On Top of Turnworth Down

The visit to Turnworth Down was an afterthought.

It was Hod Hill the meeting was really about.

We were to meet Keith there, the Historic England Inspector. It was to review the management of the hillfort

It was positive, the conservation grazing and scrub removal now enabled the details of the earthworks to be seen. The result of a lot of hard work. After discussion, the ranger and farmer agreed the next set of actions and we descended the steep hill….back to the little car park on the road to Child Okeford.

Hod’s ranger, Michael, wanted us to look at Turnworth. I hadn’t been there for years but Simon our nature conservation advisor offered to guide me through the back-roads. Keith would come along too…  together with Marie and some of the West Dorset rangers.

It was still very early spring, overcast but warm enough as we crossed the Stour, skirted the edge of the Blackmore Vale and started to rise onto the chalk again.

It had been a long morning, we parked up on a verge beside the property gate and Simon walked across and joined me in the car. The others had gone hunting for lunch in a shop somewhere.

We ate sandwiches and talked of our families and the National Trust.

Our usual combination of archaeology and nature conservation in a landscape…beside a long quiet road, lined with mature trees on the lower slope of a chalk escarpment.

Keith arrived and said that he had agreed my application and would make sure the scheduled monument consent for Cerne Abbas would be processed before the start of our excavation there on Monday.

A couple of landrovers swung onto the verge and Michael unlocked the gates. We began the ascent of Turnworth …or Ringmoor as it is sometimes called.

I’d not done my homework.

What was this landscape all about? We’d noticed the large trees along the Turnworth Road but it was clear that another avenue diverged from our lay-by and followed the path we were on. The trees were mature, gnarled and twisted and had been planted along the hollow of a wide, dry coombe. There were gaps… and a couple of large trees had recently fallen.

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The fallen tree once part of an avenue shown on the 1791 map.

So this place was more than common sheep pasture… at some time it had been included in a designed landscape… though why this avenue had been planted was hard to tell. It seemed to go nowhere.

We stood beside the fallen giant tree, its root plate now vertical.

‘How old is this’ I asked Simon.

‘Its been here well over 200 years’

We walked round to see the tangle of roots. Nothing clearly archaeological in the debris. Large nodules of flint in clayey brown earth.

‘I wonder why these trees were planted here?’

‘The site of Turnworth House lies over the ridge’ said Michael ‘huge place, burnt down in the 1940s, there’s just a bungalow there now’

We followed the trees for a while and looked across the pasture field. This National Trust property is an island of grassland in a sea of deep ploughing. Outside this reserve, the archaeological earthworks had been levelled by arable farming long ago.

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The Turnworth Estate map dated 1791 which shows the ‘Y’ shaped avenues of trees. We had lunch where the avenues join  and walked up the hill along the trees to the left. Far left, the pond can be seen and below a dark mark is the now ruined cottage. The circle, left of centre, is presumably the Iron Age farmstead enclosure.

Turnworth was Tornworde in 1086, a manor held by Alfred of Spain (I looked it up when I got home). Alfred’s a Saxon name.. how did he survive as a landholder in the new Norman regime… and why of Spain.. curious

This pasture field had not been ploughed in the last few hundred years and still had medieval strip lynchets carved into the steeper slopes. A place of community farming within its strip field system… until the lord of Turnworth decided to include it in his wider parkland…complete with tree-lined carriage drive.

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A break of slope, marking a medieval strip lynchet terraced into the slope.

I’ve just made that up. Definitely tree-lined but was it a carriage drive? Nice idea but no clear evidence. The 1791 enclosure map shows the trees clearly. Already well grown by then.

We turned away from the medieval, left the re-wilded avenue behind and climbed steeper up the ridge to see the main attraction.

This is the bit that even the medieval cultivators set aside. Sheep pasture long before the  Saxon open field system was established.

A high down-top with wide views out across the lowland of the Blackmore Vale, Hardy’s ‘Vale of Little Dairies’.

As we crested the slope, we found ourselves in an area of short grassland dotted with occasional trees and bushes. Emerging from this were distinct banks enclosing rectilinear plots of land. We entered an old trackway, defined by two parallel banks, that led us along a curving path into an oval enclosure with two level areas created…for round houses.

We had entered an Iron Age world. A rare survival. We were standing in a homestead  where a farming family once lived some 2000 years ago. It was surrounded by their small square fields linked by trackways. The sort of fragile ancient earthworks that have usually been ploughed flat, sacrificed to the demands of modern agriculture.

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Aerial photograph showing the prehistoric field system preserved on Turnworth Down. The oval Iron Age farmstead enclosure can be seen top left, With the trackway on its left side.

Who knows when this land was first cultivated but the farmstead on Turnworth Down probably continued to be used without much change throughout the Romano-British period. It has never been excavated so dating is hazy….but definitely old, very old.. and precious. A scheduled monument of course, as Keith reminded us.

This place had not been completely ignored by people in the intervening years. There were pits, deep pits. They are shown on the 1880s Ordnance Survey map as ‘disused gravel pits’…though mainly dug for extracting flints for 18th and 19th century road hardcore or for local buildings and walls.

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One of the deep disused 18th-19th century quarry pits.

Then we came across a short long mound on the hill top. This could be a ‘pillow mound’. Was this place used as rabbit warren at some time? These high out of the way places were often used to farm rabbits with pillow mounds built to house them.

In the highest corner of the property, Michael led us to a pond beside a ruined cottage. Perhaps this building was once a keeper or stockman’s house …remote beside its watering hole.

Fifty years or so ago it became too inconvenient a place to live.. or perhaps there was insufficient cash or inclination to repair it.

The silted pond and become a wildlife reserve. The natural and historic environments, mutually beneficial and blended in the landscape.

We discussed future management needs, made a plan and took a new route back down the hill.

The terraced boundaries of the prehistoric field system drifted under the mature woodland of the lower slopes. We were soon surrounded by moss and fern covered ancient trees. Craggy outstretched branches, open grown, demonstrating that they had once matured in managed open parkland.

