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.


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.


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.


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.


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’.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.





Corfe Castle Begins


It would be wrong to let the day go by without our NT anniversary post. This was the Outer Gatehouse at Corfe Castle, Dorset on 7th April 1986. I was there again today 30 years later.

The ticket office and the turnstiles are gone now and the Outer Bailey today was alive with people dressed in medieval costumes, amongst the tents and archery practice. Lots of children on holiday getting involved and soaking up the atmosphere.

In 1986, Nancy and I met the first mini-bus full of National Trust working holiday campers and we began to cut the turf to understand what lay under the grassy mound.


Under the turf was a courtyard of limestone gravel and the west wall of the Outer Gatehouse guard chamber which had fallen against the curtain wall (to the right) burying a flight of stone steps.

The mound turned out to be a large block of walling, part of the Outer Gatehouse guard chamber which had been blown up in 1646. After the second siege, the Parliamentarian soldiers captured the Castle and undermined the walls. It seems that they filled the guard chamber with gunpowder and blew it to pieces. Everything flew outwards and the barrel vaulted roof dropped onto the floor burying the guard chamber fireplace and flagstone floor.

Nancy excavated the diamond leaded window which had been scattered outside ..as the blast tore through it.DCOC743

Nancy excavating the diamond leaded window pieces. The stone west window of the guard chamber top right.

We found that the top and edges of the collapsed wall had been picked over and a lot of the good stone blocks had been nicked by the locals to make repairs to their houses.Well, why not after all the damage that had been done to their properties during the Civil War… some of the Corfe cottages acquired some very grand fireplaces in the 17th century.

The west wall had fallen and broken over the stairway that once led to the top of the gatehouse.


Clearing the broken blocks of fallen gatehouse to reveal the stairway up to the top of the curtain wall. Part of the first floor of the gatehouse can be seen to the right 90 degrees out of true.

We cleaned the revealed walls, photographed and drew them and then it was time for the stone masons to come and consolidate the masonry.. the mystery of the mound of grass had been revealed.

I got a particular buzz when we cleaned the steps and saw the wear marks of the feet on the stone. Nobody had walked there for 350 years. We walked up and down them..our feet where theirs had trod.





Giving memories a voice

We can write down our memories for future generations to read, but we can also hear the past through sound recordings and videos.

Today Alex is visiting from The Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network (CITiZAN http://www.citizan.org.uk), an organization set up in response to dynamic threats to our island coastal heritage. It is a community archaeology project and actively promotes site recording and long-term monitoring programmes led by volunteers.

Alex will be soon leading a walk at Studland on the Dorset coast, looking at the WWII sites, and as well as research for the tour she hopes to play snippets from our sound archive of local people talking about what it was like, what they saw and stories of life in Studland during WWII.

Studland played an important part in WWII as a testing area for amphibius tanks and  fougasse (burning sea). In April 1944 Prime Minister Winston Churchill, King George VI and General Dwight D. Eisenhower (Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces and in charge of the military operation) met at Fort Henry on Redend Point at Studland to watch the combined power of the Allied Forces preparing for D-Day.

Alex l listening to the taped memories and working on her tour notes

Alex listening to the taped memories and working on her tour notes


The copies of the small sound archive we hold at the office are all still on original cassette tapes. For younger readers there is a picture below of what one is!

A cassette tape

A cassette tape



Alex has had to come and use our old technology to be able to then record a digitized copy for use in the field. We will need to digitize our archive so the recordings are more accessible. Luckily we have a cassette transcribing machine and a cassette player. The transcriber has extra controls so you can slow the tape down, change the tone and various backspace and counter options. It even has a foot pedal control!

Transcribing machine –  a special purpose machine which is used for voice recording processing, so the recording can be  written in hard copy form.

The Transcribing machine

The Transcribing machine



One day these machines will become part of the archaeological archives. At the moment they are thankfully still available and needed to play the memories from the past.

Time Vault Town House, Corfe

Back in the 80s and 90s, soon after the Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle Estates were first given to the National Trust, many discoveries were made as its ancient buildings were repaired.

One day in 1990, sitting at my desk at the Kingston Lacy Estate Office, the phone rang. ‘Could you come to Corfe Castle please’ we’ve found a vault. The builders working at the Town House had disturbed a flagstone in the entrance passage and it had fallen into a hole.

330 Nov90 010 The picture was taken in 1990 from the Outer Gatehouse, Corfe Castle. Dorset in front of the church in the centre of the photo is the Town House. The door below the large window leads to the entrance passage.

