NZ 4: Christchurch / Shapwick

Here is another of the occasional NZ road trip blogs. Today is 2 years since we were in Nelson so this is for the cousins reading this there… though of course all the names have been changed ..and wonderful Nelson is still a couple of hundred miles away…

Time to move on. The Sat Nav led us through Dunedin past the Octagon and the ornate but quiet Victorian railway station.

Stopped for petrol, got chocolate for the journey and then drove up and down over low hills until the outskirts of town.

We followed Highway 1, and, after a while, the road joined the coast with big breakers rolling into the empty shoreline.

Our journey hugged the coast, crossing the flatlands of the Canterbury Plains. We pulled in after a while and took a small road to the beach to see the Moeraki Rocks.

Massive circular boulders washed out from the cliffs.

Flat farmland and sea, bridges over large rivers with picnic areas to watch the icy bright mountain waters surge towards the ocean.


A view from one of the picnic spots beside the rivers crossing the Canterbury Plains south of Christchurch.

Our motel was in Chinatown at a junction by a long, straight road heading for the centre of the city. Amy had left a note for us when we checked in.

Jan phoned and Amy picked us up in the morning and drove us out into an earthquake ruptured city-scape.

In 85 we had loved it. A nicely planned city, neatly English in character though built on a grid. Its stone cathedral dominating the central square. Its university and museum echoing the Oxford college from which it takes its name.


Part of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch

In 2009, we found the cathedral dwarfed, the square infilled and obscured by the developing commercial city buildings. By 2019, the church was a broken shell, the tower gone and the nave open. Surrounded by safety hoardings, birds perched on the rafters.


Christchurch Cathedral damaged by the 2011 earthquake. Only the footings of the tower survive (bottom left)

Janet’s cousin Amy had lived here all her life. A much loved home, a gentle level city on the coast. Not like the brash metropolis Auckland, spread out between a series of extinct? volcanoes. Calm and gentile, Christchurch  was surely safe; but on 22nd February 2011, the earthquake struck, killing 185 people and churning up the lives of the survivors.

Apart from roads made impassable and cracks in the house, Amy said that her family had got off lightly, but it didn’t stop there…the city was hit by another massive shake in June. It was like a war..the aftershocks continued for 6 years.


It upsets that basic confidence in the ground beneath your feet. People increasingly needed help to cope with the uncertainties of living in such a place.

Tension to a point…  where a sudden noise cause a reflex dash… to an open space… away from tall buildings.

By the end of 2019, things had settled down but the evidence of collapse and dereliction surrounded us as we walked across to the new library. A place alive with youth and activity and the very latest in interactive communication and interpretation.

Christchurch is a vibrant re-emerging place but it will take money and time to decide what to keep and what and how to rebuild.

When we visited, it was only a little like the pictures I had seen of London after the blitz. Many of the more monumental stone structures were not to be refurbished. NZ has strict earthquake-friendly building regs,. structures need to be able to flex and withstand shifting ground…generally  low rise …built out of light materials.


One of the Christchurch trams near the Museum

Amy drove us to the beach at Sumner for lunch.

A gentle lapping of waters against the sand, no evidence of ground disturbance here.

As a hospital manager, she described the horrific day of the mosque shootings in March. The intensity and grief of the long day and finding in the dark that the car she parked in the morning now lay out of bounds in a high security zone.

How could a place like Christchurch be damaged again by such a cruel act of violence ….but why anywhere?

Afterwards, we drove to the Sign of the Takehe, high above the city, where Amy’s NZ  mum married her Brummy dad, Janet’s uncle. He’d decided to settle in Christchurch, far from Aston.

We looked down on the shifting settlement. ‘


View of Christchurch from the Sign of the Takehe

‘We have found that the houses on the old alluvial flood plain don’t work. Each time there is a tremor they are shaken apart. Property prices have collapsed there. People only want houses where there are good foundations’

Below us, Amy points out the areas which are ruined and overgrown.. compared with the new builds on the other side of town.

I think of other places where settlements have flourished, shifted and declined.

Like looking down on the wheat stubble fields north of Shapwick on the Kingston Lacy Estate in Dorset.

After harvest, we have found them by air photography and geophysical survey. Under each field, street after street of the once large Roman town, now shrunk to a village beside the River Stour.

Though the High Street still follows the old Roman road to Dorchester, the bridge has long gone. The quiet church now stands on its own beside the river still aligned with the abandoned Roman highway.

