Into Silbury Hill

I saw it once by moonlight. Returning on the Marlborough Road, in the dark, surrounded by the silver-washed, gently curving chalkland. Then dreaming..forgetting…and a little before the Avebury turning… it reared up from the right, huge and impossible. Surely too big to be made, a conical flat-topped mass. A passing Neolithic shock.

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I remembered 1968, my mum calling me to the TV. Live archaeology and Professor Atkinson driving his tunnel to the centre. I had no idea what Silbury was then. I never saw it until I was 18.

Then in the 90s, after moving to Wiltshire, sitting in Devizes Museum at the WAC meeting. At the end, we drank coffee and Gill and Andrew said: ‘yes, we were there with Atkinson.We walked with him to the centre’. Wow! What a thing!

The National Trust have never owned Silbury but have managed it as part of their Avebury Estate.

In May 2000, we were excavating the Lacock Rockworks. Rosie, the Avebury archaeologist ranger, arrived late. She had been called to the top of Silbury with Chris, the NT property manager. ‘There’s a hole!’ she said, ‘a vertical shaft right down to the centre of Silbury’.

English Heritage fenced it off and considered the options. The Hill was not as stable as might be imagined.

For many generations visitors had wondered. Was this the tomb of a great king? Something so huge had surely been raised in honour of someone exceptional and his grave must be furnished with fabulous treasure. So, in 1776, Edward Drax, with some support from Hugh Percy duke of Northumberland, directed a group of miners to sink a vertical shaft to the centre. They were disappointed, no tomb was found. Silbury was further disturbed in 1849, by Rev John Merewether, who organised the digging of a new horizontal tunnel, no finds for him either except his report of preserved organic remains near the centre. Then a pause for a century plus and Professor Atkinson, famed for his work at Stonehenge, directed the campaign I had seen on TV as a child. Another horizontal tunnel with branches.

The experts shook their heads. Something must be done. A conference was called and the players assembled at Devizes Corn Exchange. I sat and heard the debate and remembered Professor Bradley strongly advocating the solution. Reopen Atkinson’s shaft, assemble a crack team and employ the very best archaeological techniques that the 21st century can offer. Create a new exceptional record and then backfill with packed chalk…and seal for all time.

And so it came to pass. The tunnel was opened, the section through the hill was scanned, drawn and photographed in great detail. Samples were taken and analysed…..and then, the invitations went out.

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In the autumn of 2007, we assembled at the portacabins for the health and safety talk. David Attenborough, almost 40 years later, had just returned again from the centre… and now it was our turn.

Along a track…Silbury looming over us…we circled the perimeter of the artificial mountain, to arrive at a concrete portal at its base. The worn green door had a futuristic S on the front, not superman.. Silbury of course, and above it on the lintel ..1968.

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Jim Leary, the English Heritage site director, gave an introductory talk on the threshold,…then the door was opened and we were allowed to enter. ‘we few, we happy few’.

A line of steel ‘U’ frames ran into the distance illuminated by rigged strip lights a network of wires and ribbed ventilation tubing but amongst it all and between the frames the stratigraphy of the mound. ‘Here is the trampled chalk’ Jim pointed. The ancients had worked here compressing the chalk rubble with their feet as they built their mountain.

Further in and the frames were bent and twisted. The torch illuminated a void sloping upwards. Was this where Professor Atkinson cut Rev Merewether’s tunnel?

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Deep below the mound and far from the entrance, the white chalk walls turned brown. We had crossed the inner ditch and here were the beginnings of the construction. Silbury had been built in successive phases but the C14 dates tell us that all the work took place over a short period, c.2400-2300 BC. They started small, heaping gravel from the nearby river and then cutting the turf and topsoil and heaping it into a mound.

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We reached the far end and here was the treasure where we stopped. The famous turf stack where the 1960s diggers had told their stories of green grass and beetles’ wings. Extraordinary environmental survival, sealed within the earth. Many more samples were taken and the list of plants and invertebrates grew and told of a landscape of chalkland pasture. Though we do not know the exact year, the insects tell us that this organised and presumably vast community of farmers cut this turf in the summer. Some of the creatures that were found, only emerge from their larvae in August.

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They didn’t stop. They kept building. What drove them on? They dug deep into the chalk creating a massive moat that  still fills with water after heavy rain in winter. They heaped the chalk higher and higher. A monument to the very end of the Neolithic..as if to say. ‘See! This is what we can do with bone and wood and stone’. That was before the strangers came with their clever rocks from far away. Rocks that could be melted and mixed and beaten to create sharp blades and shiny ornaments.