In single file, we meandered deeper into the trees. A visit like many before, though it felt like a conclusion. Looking back, there seemed to be something…etherial, enigmatic…a line of figures disappearing into a fading light.

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One of Turnworth’s open grown parkland trees covered in fern and moss.

 I have tried to find out more about Turnworth. The names of the owners of parish and park. The church largely rebuilt in the 19th century, the mansion house gone in the fire and its historical records perhaps gone too. All those hidden past lives in this small pocket of Dorset.

I can list the owners back to the 18th century …but not much more…The documents show that the great house was once a wealthy, thriving place. In 1861 mum and dad, 12 children, a governess and 13 servants all lived there… all named in the census.

Though, at the top of Turnworth Down, the names of the windswept occupants of the ancient farmstead will remain a mystery, alongside the hopes and dreams of Domesday’s Alfred of Spain.

The 5th Century Chedworth Mosaic

It is evening. The sun casts long shadows and the man lingers a moment beside the shrine, watching the life-spring of his home trickle into the octagonal basin. He turns and walks the length of the corridor, up the stone steps, along the passage and finds his wife in the dining room.

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The octagonal basin within the Nymphaeum shrine at Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucestershire

‘Did you hear the news ?

‘Yes…we are governed by selfish incompetents. How on earth will we be able to manage here in the future?

‘I think we have enough for now…but it’s the children I worry about.’

By the end of the 4th century, Chedworth Roman Villa was at its best. A fine home for a wealthy family.

Whatever became of it? How did such a place become a ruin?

Archaeologists investigating the Romans generally depend on an abundance of finds for dating. Coins, pottery and all the other lovely things that the Empire enabled merchants to import from around the Roman world.

This world gradually fell apart. The tap was turned towards off in the 5th century. Some coins enter Britain in the early 400s and there was some pottery production. A few shipments of exotic wine made it as far as Gloucestershire.

There is a piece from a 6th century Palestinian amphora unearthed at Chedworth. Could there still be people living at Chedworth able to afford such things?

Whatever…. finds are few and generally the events of the 5th-7th centuries are tough for archaeologists to unravel.

A challenge then: particularly as the upper archaeological levels were stripped away and discarded in 1864, when the Villa was discovered, and then rapidly excavated down to its mosaics.

So…come and visit Room 27 with me in Chedworth’s North Range. It is 2017 and I am excavating the trench in the north-east corner.

I must warn you….I am going to talk stratigraphy at you… I have to I’m afraid, you won’t believe me otherwise. Archaeologists live and breath stratigraphy. How can things be proved without it?

So, I am kneeling in my trench: In front of me is the north wall of the room and immediately to my right, beyond the east wall, are a line of archaeologists in Room 28.

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Looking across the wall from Room 27 watching the Room 28 mosaic being uncovered.

They are working backwards from the north wall carefully uncovering and cleaning a mosaic. They are finding a row of circles containing three and four petalled flowers alternating with woven knots and linked by woven strands of guilloche in red, white and blue tesserae.

Their room is more exciting than mine. I only have a thin band of a plain crushed tile and mortar floor (opus signinum) surviving against the north wall. Below this is the floor’s mortar bedding and below this the floor’s mortared limestone hardcore which survives across my trench.

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Looking east within Room 27 the surviving piece of opus signinum floor is against the north wall on the left The hardcore it was built on is to the right of the ranging pole with its 0.2m long red and white divisions. I have taken out a section of it to reveal the dark soil against the east wall at the top of the picture. This east wall runs up to the north wall but is not bonded to it. A later insert.

I told you I’d talk stratigraphy. This is the important sequence of events, most recent at the top and the earliest at the bottom…. and what you extract from each of the distinctive layers is important to enable you to unpick the past…. century by century.

You know…. if you went on holiday and forgot to cancel the papers… they’d pile up below the letter box. The earliest would be at the bottom.

So.. the hardcore which supported the crushed clay tile and mortar floor. Well, it covered the foundation trench for the wall between Rooms 27 and 28.

We have come to the point in the sequence of events when the wall was constructed.

The builders dug the trench, placed the foundation stones for the wall in the trench and then shovelled soil and rubble..and anything lying about… back into the trench, packing it against the newly built wall.

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Looking down on my trench. The inserted east wall on the right and the north wall it was built against it at the top of the picture. At this stage, I have left the strip of opus signinum floor against the north wall on its thin bedding layer of mortar. This lay above a gravel and mortar hardcore layer about 5cm thick and this covered the dark loamy soil filling the foundation trench. In this soil I found a fragment of black pottery some charcoal twig fragments and two small fragements of animal bone. This foundation trench cut through the creamy yellow limestone fragments set in clay which was the natural bedrock. This can be seen on the left hand side of the trench. When I excavated a small section against the north wall, it could be seen that the foundation trench of the east wall also cut the foundation trench of the north wall.

The technical archaeological term for this is ‘the foundation trench filling’ and anything found in this helps date the construction of the wall. My boring opus signinum floor and my neighbours’ exciting mosaic floor must be later than the wall because my floor is built over the foundation trench filling. You cannot lay out a mosaic design to fit a room until the walls are built. That makes sense doesn’t it? Hold onto that thought.

In August 2017, I looked carefully for finds from the soil of this precious ‘filling’, a coin would be excellent in such a context…but no, all I got were fine strands of charcoal twig, two small fragments of animal bone (traces from a meal I suppose) and a single black piece of pottery.

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Pete’s trench in the south-east corner of Room 27. The walls need deeper foundations here because the natural valley slope, that Chedworth is terraced into, drops away to the south and to create a level floor surface material needs to be brought in. Notice the completely different designs of the wall footings. On the right hand side of the picture; the south wall, like the north, is of regular courses of nicely faced stone; whereas the east wall, on the left hand side, has a cap of roughly dressed stone on top of a heap of rubble with bits of tile in . It is clear that this is later than the south wall because it is built as a straight joint against it.

This east wall foundation had cut the foundation trench of the north wall and the stones of the east wall abutted the north wall…. What I’m saying is that the east wall was not part of the original construction of the North Range.

