Killerton Fort Week 2

Thursday was a busy day.

It often is. The day before backfilling. It is when the archaeologists have uncovered most of what they are likely to find and visitors arrive to help interpret the discoveries.

First Mike arrived with his drone to take aerial shots of the site while we worked.

One of Mike’s drone shots looking south-east from the field corner to the quarry. In the foreground is the long Trench I, a section across the three ditches on the west side of the fort. To the left is Trench II at the southern entrance into the fort and top right is the 5m square Trench III which coincides with a large boundary ditch running bottom right to top centre of the photo.

Then Frances arrived. She was a celebrity guest because it was her photograph in 1984 that discovered the site.

The Devon county archaeological team arrived next and then John who is a specialist in Devon Roman forts.

We walked over to Trench II. This had meant to coincide with the ditch terminals and south gateway into the fort. I had done quite well and picked up the edges of two of the ditches but had missed the outer ditch. Remains of the basalt gravel entrance track were clear and Rob had dug out a large post-hole founded on large slabs of stone which 2000 years ago held part of the timber frame of the gateway.

Trench II looking south through the fort gateway. Rob in green excavates one of the gateway post-holes. Griselda in red excavates the inner fort ditch terminal and Nancy in blue excavates the middle ditch terminal. Carol and David in grey and Rob in orange are cleaning the basalt gravel trackway through the gate.

Griselda’s inner ditch terminal had been the most productive, mostly black locally produced pottery but there was excitement when she found a fragment of decorated samian in the ditch filling.

Below the Roman fort track many fine fragments of flint were found and these increasingly were long thin blades and tiny fragments or ‘spalls’ of flint. When it rained we could see the faint colour changes in the soil and one of the darker patches turned out to be a small pit full of Late Mesolithic to Early Neolithic lithic fragments. There was enough charcoal from this and this will allow us to obtain a radiocarbon date.

The small pit at the south end of Trench II. Nancy holds the lithic finds which included many tiny fragments of flint. We think this pit was dug 6-8000 years before the Roman fort was built but our soil and radiocarbon samples will prove whether this was the case or not.

We led our visitors over to the long trench across the three fort ditches (Trench I). We weren’t really ready for them. It had been very hard to differentiate the ditch fillings from the natural soils but we were near the bottom of the outer and middle ditches and had found the edges of the inner ditch.

A huge amount of labour, particularly by Harry, Fi and Derek enabled even the bottom of the inner ditch to be reached by the deadline of lunch time on Friday. Their fillings contained almost no finds at all. A plain rim sherd from a black bowl was found in the inner ditch.

They all had ‘V’ shaped profiles and averaged 3.5m wide and 1.75m deep.. spaced 2.5m apart.

Harry, Lance and Fay in the inner middle and outer ditches of Trench I western fort defences.

Terry from ‘Digging for Britain’ asked me to imagine on camera an attacker trying to cross the ditches to get to the inner rampart ..and the Roman soldiers waiting on the parapet. Not easy was my conclusion.

Then we guided our guests across the field to the trench outside the fort. Frances was pleased that I had sampled a key linear soil mark shown on her 1984 photo.

We’d found not one but two ditches entering Trench III from slightly different angles.

Both had early Roman pottery in their fillings. Our experts checked the finds out. Bill and Eileen agreed South Devon ware and South West Black Burnished ware. The rim forms were right for 1st century but we would need more specialist help. Some of the pottery is likely to be later Iron Age.

Some of the early Roman pottery from filling the ditches outside the fort to the south-west in Trench III

Pete and his team bottomed one of the ditches on Thursday…though the bigger ditch that cut it was at least 2m deep and 5m wide. In the end, we could only project its dimensions from the exposed bedrock slopes.

The Friday lunch time deadline arrived and it was time to backfill our trenches and give the field back to the farmer.

I had spent the previous evening drawing Trench III’s deep section line as the sun set. Drinking a bottle of Killerton cider and thinking of the era these soldiers occupied.

The bedrock ridge beween the two ditches in Trench III with Devon National Trust Killerton Estate cider bottle for scale.

A mixed bunch, far from home and who knows which parts of the Empire they may have seen. The stories they told of the places and events they had witnessed, the conflicts they had been pitched into.

The 50s-70s AD were definitely New Testament times. From our ceramic evidence and by comparing our site with other Devon forts …we should be in that period. Perhaps someone here had seen Paul preach in Rome, Ephesus or Corinth. Perhaps the oldest among them may have witnessed the crowds in Jerusalem surrounding Jesus.

Wow! …We had achieved what we had set out to do.

Tired but happy we packed away our tools and drove out of the field …content.

Killerton Fort, a circle of chairs

Waking on the first morning, at 4.30, as the light begins to seep into the tent. It is hard to make up your mind. Is it the constant drone of the M5 or the building bird-life racket from the quarry behind you that will stop me going back to sleep.

By the 5th morning these sounds are familiar and have been filed away… and the sunrise beauty of a Devon field can be properly appreciated.

Sunrise over the circle of chairs

The light and mist filter across a circle of chairs spaced evenly in front of the gazebo and marquee. A mysterious cult happening seems to be about to begin but this is the covid friendly way we assemble for tea break.

We lucky jabbed few, who have successfully passed our lateral flow tests.. assemble here regularly to tell tales of our rare discoveries in the trenches.

There are three.

Each chosen to ‘ground-truth’ the patterns shown on aerial photographs or on our geophysical survey of August 2019.

The Killerton Heritage Archaeological Ranger team have returned here to finally prove the fort they first discovered ……just a few months before covid.

I relocated the 20m survey grid. Fi met the gas man and he marked the position of the gas main across the site. Then the trench locations were marked out with red string and 6 inch nails…… at least 6m from the pipeline route.

Trench I has been positioned on the west side of the playing card shaped 1.7 hectare ‘fort’…. where a hedge field corner crosses over the alignment of its three parallel ditches. This one’s 30m long and 1.5m wide.