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Nancy and I retraced our steps, back down the tunnel and out into the light. Best to go to the Avebury Henge, to walk beside the megaliths and then to take tea in the Stones restaurant beside the tithe barn.

To savour the electricity of the moment.

Finding Killerton’s 1776 House 2

To make sense of this you will need to read the first post which describes how a grand 18th century house designed by a famous architect was never completed. This is on the Killerton Estate near Exeter, Devon where the mansion house is…well.. it’s a little disappointing.

The many thousands of acres both at Killerton and on the Holnicote Estate in west Somerset were given to the National Trust in the 1940s by the Acland family.

It’s been 18 months since the first discoveries and things have moved on.

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Killerton House with its roof covered in scaffolding. There is limited access for visitors while the repairs are taking place. The roof archaeology is being recorded and fragments of 19th-century wall paper and early 20th century photos of the Acland family have been found amongst the rafters. 

The present Killerton House is having its roof repaired and the 1776 house has been cleared of undergrowth.

We wondered whether the LiDAR survey had see the cellars of the abandoned house under the trees of Columbjohn wood. Now that we can see ground beneath the vegetation there are heaps of bricks everywhere.

The workers charged with salvaging the building materials had left the broken bricks behind.

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The scrub has been cleared in what we think was the main cellar of the 1776 house and the remains of its demolition and salvage have been found:  lots of broken bricks scattered in piles in the hollow.

Project manager Fi has co-ordinated a series of events which will enable visitors to explore Killerton’s historic landscape. This will happen during the CBA Archaeology Festival later this month. A team of National Trust Heritage Archaeology Rangers have been trained and Bryn from South West Archaeology is supervising the investigation of the lost house of Killerton .

A couple of weeks ago they mapped the earthworks and these fit with the architect’s plans for great house. At the end of July, they will dig some evaluation trenches to ‘ground-truth’ the remains.

Visitors will be very welcome and the mock-up of an 18th century doorway has been erected amongst trees as an entrance to the excavations.

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The newly erected doorway based on the original architect’s drawings of the house that never was. Visit and pass through the doorway to see the excavations in a couple of weeks….

I will spend a couple of days at the folly on the hill-top working out what remains of the ‘white tower’. This folly is shown on an 18th century painting . At this stage we don’t understand quite what the building looked like. It had been demolished long before any photos had been taken.

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The new National Trust HART ranger team for Killerton. Practicing making condition monitoring records of the 18th-century folly site on the conical hill top across the valley from Wyatt’s lost house. We will take off the turf on July 27th and see what lies beneath.

The Lost Villa of Bath Skyline

Last week we tested the evidence for a lost Roman villa.

It lies in a hidden, rarely visited field… full of earthworks and stones poking through the grass.

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Starting the excavation: we resurveyed the site with a resistivity meter (bottom left). Cutting the turf  at the lower end  (right) where a corridor? (continuing beyond the two groups of figures on the left side of the tree) gave access to rooms. Terraces at the upper end (left), a series of rooms beside the corridor?

On Monday, with the Volkswagon Golf bulging with tools, the farmer directed me across the farm.. through rough terrain and rutted gateways.

I needed to avoid the more direct route because it was full of new lambs with their mums.

Rob shook his head. ‘Are you sure you want to risk your car out there….We could transfer the equipment into a 4×4’.

‘No, that’s fine’ I said confidently ‘Coaxing inappropriate cars through rough terrain has become a mission. I once got a Vauxhall Nova up Golden Cap… well almost’.

Dodgy gates and a moonscape of deep ruts but the weather has been very dry so nothing untoward occurred during my outbound journey ..and I entered the field which was full of  wonderfully intriguing humps and bumps.

So this was exciting.

Full of archaeological potential.

Stones and walls jutted from terraces and banks. We were on the edge of the Roman city of Bath and this place had a fabulous view out over the Bathampton valley. A spring gurgled in a cutting a few metres downslope. This had every chance of  becoming a previously unrecognised Roman villa.

A home for one of the wealthy people associated with the sacred temple complex surrounding Bath’s magical hot springs.

The NT Bath Skyline team had set up their shepherd’s hut tea room with all the facilities. Luxury. Staff and volunteers were ready to become archaeologists. We all were.

