Reprofiling on Purbeck Heath

Last week I woke up in an Edwardian smallpox hospital and pulled the curtains to look out at ponies grazing on heather. This was the NT holiday cottage we lived in while reprofiling a Bronze Age Bell Barrow on Godlingston Heath.

The Isolation Hospital near the Three Barrows and Half Way Inn, Middlebere

The isolation hospital consisted of two black corrugated iron buildings surrounded by apple trees and a red phone box…. in idyllic surroundings.

Now that the badgers had moved on and not returned for several years, our task was to redistribute the spoil from the badger setts so that the profile of the bell barrow could be restored. This would enable an even curving profile so that the monument could be covered in mesh. The work would protect the scheduled monument from any new burrowing activity.

Good conservation practice… to preserve the 4,000 year old archaeological stratigraphy as a time vault against further disturbance.

Technology changes all the time and future researchers may have techniques we can only dream of… to help understand the evidence of past lives encapsulated in this place.

The short drive from the cottage took us past the ruins of Corfe Castle and along the north side of the Purbeck Hills. We arrived in a very scenic lay-by. From here there are sweeping views across heathland to Poole Harbour and Brownsea Island.

We unloaded the tools, heaved them over a fence, piled them into a wheelbarrow and pushed them downhill to the barrow. The other three barrows in this group (two other bells and a bowl) had been meshed a few years ago …but this one had been left. At that time it was too difficult because it had been so heavily dug into. We had extra Countryside Stewardship funding and could complete the work now.

The barrow from the lay-by showing the landscape towards Studland Heath and Poole Harbour

The south-west half of the barrow was in perfect condition. A very fine example of an Early Bronze Age bell barrow built c.2100-1900 BC; with its 30m diameter encircling quarry ditch, around a raised level berm 3m wide, surrounding a 2m high and 19m diameter central mound.

We soon found out why the badgers had chosen the north-east side for their home. This was the side which was sheltered …protected from the wind. We followed the badgers’ example and set up the stove and kettle here.. the best place a for tea break ..where we could admire the view.

It turned out that reprofiling the site was not such a simple task…further help was needed. The now grassed over burrow heaps were full of tussocks. A hefty mattock blow merely bounced off them. Each tuft needed to be worked around, undermined and then torn from the ground. Below this was black, dry, fine sand.

A new problem.. the constant wind whipped the sand into eyes and lungs. Nancy brought us face masks and goggles. The rangers called out the Purbeck Heritage Archaeological Rangers (HART) volunteers. Then the Wednesday group came to the rescue. We saw them park in the lay-by and approach in single file down through the bracken and gorse.

Afternoon break required a trip up to the ice-cream van in the lay-by… and the careful loading of a bucket with tubs of vanilla, rum and raisin and toffee crunch ice creams.

As the days went by… the ice cream man began to ask questions ..to discover what was going on… why did this dirty, sand-blackened man with goggle shaped clean patches rise up out of the blackberry and gorse each day?

Over time, I became less self-conscious; walking the line of lay-by cars, bucket in hand, briefly blocking the views of their occupants and trying not to catch their questioning eyes as they licked their 99s.

There was cutting the turf.. stacking it…digging the sand and re-moulding the mound… filling the buckets and carrying them to the top… where the sievers were.

A self-selected sexism evolved. The women took the buckets from the men and sieved the badger spoil…. I told tales of the Wessex Culture.. jet and amber beads… barbed and tanged flint arrowheads.. bronze daggers… the soil too acid here for bone to survive.

We found….a fragment of red plastic…just one…..not even a struck flint, just natural gravel and conglomerate red-brown Heathstone fragments. The badgers seemed not to have struck the central burial deposit and scattered the finds.

With thanks to everyone working together… our barrow achieved its proper shape and a few days later the mesh was laid. The grass and heather will grow up through the mesh and gradually it will draw it against the mound. It will take a few years to become completely hidden beneath the sward.

We carried out geophysical surveys across the whole group in 2012.

I pointed to the horizon and told the group of the six barrows I found when I first surveyed this area in 1987. Three low mounds could be seen on the hill top beyond the golf course. Nobody had spotted them before…except perhaps the soldiers training there in WWII. The mounds are punctuated by a scattered group of slit trenches dug along the ridge top in the 1940s.

