Deep in a chalk V-cut ditch, crouched and digging against time.
I arrived early, but at 10am the sun will align with the trench and the shadow will briefly disappear.
All week, the skies have been clear blue. No clouds for diffused light…. so 10am will be the last chance for well lighted photos.
The dig had been delayed from October, awaiting scheduled monument consent. We were able to do geophysical survey. This was good preparation, as it showed the full extent of the linear earthwork with its wide ditch on its west side.
This land south of Badbury Rings, in south-east Dorset, is covered with archaeological sites of all periods.
One of these, is a linear bank that kinks backwards and forwards from Badbury hillfort to the tree lined Blandford -Wimborne road.
Over the years, rabbits have found out the soft soils of the ditch and bank.. and during lockdown the damage was made worse by men sending their dogs down the burrows to chase the rabbits.
The police caught and cautioned the rabbit hunters for defacing a scheduled monument but the resulting mess needed to be cleared up.
Mark, the National Trust ranger, will repair the linear bank but before this, Historic England agreed that it would be a good opportunity to cut a section across the earthwork ..to find out how old it was.
At first, I had thought it was about 3000 years old… as linears or ‘ranch boundaries’ are typical of the later Bronze Age. It was a time before hillforts, when communities were dividing up the land into territories.
If this were true, then the defences of Badbury Rings should be built over the linear because the Iron Age hillfort would have been built more recently. However, the geophysics and earthwork evidence showed the linear stopping short of Badbury’s outer rampart….therefore the linear should be later or contemporary with Badbury.
Badbury’s outer rampart is slighter than the inner two hillfort banks and ditches and it could have been added on when Badbury was reoccupied after Britain left the Roman Empire. It could be ‘Dark Age’ 5th to 7th century AD.
Bronze Age…Iron Age… Romano British or .Dark Age’. We had 5 days to find out.
On the first day I placed a tape at right angles across the earthwork… The trench would be 17.5m long… but how wide? I tried 1.2m. Peter shook his head (we don’t have time to shift that much soil….so I considered 0.6m… but that would be far too narrow (imagine squeezing into that)…..but 0.75 was perfect… wide enough for an archaeologist at depth.. .
Carol arrived and we cut turf. Good deep turf… apart from the rabbited bits. There had been no cultivation here for many hundreds of years. Beneath the turf, more topsoil, the turf and topsoil over 20cm deep with nothing in it apart from the odd pebble.
No finds on the first day and hardly any visitors. Nearly all occupied the heights of Badbury. We watched them circling the ramparts while we dug…. to the sound of larks.
Our company, the dark members of the Beech Avenue rookery flapping around their cluster of nests; twiggy lodgings in the still leafless trees…..and a lone kestrel; intent and pinned to the sky, hovering over the landscape.
Day two… and at both ends of the trench we hit a stony layer. A chalky iceberg began jutting from the apex of the bank. My trowel scraped a black piece of pottery on the east edge of the bank and soon Peter found another on the west side where the ditch should be.
We had reached the Roman period. Nobody had dropped anything archaeologically detectable at this quiet place in the intervening years.
Finds were rare, so we plotted each one in 3D with level and tape. Mark found another piece of pot and a sheep’s tooth just below a drift of tiny snail shells which had piled up against the western tail end of the bank. Pete found a few more pieces of pot, including two rims of black jars typical of late Romano-British times…3rd-5th century?
Peter called me over again and there on the upper filling of the ditch was a long tapering iron point. Some kind of tool perhaps?
Day three and the pottery finds disappeared. Just the occasional struck or burnt piece of flint to show that people once visited this place. The ditch got deeper and we found natural chalk at each end of the trench.
Time to cut down through the bank.. to discover that the chalk was a capping overlying pebbly soil. I spotted a fragment of rough black pottery, part of a countersunk handle perhaps…that would make it Iron Age?
Day four and Pete was over a metre down in the ditch and predicted he would reach bottom that day.
Stephen and Nicola from Lodge Farm joined us for lunch and we caught up on our lives since the 80s (blog post: Battleships at Lodge Farm). We talked in the sunshine of the English Civil War.. his latest research into the sieges of Corfe Castle.
Then… deep in the ditch, Pete found bones.
First a sheep limb then a tooth, then an ox leg fragment. No pottery but radiocarbon potential there.
By the end of the day, Pete had revealed a steep ‘V’ shaped cutting into the chalk bedrock… narrowing steeply.
Tricky to dig to the bottom, Mark held the bucket from above and Peter scooped the spoil into it.
Just a bit to dig out on Friday morning. I took the fencing down and had a go, then lined up the ranging rods and took the photos at 10. Later Peter scraped the last bit and hit the bedrock at the point of the ditch. In fact a flat bottom 0.2m wide, the chalk cutting splaying upwards and outwards to 3m….over 2m deep.
I scraped the buried topsoil beneath the bank and found one last piece of brown decorated pottery. A scratched eyebrow curve divided with straight parallel lines. It looked like South West Decorated Ware ….so Middle Iron Age about 300-100 BC.
The day was spent drawing the cross-section of the bank and ditch. Nancy and Pete cut lengths of black piping and followed the instructions emailed to me by Professor Phil Tom. He had dated the Cerne Abbas Giant for us, so, in the same way, we took soil samples for optically stimulated luminescence dating from below the bank of the linear.
Dave brought doughnuts and pinpointed the corners of our trench using a high resolution GPS instrument.
A very kind week of spring sunshine and gentle breezes. We were sad to drive away. As ever, the full story will rest on the specialist post-excavation reports. We had salvaged more than I had imagined from the rabbit-damaged stratigraphy.
Not Roman then, nor Bronze Age…it’s most likely to be have been built soon after Badbury Rings was constructed… but what a huge undertaking.
This great linear, snakes across the landscape over many hundreds of metres. There must have been a good reason to build it…..Some long forgotten threat from the west……..out towards where Blandford Forum stands today.
The small fragment of decorated pottery from under the linear bank…Middle Iron Age?