The evidence for the villa seemed good, perhaps too good. Where were the shaped blocks of stone reused in the boundary walls….There were reports of Roman pottery in neighbouring fields but nothing of that date from this particular field. But it was all grass and without mole hills..how would it make itself known.

I introduced the site. Inspired by what we might find. Stories of collapsed walls, partly robbed in medieval times before the site was forgotten. Under this a fallen roof..a sea of tiles (limestone or clay). Then below this mortar and a layer of highly decorated painted plaster (which must be very carefully planned and lifted). Now perhaps we would find small rodent bones (owl pellets dropped when the grand villa had been abandoned, the birds flying in at night through broken windows to roost in the decaying rafters. Below this, of course, a splendid mosaic or mosaics. One must hope that they had not collapsed into the under floor heating system…classical scenes finely worked in cubes of stone and tile.

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Cleaning back the site following the removal of turf defining the corridor? and room? levels.

A trench was marked out to cross what appeared to be a corridor and a large room. The turf was peeled back. The team formed a line and we trowelled and uncovered the stonework.

At this point we expected fragments of baked clay, much mortar and blocks of cut stone, a scatter of oyster shell and animal bone and lots of Roman pottery….

We found a couple of pieces of 19th century glass and a nail.

The stonework was a heap of  unworked chunks of local limestone piled up to form a terrace.

Most disappointing.

The next day, I walked back towards the field edge to check out the fragments of wall we could just see sticking out of the grass. These were proper two sided stone walls.

Dave cut a trench across one section and I hacked into a hawthorn bush and made a space to investigate the footings of another wall heading under the 18th century field boundary wall,

Dave found .22  cartridge cases and  I found fragments of a white ware jar. The 1902 OS map showed a Boer War army camp in the next door field. Perhaps they’d chucked their rubbish over the wall (just like the army tipped their broken crockery over Durrington Walls during WWI).

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The mortared stone walls of the building looking back towards our first trench, the trees marking the corridor that turned into a trackway and in the middle distance the rooms that turned into stone faced field lynchets for small ‘celtic’ prehistoric? fields. Top left of the wall in the foreground is a massive stone that formed the door jamb. This was cut into to fit the timber door frame and a level horizontal area had a hole drilled for the door pivot. The wall continues to the right and the width of one of the rooms of the building is seen as it turns (top right) to run parallel with the wall in the foreground.

All still modern and not a fragment of anything Roman in sight, we strung out tapes from both walls and where they coincided we opened another trench to find the corner of the building.

The big trench was abandoned. Carol had found a bone fragment and a tiny piece of Roman grey ware (“that’s not really enough is it”). We concluded that our earthworks were part of a prehistoric field system, terraces levelled into a slope and faced with limestone rubble with a track defining their lower edge.

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Looking back towards the walls in the last photo. Top left of this trench had a flagstone in place, the key and the pitchfork were found here.

The team on the new trench found a flagstone on a mortar surface, a square section nail, an impressive looking pitchfork and a door key. The surface modern pottery gave way to fragments of tobacco pipe. In Dave and Fay’s trench we found a doorway with a pivot hole in it.

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The pitchfork and square sectioned hand made nail from trench C,

The maps show nothing here in the last 150 years. There are less detailed 18th century maps which also show a blank.

This field was enclosed from the Bishop of Bath’s deer park, in use from the 12th century. It does not seem to have been ploughed since then..but these mortared stone walls and finds are not as old as that… A cottage and/or outhouse in use from late 17th to early 19th century? We need to look at the tithe map and do some more documentary research.

In the end, as we all worked together to backfill the trenches and replace the turf…we agreed that…although we lost our dream of rediscovering a lost Roman villa, it had been good to work there together…

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amongst the sparking leaves and flowers in the cool April sunshine.

 

The Dunster Castle Mosaics

Dunster Castle in west Somerset, is one of three Wessex Norman motte and bailey castles now owned by the National Trust. Their 11th century designers all used natural hills. Each was a strategic location but history changed them.. only Dunster has remained a residence through 1000 years.. a grand mansion house, impressive in scale and outline, high above the road into Exmoor.

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1754 painting of Dunster’s dramatic setting on display in the Castle

In south Somerset, Montacute Castle, on St Michael’s Hill , is now only visible as earthworks under trees. It ended its military life in the 12th century when the land was given to Montacute Priory.