The place is remote and difficult to get to. I hadn’t been there for years… but we finished early on the last day. and there was just time to take up a ranging pole and some loppers and push through the undergrowth. I crossed the stream and skirted the golf course.. stepping through marshland and then up through the heather towards my destination.

This place is so primal….when I got there, a recent heathland fire had scorched the heather and accentuated the wilderness. Somwehere… blackened and out of time.

The contours of the sweeping crescent of six barrows were very clear on the skyline… carefully designed by their ancient builders to be seen from all directions as a monument to their ancestors.

I cut some gorse stalks and took some photos..enjoyed the isolation and viewscape for a moment and turned back to civilisation.. who knows if I will come here again.

 

 

Long Bredy, The Cleaning of Bones

This week: the LiDAR survey report for the Stourhead Estate was completed; at Chedworth we understood the drains; a meeting at Brean Down gave context to a 65,000 year old horse’s tooth, and, on the northernmost edge of the South West Region… geophysics has begun to provide evidence for the origins of Hidcote.

Wonderful stuff.. and all for future consideration, but my heart is still at Long Bredy and our recent excavations there.

I walk on past the parish church, and up, steeply, through the pasture field to the Ridgeway’s western edge. The sheep watch the figure follow the spine of Martins Down bank barrow. Stopping to enjoy the wide fading landscape, out across Golden Cap to Start Point. Then back through a field of ripening wheat and down a deep grassy hollow-way, back past the church to my tent. Everything glowing red in the setting sun, every strand of grass richly pink and the wool strands hanging sharply in the wire.

Looking towards Long Bredy church from the hollow-way

One day, when it seemed that we would run out of time. A long day of mattocking, barrowing.. collecting fragments of flint and small sherds of red-black pot. Level after level of 5cm spits of soil. I came back to continue on into the evening and Rob said he would too …but the energy was gone… we exchanged glances and eventually stopped, limply putting the tools away.

The cluster of large stones overlying the burials cut by the 2013 pipeline

The next morning, the lumpy surface turned into a cluster of large stones and we began to carefully lift them one by one. Each stone covered human remains, broken and impacted by their weight over the millennia. Three crushed skulls and a jumble of long bones.Yellow and fragile mixed with soil and roots. The roots looking like bones and intermingled with them. A trowel, a plastic spatula, a pair of secateurs and a fine brush.

A view of the three skeletons looking north

Then the cleaning of bones. A long quiet day, crouched in a trench in a field. Nothing else, just the gentle loosening of soil around them. The initial shock and concern.. then yielding to beauty. The realisation of practical creative design, every curve and facet. A broken pair of shins is exposed; delicate, hard and finely formed. You stroke your own, feel the tibia below the warm skin. Then the softer bones of the feet, a jumble of tarsals. Extraordinary heel bones and the wonder of toes.

The northern teenager with feet and legs bent above the head.

We brought back the bones, gathered from the 2013 pipe trench. We took away a few small fragments for DNA and strontium isotope analysis. Once we had cleaned them, Clare came and analysed the skeletons. Two teenagers, one with head to north and one with head to south. One tightly bound and face down, one doubled with feet above the head and the third, a young adult, crouched, the last to be buried. Most of this one gone after the JCB struck six years ago.

A dry fortnight ..but as we packed up it started to rain.. though by that time Nancy had protected the skeletons. Carefully covered, then placed them under a blanket of sieved soil. The stones were put back in place and then Clive brought the digger and pushed the spoil back over the trench. The flint and chert flakes and tools, the pottery and the animal fragments together with the samples from these three 2700-2800 year old people will all tell more of the story.

We will wait, and in the mean time…

I will appreciate the intricacies of my feet.

 

Smashing news about the Chedworth Villa roman glass

The glass when first found

At last we can tell the story of what the specialists found out about the little piece of glass Pete found in 2017 at Chedworth Villa. You may already know its story as it hit the press and social media yesterday, 22nd July.

