East of Salisbury, Figsbury Ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking across the inner ditch causeway towards the Figsbury east entrance

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

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

Looking south=west from the rampart top towards Salisbury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grooved Ware pottery being excavated at Durrington Walls henge in 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 thoughts on “East of Salisbury, Figsbury Ring

  1. Fascinating place, on my list to go to when the world is normal. Curious about the military buildings on the aerial photo; the foundations are still there on google earth; presume part of the Porton South Camp post WW1. Any idea?

  2. Very interesting, Martin. Coincidentally, I’ve been writing about Figsbury this very weekend – I agree about the possibility of early Neolithic and later Neolithic activity. And given the sword, perhaps there was activity here for millennia. Porton Down is also an astonishing place.
    Happy New Year!

  3. Lovely stuff as ever Martin. I always wonder with these sacred sites and their internal ditches, did the builders think they were keeping something in, and if so, what?

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