Kingston Lacy RAF CPEUK1934 1106 FP Jan 1947

RAF photograph showing the village of Shapwick in Dorset in 1947. The main Roman road from Badbury Rings to Dorchester once ran bottom left to top right in the photograph. The bridge would have crossed the River Stour which meanders across the road alignment top right of the photograph. The abandoned Roman town lies under the fields bottom left.

Diminished by a different sort of earthquake.

The political and economic disruption of the 5th-7th centuries rather than a series of sudden ground upheavals…but down through the years, the village community of Shapwick has survived and still stands.

The Middlebere Searchlight

I said goodbye to Louise and drove back across the heathland towards Corfe Castle. A hot day in Purbeck and three white horses blocked the narrow road where a clump of trees had given them shade.

We put the brakes on, got out and walked towards them.

A few of us had met to walk the archaeology of an apparently empty piece of landscape, jutting out as a low peninsula into Poole Harbour.

The Middlebere peninsula (top centre) where it juts into Poole Harbour (Middlebere Quay is near the centre of its upper shoreline). Above Middlebere across the water inlet is Arne and bottom right across the Corfe River is the Fitzworth peninsula.

We walked the line of an early tramway towards an overgrown jetty where, in the 18th-19th centuries, thousands of tons of fine ball clay, dug from the heath, had been loaded onto barges to feed Josiah Wedgewood’s pottery industry.

Remains of one of the timber jetties for Middlebere Quay. .Ruins of one of the stone buildings bottom right.

We stopped by some molehills where Pam had found some medieval pottery, perhaps part of the salt production business that used to supply Corfe Castle. Certainly salt pits are shown here on Ralph Treswell’s map of 1586.

My interest that day was rather different though.

Louise had been looking into the documentation for Middlebere within the Bankes Archive held at the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester. The Bankes family had owned the whole of the Corfe Castle Estate from the early 17th century until 1982 when it was bequeathed to the National Trust.

She had found some WWII correspondence from Frederick Otto Rhodes. Mr Rhodes had been Mr Bankes’s steward and land agent for several decades in the 20th century. At a time when tending a great estate was a lifetime’s vocation, carefully guarding the property of his employer.

From 1940-45, the war department took over large areas of the Middlebere and Studland peninsulas and Mr Rhodes had discovered that damage was being done to Mr Bankes’s White House cottages at South Middlebere.

Louise had emailed transcripts of his letters which described the stripping out of the buildings, robbed for materials to help build a searchlight battery and gun emplacement. The letters describe the military facility and the White House and the costs the war department must pay to compensate Mr Bankes.

These were new archaeological sites. They were not on the National Trust’s historic buildings sites and monuments record.

Before my visit to Purbeck, I looked at the old Ordnance Survey maps and Mr Rhodes’s letters to fix the sites on the database map.

The White House was easy to find. It had been the farmhouse for an area of heath converted to arable during agricultural improvements in the mid 19th century. Unfortunately none of my maps covered the 1940s so I could not see the site of the searchlight battery.

Mr Rhodes had made a list of actions required to restore Middlebere to its pre-war condition and the costs the government were to pay in compensation for each item on the list. This included removing the searchlight battery and associated buildings and trackways.

Not much was likely to be visible now.

Perhaps the latest air photograph on the database would give me a clue to locate the demolished military facility.

In pasture land, just north of the site of the White House, I zoomed in and saw a parch mark rectangle with two rectangular blobs within it…..’How easy was that !’ was my initial thought….but then I looked closer.

A small part of the extensive Iron Age and Romano-British settlement north of South MIddlebere revealed by air photography. The darker lines are boundary and enclosure ditches and the blobs mark building sites. The more you look the more you seen ..with lines overlapping and being cut across by later and earlier phases of settlement.

No, this looked much older than a searchlight battery. It reminded me of buildings within enclosures detected through geophysical survey on the Roman settlement at Kingston Lacy.

I zoomed out and suddenly there were lines and circles and linear boundaries everywhere.

The photographic cover of the area was taken in a dry and revealing year and suddenly this apparently empty and uninhabited landscape reeled with the evidence of an intense past palimpsest of human activity. The property boundaries, enclosures, house and outhouse foundations, stretched out for many hectares across the land either side of Corfe River..all along towards its outflow into Poole Harbour.