Not long after excavation I had taken it to Professor Jenny Price, a roman glass expert. She was very intrigued by it and thought she had seen something resembling it in the past, but from the Middle East. Features of the glass indicated that the technique used to make it was also unusual, differing from that used to make glass with similar decoration. The glass had a distinctive profile showing that it came from a long bottle with an oval shape and a sharp taper at the end. So away it went with her, so she could study it and consult many experts around the world.

The glass fragment showing loops of yellow and white

Eighteen months later Jenny was able to report back to us that it probably came from an area around the Black Sea. She had found a reference to another similar glass flask that had been excavated from a burial in Chersonesus in Crimea. It turned out to be part of a fish-shaped flask with the fish’s open mouth forming the aperture of the vessel, and probably held perfume or an unguent of some kind. 

It was the first piece of this kind of glass ever to be found in Britain, a very rare find.

Jenny also found a very similar fish-shaped flask that had been restored from many pieces, at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. By comparing the two examples, she concluded the Chedworth piece came from near the ‘tail’ of the fish bottle

An archaeological drawing of the place were the piece of glass fits on the fish flask

Sadly, Jenny passed away a few months ago. Earlier, Pete, who found the glass, had a chance to go and see her and talk about the fish. He said he could see she was enchanted by it, and we are so pleased she had a chance to solve this puzzle and knew how excited we all were by it. It is a very special find.

To have found that it is the only one of its type so far discovered in Roman Britain adds to our knowledge of the importance of Chedworth Roman Villa.

That such an exotic thing was brought from so far away seems to underline that the occupants were in touch with the furthest regions of the Roman Empire and wanted to show off that influence and connections.

Illustration of what it may have looked like by archaeological illustrator Maggie Foottit

This little gem of glass and the illustrations can now be seen on display at Chedworth Villa in Gloucestershire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The only other example of such a fish-shaped Roman bottle comes from a 2nd-century burial in Crimea. 

The technique used to make the Chedworth bottle was unusual, with decoration laid on top of the blue-green surface to create ‘scales’ in loops of white and yellow. It was more common to incorporate different colours into the body of the vessel itself.  

at the University of York who was helping with a dig to understand more about the north wing of the villa. 

Peter said: “When it appeared, the first wipe of the surface showed the colour and it quickly became apparent it was something special. Excavating anything at Chedworth and knowing that you are the first person to gaze upon it for at least 1,800 years is a feeling that never tires, the memory of recovering this piece of glass certainly will not. 

“Recovering such a unique find is incredibly humbling, it will no doubt prove a talking point for years to come. I am delighted that it will be displayed at the villa, enabling visitors and future generations to marvel at its beauty.”

Nancy Grace concluded: “This find shows there is still more for Chedworth to tell us about Roman life in this corner of Gloucestershire.” 

The fragment is going on display at the villa as part of the Festival of Archaeology (until 28 July) and will remain on display throughout summer.

 

The Wessex Hillforts & Habitats Project

Early morning last week…a drone took off over Hambledon after light snow. Perfect conditions, the snowflakes had settled into the valleys of the great encircling hillfort ditches… and streets of round house platforms became visible as rows of hollows outlined in white.

Hambledon Hill light snow shows the dimples where Iron Age round houses once stood.

These photos help illustrate the majesty and awe of this vast archaeological site and has helped us launch the National Trust’s Wessex Hillforts and Habitats project. With the help of Marie, our project officer, the People’s Postcode Lottery have granted over 100,000 pounds to get the project started.

The primary purpose of the project is to enhance the conservation of 13 NT Iron Age hillforts scattered across Dorset and South Wiltshire …but it will also inspire people to get involved and to carry out monitoring and research. It will also create new interpretation to bring these grassy hill top earthworks to life as places to be appreciated, valued and better understood. Alongside this.. to highlight nature, particularly the plant and insect life. Each hillfort’s unique topography nurtures precious habitat undisturbed by agriculture for over 2000 years.

Purple spotted orchids growing on the sheltered slopes of a hillfort ditch

So.. where are these places. I’ll list them out for you…. and as some have featured in previous blog posts I’ll reference these while we have a quick tour.

We’ll start in Wiltshire and from there head south and west and eventually end at the Devon border.

Figsbury Ring, north-east of Salisbury. A circular rampart and ditch with a view back to the great cathedral spire. Strangely, Figsbury has a wide deep ditch within the hillfort ..potentially Neolithic but there is no rampart.. where did all the chalk go?