Trench I looking north-west towards the field corner. The geophysics shows the three fort ditches crossing from left to right across the trench about 3m wide and 3-5m apart.

Trench II was more tricky. I wanted to pick up the south entrance through the fort which the magnetometry had found…off-centre, near the south-east corner. This one was 15m long and 3m wide.

Trench II looking south towards the disused quarry edge (trees in the background). Nancy is excavating a cutting potentially one of the three ditch terminals stopping at the gateway. The ranging pole in the foreground crosses what may be a remnant of the fort entrance track.

The last one, Trench III, was to test features shown on the 1984 aerial photograph. Particularly, a broad ditch shown crossing from the hedged field corner to the quarry. Perhaps there had been a settlement associated with the fort.

Trench III looking north towards Trench I. The chair and spade lie close to the rounded edged corner of the fort as shown on the geophysics. Trench III has in the corner a steep cutting through natural stone (left of the tape). The 5m square trench is full of stone rubble mixed with some abraded sherds of Roman pottery of various kinds.

On the first day, John drove the digger and we watched as the plough soil was pulled away.

I warned everyone that despite Isabel and her team walking the field in the 90s…only flowerpot sherds and cider bottle fragments had ever been recovered (with an occasional prehistoric flint)… the field had never yielded a single Roman find.

As the day wore on.. I got increasingly.. edgy as the finds across the three trenches tended to be 18th-20th century with a couple of very nice chert scrapers. The spoil heap was checked for metal and only the odd iron nail turned up.

Then we shaped the trenches with out hand tools. We cut straight vertical trench sections and cleaned the surfaces.

Chris let me know that Devon red soils eat bone. Unless it is cremated, none would be found in the Roman contexts. However, on a Devon Roman fort I should expect plenty of Roman pottery and ironwork.

It was not until the start of the third day that there was excitement in Trench I. A coin had been found. A very worn disc of green with perhaps traces of a head and a patch of ‘celtic?’ design on the other. We hoped Roman but it came from the upper level, mixed with flower pot and Nancy thought it was probably a post-medieval jeton.

In Trench II, scraps of Roman pottery were found ..and then the base of a Roman jar that jutted from a possible ditch terminal cutting a packed stone surface which I imagined was the track leading into the fort.

The base of a Roman jar found in the ditch terminal cutting of Trench II. The most common pottery is a soft dark sandy ware but with a greenish hue.

In Trench III, the geophysics team showed that the its location was correct…right over the position of the broad ditch shown on the 1984 photo. The trench is 5m square and only the east edge of the ditch cutting can be seen. It is likely that the ditch is very deep and pieces of Roman pottery of various kinds occur in the black stony filling. On average one piece for every 5-10 bucket loads.

Some of the pottery fragments found in Trench III including a fragment of samian bottom right

There were Romans here… but why were they so clean?

In Trench I the sandy fillings of the three ditches have been found but at the moment the finds consist of… just flecks of charcoal.

Not quite what was expected but we will see what week 2 brings.

NZ 3: Dunedin-Tyntesfield-Larnach Castle

I like to read early descriptions of  Britain from a time when it was viewed as a far away, remote land. The 1st-century Romans certainly viewed Britannia in that way.

By the 18th and 19th centuries Britain had moved, for a while, from the edge to the centre… and New Zealand was the equivalent far away land…

New Zealand now, of course, is a uniquely blessed modern nation.

The island of Britain is situated in almost the furthest limit of the world, towards the north-west and west, poised in the so-called divine balance which holds the whole earth. It lies somewhat in the direction of the north pole from the south-west. It is 800 miles long, 200 broad, not counting the longer tracts of sundry promontories which are encompassed by the curved bays of the sea. It is protected by the wide, and if I may so say, impassable circle of the sea on all sides. (Gildas, The Ruin of Britain 6th century AD)

New Zealand: the wonderful country. New Zealanders: the best of people.

When I am there, I am aware of my southern English reserve, there is a need to unravel myself.

Visitors are invited to bungee jump into potential and adventure… after all,  we may feel challenged in this new environment but we have made the long trip to be there and will be welcomed warmly as travellers from the old country …..11,932 miles away.

My great love is archaeology and though New Zealand is like a geography text book… full of huge,  beautiful landscapes.. and though it can boast of many things… human time-depth is not one of them.

In New Zealand.. Nature was completely left alone by humankind until its discovery by the great navigators, the Maori Polynesians in the 14th century.

However…. despite that.. archaeology definitely exists and it has been my pleasure to be an archaeologist in New Zealand…in 1980.. my first lone trip.

Could I ever settle there? So very far from most of my family and friends.

Back home… across the Weymouth College table…. a fellow student also talked of her NZ family ties…. in that far away and much missed place… so I came back with her in 85.

Much , much later, in 2009,  when the children had grown to be teenagers, we took the long flight with the family.

Now the children have left home and Jan said we must return… one more time…

And so you find us… in Invercargill… at the start of our road trip pilgrimage.. we hope that it will take us from the very south of the South Island to the north end of the North.

It is morning. We have failed to reach Stewart Island. I have lost my old mobile phone in Queens Park and we are about to head north to Dunedin.


My plan is to take the scenic, eastern, coastal route across the Maclennan Range but I am not concentrating and miss the turning to Highway 92. Instead, I am on Highway 1. Jan is happy.. and every time I try to get back on course…the nice NZ Sat Nav woman warns of unmetalled roads.

‘Remember Waikaremoana’ Janet says sombrely and our minds flash back to the East Cape trip. 1985..the short-cut from Wairoa to Rotorua in a camper van with a dodgy petrol gauge. 4 hrs on gravel tracks along cliff hugging tracks in the pouring rain…juddering through pot-holes.