Corfe Castle thrived as a royal castle, particularly in the 13th century, but had become old fashioned by Tudor times. Elizabeth I sold Corfe and it became a rich family’s trophy house.. They backed the King (the losing side) and so in 1646 it was made uninhabitable. Now it’s a craggy ruin.

Dunster is different.. It survived the turbulent years of the English Civil War. It progressed.. and was developed during the 18th and 19th centuries.. complete with stables, outbuildings designed parkland, gardens and summerhouses.

And so it was… that last August I took the long and winding road from Taunton to Minehead in search of a Dunster mosaic.

Don’t get me wrong… these are pebble mosaics not Roman ones .. but they are intricate designs, hidden and poorly understood.

The thing about Dunster Tor is that it’s got unstable slopes. The paths and access road, spiraling up the steep hill to the Castle’s front door, keep slipping away.

I arrived at the right time, morning tea-break in the bothy, and then Robin the Head Gardener guided me up the hill with drawing board, camera, notebook and measuring tapes.

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Starting to clear the overgown path below the Castle. 

A busy summer day, many visitors enjoying the sunshine but I was shown down a lost path. Closed because of health and safety. It doesn’t go anywhere now. After about 30m, it stops abruptly at a steep slope, where the old route has tumbled down the hill.

Robin found the spot and pulled some creeper plants which had grown across the abandoned path. There, was a pattern of pebbles set in a hard white mortar.

He wished me well and left me to it ..and that was my home for the day.. shaded by the bushes and tall plants and all around me the voices of happy holiday people walking along other paths. Nearby but out of sight.

The path had been cut into the hillside. On the uphill side, I pulled back the greenery and found the red sandstone blocks of the revetment wall. Where the path met the wall there was a heap of soil and roots. I moved the vegetation… and just above the mosaic surface were fragments of plaster and pieces of brick and slate.

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The pebble mosaic running under the revetment wall.

There were also two blocks of stone joined together and forming an 120 degree angle as though they once formed the corner of a polygonal building. The revetment wall had been built above this corner and the mosaic ran up to it….The archaeological sequence .. first the stone corner, then the pebble floor built against it and then, at a later date, the revetment wall for the path built above them.

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Now it was time to clean back from the wall and reveal the pattern of the white pebbles. It was edged with a curving fan of long, pitched, red-brown stones. Then there were zig-zag patterns of long grey stones among the white pebbles. In the centre of each zig and zag, was a rosette of long stones with a pebble in the middle. Beyond that and further downslope there were interlocking arcs of grey stones dividing up the white pebbles…but then I ran out of path.

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The stone rosettes 

Slabs of the mosaic had  fractured and tipped down slope and then had been covered and resurfaced in the 1970s to repair the path and make it horizontal again.

Really good mortar… it held the pebbles fast as the floor cracked and slipped away down the hill.

By the end of the day I’d uncovered about half the surviving semi-circular design. Originally, it must have been about 5m in diameter but ….how old was it and what period in the Castle’s long history did it belong to?

I’ve been writing up the report and the answers are not easy to find.. definitely 18th or 19th century but surely we can do better than that.

There are two known Dunster mosaics. The other one, on the north side of the castle, was built against the 15th century gatehouse. This floor design is a series of concentric pebble petals and was carefully uncovered and drawn in the 1990s. Robert the excavator concluded that the mortar used in the floor was a kind of ‘Roman’ cement and was therefore at least earlier 19th century in date.

The one I had revealed was on the south side of the Castle and although it had a different design, the mortar and types of stone were similar. There is no reason to doubt that they are contemporary and part of the same period of garden design.

Dunster Castle has such a dramatic scenic profile: it has been drawn, painted and mapped many times since the early 18th century.

Changes usually take place when there is money and the Luttrell family (the owner occupiers of Dunster from the 1404-1976) didn’t always have large amounts of spare money.

In the early 18th century, Dorothy Luttrell had cash to spend and used it to redesign the gardens. A drawing of Dunster in 1735 shows a white building in the area where I drew the mosaic. There is a painting dated 1754 which also shows the building. Is this the building which covered the mosaic. There’s no similar structure for the north pebble floor and the the type of mortar doesn’t work for such an early date. ‘Roman cement’ was invented by James Parker in 1798 and is unlikely to have been used at Dunster until the early 19th century.

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The early 18th century painting at Dunster showing a little white building on the left side of the Castle in the area of the pebble floor.