Pete had dug another trench at the other end of Room 27 in the south-east corner. The soil was much deeper there. The building had been constructed into a valley slope. It was cut into the bedrock on the north but the foundations needed to be much deeper to the south and to make a floor, lots of soil needed to be brought in to create a level surface. A wedge of soil above the sloping bedrock deepest against the south wall.

The style of construction of the south wall looked much the same as the north wall and the east wall butted up against it and was clearly a later construction. There were sherds of pottery and charcoal in the foundation trench of the south wall….

So the contemporary north and south walls were continuous through the space which became Rooms 27 & 28. When our new wall was inserted it became the east wall of 27.. which of course…was the west wall of 28.

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Drone photo (copyright Mike Calnan) of the east edge of Room 27 and mosaic room 28. The mosaic pattern is lost in the centre and in the bottom left quadrant of the room are the remains of two later hearths with traces of burning around them. Notice how the surviving mosaic runs up against the wall top left and how the whole mosaic pattern has been made to fit this room. Beyond wall on the far left, is my trench (top left) in the north-east corner of Room 27 (just above the rolled up white geotextile matting). This is where the radiocarbon dates were taken..from the foundation trench on the left side of the dividing wall. Pete’s south-east Room 27 trench is bottom left on this picture.

We soon found out that the mosaic in Room 28 had been worn away in the centre of the room. There had been a workshop here. Two fireplaces or hearths had been made out of reused bits of villa and built into the burnt eroded centre of the room.

At the end of the 2017 excavation, we thought we had the answer. In the 4th century, a new wall had been built in the North Range to create two new rooms. A plain floor was constructed in 27 and a new mosaic created for 28. By the 5th-6th century, Chedworth was falling apart. The economy had crashed and the once rich owners had abandoned Its beautiful mosaic rooms…..it was not being looked after.

Instead, 28 had been turned into a workshop…..or so we thought.

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Looking again at the finds that Nancy and her team had recorded and catalogued from the 2017 excavation at a picnic table within the mansion house courtyard.

Join me now at a wooden picnic table in the summer sunshine of 2019. We are in the stable-yard of a National Trust mansion house where Nancy and her volunteers have finished processing the Chedworth finds.

The charcoal strands from the foundation trenches of 27’s south and east walls, along with the ash from 28’s late hearths will be sent for radiocarbon dating. The pottery from the south wall foundation trench looks good for the 2nd century. A flanged bowl with acute cross-hatch decoration is particularly appropriate. Jane the pottery specialist will check it out…I wonder what she will make of my black bit from the east wall trench filling.

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Pottery finds from the Room 27’s south wall foundation trench filling. The sherd bottom right is part of a ‘flanged’ bowl which comes from the kilns around Poole Harbour in Dorset. The flange is flat and angled from the rim of the bowl. the cross-hatch decoration inscribed on the side is acutely angled and decorates a broad area of the side of the bowl…. I tell you this because it is typical of 2nd century Black Burnished pottery produced in Dorset at that time. It backs up the radiocarbon date.

The radiocarbon dates come back first. The charcoal from the south wall matches the pottery …mid to late 2nd century. We have had similar dates from other parts of the early North Range.

Then I see the date from the charcoal found in the foundation trench of the inserted east wall…AD424-544 at 95.4% probability !! That’s not even tentatively into the 5th century…it might even be 6th. I contact the mosaic specialist.

‘Have you come across any British 5th century mosaics?’

‘No, the economy collapsed, coinage and pottery production disappeared. Would a mosaic business survive? Would a villa have the confidence and wealth to redesign the house and lay new floors? Anyway… what about the 5th – 6th century workshops in Room 28’

‘The radiocarbon dates say they’re 12th to 14th century. Medieval rather than Dark Age’

‘The dates must be wrong. The Room 28 mosaic is one of the later more poorly constructed mosaics. There are lots of mistakes in the design but I would need a lot more proof before I could believe that it was made in the 5th century.’

I ask around.There are hints.of late mosaic floors but radiocarbon dating within British Roman villas has not been common.

I need confirmation. Nancy gets the larger of the two pieces of animal bone found in the foundation trench and Mark, Chedworth’s manager, agrees the funding to send it for a second radiocarbon date. It could be just a stray piece knocking around the site from an earlier period…but it’s worth a try. The result will take several months to process.

Then the pottery report comes back from the specialist. The fragment of black pottery from the trench turns out to be Late Roman Shelly Ware. It dates from after AD 360…it could be much later but nobody knows when production stopped for this ceramic type…anyway it confirms that our inserted wall was at least a latest Roman construction.

We waited…and waited… and eventually our second radiocarbon date was ready….

Not as clear cut as the charcoal date but the bone date definitely supports it. In the 95.4% probability band the date is split AD 337- AD432 (87%) and AD491 – AD531 (8.4%).

The radiocarbon date is measured from when the animal died or the wood was cut and burnt. It then becomes debris to lie around and then fall into the building trench for a new wall…..against which the mosaic floor was later built.

We have at least a 5th century mosaic at Chedworth…could even be 6th century but that would be pushing things a bit. There are two other mosaics in the North Range with Room 28’s late style. The corridor mosaic (Room 33) is particularly quirky.

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The mosaic of the corridor of the North Range. A similar level of skill to the Room 28 mosaic. This is phase 3 of mosaic design at Chedworth…OK but full of errors and mosaic making past its 4th century best. This one could also be 5th century but there is no surviving evidence to date it.

Anyway, time to go back to the worried owners of Chedworth Roman Villa…. having their conversation in the dining room…one evening at the end of the 4th century.

‘Don’t worry. The kids will be alright. Cirencester (Corinium) and the rich villas surrounding Roman Britain’s second largest town will keep the Romanised flame flickering for a little while after the Empire’s soldiers sail away’ …

but……perhaps the great great grandchildren should watch out.

In a very rare historical survival from the early 6th century, the British monk Gildas writes of corrupt government and warns of trouble brewing …but according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the Saxons didn’t defeat the Romanised British kings of Bath, Gloucester and Cirencester until the Battle of Dyrham in AD 577.

