Investigations at White Horse Hill Uffington, 1989-95 and Tower Hill Ashbury 1993-4’, Oxford Archaeology Unit Monograph 18, Oxford University Press

R5: Streatley to Sparsholt, Segbury Castle 18.6 miles

It seemed that the Thames had been the boundary that had cut the walk in two.

Last night we’d had a drink in a smart bar by the twilight river.

The Thames at Streatley

In the morning, Emma decided she could spare another day. She had to be in London but was invested in the walk.

Refreshed, we donned rucksacks, left Streatley along a busy commuter A road, then to a lane, to a track to a path…up, up ..but now into something recognisable as Wessex style downlands. The wooded Chiltern Hills falling steadily and ever more distantly behind us.

The sign at the start of the path that ascended to the downs.

In an unploughed hollow near the summit, nice earthworks; gullies, terraces and house platforms. It was marked as ‘The Warren’ …I wondered what it was.

We had walked off OS 171 West Chilterns and onto the 170 Vale of the White Horse. I was closing on Uffington.

In front, high exposed chalky undulations.

Good progress, Emma checked strada… good pace, still over 5km an hour as we neared the top.

A brooding day, overcast and.. windy with the promise of rain.

Suddenly, a very large and insufficiently nervous rabbit, lolloped round a corner to confront us. It watched from the side as we walked past. The black ear tips gave it away, a young hare.

We spotted two women approaching us.

They seemed like rare Ridgeway compatriots so I confronted them… they said they were. They’d been overtaken by another walker but had met nobody else doing the walk since Avebury. I guessed he had been the one I’d seen on the other side of Grim’s ditch yesterday.

They were sisters from Trowbridge but had spend much of their life in Canada.. coming home for a while to re-experience Wiltshire and beyond.

They asked if we were going all the way to Overton Hill. I said I would keep going until I reached home in Warminster. ‘You can always change your mind they said’.

It was good to chat ..but as we walked on.. their comment was shocking….my destination was set.. change my mind indeed…something pretty drastic would be needed to deflect me from my goal… though of course drastic things do happen.

Then the hedges disappeared and we were out on the exposed Gallops. Well guarded land, lots of notices telling us to stick to the path.

I had promised a pub stop at East Ilsley but it turned out that the path kinked towards the village but turned back to the crest of the ridge. It was a long way down and then back up again…and pubs on maps can be notoriously fickle…and today would be our longest day so far. We couldn’t really afford another 4km.

So, we threw ourselves down on a verge against some bushes, for shelter, on the edge of the concrete track. I unzipped the blue snack pack and posed the question

‘picnic or double decker’

Both types of chocolate looked worse for wear after 80km.. but it was definitely a double decker day.

The verge between cyclists and equestrians

We lay back in the grass. Behind us, the ground vibrated with sets of approaching and diminishing thudding sounds… and in front of us the sudden rapid whizz of a set of bikers in uniform speeding by. Followed by more thudding behind.

We rested in an island between cyclists and equestrians.

Emma laughed at the sudden busyness of our bleak world.

Re-rucksacked we plodded on through a huge virtually tree-less landscape …broken only by the A34 underpass which was unexpectedly decorated by murals of the local village churches…though the art was faded and graffitied….it had seen better days.

The graffiti in the underpass

The rain came and went.

We were now into a landscape of large wheat fields. The wide wildflowered verges along the ribbon of our path. Regular signs told of an Oxford University investigation of wildlife restoration.

We approached another road with a car park… but before we got there.. an ideally placed black Ridgeway bench loomed up to welcome us. Another memorial to a walker who loved this place.

In the afternoon, a shower so intense that we had time to don full waterproof protection before it stopped.

Then another memorial that described an old war or rather an old warrior. Inscribed with Inkerman, Alma and Sevastopol. The Crimea, still in the news of course. This was really a love token from a wife to her lost husband. To remember Lord Wantage, Robert Loyd-Lindsay VC. A great local benefactor.

We sat on the steps to rest. While looking out over Oxfordshire, we read the inscription.

“I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. Psalm 121.

We prepared to move on. A dog barked at us as its owners walked past.

Mid afternoon, 10km to go and we were slowing.

At the the A road down to Wantage, we saw a sign which told us that the Ridgeway centre was just up the road (imagine the potential civilized delights in such a place) but no time for the deviation (top tip: do less miles a day and see more).

The sign beyond Segbury Camp

A few hundred metres further on brought us to Segbury Camp. We rested as the sun came out and observed the ramparts while peeling a clementine. A dig in 1871 found an Anglo-Saxon grave against the southern rampart (a secondary intrusion) but excavations from 1996-7 found dating evidence to show Segbury had been occupied from the 6th-2nd century early to mid Iron Age as would be expected… but we needed to meet Sharon at 5.30pm.

We aimed for the Devil’s Punchbowl and Sparsholt Firs…and slowly, slowly we approached them. The Punchbowl was a deep,steep coombe and our path followed its south side. Just beyond it, the Firs marked the road we would take down into civilisation.

The day had been remote and far from nearly any occupied building. To find somewhere to stay, I had booked a place in one of the spring-line villages 2km downhill at the foot of the Ridgeway.

A long quiet lane took us down to Sparsholt and we found Sharon waiting. The pub had been emptied of facilities while being refurbished, but the barn was still occupiable. She showed us around and said she would be back with breakfast in the morning.