Henry Fownes Luttrell 1747-1780 had money and lived at Dunster much of the time as did his son John 1780-1816 but the next owners lived mainly in London and the Castle went into decline.  Then, in 1867, George Luttrell inherited and took the place in hand. He commissioned fashionable architect, Anthony Salvin, to design a gothic revamp for the place.

The surviving later 19th century photos maps and plans give no hint that the mosaics were created at this time.

However, they may have been designed and seen for just a few years and any covering pavilion or summer house building may have been a light timber framed structure quickly removed.

My best bet… given the type of mortar …and the occupation history of the Luttrell family, is that the floors were commissioned by John Luttrell before 1816… can’t prove it though.

Unfortunately William Turner’s painting of 1811 shows nothing and neither does the tithe map of 1840. But they were  not created to show garden detail….

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Dunster’s Tithe Map 1840

so I must hope for a future researcher who one day.. at Taunton.. at a table in the Somerset County Record Office…working through deep pile of papers in the Dunster Archive, will suddenly alight on the conclusive document ….I hope he or she spots it.

 

Purbeck: Treswell’s Palimpsest

February: last week, meetings with Historic England. 5 hillforts in 2 days.

We were puffed out. It’s a long slog up the path to the ramparts of Hambledon Hill.

We paused near to top…just beyond the gate, and looked down on the Dorset countryside.

I turned to our Clive…

‘How did the conference go ?’

‘Good. I discovered a new archaeological term…now what was it?’

‘We tried to guess’   stratigraphic relationship? Harris matrix? Deverel Rimbury Culture?

‘Ah yes! Palimpsest!

High above Child Okeford, we gazed north beyond the chalkland into the Blackmoor Vale. Our eyes drifted across the sunlit network of field systems, farmsteads and trackways, disappearing into a late winter haze.

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The view from Hambledon Hill north into the Blackmore Vale

The archaeological metaphor. The palimpsest of the historic landscape. We nicked the term (archaeologists are scavengers). Wipe a slate clean but earlier messages can never be quite erased..look carefully…they can still be read.

Rip out a hedge, plough two fields as one, but the boundary will still be visible as a dark line.

Abandon a farm, pull down the buildings and walk away… but thousands of years later, scatters of finds will be evidence. Silent witnesses of past lives.

Wouldn’t it be good to go back and take a video or at least a snap shot.

Well, there are old maps at least.

Detailed Ordnance Survey will take you back to the 1880s. Then most areas are covered by the parish Tithe Maps of the 1840s.

If you are lucky..wealthy landowners commissioned surveyors to map their land..often in the 18th century.

Before that there are written documents but no visual links…but in Purbeck there is Ralph Treswell’s survey.

He was an artist cartographer commissioned by Elizabeth I’s favourite Sir Christopher Hatton.

Hatton’s family were from Northamptonshire, but after Elizabeth sold him Corfe Castle in 1572, he decided to carve out a Purbeck empire. He bought various blocks of land across this chunk of south-east Dorset and then decided to have them surveyed (this is the core of the National Trust’s Purbeck Estate).

The result is the Treswell Survey which took my breath away when I first saw it in the Dorset History Centre. It had survived the English Civil War and the plunder of Corfe Castle and been kept by the Bankes family in a cupboard at Kingston Lacy until the 1980s.

The maps are beautiful and detailed. Colour drawings of Tudor life and land tenure with the names of tenants and their land holdings across the Corfe Castle Estate in 1585-1586.

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Middlebere Heath 1586 with Ralph Treswell’s drawing of a Tudor furzecutter with red deer (no longer found in Purbeck)

Gold cannons line the upper terrace at Corfe Castle. Deer prance across Middlebere Heath. Working men stand with their furze cutting tools and rabbits emerge from burrows. High on the Purbeck hills above Langton is a timber beacon tower with ladder to the fire pot ready to warn against Spanish invasion. In the vale to the south, Langton West Wood follows the same contours as today, shrouding the worked out Roman and medieval Purbeck marble quarries.

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The signal beacon drawn on the chalk ridge crest above West Wood (bottom right) which was planted on worked out medieval Purbeck limestone quarries.

Farms and villages occupy the same locations as farms and villages today. The long boundaries across the limestone plateau mark medieval manorial divisions …Worth from Eastington from Acton from Langton..the boundaries survive today and can be traced back to Domesday of 1086 and beyond.

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The long boundaries of stone walls (still in the landscape today) divide the Domesday manors and therefore Saxon land holdings of Worth, Eastington, Acton and Langton.