Plenty of time for new 5th century floors to be made in West Country villas. Let’s find some more.

Upper Bugle Street

Last Day

Evening falls and the familiar figures meander homeward                                                  People who were strangers, now friends, will soon forget,                                                        Once the trains leave, spreading a team across a nation,                                                      Something newly precious will be gone,                                                                               Pleasant memories, will then become dreams,                                                                           And those glowing faces will fade with the passing of time.

This was long ago.

Our archaeology course required us to do 14 weeks of digging in our holidays. We needed to book what was available and hope for enough subsistence payment to enable us to break even.

Another time…when a sustainable career in archaeology seemed very unlikely..I did it anyway.

And so you find me in my father’s car in the back streets of Southampton. It is September 1977, the summer is all but gone, the nights are closing in.. and… by the end of the month I’ll be back for my final year at Weymouth.

Therefore, on a late dig placement….we are guided in our Cortina by the 70s equivalent of a sat nav, which amounts to a sketch drawing and a set of directions scrawled on the back of the letter of acceptance.

It was dark, and the guidance proved to be inadequate. After exploring for a long while, we eventually arrived in Upper Bugle Street. At first glance it was disappointing and also at second glance…it consisted of 3 buildings. At one end, a tired looking darkened house which later proved to be the archaeological office …and at the other end,  a slum with a light on ….and beside that … the Juniper Berry pub.

We tried the slum. Pat opened the door and confirmed that I had arrived at my destination. So my stuff was unloaded, the car turned for home and I was abandoned. Pat said she had come down from London for the dig and that the others had gone  down the Anchor, so we walked there together and found them there.

I recognised Patrick and Alphonse from Winchester (the dig at Easter). The strangers were Tracey, who was trying out some practical archaeology before studying it at Exeter, Heather from America, Imo from Devon, Anne from Cambridge (who knew latin) and Hilary from Liverpool who was studying at Reading.

A disparate group of people in their teens and twenties who had washed up on the shore of Upper Bugle Street. We would inhabit a condemned building for a fortnight…a place accidentally spared for us …from a street demolished…for a development…presently put on hold.

It took a little time to gel. We divided our sleeping into rooms, dossed on beaten up mattresses, made meals in tarnished saucepans on a dodgy stove and re-stuffed newspaper into window cracks when the wind blew.

We walked to the site together through the Southampton Streets. Alert and questioning. We searched and discovered each other. Leaving the walled medieval town through the Bargate, we aimed for Six Dials and the international Saxon port of Hamwic….which turned out to be a large open area covered in weeds and a wooden, flat pack tea hut …which we later erected in one corner.

Dave and Mort met us and put us to work.

They told us about the importance of the 8th century archaeology beneath our feet. Recently, rows of Victorian terraces had stood there.

Our job was to dig foundations, carry metal hoops and set them in place to create a series of parallel poly-tunnels.

The geology is Southampton is brickearth they said. It goes rock hard when it dries out; the tunnels would keep it moist enough to dig and protect it from getting waterlogged and sticky.

They were all wonderful. Tracey was lovely. Alphonse was from Germany. He was so funny and good to talk to. He’d appreciate everything you said…which is always encouraging. ‘Tell me another’ he’d say. ‘Once in a Blue Moon?’ …’Amazing… what does it mean…and another ‘talk the hind leg off a donkey’ he broke down into fits of laughter.

Sombrely, once the tea hut was complete, he placed the sign ‘Arbeit macht frie’ over the door. He said it was fitting.

We talked of economic models while we worked…laws of diminishing returns and marginal utility.

Mike was rarely seen, though I would meet him in Northampton. He was famous because he owned the hostel TV… but most evenings, after our struggle to create edible food from meagre resources, we would devise games. They were great but I don’t remember them.

It took a little time but we became a bubble of familiarity.

Each evening.. back out into the dark streets of Southampton… but never to the Juniper Berry… It was infamous. The girls warned of strange happenings there. The sounds beat out until early morning and we wondered…cries and strangely dressed figures.

We invaded a darkened playground and swung, slid and spun.

One Saturday Imogen, Heather and I took the ferry to the Isle of Wight and spent the day at Carisbrooke Castle and Newport Roman Villa.

I had to leave for Weymouth and said goodbye. Alphonse helped me carry my bags to the station.

I came back at Christmas but the site was closed. Upper Bugle Street had one inhabitant and it was freezing. They shifted me to Micheldever to work in the permafrost.

I came back in March but only Dave was there, the others.. I never met again. The poly-tunnels were finished.

To the sound of Blondie ‘Touched by Your Presence’ I walked through the early morning mist…. rising from the brickearth …through a plastic cocoon.

Kneeling, I began to trowel the surface as directed, a silver stater burst from the earth and later… at the end of the tunnel…a deep rubbish pit full of Saxon pottery and exotic glass…the things we prepared for but never had the chance to work on…

They all signed my book, and 43 years later it is open beside me.

‘Well, Martin, as the saying goes, everybody’s got to go their own way. It was fun while it lasted (as they say) so until our paths cross again on some dig or maybe I’ll meet you in that big dig in the sky. So, we will always remember our great voyage to the Isle of Wight (because it wasn’t too dear) Yours Heather’

Till we meet again

We are sorry dear friends that we will be a bit quiet for a while as we are furloughed to help our great charity weather the storm of Covid 19.

BUT we will be back with many more stories and the reveal of the age of the Giant at Cerne Abbas later in the year.

In the mean time please browse our older posts, we started in 2013 so lots to check out, the word cloud on the right will help you find stories that may interest you, just click on the subject and enjoy.

Till we meet again, keep well and stay safe

View of Brent Knoll from the west on the way back from Brean Down on the coast.

Cerne 12: Companion; Jury; End.

I turn the pages of my blue Cerne Abbas correspondence file….here it is!

Minutes of the National Trust meeting 3rd February 1994. In attendance David, Head of Archaeology; William the Giant’s warden; Ivan, Managing Agent and the local NT archaeologist.

