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!

Badbury and the Devil’s Footprint

This is about the 6th century… Dark Times.

You will need to go to Badbury Rings in Dorset and head to the west side of the outer rampart. Stand where the great Roman road, known as the Ackling Dyke, touches the hillfort and then look north.

From the Badbury Roman cross-roads take the road to Old Sarum (nr Salsibury) where there is another hillfort at another cross-roads. After the Roman conquest, just like at Badbury, a small Roman town grew up nearby. At Badbury it’s Shapwick (Vindocladia) at Old Sarum its Stratford sub Castle (Sorviodunum).

The Roman administration lasted about 400 years then the troops left for the continent and Britain sorted out its own politics. It broke up into factions, petty political infighting and one by one these new Romanised British states caved in to alien cultures from outside the old empire. Our modern counties tell the story of conflict and the place names of our villages and towns in the east are almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon. Bit by bit the Roman centres were abandoned or taken over. In recent years it has been suggested that British and Germanic incomers integrated more amicably than has traditionally been believed…but ancient DNA compared with DNA from modern populations argues for the old fashioned view …that the Brits were ethnically cleansed from the east.

The Saxons took Old Sarum in AD 552, their history book, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, states this. A worrying time for the Romanised peoples of Dorset and Somerset. Time to block the Ackling Dyke. It was too easy an access route for the invaders. The old earthwork marking the Dorset border, Bockerley Dyke, was strengthened and the road was blocked here (General Pitt Rivers discovered this during his excavations in 1890). It was re-opened again soon afterwards…

Early aerial photograph of Badbury Rings (Wessex from the Air 1928). The Ackling Dyke runs top centre to centre left. Notice the way the outer rampart touches the road and covers its south eastern bank and ditch. The Devil's Footprint is top centre cutting the road at right angles. The line has been subsequently been rebuilt but over the years has slumped into the old cutting.

Early aerial photograph of Badbury Rings (Wessex from the Air 1928). The Ackling Dyke runs top centre to centre left. Notice the way the outer rampart touches the road and covers its south eastern bank and ditch. The Devil’s Footprint is top centre cutting the road at right angles. The line has subsequently been rebuilt but over the years has slumped into the old cutting.

Badbury at the cross-roads needed re-fortification. Imagine standing here in the 6th century.. can you feel the vulnerability. What happened?

There are three ramparts around the hillfort. The two inner ones lie close together and look similar…they are Iron Age. What about the outer one? It is further out, slighter, bit humpy…unfinished?. Some say it was built about AD 44 ..on the eve of the Roman Conquest, but stand on the west edge where it runs beside the Ackling Dyke and look at the earthworks.

Which came first? The great Ackling Dyke is 25m across. Late Roman banks and ditches flank the road on either side. Recent LiDAR laser scans, along with aerial photographs, show something new. The east road bank is cut by Badbury’s outer ditch. Excavation at Shapwick has shown that the road is late 4th century…so Badbury’s rampart is later still. Last week I visited and saw it on the ground.

Then there is the chalk quarry just a little to the north.. known as the Devil’s Footprint. It runs from the rampart across the line of the road to the steeper slope to the west. Once it was covered in gorse but NT rangers have now made the earthwork clearly visible and it is not a random digging. It cuts the Ackling Dyke at a right angle. A wide formidable defence acting as a cross-ridge dyke.

Back in 2004, we radiocarbon dated the re-occupation of the hillfort to the 5th century, so good evidence that Badbury’s people re-made this place as a fortress. The British Dorset militia quickly threw up Badbury’s outer rampart and dug the wide trench, the ‘Devil’s Footprint’,to hold back the Saxon tide…. well..now..as the archaeology of the earthworks has demonstrated, there’s a strong argument to be made for this.

Quern quest

Looking east from Seatown, West Dorset

Looking east from Seatown, West Dorset

As Martin so eloquently puts it ‘the cliffs are leaking archaeology’ especially in West Dorset, with its soft geology and erosion by the sea. Luckily for us there are keen-eyed locals who walk the same routes and notice changes and strange objects laying on the beach or sticking out of a fresh landslip.

A few weeks ago I found a message on my desk to ring a Mr Bickford who had found what he was sure were parts of a quern stone used for grinding corn and some clay loom weights, near Seatown in West Dorset. I felt a little jolt of excitement, as regular readers of this blog will recognize Seatown as the place where we excavated a Bronze Age burnt mound and two Iron Age ovens. (see 20/07/2015 burnt mound the story so far). Could we have more evidence to fill out the story of the Iron Age at this site, or was this a new place to investigate further along the cliff?

The layer of burnt flint and stone can be seen in the middle of the picture

The layer of burnt flint and stone of the ‘burnt mound’ can be seen in the middle of the picture

I rang and arranged to pop over to Seatown and look at what he had found and record were they came from. So it was that I headed west on a bright and sunny morning, deep blue sky above and spirits high. I was not disappointed!