I stick to Highway 1. The sky is grey and dour with a low cloud-ceiling. The lovely coastal views from the Maclennans are likely to have become blotted out by mist.

Past Gore, we look for a coffee break but end up in Balclutha. A busy wild-west looking place with tin covered walkways, which keep the rain off as we seek out a cafe… and find the ‘Heart and Home’ in half term week. We grab a table near the sofas,..and a tangle of children and toys. We order pots of tea and a bowl of chips.

We are seasoned NZ travellers and know that tea is bountiful and bowls of chips are always available… even in the remotest of places.

Re-energised, we reach the outskirts of Dunedin city by late afternoon. Suddenly, we are in traffic again and weave our way past the docks and up a winding road to the ridge of the Otago Peninsula.

Janet’s cousin Martha has given us a post-code and we are guided up a tree lined drive to a large house. We have access instructions.

There is the key and we bring our cases in and walk down a corridor into a huge room with a kitchen to one side and a square table in the middle. Large windows give views out across native bush and back down the inlet towards the city.

There is no note. Lots of people leave keys. We have not seen Janet’s cousins for 35 years. We lose confidence for a moment until someone like Janet’s sister opens the door and Martha and Bill greet us warmly. Stories and photographs are shared.

Three brothers from Birmingham, altered by the experiences of their WWII service, make a plan on a camping holiday… to leave their crowded West Midlands roots behind and take a ship to the far side of the world.

Here, 70 years later, a son and a daughter of one of them chat easily with the daughter of the sister they left behind.

We talk into the night and then they leave us to enjoy their extra house,  kindly promising to come back and take us to the city the following evening.

We wake to the sound of Bellbirds and decide on driving along the peninsula to Larnach Castle.

The site is on the ridge top. William Larnach, banker, businessman and politician found the spot for his mansion with his son. In 1870 it was covered in native bush but through a gap in the trees they saw the spectacular view of the Otago Inlet.


Larnach Castle in the Mist ..colonial gothic.

Soon, it was occupied by a Gothic revival mansion, studded with fine decorative materials brought by sea and along bumpy tracks to this remote place. As we climbed through the building, the rooms reminded me of the National Trust’s Tyntesfield near Bristol. A far larger mid Victorian Gothic building built for the Gibbs family from the profits generated by imported guano fertiliser from Peru and Bolivia.


The National Trust’s Tyntesfield House near Bristol

Larnach compared with Tyntesfield is like Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire  compared with Diocletian’s Palace.

Larnach is the greater triumph for its sheer isolation and its amazing view….apparently.

I climbed the turret and walked out onto the tower roof and looked out into thick mist. Nothing to see today so we retraced our steps back to ground level taking in the decor of the lovely rooms.


The Withdrawing Room of Larnach Castle.

In the long building adjoining the house, we had curried pumpkin soup. William Larnach had built this as the ballroom for his daughter Kate who found the new house too remote and needed somewhere to hold parties and attract society  from distant Dunedin.

The soup warmed us. It was chilly and damp outside. The lunch of a neighbouring table lay scattered like a battlefield across the floor. The children unconcerned, the father another half-term casualty.

Back in 1967, this place had become a ruin but the Barker family took it in hand and brought it back to its former glory. The family still care for it. There is nowhere quite like it in New Zealand. Visits to Tyntesfield will now remind me of its Gothic cousin so far away.

John had brought us here in 85 and it was good to see inside. We had spent good times in Dunedin. The Musselburgh weekly pub quiz in particular. The team would be reunited in Nelson.

We pressed on to the Albatross colony at the far misty end of the peninsula. The whole place was alive with noisy white birds but they were seagulls…we had tea in the nice modern visitor centre.

We would head for Christchurch tomorrow.

Cerne Giant the OSL dates

In the end there were 5 Optically Stimulated Luminescence dates. Each from a different soil sample selected from stratigraphic layers.

The following section drawings show the date ranges from the samples and a blue star marks the spot where that particular sample was taken.

The highest sample was from a silty chalk layer between the upper and lower chunky chalk layers. This one failed to provide a date because there were insufficient quartz crystals that could be isolated from the soil.

Trench C right elbow

The second sample lay in a colluvial soil that had eroded down slope of the chalk figure also from the the Giant’s right elbow trench. It provided a middle date of AD 1250 but could span a date range from the late 10th to the early 16th century.

Trench C right elbow

The third sample is from the Giant’s right foot trench, slightly deeper in the deposits and this time about 10cm above the natural chalk on the upslope side of the chalk outline. It provides a similar central mid 13th century date but the accuracy is within a tighter date range AD 1080-1400.

Trench B right foot trench

The fourth sample came from the lowest chunky chalk layer which fills a cutting through the earliest hollow scraped into the natural chalk. The mid date for this is late 10th century, about the time that Cerne Abbey was founded. However, at the earliest it could be mid 7th century (but the 5th sample shows that it cannot be that early) and the latest early 14th century.

Trench C right elbow

The fifth and last date was taken from the colluvial soil that filled the original cutting scraped into the natural chalk hillslope. This sample yielded a central early 10th century date and had a more accurate date band from the beginning of the 8th century to the beginning of the 12th century.

Trench B right foot

What do we make of these datea? Very unexpected. It raises again the medieval references which talk of the locals of Cerne worshipping a Saxon god Helith before the Abbey was founded but this seems unlikely in 10th century Dorset in a society which was largely Christian at that time.

The dates and stratigraphy seem to show a time of abandonment and then recreation but this bottom chunky chalk layer is still medieval and still potentially Saxon so we have to imagine the Giant and the Abbey side by side in the landscape and perhaps he was used as a lesson in the landscape by the monastic community.

He may have worn trousers then as our LiDAR shows the continuation of the belt across the penis and we might suggest that his most noticeable asset was created in the later 17th century when puritanism was on the wane.