From the lay-by the Giant looked faded. William had recently done some re-whitening …but next year ..with the National Trust’s centenary(1895-1995) , as part of the celebrations, the Giant would get a complete makeover with the help of volunteers.

It was agreed that the rebuilding of his nose the year before had been a success.

Now we needed to build on the experience of the research carried out on the Uffington White Horse.

Action: to organise a meeting between all the interested parties and together build a research project to enable us to get a date for the Giant.

After four years of consultation the research design was created and agreed.

It would include a detailed contour survey of Giant Hill, a review of the local landscape archaeology and documentary evidence…. but particularly excavations across the deeper stratigraphy, clearly visible from a build up of sediments at his feet. This would be the best place to get the samples to obtain an optically stimulated luminescence date (OSL)

…but the funding failed…. The the research design document stayed in the files….. It remained as evidence of what might have been.

22 years later and we approached another centenary. This time the Giant’s centenary. I asked again and Hannah the General Manager said ‘yes, let’s do it …. This is the Cerne Giant’s acquisition centenary year ! (by the way…coinciding with National Trust 125 year celebrations).

And at last we are here, perched on the steep slope of Giant Hill, on the very last afternoon of our week of excavations.

Ben is taking arty shots with the camera, close ups …of the Gamma Spectrometer…, interviews with Nancy, Peter and Carol who are closing down trench D…. the 6H pencil gliding over the permatrace. He tells us about some of the people and places he has filmed and then says he’s done…leaves us the brownies as a gift and waves farewell as he walks down the hill..

A gentle day, not too windy, not too cold, occasional blue sky and high cloud.

Nancy, our ornithologist, has been identifying birdsong when we ask her. Now she calls to us..she has seen a curled adder beside some bramble at the boundary fence. It reminds us of the lizards… watching from wall tops as we cleaned mosaics at Chedworth… the slow worms oozing from crevices…the Roman snails gliding across the grass.

Phil leaves next. He’s going back to Gloucester University with his samples and readings and hopes to have the results by July.

Katherine has got in touch. She reminded me of 1996-97 ..when she and Tim of Bournemouth University had brought a companion to meet the Giant ….and convened a hearing…. to examine the full range of evidence …and agree a date for his creation..

Yes, that was quite a thing. We also did a bit more geophysics on him ….but the results were poor.

Katherine provided for our lonely Giant ….just what he needed…a Giant sized woman carrying a cloak for him. She was marked out in white tape on the hillside… but the Giant seemed unfriendly… almost aloof “she is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” and remained staring forward ….out across the undulating Dorset landscape.

So she went away… after photographs of course.

The Companion kindly provided for the Giant by Bournemouth University in 1997

The Giant’s trial took place in the village hall where ‘archaeologists, historians, poets and earth people’ met and debated the evidence. The result? ..42 thought he was prehistoric, 29 thought he was either medieval or post-medieval, 12 that he could be both and there were 9 who spoiled their ballot papers…couldn’t make up there minds i suppose….. so there we are…and of course that was long ago.

This is the 21st century!

Mid-afternoon, and Mike and Julie call it a day. They have collected and documented the soil samples for molluscan analysis and micromorphology. They ask whether we can bring the chalk blocks from the upper and lower chunky chalk layers to identify which geological beds they were quarried from.

The four of us press on. Peter, Carol and Nancy have moved to the right foot trench B and I am plotting location plans for each of the four trenches. The feet are done…just the elbows now.

There are legends of course. That he was a Giant who terrorised the neighbourhood and having had his fill of killing and eating the local flocks of sheep. He lay down on the hillside to sleep and the villagers crept up and killed him…marking out the outline of his body….as a memorial.

And what of the mysterious letters or numbers recorded between his legs by John Hutchins in the 18th century. He was told they read IAO but believed they were numbers… 748 perhaps orginally 1748…one of the dates of rechalking? Anyway it is said that a labourer removed them in the 19th century and nothing now can be seen.

Perhaps our planned high resolution laser scan will pick up any subtle traces left behind.

Anyway, I’ve finished the drawing now…It’s gone 5.30 and Nancy chucks me a spade. I go to trench A, the left foot, and backfill in reverse order leaving the chalk until last of course. I mustn’t get too enthusiastic or the stones bounce out and roll down the slope. I want to leave him in good condition and emulate the fine backfilling and returfing already completed at the elbows.

The sun is low in the west by this time I get to the turf. We’ve done a lot of jumping on the fill and tamping with the heavy steel tampers. We’ve borrowed them from Michael the Area Ranger who has looked after the Giant since William’s time.

With excavations… there is always too much soil to fit back in the trench. It fluffs up during a dig …but it needs to all go back in, otherwise, when after a few decades it compresses again…your excavation will be clear to see as a dip in the ground.

A gloomy last picture of a backfilled trench B at the right foot of the Giant as the sun sets

One last picture of the backfilled trench to fulfill the scheduled monument consent condition

It’s getting dark now. Peter and Carol load up with tools and follow the terraced path down the slope towards the stile.

Nancy and I look around to see what’s left.. quite a lot, including a tamper. “Don’t forget the chalk blocks”. I use gravity and they roll and bounce down the hill and the big one breaks in half as it hits the Giant’s boundary fence.

They’re retrieved when we reach the stile and are rammed into the top of the bucket. I somehow balance the tamper over it as we stagger down the rickety wooden steps.

Through the gate, the coppice avenue is gloomy twilight. This is two trips, best leave the rest and take the tamper and drawing boards to the car.

I pass Nancy on the way back and…. at last… we are finished in a dark car park. Carol has to go to her family north of Bath …we thank her fondly and say goodbye.

Why are last days like this?

I have chucked my car keys in the boot with the tools. Peter brings his torch to locate them and they are found.

That’s it..we stand together as night settles. We did it ….but only just…the world is closing down around us.

“When shall we three meet again in thunder lightening and in rain. When the Hurley-burley’s done. When the battle’s lost and won”

We smile and I give them my thanks ….and blessing as we drive off to Gloucestershire, Weymouth and Wiltshire.