Figsbury Ring from its rampart top showing the wide deep ditch inside the hillfort.

South of Salisbury, Wick Ball Camp above Philipps House, Dinton.. NT only owns the outer rampart.

Then there is the icon of Warminster, Cley Hill (blog posts “Upon Cley Hill’; Upon Cley Hill 2”), a flying saucer shaped chalk outlier with two round barrows on the summit..a strange hillfort.

To the south west, at the source of the mighty River Stour, is the Stourhead Estate with its two hillforts. These are Park Hill Camp, its views hidden by conifer plantation and Whitesheet Hill  (blog Whitesheet Hill Open at the Close) with wide prospects across the Blackmore Vale towards Hambledon and Hod. We’ll follow the Stour to reach them.

Hod is the largest true hillfort in Dorset, the geophysics has shown it full of round houses…a proto town… and there are the clear earthworks of the Roman 1st century fort in Hod’s north-west corner (blog post Hod Hill Camp Bastion)

Hambledon is close by, just across a dry valley, perched high on a ridge, surrounded by the Neolithic, you feel like you’re flying when standing there. (blog post Archaeology SW day 2014, Hambledon Sunset)

Follow the Stour further south and you reach the triple ramparts and ditches of Badbury Rings on the Kingston Lacy Estate. From here you can see the chalk cliffs of the Isle of Wight (blog post Badbury and the Devil’s footprint)

Now from Badbury take the Roman road west to Dorchester and keep going beyond the county town, glancing at Maiden Castle as you pass(Duchy of Cornwall, English Heritage).

The Roman road continues straight towards Bridport but branches from the A35 road before you reach the village of Winterbourne Abbas.

It has now become a minor road.. a couple of miles on… it branches again..still straight but this once arterial Roman route to Exeter has dwindled to a narrow trackway with grass sprouting from the tarmac.

Don’t lose heart…keep going…and you will break out onto the chalkland edge and the multiple ramparts of Eggardon Hill.

From Eggardon, the other hillforts emerge as sentinals ringing the high ground overlooking the Marshwood Vale, and, to the south, the cliffs of Golden Cap.. and beyond, the sweep of Lyme Bay and the English Channel.

Winter woods at Coney’s Castle

Next to the west is Lewesdon Hill, a small fort but occupying the highest land in Dorset, nearby is the second highest, the flat top of Pilsdon Pen, surrounded by double ramparts and enclosing Iron Age round houses, Bronze Age round barrows and the pillow mounds of  the medieval rabbit warren.

The last two in the Project guard a gap through the Upper Greensand ridge at the Devon border. Coney’s Castle has a minor road running through it and on its south side are wonderful twisted moss covered oaks… and beneath them the deep blue of bluebells in the Spring. Lambert’s Castle was used as a fair up to the mid 20th century, remains of the fair house and animal pens can be seen there ….but once again the views are spectacular, particularly in early morning after frost with the mist rising from the lowland.

Lambert’ s Castle after frost.

A baker’s dozen of hillforts of the 59 the NT looks after in the South West.

One might imagine that these huge works of humanity look after themselves… but they need to be cared for.. we must have farmers willing to graze the right number and type of stock on them….at the right times;  NT rangers and volunteers to cut regenerating scrub and fix fencing and gates…

If not, these nationally important scheduled monuments and SSSIs will deteriorate. The earthworks will become overgrown and grassland habitat will be lost, archaeological knowledge locked in the layers beneath the soil will become disrupted… and the views into the landscape and across and within the hillforts will become hidden.

The Wessex Hillforts and Habitats Project promises to be an exciting time of conservation and discovery. The work has now begun!