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This settlement now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, kilns, workshops, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still! (William Wordsworth ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ apart from the italics)

Middlebere it seems would have been a power house c. 400BC to AD400, one of the Purbeck industrial settlements… Arne, Fitzworth, Cleavel, Goathorn and Studland, the peninsulas jutting into Poole Harbour. Here boats would have arrived and taken salt, pottery, shale products, Purbeck stone and agricultural goods out to the wider world.

The Wessex Archaeology excavation of the Middlebere settlement discovered in September 1989 published in ‘Redeemed from the Heath’, Cox and Hearne 1991

This took me back to 1989 when Wessex Archaeology got a glimpse of this site when an oil pipeline crossed a northern section of Middlebere. They found Neolithic and Bronze Age evidence but particularly Iron Age ditches and gullies. I remembered too those excavations at Cleavel Point where we uncovered so much Roman activity particularly Black Burnished ware kilns and cubes of different types of Purbeck stone prepared for the mosaic makers.

Back to our visit this year.. and the White House cottages were completely gone. Now an overgrown scrub woodland. A patch of bamboo marked the site of the outdoor privy. They were grown as a screen apparently.

Oliver found some chunks of brick and concrete amongst the heather, a little to the south west of the White House site. So I’ll mark the searchlight site there on the map…but I wanted to see the ancient Middlebere settlement.. so clear on the air photographs. I left them in WWII and walked about a 100 yards north of the wood and gazed out across a level sweep of grassland. Nothing to see at all.

Time for home…but what of the horses. Two agreed reluctantly to shuffle from their shade but the third gave us a stubborn hard stare. We spent some time leaning against him and coaxing… assured him he could have his cool tree back once we had driven past…eventually he sighed and shifted. To give him his due, he gave us time to run back to the cars and get past.

We were able to leave the quiet heathland behind, turn right below the castle ruin and enter the 21st century, rejoining the holiday traffic flowing back towards Wareham.

Developments at Long Bredy

The preliminary results are back from the aDNA and C14 dating of the three teenagers buried almost 3000 years ago in a field at Long Bredy in West Dorset.

In 2013 a service trench unexpectedly disturbed them almost a metre down below the colluvial soil, just upslope from the River Bride.

We went back in July 2019, camped in the field and tried to work out something from the jumble of of bones disturbed by the digger…We found the burial pit.

One body was very disturbed by the trench the other two had been contorted in strange positions when first buried. There were three skulls but there were traces of adult bones too.

The whole burial group had been crushed by large stones placed over the skeletons. Were these youngsters related?

Ian from York University has sent back the initial results from the 3 petrous bone samples… from the 3 skulls.

One was a boy and two were girls ..and …there was no DNA evidence that they were related.

We await dental isotope analysis which will give information on where they were raised (were they local?) and the aDNA information showing their links to a wider British and European ancestry.

The Early Iron Age burial pit after excavation looking east looking east along the line of the pipeline trench which first disturbed them in 2013. The teenage boy to the right and the two teenage girls to the left mixed with other fragments of bone including part of a hip from a fully developed adult. The arrows point to where the bone samples were taken before the skeletons were reburied.

But the more we find out… the more curious this very unusual and rare burial group seems to be.

So far, there have been no known burials… of this type …and from this period.. found in Dorset.

The contents of this burial pit seem strange. Why are they all so young? We know so little about the belief system that created it….a different cultural world…

A Fortnight in the Country

Posted on  by martinpapworth

I will arise now and go, and go down into the secluded west. And a small cabin place there, of tools and finds boxes filled: A camping stove will I have there, a tent for sleep. And live alone…but only in the evening when the diggers go home.

The water fills the bucket slowly. There is time to re-visit the trench, around the hedge corner and down the grassy slope. We found the burials today. The trench is deep and needs to be accessed by a ramp. Crossing the site, I enter the pipe trench that disturbed them. We have returned after some years for DNA and to try to understand why they are here.

Kneeling to see. A row of white molars barely fully formed. The bones small and light. A jumble.. pinned down by large stones. At least three people here but the area of stones we have uncovered today suggests that there may be several more.

Who were these children who lived over 2700 years ago in this beautiful place. I hear the trickle of the stream below me and look up to the green rounded hills. This was their home.. unless they were brought here. Did they work and play on this land? Why did they die so young?

The trench-talk was of the joys of prehistory. Ancestors who were greener, more environmental. A religion which valued mother earth …but we know so little. So many British prehistoric religions over thousands of years. Wedding bells merged with the conversation.

They would have been so pleased with my plastic bucket ….gradually filling so conveniently.