Passing through Godmanstone towards Dorchester, I think of William, David and Ivan… It took a quarter of a century but we did it in the end.

Cerne 11: The Science of Soil

Mike and his wife Julie have arrived early and have already begun the sampling. He will wait in the car park for Phil from Gloucester University,

We were afraid that he might have to cancel but it is fine.

He arrives and I say hello before carrying the drawing equipment up the hill.

Julie is in the right foot trench taking samples from the side I have just drawn. I have left the tape and line level across the north facing section and continue measuring the various layers of soil and chalk.

The auger slot in trench B after drawing the section.

I’m never quick enough and it takes me so long but it is a crucial job and it must be done right. In the end, the section drawings and the samples are the gold we will mine out of these little quarries into the Giant.

Phil and Mike tour the trenches and discuss what we have revealed, They are particularly pleased with the orange brown colluvial (hill-wash) accumulation cut by the bottom chunky chalk layer. These layers survive in the foot trenches A and particularly B and rest on the hollowed terrace cut into the chalk… which… according to the reading of the section…is the earliest human event at the Giant.

If Phil can date the colluvium we can date the Giant.

I finish with B and move on to Nancy’s trench A, the left foot. I like this one. The lower chunky chalk cutting hasn’t penetrated the chalk and the colluvium running under it. As indicated elsewhere, the natural hill slope has been artificially cut away and the colluvium sits in it.

Ben interviewing Mike on the severed head from Nancy/s trench A at the left foot…lovely section.

Julie calls me up to C… the elbow of the club wielding arm. Mike describes blocks of soil he has collected in sealed silver trays. These cross the layers I have numbered and described. I write down his reference numbers and measure the sample areas onto the section drawing.

This sample, he explains, is for molluscan analysis. Tiny snails living in the soil, their distinctive shells survive well in a chalk soil. They are very fussy about the environment they live in and their shells in sediments can tell us what the hillside was like during different periods.

Mike explains that one of the shells he has spotted was only introduced to Britain in the medieval period and if this is found in the lower colluvium it will extinguish our hopes of a Roman or prehistoric Giant.

His other samples are to study the soil micromorphology. The analysis of this, in the lab, will help us understand the process of sedimentology that caused the soil to build up within and around the Giant’s figurative trenches… during the different phases of his formation. How much is natural and how much is caused by human action.

There are several cylindrical holes too. Here, sections of black plastic pipe about 3cm in diameter have been knocked into the section and sealed. These are for the optically stimulated luminescence dating. Even if we don’t have the funds to date all of the samples they can be stored for future analysis.

Phil is now down in the right foot, Trench B. I go to visit him. There are several OSL holes but the widened section of the trench has been used to place an auger horizontally against the colluvium at the bottom of the trench and drill a deep core into it.

I find the hole filled with a cylindrical device about 6cm in diameter with a wire leading from it to a yellow data logger.

Phil taking the Gamma Spectroscopy reading in the right foot trench B

This is new to me. I ask him what it is and he says it is a Gamma Spectrometer. I try to look intelligent and to ask intelligent questions. Phil explains that it measures gamma rays emitting from a source. Most materials contain gamma rays but chalk is largely inert and produces very low quantities.It will take time to collect the data. This will be the reference point for the date we hope to obtain from the sediments.

OSL relies on calculating the time since the sediment was last exposed to sunlight…or was optically stimulated. I ask Phil how accurate it would be, whether it would be successful. He spoke to me in science and gave me a politicians reply. I would have to wait and see…there was a good chance…with a fair wind at our backs, a calm sea and a clear sky….and precision measuring back at the university.

The numbered samples marked onto the grubby section drawing. The OSL samples are the blue circles .

Ben turned up and introduced himself. He had been sent by head office to film us. The BBC and none of the other communications people could now come.He had half expected to be called off himself but he was pleased to meet us and the Giant. He had some questions to ask me..

We stood near the Giant’s left shoulder and i tried to say optically stimulated luminescence to camera and failed. Below me, Mike was augering the low grassy mound of the severed head. I went over and inspected his soil column. Definitely an archaeological feature, we would have to do some geophysics before deciding whether further excavation was justified.

I suggested that Ben interviewed Mike and Phil who would explain things better than me and of course Nancy, Peter and Carol who were putting back Trench C to a state as close to the way we had found it as possible….slidy boot marks would disappear in time.

Yes things were progressing nicely on this the last day. Just finish drawing the Trench A section and mark the trenches on the plan.

It’ll be fine.

None of this going home in the dark nonsense.

Cerne 10: The Luxury Portacabin

You join us at lunch time on the last day. We are spaced round the table of out diesel driven portacabin. Nancy’s birthday flowers decorate the centre.

Our diesel driven portacabin with evidence of a heater clearly showing in the interior… and it worked!

In a couple of hours we will lose it..so we are taking advantage of the facilities Did I mention the kettle. microwave and heater? The metal shutters are pulled back for a view of the fields.

There is a furious debate taking place. How is it that the toilet light comes on when the generator is off? One of those questions that will haunt us…

Like, who built the Cerne Abbas Giant and who does he represent?

He looks very good for the Roman god Hercules with a nobbly club raised above his head and an outstretched arm which could easily have once had a lion skin draped over it.

Rodney Castledon in 1989-89 and A.J, Clarke in 1979 both carried out geophysical surveys below the arm and found a shape that could be the silted up ditches which might be interpreted as a folded cloak or skin.

Then the Trendle… the square earthwork at the top of the hill above the Giant’s head (we need to geophys it).

That would be the right size and position for a temenos enclosure surrounding a square Romano-Celtic temple. We excavated one at Badbury Rings and this had a typical square sacred building or cella surrounded by a covered lean-to walkway or ambulatory. The position of the Trendle in the landscape reminds me of the temple at the National Trust’s Brean Down in Somerset.. placed high on the hill to command views across the landscape.

The Trendle is just visible as a rectangle above the Giant’s head on the crest of the down.