He may have been hidden after the Dissolution of Cerne Abbey after 1540 when brightly decorated interiors of medieval churches were whitewashed over.

These dates throw up so many new interpretive possibilities … and…after all our work we are still far from solving the mystery of the Cerne Giant. We’ve just nudged him a little closer to the truth.

Dating the Cerne Giant Results!

You may remember that back in March last year, as the shroud of Covid began to settle down over Britain….a small group of us spent the last week before ‘lockdown’ cutting trenches into the elbows and feet of the Cerne Abbas Giant.

He lies on a steep hillside in the middle of Dorset.

We wanted to take soil samples from the deepest levels. Trenches were chosen where the chalk and soil had been rain-washed downslope to settle into horizontal lines, those parts of the chalk figure that followed the contours of the hill and checked the flow of material down his legs and arms.

That’s why we chose the soles of his feet and the upper lines of his elbows.

The depths of the deposits were unexpected. Though we knew the tradition that he was rechalked or scoured every 25 years or so..we imagined the old chalk was taken away and replaced with new. That was hard work it seems, and as soil kept building up behind the old chalkings.. the workmen generally left most of the old stuff and heaped another load on top.

The left elbow trench D after excavation

The last three or four have been carried out by NT staff and volunteers but some of the ones before that were on quite an industrial scale. You may remember the upper and lower chunky chalk…well the OSL (optically stimulated luminescence) dates are back…

A section drawing through trench D left elbow with in red an attempt to link the stratigraphy to different documented re-chalkings. The upper chunky chalk and the wooden stakes seen in three of the trenches may be the work commissioned in 1897 by the great pioneer archaeologist and owner of the Giant at the time General Pitt-Rivers

Gloucestershire University labs were closed for quite a time and then Phil said they would be happy to do more dates for free if NT found funding for one more. Eventually 5 were provided but one failed to give a date. Insufficient quartz particles (dilithium crystals) from the sample from the silty chalk deposit…marked as 9 in the blue circle above.

Meanwhile we were able to ask Downland Partnership to fly a drone over the Giant so that we could get a good LiDAR survey of his earthworks.

Once this was processed by Keith, NT’s digital data specialist, we were able to appreciate his earthworks far more.

The processed LiDAR image of the Cerne Giant with the Trendle earthwork above him clearly outline. A rectilinear structure, probably building footings can be seen in the centre of the eartwork and top left what look like prehistoric rectilinear field boundaries approaching the enclosure. On the Giant the pronounced earthworks from soil settling on his horizontal lines can be seen on his elbows and feet as lines of yellow and his nose, recreated in 1993, glows bright yellow.

The best of the processed images has accentuated the contour differences and shows him in blue and yellow. The outline of the double bank and ditch of the Trendle is clear and the coffin shape fence line which once surrounded the NT ownership boundary of the Giant is visible.

Another interesting revelation are the blobs of material surrounding the Giant, the largest below his outstretched hand. This has been interpreted as the earthwork of a severed head, once held in a bag dangling from the outstretched hand ….however all these blobs look to me as the leftover remnants of chalk brought to the Giant over the centuries to rechalk him…and the ‘head’ is just a large leftover spoil heap.

There are traces of letters or numbers between his legs but nothing legible. Rev John Hutchins in 1774 could see them more clearly than the 21st century drone.

Look carefully at the LiDAR image. It looks like the Giants belt was once continuous and he may once have worn trousers. His most prominent feature may be an addition. Certainly his navel was absorbed by it in 1908.

Looking at the centre of the Giant the lines of his ribs and belt are clearly visible. The yellow line that runs along the bottom of the dark line of the belt is where sediment has settled against the horizontal groove caused by its cutting. The yellow line is faint but continuous. Could it be that the Cerne Giant wasn’t rude at all when first created? He has perhaps had a makeover in later centuries.

So….and now for the OSL dates… how old is he? Well you will have to wait until Tuesday night as that’s when the press release comes out…. 🙂

A Drain at Montacute

Richard rang. Could I come to Montacute. A tenant had some damp problems and he needed to dig a French drain.

Though he had a vague memory that a drain had already been dug against the building… back in the 80s… he said that ‘The Borough’ was at the gates of the Montacute House and was one of the oldest houses in the village.

Probably best to have an archaeologist watch the soil while he wielded the JCB.

To be honest it would be good to get out. Too many on-screen meetings from my back room since returning from furlough, so I took the A303 west into South Somerset.

Soon, I was driving down the main street of the ancient honey-coloured Ham stone village. I passed the church on the right and arrived at the gates to Montacute House.

They were locked… with a message on the railings to phone the house. Graham answered and walked up the drive to let me in.

We greeted each other, shared our ‘lockdown’ experiences… from a distance…and then I drove round the corner to the overflow car park.

The corner of the car park looking west with The Borough abutted by two tall stone garden walls

There, in the corner of the grass covered area, was the gable end of the Borough with 4m high stone kitchen garden walls running up to it from the north and the east. The ground floor window was almost at soil level. No wonder there was a damp problem with the cottage kitchen floor over a metre below the car park ground surface.

Richard had already taken off a 1.5m wide strip of turf against the cottage and I got out my drawing board and created a scale plan. I could see that there was a gravel surface 0.7m wide against the wall and then dark soil, so as I can’t help but think in context numbers… the turf would be (1), the gravel (2) and the dark soil (3). (3) had bits of coal and clinker and a mix of pottery.. blue and white willow pattern but no plastic so it felt like a pre 1960s deposit.

I guessed that the gravel (2) was the upper filling of the old, now useless, drain that Richard had mentioned.

Richard turned up with the digger and Dean with the mini tractor and trailer and the gravel was scraped off. This turned out to be just a skim on top of the real drain filling which consisted of large chunks of Ham stone in a clinker and ash silt.