I met Humphrey in the car park and we walked up the hill to his house, round the corner and into the garden. What I saw took the last of the breath away that the climb up the hill had left me. On the garden table were three large pieces of quern, both upper and lower stones, and next to them what looked like one and a half very large triangular clay loom weights!

“Wow! Oh yes they are exactly what you thought they were”

The top and bottom stones together as used

The top and bottom stones together as used

The pieces of quern stone

The pieces of quern stone

 

 

 

 

 

 

The stone the quern is made from is not local to the immediate area. We have had a few geologists look at images and one suggestion is that it may be continental! But they need to see it in the flesh, so to speak, so they can see every mineral and inclusion.

The loom weights are very large and have more holes than necessary so may not be loom weights. If they were they would have been used on a warp weighted loom, to make cloth by keeping tension on the warp(fixed thread)

The loom weights

The loom weights? probably something else but what? 

Hopefully my hand gives a scale to the size of the weights

My hand gives a scale to the size of the weights

Both the quern and the possible loom weights are probably Iron Age and the small piece of pottery found with them looks very like the Iron Age pottery from the ovens found when excavating the ‘burnt mound’ site nearby.

A reconstruction of a warp weighted loom, the weights are along the bottom behind the lowest bar

A reconstruction of a warp weighted loom, the weights are along the bottom behind the lowest bar

A roman hand quern very similar technique to an iron age quern

A Roman hand quern, using a very similar technique to an Iron Age quern

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once again we are on the trail of more information about a site. Try to solve the mystery of the weights and it’s a trip to the geologist first to see if we can track down the origin of the quern stone, who knows what stories we can then tell about the people who lived at Seatown over two thousand years ago.

Back to Badbury

Reconstruction drawing of Badbury Rings, Dorset by Liz Induni for the National Trust

Reconstruction drawing of Badbury Rings, Dorset by Liz Induni for the National Trust

Yesterday I met Radio Solent’s Steve Harris in the car park at Badbury Ring, on the Kingston Lacy estate, near Wimbourne, one of Dorset’s many Iron Age hill forts. We headed towards the large banks and ditches of the fort as the nippy wind blew across the fields to cool our faces. As we walked across the Roman road and stopped to look at the Bronze Age burial mounds a Skylark rose into the air singing its soaring song.

Steve Harris with Badbury Rings behind him

Steve Harris with Badbury Rings behind him

Steve wanted to talk about the hill fort for one of his regular features on his show. He hadn’t visited the hill fort for a very long time so this was my que to show off all the wonderful archaeology under our feet. There are almost too many stories to tell, across the thousands of years of human activity in the area.

Excavating the ditch of a iron age round house, just inside the inner bank of Badbury Rings

Excavating the ditch of an Iron Age round house, just inside the inner bank of Badbury Rings

Apart from the obvious ‘humps and bumps’ of the Bronze Age barrows, Iron Age hill fort and Roman road, we have found evidence of the earlier use of the high ground the hill fort is on. When we excavated on he very top of the interior of the hill fort we found flint tools from both Mesolithic and Neolithic times.

One of the trenches in the interior of Badbury Rings hill fort. Each white tag is a worked flint or waste flake.

One of the trenches in the interior of Badbury Rings hill fort. Each white tag is a worked flint or waste flake

As Steve and I reached the summit of the hill we found evidence of a more modern use of the site, large concrete blocks with iron loops in the top. These were the remnants of fixings for a timber beacon tower which emitted a signal to guide planes back to Tarrant Rushton airfield a few fields to the west during WWII.

Next to one of these blocks we finished the interview and looked out across the landscape, cars traveling along the road between the avenue of Beech trees, people walking their dogs, children running along the banks, birds chattering and the memories of our excavations came flooding back to me. Was it really 12 years since we were here, finding a clay sling shot, part of a small twisted iron torc, and beautiful worked flint tools. I will return when the many and varied wild flowers are in bloom, so long Badbury,  till we meet again.

A very happy archaeologist in a trench at Badbury Rings with a large sherd of Iron Age pottery

A very happy archaeologist in a trench at Badbury Rings with a large sherd of Iron Age pottery

Day twelve – end of the section line

 

 Clive and his digger arrive on site

Clive and his digger arrive on site

The final day, nose to the grind stone, no tea break and a late lunch.

Martin cracked on with the last of the drawing and recording, Carol and Millie finished digging the eastern end. I attacked the possible second kiln/oven and finished revealing the opening of the first one. Rob and Fay went for the natural bedrock in their trenches, with help from Clive and his digger 🙂

Looking west along the trench Carol working in the eastern end and Martin recording the section
Looking west along the trench Carol working in the eastern end and Martin recording the section

 

Martin recording the extra information uncovered in the eastern end of the trench

Martin recording the extra information uncovered in the eastern end of the trench

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Due to the efforts of all the diggers Clive only needed to do one scoop to hit the bottom of the burnt mound material, the thin buried soil it was sat on and he top of the natural bedrock. The layer under the mound was very pale grey and silty. We took a sample of this to look for pollen and to look at the soil make up, one of many samples taken through the mound.