Nearby, are the earthworks of the Giant Hill Iron Age settlement…so a local population to tend and worship at the temple. They lay out an image of the cult figure on the steep slope below… for all to see.

It would be a typical situation…that a local celtic god would adopt the nearest appropriate classical god. There is the temple of Sulis (Celtic) Minerva (Roman) at Bath and here it may be Cernunnos/Hercules. Stone carvings of severed heads have been found in Dorset and a representation of Cernunnos would have him clutching a severed head…..apparently.

Up on the Giant…below the outstretched arm… there is an irregular head-sized mound and the geophysical survey revealed features …it was argued… that could be attributed to a head.

It is in just the right position for the Giant to hold below his hand.

Brian phoned me, he’s the historian who is kindly going over all the documentation he can find which might throw light on who made him and why.

‘Had I heard of the ‘Choice of Hercules’? ….No I hadn’t.

It’s the ancient story of Hercules at the crossroads. Does he choose pleasure or virtue?

The Choice of Hercules
The Choice of Hercules by Paulo Matteis 1662-1728. Note that he is depicted with a club and lion skin. Virtue is speaking to him. There are similar paintings by Annibale Caracci, Sabastiano Ricci and Nicholas Poussin (that one is in the Natonal Trust’s Stourhead collection}.

It was a favourite topic for artists of the 17th and 18th centuries. The problem with this idea is that our Giant at Cerne is on his own. He should have a woman on either side of him to help him decide. He may well have decided already.

Brian said that he could have found us the inspirational owner who commissioned the Giant. He was known as The Great Freke. The third son of John Freke of Cerne Abbey, Thomas Freke became a politician with an independent point of view. He eventually became Sheriff of Dorset and inherited a large estate. He was the owner in 1694 when the 3s repair of the Giant was entered in the churchwardens accounts.

We just need the document that proves it….so many aspects and possibilities surrounding the Giant

Time to say goodbye to our luxury portacabin and climb the hill to the Giant one last time.

Ben the cameraman consoles us.

He has walked along the river to the village and brought back chocolate brownies.

Are the shops still open? Apparently they are.

We are going to meet the scientists.

Cerne 9: From a Distance

The view from above.. must be strange. Who are these small people digging at the elbows and feet of the Giant?

The two circling ravens are unconcerned as they drift over me. The kestrel spots a movement in the grass and suddenly plunges, like a spear thrust.

We would be more interesting to the people stopping at the distant lay-by viewpoint …but understandably, there have been fewer cars there as the week has progressed.

showing the sites of the 4 excavations clockwise from bottom right trenches A B C and D (photo John Charman Cerne Historical Society)

I have been drawing the trench sections on a windy overcast day and thinking about the profile of the chalk bedrock.

Below all the rechalking layers there has clearly been a resculpting of the hillside at an early date.

I must admit that for some time I have been almost persuaded that he is 17th century … but my mind is not closed… especially after reading some of the references that Gordon from the Cerne Historical Society has lent me..particularly Tom Shippey’s booklet published in 2016.

The next Giant reference, after 1694, is by Rev Francis Wise, writing in 1742. However, the Giant is only mentioned briefly because his main topic is the Uffington chalk horse in Oxfordshire.

In 1753, Dr Richard Pococke gives a more detailed description:

‘it is called the Giant and Hele….It is supposed that this was an ancient figure of worship and one would imagine that the people would not permit the monks to destroy it. The lord of the manor gives some thing once in 7 or 8 years to have the lines clear’d and kept open’

So three useful things..that he is known as Hele…the monks of Cerne Abbey are mentioned….and there is a tradition of clearing the Giant’s lines but it does not sound like a large rechalking.

Cerne Abbey is supposed to have been founded by St Augustine who came to England in 599. A 12th century account describes his visit to the village. In 1237 William of Coventry also mentions the visit to Cerne saying that it was in Dorset where the god Helith was once worshipped.

This morphs again when Wiliam Camden visited Cerne at some time before 1586.Once again he mentions St Augustine’s visit but this time adds that he broke to pieces ‘Heil the idol of the heathen English-Saxon and chased away the paganish superstition’

Cerne Abbey was a Benedictine monastery founded in 987 and its first abbot was Aelfric who was known as a great writer.

Surviving records of the monastery and Aelfric’s writing contain no mention of the Augustine story or Heil or the Giant…and would such a wealthy and influential abbey have turned a blind eye to the figure on the hill and its regular maintenance.

But in the 16th century, Camden links Cerne to a 7th century story of Heil and Cerne’s pagan worship and in 1753 Pococke states that the Giant was known as Hele.

All very tenuous but something suggesting a greater distance in time than a baroque Hercules creation.

Looking at him…such an enigmatic creation. You could use that word unique for him. Iconic…why not?

Like a jewel held up to the light. So many facets to consider. Certainly a work of art. Someone designed him…not really a community project. A creation by an innovative individual who wasn’t that bothered about offending people.

At National Trust properties there are generations of quite standard owners..they kept their places ticking over,,,,followed the fashions…. and then someone remarkable would be generated. William John Bankes at Kingston Lacy, John Ivory Talbot at Lacock or William Benson perhaps at Brownsea. People who broke the mould. The landowner who created the Giant would be someone like that I guess.

I have finished drawing Pete’s trench C and slide down the hill to draw Carol’s right foot trench B.

Keith the Historic England Inspector is there and Mike is discussing the need to cut a slot in this trench so that a auger could be screwed into the section to take the most crucial soil sample. After Mike’s explanation, Keith gives consent for this added intrusion into the scheduled monument.

However, we cannot dig a small trench in the ‘severed head’ but we can auger a soil column through it tomorrow. Keith thinks that further geophysical survey would be worthwhile to compliment the earlier work by Rodney Castledon and we agree.

We finish late. I draw the section and the auger cut is excavated.

I tickle the section with my trowel and the full length of the wooden stake is revealed. Mine had survived from the upper chunky chalk, Pete’s also but Carol’s stake runs right up to the top of the kibbled chalk so these pieces of wood become less exciting… dating from the 1956 rechalking at the earliest.