This I called (4).. and it was 0.7m deep … so (2) and (4) filled a trench [6] which was cut down through (3) . Dean gave me a whole Victorian wine bottle he had pulled out of (4) but there were fragments of more modern pottery too. The blocks of stone were debris from some demolished building or buildings because some had moulded and dressed edges.

As Richard dug them out, Dean pulled them from the trailer and placed them against the wall for reuse,

The wall of the cottage at this modern drain level had been lined with Welsh slate on concrete…to keep the damp out…unsuccessfully…. as it turned out.

Suddenly the ash and stone filling stopped and the digger bucket scraped yellow clay. I jumped down with the trowel and started cleaning.

The black ash and Ham stone reused building rubble used to fill the drain lined with Welsh slate bedded on concrete and below this the top of a the yellow clay. looking south west.

I found a smooth clay layer (5). As I scraped my trowel, it hit something brittle and white, an oyster shell… always a good indicator that things are getting older.. and a moment later, a fragment of earthenware with bits of green glaze on …and a thin white tube.. part of a tobacco pipe stem.

At this level, the dressed Ham stone wall face of The Borough disappeared and it seemed that the footings had been lost.

(5) was about 5cm deep and my trowel started hitting fragments of Ham stone and the clay became stickier. I called this (7) and a fragment of grey and brown salt-glaze pottery flicked out of it as well as a fragment of a jug with a hard-fired fabric and a shiny deep green glaze.

The pottery finds from the drain filling (7) salt-glaze top left and shiny green jug fragment tor right

This kind of stuff was early 17th century..possibly late 16th, the sort of thing we had found at Corfe Castle in the Civil War deposits… and dated to about the time of the construction of Montacute House itself …which stood in all its golden grandeur just a couple of hundred yards away.

At this level, at the edge of the trench, there was a plastic grey clay which I could follow down with my trowel (10) and this turned out to be a water-proof drain lining which (7) was filling. The Borough wall face emerged again at this level but this time the wall was of unshaped local rubble stone. Perhaps an earlier building on the same site?

The reused blocks of stone forming the garden wall sit on the clay layer (5) and abut the Borough wall which is lined with Welsh slate to the top of (5), The original drain filling (7) contained lumps of Ham stone and the trowel rests against a large block which might once have been part of a gutter, The grey clay lining slopes up to the bottom right and the cut level floor of the drain is cut into natural bedrock. The rubble stone footings of the house have been built off this at the bottom left edge of the photo.

Suddenly the trowel hit stone bedrock which had been cut flat and level with this earliest foundation of the Borough built directly on it. The original drain of the house had been well made but at some stage. loads of soil had been brought in to raise the ground level and the wall face had been buried almost a metre deep.

Behind me, Richard had continued digging out the mid to late 20th century drain filling and he had reached the garden wall further east. Here the soil was jumbled and mixed. He said that when he was a boy he had known the bloke who ran the market garden here. On market days he’d sell the produce to the villagers.

1887 OS map of the Montacute walled garden. The excavation trench was on the north side of The Borough which is the building end on to the bottom left of the large enclosure with the blue cross-hatched greenhouses in.

I had a look at the old Ordnance Survey maps and from the 1880s through to the early 20th century there were extensive greenhouses here. The high walls sheltered vulnerable plants from cold winds, enabling fruit and vegetables to be produced out of season. A few years before, I had recorded a flue in one of these kitchen garden walls. The gardener apprentices had the job of stoking the hearth to keep exotic plants warm on the heated wall during frosty weather.

The earliest map, is Samuel Donne’s Montacute plan of 1774. It was lost about 60 years ago but we found that Country Life magazine had included a section of the map in their 1950s article on Montacute House. We tracked down their archivist and asked if they had a photo of the map and they checked their photograph files and sent us a copy of the whole thing …in the post!

The Borough is left of garden plot 197 and 196 on this 1774 map. There is a row of houses on the other side of the road which are no longer there.

So good to see it, as it shows clues to an earlier designed landscape. The roads and main entrance to the house were on the east side then. The western approach was only installed in 1785 and involved much landscaping and demolition of parts of the village. The map shows the Borough as one of a number of buildings lining what is now the visitor entrance to the house.

The excavation site was not part of a kitchen garden then… but a gap between two houses in a street with their long back gardens continuing to the east.

Montacute goes back to Saxon times… at least… and the 1774 maps shows a village in transition as the owning Phelips family extended their influence and absorbed ancient streets within their expanding parkland…..

Dean brought me a clay tobacco pipe bowl. On the base it read ‘Will Pitch’ and underneath ‘er’ … perhaps William Pitcher made this. It had a shape and design typical of about 1670-1700 …but it was out of context.. the mixed garden soil contained all sorts of jumbled finds from the 17th through to the 20th centuries.

I had been privileged to gain another small glimpse of the complex past of Montacute.

I finished the drawings and photography, checked that I had numbered up all the finds bags… said goodbye…. and drove home.

Chedworth Villa, The LiDAR

At Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire, past blogs have concentrated on the place itself… though it is only one luxury home among many.

copyright Mike Calnan, drone flight showing Chedworth Roman Villa looking north-west, the landscape hidden by trees.

How does Chedworth fit into the wider local Romano British landscape?

Who were the neighbours?

The ground surface of the surrounding countryside is hard to see because much of it is shrounded in woodland and it has long been an ambition to have a LiDAR survey flown across the area. This would enable a high resolution 3D scan of the ground surface.

This process is particularly wonderful because the ‘first returns’, (the light impulses that bounce off the tree tops) can be filtered out leaving only those that hit the woodland floor (second returns). Suddenly the trees are gone and the earthworks they hide are visible at last.

Map showing the location of Chedworth in relation to Cirencester , Bourton and Wycomb. Each black dot a known villa site. Definitely a desired location for the wealthy Romanised population.

The Roman route to Chedworth is easy to find. From Corinium (Cirencester). Take the straight road heading north-east towards Bourton on the Water (another Roman settlement). This is the Fosse Way and after 7.5 miles, take a left at Fosse Bridge.