At Studland, the coast has changed completely..no sand dunes then and the good arable land between chalk ridge, village and heathland is crowded with strips forming the common field system indicated as ‘hides’ by 1086. Studland Wood is larger than today but not ploughed since Roman times because Treswell’s map shows it then and under the trees today are the earthworks of ancient ‘celtic fields’.

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The East Common Field of Studland divided into arable strips between the chalk ridge of Studland Down and the village of Studland. Studland Wood is shown though larger than today. The tree cover preserved evidence of earlier Roman and preshistoric agriculture in the form of ‘celtic fields’. The name Castell Leyes may indicate the site of a 13th century coastal castle or fort referred to in medieval documents of King John.

The maps are a fabulous marker at a time when things moved slowly, reflecting far more of medieval life than can the later estate maps and tithe maps.

These Tudor surveys show how precious our landscape is. Built by the many generations of ancestors who have never been quite rubbed out. Their evidence is all around us. Treswell’s maps prove it !

Under the First Tower Corfe Castle

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Sometimes, at a distance, when the sunlight hits Corfe Castle… it seems whole again..

Just an illusion..it has been a battered shell since 1646, when, after a long siege, it was captured and blown apart by the Parliamentarians.

They made sure that the supporters of King Charles could not use it again..unpicking the defenses, trenching under the walls, packing with gunpowder and throwing the turrets and walls in all directions.

But this blog is also about something that happened 300 years earlier ..when Corfe Castle was one of the brightest and best within the league table of medieval fortresses.

About 1250, the 1st Tower was created for King Henry III.

When first added to the defensive circuit, this structure was a cutting edge design, built to protect the southern and western approaches. The barons were often restless.

A wonderful thing, with its rounded tower and its 3 arrow loop embrasures.. from these, bowmen or more probably cross bowmen could take aim and fell an attacker up to 300m away. A crossbow bolt could penetrate a knight’s armour.

We only know of one illustration and then only in plan.. drawn for the new owner Sir Christoper Hatton..14 years after it was sold to him by Elizabeth I. Such castles were old fashioned by then.

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Ralph Treswell’s 1586 survey of Corfe Castle shows the 1st Tower between the steps up to the Outer Gatehouse (right) and the Outer Bailey latrines (left). 60 years later it was blown in two.

The Parliamentary demolition team searched for weak spots and made them weaker. They set their charges and the explosion fractured the 1st tower.. right down its central arrowloop. It must have sounded like an earthquake in the town.. and when the dust settled, the east half leaned drunkenly outward and the west half  had been flipped 180 degrees coming to a rest half way down the hill slope.. This is where it has remained gathering soil, vegetation and scrub for another 371 years.

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Looking along the west wall of the Outer Bailey from the SW Gatehouse towards Corfe Village. The scrub covered fallen 1st Tower lies below the castle wall hidden by vegetation directly below the position of the church tower.

Other parts of the Castle have been cleaned and consolidated over the years but the chunks that lie tumbled across the slopes, or down by the river, have not. The largest of these pieces is the First Tower, and now …the scaffolding is upon it.

So last week I headed south through a cold winter morning of dramatic contrasts: on the high chalk downs, bright melting sunlight above vales of mist.. but down on the heath, thick freezing fog and brittle white frosted trees.

The caged Tower loomed but nobody was on it. I found them in the tea rooms beside the Outer Bridge. Architects, builders and property staff… after warm drinks we headed for the vertical ladder up from the ditch.

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The route up to the First Tower from the Castle Ditch. The standing half of the tower is on the right with part of the 13th century cross-loop visible, the other half is part buried beneath the lowest scaffolding.

A good time to visit. Most of the centuries of roots and soil had been removed. We climbed over the scaffolding and saw, up close, the medieval construction, types of mortar, the galleting of the joints and the different beds of Purbeck stone, the arrangement of rubble and fine ashlar.

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But everything in reverse. When we got to the top, we saw the great slabs of Purbeck Marble laid down as foundation layers before the tower proper was built above. Someone saw tool marks around their edges and suggested they may have been recycled coffin cover rough-outs.

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The foundation of the Tower made of large long slabs of stone, then rough block work, not meant to be seen, followed by the finely worked ashlar burr stone forming the battered plinth (three course vertical, three at 60 degrees and then vertical again rising to the top of the rounded tower).

A stranded whale of a thing, its construction now more visible than at any time since it was built.