The timber stake in the right foot trench B driven in from the top of the kibbled chalk layer.

Last day tomorrow.

Cerne 8: Drawing the Sections

It’s Thursday, day 4, and I need to draw the sections before the soil samples are taken on Friday.

We have spent three days excavating the 4 trenches into the Cerne Abbas Giant and today Mike will return and assess what we have found and choose the places for samples.

Phil the Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) specialist would arrive on Friday and everything needed to be ready by then.

Outside, the air is damp. A light misty rain. I go in the garage and pick out a long thin metal fencing stake and look for a wide umbrella and find an old shower curtain…well it might work.

I’ve got used to the journey down now. Turning off the A303 at Compton Pauncefoot. What a great name! …and then the wiggle down through back roads guided round Sherborne via sat. nav. past the ruined castle and then down the A352.

I like the geology of the vernacular buildings, quite different in this part of Dorset, and then beyond Holnest…a lonely church in a field. Where did its village go? Some plague or something I suppose.

I turn off radio 4 and head up to the Giant with Mike. We look at the trenches. We agree that the depth of the deposits is completely unexpected. He is the soils man and will tell a story from their complexities, similarities and differences.

I let Mike know that Keith from Historic England will come out today. We have asked permission for a small amount of additional digging to possibly examine ‘the severed head’ and to fit the soil sample auger into a trench.

Pete, Carol and Nancy have some additional excavation to do to finish off their trenches so I start to draw D across the upper line of his outstretched arm.

I have brought up an A2 drawing board, the steel fencing stake and a bucket of tapes and tools.

These include a hammer, which I use to bang in the stake …downslope of the trench. The ground very slidey down there on the the wet.steep slope.

I bludgeon a 6 inch nail into the chalk slope in the trench and tie a string to it. I wind it out to the stake and rummage in my pencil case for the line level which I hang off the string until the bubble is dead centre and the string is level.

I will choose 1:10 as my drawing scale and sharpen a 6H pencil. I fix a tape measure beside the string for the horizontal readings and carry a hand tape for the verticals.

I am ready ….and a fine mist of rain falls. The shower curtain is hopeless…it drips more on the plastic drawing film than keep moisture off it. I stuff it back in the bucket. The film is ‘dimensionally stable’ …tracing paper would rip and warp in heat and moisture…but the film does not perform well on a day such as this ….and this is the only day to draw so it can’t be helped.

As a right-hander, I will do everything top left to bottom right so that my muddy wet hand will not wipe out everything as I draw it. If I make a mistake the rubber will create a blurred pencilly smudge. My hands are already cold.

I begin to draw…that bottom chunky chalk layer…how old is that?

Was it this layer that marked out the figure that the 18th century antiquarians got excited about.

After all those previous centuries of nobody bothering to mention the Giant (perhaps because he wasn’t there), suddenly, in the 1750s-70s, it was brought to the attention of the Society of Antiquaries in London and there was a flurry of activity and we get our first drawings of him.

Rev John Hutchins came to the village and interviewed people in their 80s and 90s who as boys had spoken to elderly villagers who confirmed that the Giant had been on Trendle Hill ‘beyond the memory of man’. He then spoke to the steward of the estate who said it had been created by Lord Holles’s servants which, if true, would date it to the mid 17th century.

Rev Hutchins published an edited version of a measure illustration of the Giant in his great work on the History of Dorset… but the complete drawing was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1764.

File:Cerne-abbas-giant-1764.jpg - Wikipedia
The giant as measured and drawn and published in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1764. There is a rougher drawing of 1763 but this is the best early representation of him. Note that his his navel is clear in this drawing.

By the afternoon the sky had dried and I was able to complete D and move on to Pete’s trench C.

The drawing looked very muddy but what the section profiles were showing was a chalk figure which had shifted downslope over time… and underneath the cutting for the bottom chunky chalk layer was something else… a clear terrace cut into the natural chalk slope.

Was there something much older here after all ?

Cerne 7: Naming of Parts

This is about the Cerne Abbas Giant… and if you have stuck with these blogs or indeed have just bumped into them…

you join us late on day 3.

The scene is a windy gloomy hillside in central Dorset

The diggers assemble from the four trenches.

They gravitate towards Trench B.where Carol is investigating the sole of the Giant’s right foot….Nancy rises up from the left foot (Trench A) and Pete and I pull ourselves out of our excavations and slide down the hill from the elbows. C is carved into the club wielding right arm and I am at D, the outstretched arm.

How do our trenches compare? We sip tepid coffee from cooling thermos flasks. The sun is sinking.

Yes, we each have the three compacted chalk layers 2019, 2008 and 1995 pummelled by steel tampers once wielded by National Trust rangers, volunteers and wardens. They crush the top of a 0.3m deep cutting, filled with ‘kibbled’ fragments, placed there perhaps in two phases 1979 and 1956 courtesy of E.W Beard, contractors of Swindon. They first proved their worth as the re-chalkers of the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire (another National Trust property). The Ministry of Works recommended them.

Further down, below a rammed layer lies the chunky chalk. I have it 0.2m deep but the others have lost much of theirs. Cut away by the kibbled events. Below this is the thin crust which caves into the soft silty chalk… we all have this up to 0.1m deep.

Carol says this scrapes away onto the more solid pasty chalk. I mention the bluey brown film on the top of this and we all nod sagely.

The pasty chalk beneath the silty chalk which lies below the upper chunky chalk

Peter interjects “but what of the lower chunky chalk”.

We are amazed… beneath the ‘pasty’ layer there lies a greater and deeper chunky chalk with lumps just as large as in the upper deposit…but this time… mixed with flint nodules. When this is dug out…. it is up to 0.3m deep and probing through this we hit proper geological chalk.

The full section of the chalk line down to the lower chunky chalk cut into the geological chalk

“How will you know when you find ‘the natural chalk?” asked Beth,’ the cake-maker’, on Nancy’s birthday.

Nancy and I gave each other a knowing look. “it rings” we say “scrape it with a trowel…. and it rings”

They call it easing the Spring. It is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb; like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.
(Henry Reed)