Here, the road meanders north-west five miles along the River Coln until it reaches Wycomb, another Roman small town, and along this road the rolling countryside is studded with Roman villas.

A busy and wealthy landscape.

LiDAR image with the locations of Roman sites and potential Roman sites.

After leaving the Fosse Way, the road hugs the south-west side of the river and the villas lie in valleys facing east towards the Coln. The first great house lies in Listercombe Bottom. Mosaics were discovered here in 1760 with some additional excavations in 1930. The arrangement of buildings here is not well understood.

A mile further along the river and right beside the road is a stone platform where a grand columned Roman temple was excavated in 1926. This is clear on the LiDAR and then just round the corner Chedworth villa’s valley opens up.

The LiDAR shows the entrance drive which can still be traced in the field though it was once regularly ploughed. It runs straight across the field to the villa’s lower courtyard.

Chedworth’s valley is distinctive. We’ll come back to it at the end.

Back to the riverside road …and half a mile further on we come to something particularly exciting at Cassey Compton. The old Ordnance Survey maps mark earthworks here but the LiDAR shows the details clearly. The river skirts the south side of the site but at a later stage a straight leat was constructed which cuts through the middle of the site. It’s the sort of thing done to power a water mill but the regular earthworks at Cassey Compton match the size of Chedworth, particularly the long rectilinear ranges subdivided into rooms.

Top centre-left is the Cassey Compton villa? site cut by a leat with the river running on its south side. Top right earthworks of a ‘celtic’ field system preserved and hidden under woodland. Centre-left rectilinear earthworks across the north-west side of Turpin’s Green valley (another villa or Roman structure?). Bottom left corner cut by the Victorian cuttings and embankment of a railway now disused. The bottom centre ridge has two Bronze Age round barrows on its summit, both crossed by antiquarian excavation trenches.

A site undamaged by ploughing or excavation it seems. It may have later medieval buildings overlying it.. but underneath, it looks like a villa and there is the potential for waterlogged deposits at this riverside site where wooden and other organic artefacts may be preserved.

The earthworks of the Cassey Compton site cut by the leat and skirted to the left by the River Coln. The rectilinear arrangement and long ranges of rooms suggest that this is a villa site but with later building activity and trackways overlying them.

On the upper edge of the valley, just to the south, are other rectilinear earthworks that might be structures. Another villa? Seems unlikely in such close proximity but pairs of villas are not unknown here.

Another mile or so down the valley is the village of Withington and and another villa was found here in 1811. The antiquarian Samuel Lysons excavated and found intricate mosaics. Then, in 2007, Time Team investigated more Roman finds, discovered 150m east beside the Coln. The excavations uncovered another elaborate villa-like building. Do these two sites represent separate ownerships or homes for different parts of the same family?

A drawing of Samuel Lyson’s excavation of Withington Roman Villa in 1811.

Three miles on there is Whittington Roman Villa excavated 1948 beside Wycomb settlement and a mile away down a separate valley to the north-east is Compton Abdale Villa excavated in 1931.

So Chedworth was part of a community of villas, a society of wealthy families meeting, doing business, helping each other out, gossiping and probably trying to outdo each other in fashion and style. I’m getting a bit Jane Austen I know.

The journey back from the market at Cirencester would meander along the Coln and around each bend of the river would lie a mansion set in its garden and park surrounded by the fields of the owner’s tenant farmers.

Most of these Roman fields have been ploughed away in modern times but under the woods, above Cassey Compton, the LiDAR reveals a surviving group of earthworks typical of ‘celtic’ fields used during the Romano-British period.

So back to Chedworth and the LiDAR shows a distinctive square-ended valley where the villa was built. Narrow coombes run up slope from its north-west and south-west corners. There is also a slighter central combe… though all cut by the creation of the railway in the 19th century, a clear point of reference snaking across the LiDAR image.

Image of Chedworth Villa valley with its squared west end and coombes running south-west and north-west to join the White Way on the ridge top. Bottom centre on the spur top can be seen an ‘L’ shaped bank and ditch with traces of a bank forming a south side (potentially a prehistoric enclosure cut by a track through the middle. Along the north side of the villa, the track is cut by a later lime kiln. Top centre is the irregular shape of a limestone quarry with an east-west track running beside it, which in turn is cut by the Victorian railway that crosses the left hand side of the image.

As well as the formal straight central drive leading to the lower courtyard, there is also the present drive which continues the route used in Roman times to give access to Chedworth’s South Range. Merchants and tradesmen would perhaps have uses this for deliveries to the villa’s store houses and kitchens with the option to continue up the south-west coombe to the ancient ridge top route known as the White Way.

Another route can be seen as an embankment leading from the Coln-side road and running along the north side of the villa. The metalling for this track was found during excavations in 2003 and 2017. The LiDAR shows that the track has been cut by a post-medieval lime kiln but beyond this its route can be seen running up the north-west coombe to join the White Way.

Looking across the villa to the south, the LiDAR shows a ditch and bank on the ridge top and this may be the remains of an Iron Age enclosure. We have found scraps of pottery and a burial dating to this period so it may be a pre-Roman in date.. though only the north and west sides of this potential enclosure are visible. There is perhaps a bank defining the south side with the hollow for a pathway or track running through the middle of it.

The LiDAR is a wonder and the more you look, the more you see: old excavation trenches; water pipe routes; garden beds; boundary banks and wall alignments. Mysterious patterns that emerge when a false light is shone across the image from a certain direction but which disappear as the light is rotated around the landscape.

A closer LiDAR view of Chedworth showing the intricacies of the earthwork evidence there.

These images will not date the features they show…though a kind of landscape stratigraphy can be discerned. Beyond that…it is time to journey out into the real landscape and ‘ground truth’ where the LiDAR has unravelled significant earthworks ….beside the rivers and beneath the trees.