The small scoop taken out by the digger after Fay had cleaned it up, so we could see the layers better

The small scoop taken out by the digger after Fay had cleaned it up, so we could see the layers better

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The kiln/oven finally gave up its form, the charcoal spread out of the opening. The second kiln/oven had a layer of burnt clay but no charcoal under that layer, just a brown soil, but one side of the opening was very clear to see. Both had an opening facing the same way, west-south-west.

The kilns/ovens side by side

The kilns/ovens side by side

The charcoal was very well preserved as I found earlier. It’s amazing that the structure of the wood is locked by burning and we will be able to see what species it was thousands of years later.

Well preserved charcoal

Well preserved charcoal

Then the sad moment came for Clive to start filling in the trench, and time for us to eat a sandwich, re-hydrate and have some Women’s Institute lemon drizzle cake provided by Fay. Yummy!

Clive starts the back filling

Clive starts the back filling

We had one last task to do, with Clive happy to help we just dug out the area next to the kiln/oven to see if we had another one to the inland side, alas we didn’t but it was worth a look as we would always have wondered.

The last few scrapes

The last few scrapes

With one last look at the cliff edge that had been our ‘office’ for two weeks we headed down to pack up the tools and then for a well earned cuppa.

Martin and Rob reflecting on the last two weeks

Martin and Rob reflecting on the last two weeks

We will post updates about all the samples we took and the radiocarbon dates as we get them back from the specialists. The pottery and flints need washing before we send them for identification and dating. So keep watching the blog.

NEWS – The next dig will be Chedworth Roman Villa, from 18th August, see you there 🙂

Day eleven – it always happens…..

Sorry for the delay in updates. It seems to be the law in archaeology that features appear at the last moment, and time moves so quickly on the last few days!

We had lots of visitors today, the school came back to do some post excavation finds washing and colleagues from our team came to visit and to help. Stephen, one of our curators, was soon mattocking and Mike our gardens advisor was chief bucket emptier along with our line manager Wendy.

 Our team from the National Trust came to visit and help on site

Our team from the National Trust came to visit and help on site, Stephen wielding the mattock

Due to the time constraints it was time to reduce the trench size again and target the areas we needed answers from. The eastern end of the mound was not behaving so we need to find where it ended and if the stoney area was related to the mound or something else altogether.

Millie and Carol were giving the mission to sort out the eastern end

Millie and Carol were giving the mission to sort out the eastern end

Meanwhile down at the western end of the trench Rob was finding a ditch cutting through the end of the mound!

The ditch appearing with the black mound materiel on the right and left edge of the picture

The ditch appearing with the black mound material on the right edge of the smaller trench

 

Martin recording the ditch with help from Rob who dug it

Martin recording the ditch with help from Rob who dug it

The mound keeps going down, but has now got small patches of clay within it; hopefully not far to go now until we find the bottom of it.

The black mound

The black mound

This was the day the kiln/hearth/oven would reveal it’s flue/opening, or was it! As I worked to remove more of the red burnt clay (possibly the collapsed walls of the feature) I found the edge of a piece of pottery. It looked like it may be sat under a lump of clay that may have been one side of the opening of the kiln/hearth/oven.

 The edge of a  large sherd of pottery

The edge of a large sherd of pottery

As I dug it got bigger, and bigger.

The pottery got bigger!

The pottery got bigger!

Then it was time to remove the clay that seemed to be filling it.

The clay lump removed

The pottery fully exposed

Sadly it was cracked and small roots had grown through the cracks. As each piece came out we realized it was a base of a pot.

A lovely base

A lovely base

Phew! What a day. We stayed late to get as much done as we could, Martin had been recording and drawing the sections, while we all concentrated on our own small areas of the site. We left for a well-earned end of dig pizza, and a refreshing brew, hoping that in the last day we could manage to finish before Clive back-filled the site, and the porta- cabin disappeared!

Day six – Magic Millie

Pottery in the hearth/kiln

Pottery in the hearth/kiln

A busy open day and less diggers on site, and the rain held off. Millie and Mike carried on in the eastern end of the trench, hoping to find the burnt material, while Martin did the same at the western end.   

Millie and Mike excavating down to the mound

Millie and Mike excavating down to the mound

Either side of the hearth/kiln features are taken down a few levels

Either side of the hearth/kiln features are taken down a few levels

Just before morning break Millie hit gold! Well, not real gold but as good to us, it was the top of the burnt mound, we have been looking for all week! we seem to have just got the back edge of it but time will tell.

Magic Millie cleaning down onto the mound layer

Magic Millie cleaning down onto the burnt mound layer

Here is a brilliant picture of the decorated pottery found yesterday, taken by Nick who visited the site and who kindly sent us the shot.

The decorated pottery

The decorated pottery