Digging for a SM, Max Gate, Dorchester

The car is loaded with tools and tomorrow early I drive to Dorchester in Dorset.

Five days in the Paddock at the back of the house that Thomas Hardy designed for himself at Max Gate on the outskirts of the county town.

Max Gate soon after construction with its view of Early Bronze Age Conquer Barrow built on the bank of Late Neolithic Henge, Mount Pleasant

He found Iron Age and Roman burials. Told his visitors of the Roman soldiers beneath his garden. A megalith was also uncovered which he set up on the lawn beside the house.

Thomas Hardy beside the megalith he found beneath his garden.

It took another 100 years to find out what that was all about.

During the Dorchester by-pass construction in 1987-88, the land west of Max Gate was stripped of topsoil following a geophysical survey, and, 50% of a 100m diameter circle of ditch segments was found. Radiocarbon dating revealed it to be Middle Neolithic and contemporary with the similar enclosure surrounding Stonehenge…about 3000BC. Some of the pits contained sarsens and the largest was given to Max Gate.

Max Gate is a Grade 1 listed building because of its designer. A unique building.. a writing power house where Tess of the Durbevilles, Jude the Obscure and so much poetry was written.

Freya worked with the property team in West Dorset and created a Conservation Management Plan which articulates the significances of this land and blends them to create management actions which will enable the conservation of these significances.

Thomas Hardy, his house, his interest in the past and the archaeology he bumped into when he bought an area of arable in the 1880s.

The archaeology stacks up on itself.

Some of the earliest British pottery found anywhere c.3800 BC was found in pits cut by the enclosure. An early Bronze Age ring ditch was constructed near the centre. The enclosure itself has labyrinth type patterns inscribed on some of the chalk cut walls of the ditches. Then there are the Durotrigan burials and the Roman inhumations.

We have carried out geophysical survey to detect the other half of the enclosure where it should cross the Paddock and garden but without success. This, despite trying: earth resistance; magnetometry and ground probing radar.

We’ll set up a ring of white posts where it should be next week

The Conservation Management Plan recommended the site be given the status of nationally significant Scheduled Monument….but the application failed. Historic England fed back that the geophysics had not provided sufficient evidence that the site underlay the Max Gate property.

What could we do?

Some years ago three small test pits were dug across the Paddock.These revealed that ploughsoil continued down to the white chalk bedrock. Within this disturbed soil, were all the jumbled remains… cut up by hundreds of years of cultivation: Roman pottery; prehistoric flint; bone fragments and 19th century nails.

In black the archaeological features found in 1987. The other half of the Middle Neolithic circle lies almost exactly over the Paddock and Garden of National Trust Max Gate. The blue rectangle is our proposed excavation.

Why not temporarily lift off the lid of ploughsoil, clean back the chalk and show the archaeology where the dark soil fillings of features show clearly against the white.

We will precisely record the surface photogrammetrically to get our proof for Historic England …

We’ll do it during Festival of Archaeology and get visitors to sieve the spoil heap to see what evidence of ploughed up archaeology lies within it.

We’ll talk about the site, read some of Thomas Hardy’s poems, backfill the trench and go home.

No need to dig the features. We already have a good idea of the archaeological phasing of the site. We’ll look at the surface of some of it… then cover it up again… leave it for posterity in the more certain knowledge of what lies beneath.

Who knows for what new archaeological techniques it might be saved for decades or perhaps centuries into the future.

We’ll use the evidence to apply for Scheduled Monument status again of course!

The Mound

For a moment pause: —
Just here it was;
And through the thin thorn hedge, by the rays of the moon,
I can see the tree in the field, and beside it the mound —
Now sheeted with snow — whereon we sat that June
When it was green and round,
And she crazed my mind by what she coolly told —


And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
     And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
     "He hears it not now, but used to notice such things?"
One of the Iron Age pots accompanying one of Thomas Hardy’s Durotrigan burials. He gave a talk on his discoveries at Dorset County Museum, Dorchester.

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