When I arrived, the builders were clustered around the small hole in the floor and had let a ladder down. They shone a torch into the space and the beam reflected from a stone lined cellar. Its floor had a jagged uneven surface and the beam glittered off reflective surfaces.

I climbed down and they passed me my camera and drawing board.

355 21

They lowered down a light bulb to illuminate a space with a vaulted roof 2.5m deep about 1.5m wide by 3m long. I stood on the bottom rung of the step and looked at a floor covered in pottery and glass bottles.

355 19

We recorded them where they had been left and then asked Jo the pottery specialist to date them. Verwood earthenwares, blue and white fine glazed Chinese imitation wares all dating from the late 18th century. They had been hidden in the dark for over 200 years.



Object of the month – very timely

As we head towards the end of the year, the passage of time crops up in many conversations; ‘where has the year gone!’, ‘I have no time to get everything done for Christmas’, ‘time is just flying by’. We take it for granted that we can look at our watches or phones and know exactly what the time is and how long is left in the day for those vital chores.

Over many hundreds of years the way to mark time passing has become more sophisticated, from water clocks and candles to digital and perpetual clocks. Early time devices, which relied on water, fire or the sun, were on the whole not very portable, but with all technology someone is always working on making things smaller!

During the excavations at Corfe Castle in 1989 we uncovered a curious flat bronze disc with strange symbols engraved on one side.

A bronze disc with engraved decoration and roman numerels

A bronze disc with engraved decoration and roman numerals

The symbols were roman numerals, but not like a clock we would recognise, from one to twelve, but four to twelve and one to eight. There were two raised sockets, one on the upper flat edge and one on a decorated bar that ran from one side to the other one third of the way down the inner edge. What we had found was part of a pocket sundial.

A drawing of the sundial showing the decoration and sequence of roman numerals

A drawing of the sundial showing the decoration and sequence of roman numerals

There would have been a ‘gnomon’, the usually triangular shaped part that casts the shadow, between the two raised sockets, and the ring would have been set above a compass. You would need to know were north was so that the sundial could be orientated north. You would also need to know what latitude were you were as each dial would have been made for use at different latitudes.

Engraved brass pocket compass and sundial with German inscription on the reverse the last letters reading 'And. Vogh'. Folding with a shaped outer rim. Part of the NT collection from Snowshill Manor Glos.

An example of a complete engraved brass pocket compass and sundial. Part of the NT collection from Snowshill Manor, Glos.

We contacted the British Sundial Society (sundialsoc.org.uk) for help to identify our dial. They told us that “the part of the pocket dial you have appears to be the top ‘lid’ of a portable dial typical of many from the late 18th early 19th century. The bottom part of the dial would have contained a magnetic compass in order to orientate the dial so that the gnomon faced north. The spacing of the hour lines around the ring indicate that the dial was made for the latitude of about 51 degrees and this would also have been the angle of the gnomon”

The 51 degree latitude line is the one that passes through Southampton

The 51 degree latitude line is the one that passes through Southampton

Corfe Castle is where the ‘t’ in Bournemouth is on the map, just to the south of latitude 51 degrees. We need to make a gnomon and take the dial, and a compass, to Corfe Castle to see if it works, something we have never done!  I will try and remember to post about our test when we have had chance to do the experiment. It’s catching a sunny day that may hold things up!

The diameter of the dial is 460mm

The diameter of the dial is 460mm

West Bailey, Corfe, Day 5 The Burial Ground

The view south across the finished  trenches and the West Bailey high above the Purbeck countryside

The view south across the finished trenches and the West Bailey high above the Purbeck countryside

A day to take photographs, make scale drawings and polish the archaeological record. This will be the residue of our days once the trenches ..and eventually we are gone.
Drawing the revealed part of the buried north wall.  Once, it is thought, the 13th century constable's house. Someone like Richard de Bosco  who made sure the Castle was at the cutting edge of military design for his master Edward I.

Drawing the revealed part of the buried north wall.
Once, it is thought, the 13th century constable’s house. Someone like Richard de Bosco who made sure the Castle was at the cutting edge of military design for his master Edward I.

What of past digs? Thomas Bond in the 1880s left his book on Corfe Castle and a few photographs.. and the RCHM scholars published their article in Medieval Archaeology and created their wonderful Dorset volumes. Volume II pt.1 has their account of Corfe Castle.. still the best .. though we have added something new this week.

