Pilsdon Pen: Temple Warren

This week there will be a press release to celebrate the success of the National Trust’s Hillforts and Habitats Project.

So to add to the festivities…here is a story from one of these high places of Dorset and Wiltshire: Pilsdon Pen, which occupies the northern rim of West Dorset’s Marshwood Vale. From here there are wide views out to the coast across the Golden Cap Estate.

It has been said that Pilsdon, at 277m, is the highest place in the whole of Dorset. Not true, another National Trust hillfort, Lewesdon Hill, 3km along the escarpment to the east, is 2m higher.

Pilsdon is larger and more open though, Lewesdon is ringed with mature beech and oak trees, rather gothic but with glimpses out to enable appreciation of the landscape.

A grown out beech tree hedge at Lewesdon Hill

It’s a steep climb up to Pilsdon from the lay-by on the Broadwindsor road.. but once inside the ramparts, the hilltop is level.

My first trip there was in the late 70s with Weymouth College. At that time there were grass-covered heaps of soil.

I went again with my boss David in the late 80s when it had been acquired by the National Trust. By that time the old spoil heaps had gone and he told me a story.

The profile of Pilsdon from the road beside Lewesdon

He also handed me a battered box file full of documents, reports and letters.

Pilsdon once belonged to the Pinney family. Since the 17th century, generations of them had lived at the nearby Bettiscombe Manor.

Bettiscombe is famous for its screaming skull (as it’s Halloween I thought I’d mention it…look it up).

In the early 1960s, Michael Pinney contacted his friend and archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes.

His letter states that he has a hillfort that he would like dug and could she suggest an archaeologist to do it for him. Jacquetta (famous in her own right) said that she would consult Rik i.e. Rik Wheeler (to his friends) or Sir Mortimer Wheeler as most remember him.

Various names were bandied about but in the end Peter Gelling of Birmingham University took on the challenge and from 1964 until 1971 there were annual digs there. The applications from volunteers were contained in the black box file… including one from David who’d worked there in 66.

The early seasons of the dig concentrated on the north end where the defensive earthworks were concentrated.

The extra ramparts and ditches, built 2500 years ago, were added protection for the occupants because the ground is level on the north side, making the hillfort easier to attack.

Pilsdon looking south east. Note the square enclosure in the middle and the more level ground on the left hand side where the defences need to be stronger.

The earthworks showed that the original design had been to create a huge monumental entrance but this was later built over and blocked.

In 1999, I surveyed the north end with a resistivity metre and found the softer filling of the blocked gateway through the inner rampart.

The ring ditches of many Iron Age round houses were found but very little pottery and no bone because the soil was acidic and ate away the finds.

Two ballista bolts suggested conflict and a 1st century Roman fort has been found on Waddon Hill east of Lewesdon… so the locals needed supervision for a while.

The big mystery was a square enclosure in the middle of Pilsdon, about 60m across. The excavator’s plan shows that under each of the enclosure banks was a long trench with regular short trenches branching at right angles from it. These had been cut through the ring ditch drainage gullies that once surrounded the Iron Age round houses.

The hill top today has various mounds within it which include Bronze Age burial mounds, pillow shaped mounds and a long mound.

The archaeologists digging the central banked square enclosure, felt sure that they had discovered something very exciting. A huge Iron Age temple, built of wood. The long trenches interpreted as beam slots for foundations supported by shorter timber buttresses indicated by the shorter trenches branching from the main trench.

The correspondence in the box file, increasingly concentrated on international comparisons and letters to various experts in Britain and Europe. Now the excavation was exclusively about this central ‘Temple’ feature and the owner became impatient.

The dig ended abruptly in disagreement and nobody came to clear up the spoil heaps. When I visited with my fellow students in 1977… that is what I saw.

Until 1979 when the National Trust acquired it and approved plans made by David Thackray, NT archaeologist and Laurence Keen the Dorset County Archaeologist.

In 1982, they carried out further excavations and concluded that the temple was a rabbit warren and the beam slots were burrows constructed for the rabbits.

The pillow shaped and other long mounds on the hill backed up this reinterpretation as they are typical of other warren sites like those within the hillfort of Dolebury Warren on the Mendips and Dyrham Park in South Gloucestershire. Built as accommodation for farming rabbits.

An 18th century record refers to a lodge visible as a landmark from the sea and there are faint traces of this near the concrete trig point on the south edge of the hillfort. The warrener may have lived here but documentary records detailing the history of rabbit farming here have not been found.

So… was this a massive Iron Age temple built across the levelled footings of a group of Iron Age round houses?… or a medieval or post-medieval warren built 1500 years later? A similar controversy surrounds a long mound at Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire.

Archaeologists tend to be quite careful in their interpretations… fudging their talk in various levels of probability…Quite rightly as huge errors can be made…. I got very excited about a Roman road at Dyrham once that turned out to be a British Gas pipeline and my Neolithic henge at Kingston Lacy eventually proved to be a Late Bronze Age farmstead.

Be careful my sister and brother archaeologists….be very careful.

Personally…at Pilsdon… I’m with the rabbits …. the pillow mound creators tended to churn up various earlier finds and leave very little to date their own activities.

The view north-east across the ramparts of Pilsdon Pen

3 thoughts on “Pilsdon Pen: Temple Warren

  1. Interested in your comment re Crickley Hill in Glos; the Heritage gateway entry is pretty vague too “An additional possible medieval or later feature is the long mound regarded by the excavator as being of Neolithic date, but suggested by some to be a pillow mound.”. Can you point to alternative evidence on this one?

    • Dear Tim I think that the Heritage Gateway entry succinctly sets out the case. The excavators found prehistoric material associated with the long mound and are definite that it is a prehistoric feature but its shape and position would be typical of a pillow mound. If the long mound was a prehistoric sacred site it is difficult to find a comparative earthwork elsewhere. With best wishes Martin

  2. I volunteered on both the Gelling and NT excavations. Also worth mentioning the lovely gold coin now on display in the new Dorchester Museum galleries, and the excellent 2016 geophysics in Dave Stewart and Miles Russell’s Hillforts of the Durotrigues : A geophysical survey. I can buy the Warren theory but not that the sleeper trenches were constructed for the rabbits. There has to be another explanation possibly around the mounds construction.

    I am not convinced by the Ballista bolts, they could be any Iron Age pointy objects, and the attribution was influenced by the Maiden Castle skeleton, which the new labelling at DCM attributes to an Iron Age spear. I would argue the probability that Pilsdon Pen was abandoned before the very brief ten year life of Waddon Hill. The only link I know is that Martin Aitken worked on Waddon Hill dating and one of his daughters was a volunteer at Pilsdon Pen.

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