Sounds of the past

View Eastwards from Golden Cap, Portland in the distance

We have worked with a few art projects over the years, involving objects, processes and site specific projects. One I remember fondly was ’26 and 7 Bones’ in 2012  A contemporary arts project about hands and feet, people and place –  a mapping of connections across place and time – an action, a journey, a collection – and was commissioned as part of the Jurassic Coast Earth Festival 2012, with artists Sue Plamer and Sally Watkins  https://26and7bones.wordpress.com/

We had excavated quite a few sites along the West Dorset coast so Sally and Sue asked if they could work with us, to join the coastguard, blacksmith, herbalist and ornithologist already recruited. Part of the project involved walking up Golden Cap,  talking along the way about what we do as archaeologists and how we feel when working on a site. We had excavated the Bronze Age Barrows and Napoleonic signal station right on the top of the hill over a couple of seasons, with an amazing view as we worked. It was hard to remember that the Bronze Age people would not have had the same view, as the coastline would have been about a mile further out to sea.

As part of the project we were asked to choose a favourite word or place associated with what we did along the coast of Dorset. I chose the word prehistoric, as West Dorset, to me, feels prehistoric, with its hill forts, barrows and stone age objects eroding from the cliffs. It was then turned into music, by punching holes into card in the shape of the word and then fed through a musical box mechanism, a magic moment!

 

 

Day 19 – The end for now ….

The core team left to right Stephanie, Fay, Rob, Amy, Carol, Martin, Pete and Me

Well, we reached the last day and had a few last jobs to do as well as back-filling the trenches. Martin had recording, drawings and the odd extra bit of digging to do, to answer a few questions in the buttress trench. Fay and Amy had a little more digging in the bath house trench to find the wall, and the rest of us had finds and tools to pack up.

We have to record everything by scale drawing and photography, as once its dug out we cannot go back to check any details.

In the buttress trench Martin has been finding lots of painted plaster including different blues and greens. Then he found this large piece, amazing colours and design.

In the buttress trench Martin has found lots of lovely painted plaster, mainly blues, but then he found this stunning piece

A close-up of the plaster

One job we had to do was to put in a little extension to find out how big the water tank was, it turned out to be quite small, but perfectly formed. We also found the outlet hole!

The extent of the tank

 

The tank  had slipped forward, note the crack in the lower right

The outlet hole

The last trench to be filled in was the buttress trench, we protected the tank with geotextile, then left messages for future archaeologists to find, in an empty bottle of fizz we had for Amy’s 21st birthday.

For future archaeologists to find

Nearly there

Also on the last day we had another birthday to celebrate – Pete’s. So it was a double celebration and a big cake provided by lovely Sue, who had been doing all the finds washing for us, thank you Sue.

When you only have a grubby wooden knife a trowel has to do

As we put back the last turf we had our last visitor, a frog that had managed to survive the back filling and the heat!

Our last visitor

As they say ‘that’s all folks’ for daily up dates from the dig, but Martin will do a summing up of the dig and we will post updates of the finds when we have their stories back from the specialists. So keep checking in.

All that’s left to say is a massive thank you to all our volunteers who came to dig with us and especially those who helped with the mammoth back filling task. We hope you all enjoyed your experience. Thank you to all our blog followers, and its been lovely to meet many of you on-site, your kind words helped to keep us going through the hottest parts of the day.

Until next time………

 

Day Thirteen – Feathered friends

The end is near and we still have a bit of excavation to do, luckily the mosaics are cropping up again just when we thought  they had ended.

Amy uncovering the new section of mosaic

We finally removed the last of Sir Ian Richmond’s representation of the earlier villa walls, his pink concrete! Behind this was the real roman wall and a line of mosaic still in place balanced on the edge.

The burnt, earlier villa wall with a line of tesserae still in place

Max, Steve, and  Stephanie carried on the big clean up in the relenting heat. Jill and Amy each had an area of mosaic to uncover and Fay was banished to a small trench up next to the bathhouse. Guy and William took on the challenge to keep going down through the roman rubble layer in the buttress trench near the museum, where they found lots of painted wall plaster and some intriguing stonework (more about it tomorrow)

Steve and Max cleaning the corridor mosaic

 

William and Guy in the buttress trench

Now to our feathered friends, during this dry spell we have been providing a small buffet for the birds, here are our clever friends who have taken advantage of the insects and worms we have disturbed. The star is Bob the Pheasant 🙂

Lovely pair of Pied wagtails foraging on the spoil heap

The scruffy Robin is very brave finding food right next to us as we dig

Bob with Amy at lunch time, sharing a biscuit

A portrait of Bob