Killerton, ColumnJohn & the Culm

This is about the archaeology involved with tree planting and waterways. The National Trust has a Green Recovery Programme for improving nature…. but this while enhancing and valuing the historic landscape..

The River Culm at Columbjohn

A snowy Sunday afternoon in Warminster… but today let us imagine ourselves out west and at the front door of Killerton House in Devon.

The Acland family gave the mansion and the 2600 hectare Killerton Estate to the National Trust in 1944 …but their first house was down by the River Culm. A Domesday manor which they acquired in the late 16th century. Killerton Estate could have been the Columbjohn Estate if the Aclands hadn’t decided to move.

Killerton House

Columbjohn House was a Tudor rebuild of the medieval manor.. but after its capture by Parliament, during the Civil War, the family decided to shift to a newer acquisition 2km to the east at Killerton. They took up residence in the late 17th century but still valued their roots at Columbjohn.

The 1756 estate map shows an avenue of trees leading straight across the farmland to the river. Halfway along, there is a domed hill with the ruined folly on top (we excavated there in 2017 ).

The avenue, with its track back to Columbjohn is long gone… so, from Killerton we must drive back to the park gates passing below Dolbury Hill’s Iron Age hillfort. Once at the gates, we turn right and along a winding road to eventually reach Columbjohn and the river.

The old gateway c.1600 that once gave access to the now demolished Columbjohn manor house

There is an older stone arched gateway here, dated to about 1600, and this once gave access to the drive to the house… but now there is just an area of grass where it once stood. The 1888 Ordnance Survey map marks a cross on the site and if you fade this out as a GIS layer on LiDAR, the cross sits neatly in a rectangular hollow… on the lip of a straight-edged terrace above the River Culm. Once there would have been a good vista from the lost mansion across the floodplain and the meandering river.

The OS 1888 map showing the site of Columbjohn mansion. The cross on this maps fits in the centre of a house platform shown as a neat rectangular earthwork on LiDAR images.

So, the old mansion was demolished after the move to Killerton but Columbjohn chapel is still there. It lies amongst some trees and the Acland family still valued this place as a burial ground. In the graveyard is the imposing tomb of Thomas Dyke Acland who took the name of his wife Elizabeth Dyke, heir to the 5000 hectare Holnicote Estate in Exmoor. They married in 1753 uniting the two great estates.

The grave of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland beside the chapel at Columbjohn

I brought you to the river to talk about river archaeology. From the site of Columbjohn, the Culm takes its sinuous course north along the floodplain, to the west of Dolbury Hill and Killerton Park as far as Silverton and the Killerton Estate boundary.

Columbjohn Chapel

This river meadow land has been chosen as an area for habitat improvement.

Paul, the project manager, phoned last week and talked about the ambition to plant trees, enhance meadow pasture and create wetland areas. This work had the potential to affect archaeological sites along the Culm both known and unknown and we agreed to first have a focused historic landscape survey of the project area which could inform the ‘Green Recovery’ scheme. Then, once proposals had been formulated, a heritage impact assessment to highlight what additional archaeological recording work and evaluation was needed before the digging and planting work began.

We needed someone who had a particular knowledge of waterways and river archaeology and we were in luck. The Culm had been chosen as a pilot study area by Historic England and had employed Antony to do the work, a specialist on the archaeology of waterways, meadows and wetlands.

Before phoning him, I did some homework on what we already knew about the area. I went through aerial photographs, documentary maps and LiDAR. Amazing what can be done digitally by overlying map and photo layers.

The Culm is a restless river, a classic geography lesson in oxbow lakes and moving meanders. Past generations had tried to tame the river but it was hard to pin down.

The 1888 OS map showing Columbjohns Corn Mill just before it burned down. Leat, sluice gates and footbridge shown. Perhaps there had been a mill on the site since the medieval period. The water structures and channels needed to be constantly checked and repaired to maintain the flow across the water wheels to grind the grain.

Just north of the Columbjohn Chapel is the site of Columbjohn Mill. It is clear on on the 1888 Ordnance Survey Map, but burnt down in April that year and was never rebuilt. There had been a mill at Columbjohn since at least 1086. The Area Ranger Fi and her team of archaeology volunteers have cleared the scrub from the site and the mill footings and leat channels have been revealed.

After the 1888 fire, the 1904 OS map shows that the mill has gone.. though the water channels remain

It had been difficult to keep the mill fed with water along the leat from the Culm. The maps show sluice gates and a weir which impeded the water flow and raised the water level so that it could be sent down towards the mill. The river wanted to move west and its course today is different from 1888. There were mills all along the river and regular disputes between neighbours…when leat and sluice work of one miller impeded the water flow to the next mill.

High rainfall would provide too much water so systems were needed to divert the overflow. In dry weather, every drop of water was needed.

The weir and boat house at the 18th century Cubbyclose Cottages. The weir raised the river water to send it down the mill leat towards Columbjohn Mill.

Beside the weir there is a cottage called ‘Cubbyclose’ and there was once a boat house there. Antony wondered whether the Aclands brought guests here to enjoy fishing and wildfowling.

Across the flood plain are linear divisions, clear on the LiDAR, earthworks across the old, grassed over meanders of the river. He talked of water meadows created for a flow of water across the pasture to raise temperature for an early growth of meadow grass to fatten livestock in the spring. A valuable Tudor farming innovation though Killerton’s water meadows are undated.

Antony talked of fish ponds and osier beds for coppicing willow for withies. From these baskets and fish traps could be woven.

Beneath all this historical stuff lies the potential of water-logged preserved wood from hidden lost mills and jetties and trackways across the marshes…who knows…. but the people of Dolbury hillfort and their predecessors would surely have used the watery resources of the Culm.

We’ll see what we find.

