In January, John phoned to ask if I’d like to see some photos. In the late summer he’d asked a company to send up a remote controlled drone over his Dorset farm and this had revealed a wonderful array of buried archaeological sites hidden beneath the plough-spoil.
It’s often been said that the historic landscape of England is like a palimpsest. People do stuff.. the next generation wipes the slate ..does something new.. but the evidence of past lives can still be read. Buildings may be demolished but the foundations remain. Embankments may be levelled but the backfilled enclosure ditches can still be seen.. particularly in dry weather or after ploughing.
As I sat in John’s office at Bishop’s Court Farm near Shapwick parish church, the drone photos showed all sorts of things.. remains of distant times 2000-5000 years old.
A triple ditched boundary ignored the lines of the 18th century hedges and continued for hundreds of metres across the fields. A smudged rectangular chalky area was probably a lost prehistoric farm enclosure with a dark line around it.. an outer boundary ditch.
There were also dark rings 10-20m in diameter, the remains of Bronze Age burial mounds.
Bishop’s Court Farm Shapwick was a medieval manor in its own right. Once known as Shapwick Champayne but later named Bishop’s because it once belonged to William Wake an Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry Bankes bought it for Kingston Lacy in 1773. It lies on the edge of the Estate, on the west side of Shapwick village (once the Roman small town, probably known as Vindocladia).
Like the rest of the Estate, the farm is heaving with archaeology and this spring there has been a chance to see excavated features and try to obtain some dating evidence. Twice in the past there have been linear developments across Kingston Lacy watched by archaeologists.
In 1988, BP dug an oil pipeline from Purbeck to Southampton and this crossed the Stour at Barford, followed the outer edge of Kingston Lacy Park, crossed the road at Lodge Farm through Chilbridge Farm, leaving the Estate at the Allen. In 1989, the second Beech Avenue was planted along the Blandford to Wimborne Road. The finds included Neolithic and Bronze Age pits, an Iron Age settlement and a section across the Hamworthy Roman Road.
Now Wessex Water is digging a new pipe trench and Peter and Dan’s team are excavating sites along its course.
On Monday, I met Dan on the way back to Wiltshire after a meeting in the Estate Office. Andrew from Wessex Water had done his best to avoid significant archaeological sites but some were bound to be affected.
Hundreds of years of ploughing had removed all surface traces but the dark marks of archaeological features were clear in the chalk. Dan showed me an excavated round barrow quarry ditch but no central burial chamber remained. The grave had probably been in the body of the mound and this had long gone.
Then he showed me a ditch that cut straight across the pipeline route. I had not seen anything like this at Kingston Lacy before. On the south side was a line of large post-holes spaced at half metre intervals. Aerial photos show that it continues for a long way.. so much effort… what was it for? Dan hadn’t found anything to date it but it’s the sort of thing they built in the Bronze Age. Further on there were some other boundary ditches and at the end, towards the parish boundary, a bath-shaped thing 4m long and cut over a metre deep into the chalk.
Down by the river, where the pipe will pass near to the farmhouse, there may be remains of the Roman town. Evaluation work last year, discovered a structure made of lumps of flint with ironworking slag in it. We found 2nd century kilns like that at Shapwick back in 95.
We’ll wait and see.