We crashed out and eventually found the strength to order pizza from Wantage.

Revived, we explored Sparsholt and noted the Platinum Jubilee itinerary on the signposts and the gathering bunting. The church was huge and its stones from various geological sources were steadily being revealed under peeling render.

Sparsholt Church

A barn owl flitted white and silent between the trees.

Killerton Fort: Results…Pot, Charcoal & C14 dating

It has almost been a year now since the excavations took place on the suspected Roman Fort at Budlake Farm on the Killerton Estate, Devon.

Over the last few months, Nancy has been sending the Budlake finds off to specialists and their reports will enable us to tell the story of the site.

Was it a Roman fort? When was it occupied and abandoned?

If there was a fort.. why was it built here? Was there a settlement here before the soldiers arrived?

What was the date of the far older prehistoric site we found unexpectedly beneath the playing card shaped triple-ditched enclosure?

The red Devon soil is very acidic and therefore corrosive. No bone (apart from cremated bone) or other organic matter like sea shells, leather or fabric could survive in it. Even the pottery has lost much of its finished surface.

We hoped for preserved pollen but none survived.

Fortunately, charcoal was found across the site and this was sent to Cathie. First to identify it and then to assess it for radiocarbon dating suitability.

Some chunks were from mature trees and therefore the date range for C14 would be too large. She selected the fragments of round wood and twig that would provide a closer date.

Our samples were from young oak, ash, gorse, blackthorn and hazel collected from sealed contexts across the site. We sent ten samples off, and eventually, last week, the C14 dates came back.

It turned out they represented a huge date range….from 8537-8297BC to AD 16-124.

The Mesolithic date from the pit filling containing microliths

Quite a spread… but the dates can be looked at in clusters.

You may remember that our earliest feature at Budlake was a small pit which contained tiny fragments of flint.

These are known as microliths and typical of the middle stone age or Mesolithic period. Our earliest date of c.8500 BC would be good for this but this date, from a fragment of hazel nut shell, was the earliest of four dates from the pit filling. The others were all from ash twigs, a sample from the top, the middle and the bottom of the pit … all dated from between 4700-4500 BC at 95% probability.

One of the three other dates within the pit. The beginning of the Neolithic and farming in Britain is usually calculated as about 4500 BC so these dates lie just at the threshold of that innovative agricultural revolution.

I phoned Olaf, our flint specialist. Yes, he felt that the flints from the pit were mixed and though most of the flints seem be typical of the Mesolithic material, there was Neolithic lithic technology evident.

The other three C14 dates from the pit were exciting because they date the soil to a period when the last hunter gatherer communities and the earliest farmers were in contact.

We can now compare the pottery finds and there were 8 small sherds mixed in the Roman deposits which were of fabrics likely to date from the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

Last year’s Trench I cut across the three ditches of the enclosure and found them to ‘V’-shaped in profile and averaging 3m wide and 1.75m deep. They looked typically Roman but contained next to nothing to date them. Fragments of blackthorn charcoal were found in the filling of the middle and inner ditch and both gave dates. From the middle ditch 201BC to 53 BC at 90% probability and from the inner ditch 47BC to AD66 at 95% probability.

Ed, the pot specialist dated the single rim fragment I’d found in the inner ditch as Late Iron Age…so was the triple-ditched enclosure Roman at all?

The other four C14 dates were very similar. Three came from Trench II, at the south entrance into the playing card shaped enclosure, and one more came from Trench III.

In Trench II, the enclosure’s middle and inner ditches had pottery and charcoal found within the debris filling them. From the inner ditch, a fragment of gorse charcoal and one of oak.. together with an fragment of oak charcoal from the middle ditch, all gave dates within a band AD 6 to AD 124 at 90% probability. The last date came from hazel charcoal from the filling of a large ditch found outside the enclosure AD 16-124 at 95% probability.

One of the three almost identical C14 dates from charcoal from the soil filling the ditches in Trench II at the southern gateway into the triple ditched enclosure

The mid range of all four would be AD 64-70. This would fit a Devon conquest period occupation of a Roman fort….though tempting, this way of averaging the dates is considered to be statistically incorrect and too precise for radiocarbon dating.

Still, the consistency of these four broad date ranges provides reasonable grounds to conclude that this is indeed a mid-late first century Roman fort and Ed’s pottery report provides back-up from the Trench II gateway ditch terminals.

From the middle ditch, a fragment of decorated South Gaulish samian bowl and part of a North Gaulish gritted mixing bowl together with a white ware butt beaker were all distinctively mid-late 1st century. The sherds of amphorae found in the gate-way post-pit had been imported from Spain and were also of a typically early Roman type.

Archaeology can be annoying because it rarely gives definitive answers. The best it can do is to use all available evidence to nudge us closer to the truth.

The case is scientifically well evidenced now to argue for a mid to late 1st century Roman fort at Budlake… but other finds give us the scent of an earlier presence there and perhaps the displaced mid-late Iron Age C14 dates and fragments of pottery suggest that the Romans occupied an existing settlement… fragments of which were scooped up and thrown into its ditches just as the Mesolithic was thrown into an earliest Neolithic pit.

The photo taken in 1984 shows the whole field full of archaeology and. it is hoped that further geophysical survey and excavation by Exeter University and Killerton’s HART volunteers will start to further unravel the palimpsest of time of this fascinating place.