Could we laser scan it and capture this revelation in time?

Yes it can be done.

It will be partly obscured soon, new mortar and capping needs to be placed over the Tower to protect the newly exposed structure from weathering.

Both halves will be digitised.

The scaffolding will be edited out, and then, by the touch of a button… the First Tower will be reunited again.

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Cold Case: Skeleton Cave , Leigh Woods

Sometimes names are a mystery… and until recently that was true for ‘Skeleton Cave’.

Back in 98 we commissioned an archaeological site survey for the National Trust’s Bristol property ..Leigh Woods. It found that one of its Avon Gorge caves (near the Clifton Suspension Bridge), was named Skeleton Cave. No explanation could be discovered, just an empty cave with a name.

10-03-08-leigh-woods-michaels-hill-golden-cap-022The view from Stokeleigh Camp down to the Skeleton Cave at Leigh Woods

Bones preserve well in the carboniferous limestone caves and are often found when cavers dig there…though discoveries may be centuries old and poorly recorded.

Deep cave deposits can be  of many periods. The National Trust has a good Somerset cave collection.. at Leigh Woods, Brean Down and the Mendips properties. Cave deposits tend to be very ancient indeed. At Cheddar there is a cave known as the Bone Hole where many prehistoric bones have been found. The Royal Holloway College has been carrying out exceptional research at Ebbor. Here, after a decade of excavations,through layers containing Pleistocene animal remains, some human occupation evidence has recently been found. This is over 30,000 years old and below layers containing bones of long lost British creatures like aurochs, arctic foxes, reindeer and bears.

img_1386Pleistocene animal bones from Ebbor Gorge

So Skeleton Cave is a cold case.. and an unexpected email from Graham at Bristol University reopened the files. First, and most obviously, it is Skeleton Cave because back in 1965 two men dug there and found prehistoric flint flakes and a skeleton. National Trust had no idea the excavation was taking place until a report appeared in the local paper. At that point the Bristol Spelaeological Society at Bristol University wrote to NT to raise their concerns.

Surviving cave deposits are rare and any excavation needs to be backed up with the resources and experience to analyse the finds and publish the information. So the excavation stopped and the finds were handed over to the National Trust. Bristol Spelaeological Society put together a file on what they could find out about the excavation.

Graham let me see the Bristol correspondence and hoped to find more from the National Trust files. The NT archive is curated in environmentally friendly conditions in old WWII tunnels near Chippenham, Wiltshire. The relevant files were called up and brought to our office at Tisbury. A morning of searching revealed very little additional information.

Back in the 1960s, the National Trust had very few staff compared with today and some properties were administered by local management committees. Some of the letters in Graham’s file were from the Leigh Woods committee and this reminded me of the tin trunk we once had in the cellar at our old office at Eastleigh Court, Warminster.

The box had been full of minute books and maps and other documents held by the Leigh Woods Management Committee and was transferred to the Leigh Woods property hub at Tyntesfield when we moved. I contacted the collections manager there and Graham went to Tyntesfield to look inside the box…Unfortunately,  just committee stuff and nothing about Skeleton Cave.

Within the Bristol University files were letters from the old Wessex Regional Office at Stourhead. Perhaps the 2 boxes of finds from Skeleton Cave were taken there. No, they may be hidden somewhere but the Stourhead collection is largely catalogued and there is nothing from Bristol.

Another of Graham’s 1960s letters is from Lacock and this is a more likely place for something to be hidden. The Talbot family were finding things on their Wiltshire estate for centuries before it came to the Trust and there are numerous rooms and boxes all through the ranges of Abbey buildings. The collection is still being catalogued. Visions of the two lost Leigh Woods finds boxes hidden like Ravenclaw’s diadem within Lacock’s ‘rooms of requirement’ (Lacock featured in the early Harry Potter films).

No luck so far. Usually back then, NT archaeological finds would be deposited at the local museum which would be Bristol City Museum. They have no records from Skeleton Cave.

However, not all is lost. Graham has a drawn section of the cave, notes on the excavation and a precious human lower jaw which was given to the University by the finders. He will publish an account of the discovery and Lisa at Tyntesfield has found the money to provide a radiocarbon date for the mandible.

10-03-08-leigh-woods-michaels-hill-golden-cap-023Bristol Suspension Bridge and the Avon Gorge from Stokeleigh Camp Iron Age hillfort.

It was analysed a few days ago and we await the result.