East of Salisbury, Figsbury Ring

Today the drive is towards the east border of the National Trust’s South West Region. Out on the edge of Wiltshire, the cathedral city is behind us now.

The car is climbing steadily, up out of the valley onto the chalk plateau. This motor makes it feel easy but thinking back to 84, the Hillman Hunter struggled…. and threatened to die on this long steep gradient. A stream of stronger fitter vehicles impatiently trailed out behind me threatening a risky overtake in frustration.

In a few minutes, we will cross the border into Hampshire but I need to keep my eyes open; I don’t want to miss the turning… otherwise we’ll end up in Andover… or perhaps the archaeologically famous Danebury Hillfort.

There it is, the National Trust Figsbury Ring finger post. It always catches me out. Indicate left,put the brakes on and do a screeching turn onto the bumpy gravel track which comes up suddenly. A complete change in pace, navigate the pot-holes and bumps slowly to reach the car park.

In the far corner is the path that leads to our destination, an isolated rectangle of National Trust property, acquired in 1930. It is wedged between open arable farmland and a Ministry of Defence research establishment.

The east entrance into Figsbury Ring, remains of the barbican are just beyond the gate and worn path in the foreground.

A couple of hundred yards brings us to a gate and a metal omega sign telling us that we have arrived. Directly in front of us is the rampart and its east entrance but we cross the remnants of another bank and ditch to get there, indicating that there was once a barbican type additional defence in front of this gateway.

It looks like a hillfort on the outside…but it seems different. Rather than climbing up through the defences to reach the summit, the walk through the entrance is level. The rampart that surrounds this circular 6 hectare space, blocks out all views except through the north and south entrances. Thirty paces inside, and concentric with the rampart…we encounter a deep wide ditch.

Looking across the inner ditch causeway towards the Figsbury east entrance

Very unusual. Where did the spoil from this ditch go? Perhaps to build the rampart…but there is a wide outer dich which should have provided the material for this.

How strange. We’ll walk across the enclosure, though the opposing ditch causeways and climb up onto the rampart.

Looking south=west from the rampart top towards Salisbury

Let’s sit on the grassy bank and enjoy the view back south-west to the city and spire of Salisbury Cathedral…far away and below us.

I open the backpack and pull out a 1928 copy of ‘Wessex from the Air’ and turn to page 84. There’s a vertical air photograph. This shows Figsbury to be oval rather than circular and that the interior had recently been cultivated. Military buildings had already been built against Figsbury’s northern boundary.

Air photograph published in Wessex From The Air (Crawford and Keiller 1928). North is bottom right where the military buildings have been constructed. East entrance through the rampart and ditch bottom of the photograph.

The text notes that a Late Bronze Age sword or ‘rapier’ was ploughed up here in 1704 and that the renowned Wiltshire archaeologists Captain and Maud Cunnington had recently (1924) completed an excavation which cut trenches across both of Figsbury’s ditches and recovered about 100 pieces of pottery.

So, are we sitting on a hillfort, built as a secure place to defend the interior from attack, or on a sacred boundary enclosing a holy place?

The Cunningtons found red All Cannings Cross pottery and showed that the outer ditch was ‘V’ shaped. That is evidence to support the idea that this was an Early Iron Age hillfort dating to about 500 BC. Perhaps there was a smaller enclosure that predated it….. say, 1000-750 BC to account for the find of the bronze rapier here.

In contrast….which rather blows the hillfort idea…..the excavations across the inner ditch revealed that it was ‘U’ shaped with a wide base. It was not continuous but dug in various lengths and widths with causeways across….very Neolithic.

This type of ditch construction is more the sort of thing found in enclosures of 3600-2400 BC. Perhaps it’s an Early Neolithic ’causewayed enclosure’ but it seems much more likely to be a Late Neolithic ‘henge’.

Henges have the ditches inside their bank …not usually 30m away from it though. The great henge at Avebury, for example, has the bank right beside the ditch.

In the 1980s, the Cunningtons’ pottery was looked at again and fragments of distinctive ‘Grooved Ware’ were found… so just the right sort of date (c.2,600-2400 BC) for a henge …huge amounts of Grooved Ware have been found at Durrington Walls henge near Stonehenge.

Grooved Ware pottery being excavated at Durrington Walls henge in 2007

It seems that people have been using this place for a very long time,,,, reworking Figsbury for their own needs. This pattern of deep time at hillfort sites happens again and again (e.g. like National Trust’s Badbury and Hambledon in Dorset, Cadbury Camp in Somerset and,Whitesheet in Wiltshire).

Geophysics hasn’t told us much more but the rabbits have scraped up the odd struck flint from time to time.

There are a lot of rabbits…which takes me back to 1984, the Hillman Hunter and the Wessex Archaeology survey of the Porton Down military research establishment… just across NT’s northern border.

Porton Down was acquired by the army in 1916. The secret experiments carried out here have kept this 2800 hectares of chalk downland from being extensively developed.

When I worked there, my security pass needed to be quickly available as uniformed guards regularly arrived to check out who the suspicious character was…. wandering across the facility taking photographs. The off white Hillman Hunter Estate didn’t give a good impression. It broke down in a remote part of Porton one day and I had to walk back to the Admin building for help. The staff had their own archaeological society so it turned out that they were sympathetic.

I encountered fabulous archaeological earthworks at Porton, including flint mines and groups of Bronze Age disc and bell barrows….but lots and lots of rabbits who used the barrows as warrens.

Backflling rabbit burrows with sterile chalk and fixing in place with hazel stake woven hurdles. Inner ditch Figsbury Ring.

They are still there.. and National Trust rangers Ben and Loretta have spent a lot of time and grant funding at Figsbury to repair and protect this nationally significant henge/hillfort against the Porton rabbit population.

Negotiations are taking place …and funding from our ‘Hillforts and Habitats Project’ has been allocated to ‘build a wall’ or at least a rabbit proof fence.