Who knows what the Late Bronze Age/ Early Iron Age belief structure was. Human remains from this period are incredibly rare but sometimes archaeologists find bits of body mixed up with other debris in huge middens. As I looked at these young bones… life at that time seemed hard, brutal and nasty. How to interpret?

The specialists will come, examine, analyse but next Friday we will leave them here. Put the stones back in place. This was their home where there were people who cared for them and left them to rest.

The bucket is overflowing. I carry it across the field to the cabin.Make tea. Watch the long evening sun highlight the earthworks of the village’s stepped medieval field system.

I will take the short footpath to the parish church beside the field nestled against the hill slope. Enjoy the quiet prayers of the generations.

A full moon is coming and.. through a clear sky, this lovely landscape will be washed silver.

And I will have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, And evening full of the linnet’s wings. WB Yeats The Lake Isle of Innisfree

A place to stay

Deeper Time in Ebbor Gorge

This week I took another trip to see the work of Royal Holloway College in Ebbor Gorge led by Danielle.

I last wrote about this in 2013.

I visit most years…. but the last time I came to this lost world was in 2018.

In 2019 we were excavating the Late Bronze Age burials at Long Bredy while the Ebbor cave excavation was on… and of course last year was Covid and nothing happened.

So I was looking forward to seeing the progress on site as I took my Gorge-edge walk to the cave mouth.

The mouth of the cave with the lower entrance now revealed. Originally only the collapsed roof entrance, partly visible at the top of the picture, was known.

The cave looks like a mini-amphitheatre now. It reminded me of a huge megalithic long barrow entrance. There is a sense that this would be a great place to sit beside a camp fire and look out over the Somerset landscape.

In 2005 we pulled back the vegetation and crawled into a narrow crease. At that time, it was the only gap between the cave filling and cave roof. We had no idea how deep it would be.

Since then, the excavation has journeyed back many thousands of years, the roof is now 5 or 6 metres above us.

The roof of the excavated cave,

The first finds were 10-14,000 years old ….deposited in tundra conditions.. arctic fox and aurochs, thousands of tiny rodent bones, deposited over many 100s of years, by owls and other large hunting birds regurgitating food waste as pellets onto the cave floor.

Things have changed a lot since then.

The next episode of excavation had travelled through the last ice age.

You may know the 1960 film ‘The Time Machine’ an adaptation of the H.G.Wells story. Once the inventor (Rod Taylor) has realised that his amazing machine works, he throws caution to the wind and pushes the time leaver to its limit.

Suddenly, the dials spin ever more rapidly backward through thousands of years until the temperature grows cold and the machine becomes buried under rubble.

At Ebbor, the ice age cave filling turns from gravels and silts to large frost fractured rocks..the very cold period was from about 15,000 to 25,000 years ago and there were no animal bones in this deposit.

So cold… that perhaps the ice pressure fractured part of the roof and it fell into the cave.

Danielle’s team moved the fallen blocks of stone and emerged in a time before the 10,000 year cold snap. They found the bones of bears of various ages and sizes. How did they get into the cave?

The top edge of a lower cave entrance was found and near it the first struck flint flake. Somebody had come into the cave about 30,000 years ago.

At a lower level, more and more animal bones were found including the teeth of a wooly rhinoceros.

This year, Danielle said, the finds showed that they had penetrated deep into the Middle Devensian of the Late Pleistocene. She showed me a jaw of a mature adult Hyaena, the teeth worn and perfectly preserved in the limestone geology of the cave.

The jaw of a mature hyaena from the cave in Ebbor Gorge that lived there 40-45,000 years ago.

At this level, the climate was warmer and the cave was being used as a hyaena den. They were dragging in fragments of red deer, reindeer and pony to eat. She showed me their teeth marks on an antler fragment.

The dig has reached back about 45,000 years now. Radiocarbon dates will confirm this in the next few months but the presence of British hyaena is a timeline giveaway.

It was almost the last day of the 2021 season.

In the trench outside the cave, the gravel was giving way to a siltier deposit. Who knows how deep the cave will be and for how many more seasons the dig will continue.

Perhaps a Neanderthal occupation site lies just a few centimetres deeper.

It is one of the best preserved and most carefully excavated cave deposits in the country. It demonstrates clearly climate change through time. It is evidence that our rapid recent weather change is phenomenal by comparison with the gradual climate changes of this deep time story…..revealed in the rare stratigraphy of these Ebbor cave deposits.


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…. 🙂