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

Glastonbury Tor, Sacred Centre

The National Trust looks after lots of hill tops and they’re all pretty special.. but this week.. I went to a meeting at Glastonbury to talk about conservation repairs to a nearby hill that is so popular it receives 350,000 visitors a year. We were struggling for a description of it and tried to avoid the obvious ‘i’ word.

The steep walk up to the tower from the east side.

The steep walk up to the tower from the east side.

Glastonbury Tor has a very distinctive profile rising from the Somerset Levels with its medieval chapel tower like an obelisk on the top, visible for many miles around.

Approaching the Tor from Shepton Mallet and Pilton

Approaching the Tor from Shepton Mallet and Pilton

We walked to the summit. A perfect day, cold but very clear. There is a small level area there. At one end a toposcope and at the other the tower. Between them a worn trough of erosion. We took away a concrete path in 2008 and planted grass reinforced with a plastic grid. The idea was to improve the visual appearance but the footfall is too heavy. We need to replace the hard surface again to protect the underlying archaeology.

This years erosion between the 15th century tower and the 1983 toposcope. 350,000 visitors this year.  This is where the medieval St Michael's Chapel used to stand from the 8th century, before that there was a Dark Age monastic site, traces of a Roman temple and before that prehistoric flints of various types demonstrate people have valued this spot for many thousands of years.

This years erosion between the 15th century tower and the 1983 toposcope. 350,000 visitors this year. This is where the medieval St Michael’s Chapel used to stand from the 8th century, before that there was a Dark Age monastic site, traces of a Roman temple and before that prehistoric flints of various types demonstrate people have valued this spot for many thousands of years.

The tower from the south side.

The tower from the south side.


Back in 2003, the tower was in a bad way and needed repair. A Royal Navy helicopter from Yeovilton kindly carried the materials up there.
The Royal Navy transport of conservation materials to the summit 2003

The Royal Navy transport of conservation materials to the summit 2003

Scaffolding was erected and loose stonework was rebedded and the tower repointed. Fragments of older medieval carving were found in the structure and the whole tower was drawn and analysed by Jerry the historic buildings specialist. Local archaeologists Nancy and Charles watched while a new path was laid around the tower, recorded buried archaeology and carried out a survey of the site.

Building repairs to the parapet on the top of St Michael's Tower 2003

Building repairs to the parapet on the top of St Michael’s Tower 2003

We looked out towards the Mendips and the city beneath. Wells cathedral was clear picked out by the bright sunlight.

The Tor has been a place of pilgrimage and fascination for thousands of years. Pagan and New Age worshippers are most visible now. Glastonbury Abbey built a chapel here and this was repaired and rebuilt from the 8th-15th centuries. In 1275 there was an earthquake that demolished the nave and in 1538 the last abbot was hung here when Henry VIII closed the Abbey and ordered the demolition of many if its buildings.

Philip Rahtz dug here from 1964-6 and found a Christian monastic site in use during the 5th-6th centuries. This find helped feed speculation that this might be the Isle of Avalon linked to Arthur. In 1190, the graves of Arthur and Guinevere are said to have been discovered at the Abbey.

Rahtz also found Roman material on the summit and it is possible that there was once a Roman temple there. Finds of prehistoric flint also demonstrate that people have been drawn to the hill since the Mesolithic.

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But then.. they were much like us and who wouldn’t want to climb up here and marvel at the beauty of the Somerset landscape fading out in all directions far into the horizon.

Object of the month – Oldest and smallest

A bit of a cheat this month as I am featuring two objects not one. They are both made from (broadly) the same material, flint and are both what we call prehistoric. They are the oldest and the smallest flint tools we have found while excavating sites on trust land in the Wessex Region or I should say ‘old’ Wessex region as we are now joined with Devon and Cornwall and are the South West region and I still haven’t seen everything from those two counties.

The oldest and the smallest

The oldest and the smallest (2cm Scale)

The oldest tool from the Upper Palaeolithic  (12000 to 40000  years old) was found in High Wood on the Kingston lacy Estate in Dorset, during an excavation of an enclosure in the woods. It has a beautiful patina on the surface and amber areas were the soil conditions have stained it. I remember finding it in the semi darkness under the trees in a yellowish orange clay. At the time all I knew was that it was a large flint  tool, but was not sure of its date. Phil Harding at Wessex Archaeology, ‘as seen on TV’ (Time Team fame) did the flint identifying and report on all the flint from the site and was very pleased to say it was a special find 🙂

Upper Palaeolithic Tool 12000 to 40000 years old

Upper Palaeolithic Tool 12000 to 40000 years old

He says ‘The importance of this object lies in its discovery. There is nothing of a similar age at the site to confirm occupation of the hill at this time although the presence of iron staining makes it likely that it represents a casual loss or was discarded at the site rather than a curio that was picked up by occupants of the later prehistoric/Romano-British enclosure. Traces of Upper Palaeolithic occupation are known from Dorset but they are nevertheless rare, and all discoveries, including individual pieces such as this, add to and confirm the distribution of human groups in this period.’  So someone left it on the hill all those years ago, I wonder what they saw as they looked out across the estate that was yet to be.

The second object is our smallest, a Portland chert (a type of flint) barb from the Mesolithic period (6000 to 10000 years ago) excavated at Thorncombe Beacon on the West Dorset coast, the site  would have been many miles inland in the Mesolithic period (coastal erosion has cut the cliff back to where it is today) It is so small and every side has been reworked. Small half-moon chips have been flaked from it to sharpen the sides, how did they hold it to do the work on it! Any flint knappers out there let me know.

Mesolithic Portland chert barb

Mesolithic Portland chert barb

It would have been hafted into a wooden rod along with others to make the barbs on an arrow shaft.

Our little barb was used last year by an artist Simon Ryder as part of the  Exlab Project  https://simonhryder.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/animation/ he worked with Southampton University and produced a ‘pelt’ of the barb and a larger scale 3D print in resin.

Part of Simon Ryder Exlab exhibition featuring the mesolithic barb, the 'pelt'

Part of Simon Ryder Exlab exhibition featuring the Mesolithic barb, the ‘pelt’

The 3D print of the microlith barb, part of Simon Ryders exhibition

The 3D print of the microlith barb, part of Simon Ryder’s exhibition