But Corfe’s RCHM men were mainly experts in medieval history and architecture. There was so much to say about medieval royal Corfe that Corfe the post-medieval new money mansion got a bit neglected. Queen Elizabeth I flogged it in 1572 and from the Hatton family is passed to the Bankes. Sir John and Dame Mary garrisoned the Castle in support of Charles I, and, following its capture in 1646, Parliament insisted on blowing it to bits. It’s this late Tudor, early Stuart and Civil War knowledge of Corfe that the National Trust’s research over the years has built up. It’s great that Ralph Treswell created his plan of the Castle in 1586 but as we found out this week Sir John Bankes paid for a lot more work on his prestigious new home before its destruction.

One of the lumps of animal bone mixed in the limestone debris on the east side of the 17th century wall.

One of the lumps of animal bone mixed in the limestone debris on the east side of the 17th century wall.

Carol and Kate spent the last hours digging down on either side of our narrow wall in trench B while the well-cut masonry of the ‘Constable’s House’ was being measured and drawn in trench A.

We have some good information on some of the constables. My favourite is Richard de Bosco who served Edward I in the 1280s-90s. His name shines out as the Castle’s Project Director in the parchment account rolls which survive in the National Archives, London. He made sure that what was required got done. If you know medieval latin and can decipher the handwriting and abbreviations (I can’t but we found someone who could).. they’re a great read (well, if you’re into that sort of stuff). Month by month they detail the repairs to the Castle, naming nearly everyone involved and how much they got paid. Some good touches too.. like the candles bought to enable the craftsmen to work at night “in preparation for our Lord King’s arrival”.

Not a royal wall but a revetment wall. This the rough east side was not meant to be seen built up against a pile of limestone debris.

Not a royal wall but a revetment wall. This the rough east side was not meant to be seen built up against a pile of limestone debris.

In the 1630s, the Bankes family called on local builders who did a good job but the wall in trench B was very different to that in A. It only had a good finished face on the west side. Carol uncovered only a rough rubble surface on the east which was clearly not meant to be seen. It was a revetment wall, built to shore up a slope made of limestone gravel and rubble containing animal bones and the odd fragment of medieval pot.

The west side of the 17th century wall. Well built and pointed with orange brown mortar.  The sand and rubble peeled off onto a level gravel floor. Pottery dated this floor to the 17th century.

The west side of the 17th century wall. Well built and pointed with orange brown mortar. The sand and rubble peeled off onto a level gravel floor. Pottery dated this floor to the 17th century.

The west face was nicely finished and pointed with an orange mortar. It appeared as good as new, presumably because it had been covered by debris for over 350 years. It was probably less than a decade old before Captain Hughes and his Parliamentarian soldiers did their work. At the lowest level, were a few fragments of green and yellow glazed earthenware typical of the 17th century, just above a limestone gravel floor.

What was this lower west end of the West Bailey used for? The RCHM men give us an idea in their report, though not enough information..”of the later history of the site we have little knowledge except that.. at some date after 1600 the area west of the cross-wall was used as a burial-ground. The most likely period for this later development would be that of the blockade of the castle in the years 1643-6, when the use of the parish church-yard might well have been denied the garrison over long periods”. Sadly no explanation.. how many bodies were found and when? Where are they now? Perhaps a trip to the English Heritage National Monuments Record in Swindon to see if there are extra records there. No grave-like features appeared on the geophys.

What do we take away from this? Well, the obvious..that there is much that we still do not know about this place and particularly its use for the 60 years after Treswell. Our resistivity survey picked up traces of the ‘Constable’s House’ north wall and also the 17th century revetment wall in trench B. We found the very edge of another wall abutting its west side at 45% and the geophysics picked up its continuation south-west, parallel with another feature 6m further south.


On their fold-out map at the back of Dorset II pt.1, the RCHM show a continuous cross-wall (Ben’s Shweppes bottle suggests some unrecorded digging along there) but we found that it was not continuous and not of the same period, but two walls following a similar line but built 300-400 years apart.

We also found that the erosion along the steep slope, from the east to the west sides of the cross-wall, was not causing any damage to the archaeology. National Trust staff have put a geo-textile barrier across the area overlain with clay .. and although the gradient is never likely to look pristine, it can be topped up with soil from time to time.

Someone said this week. ‘I came here as a child and today I’ve come back with my children, it’s so good, it feels just the same.’ Corfe Castle,..Dorset Scheduled Ancient Monument No 1, will always need funding, monitoring, maintenance and conservation repair to enable it to be enjoyed long into the future.

Carol found a shiney new 5p piece dated 2014 and we put it under a stone placed on the quoin of the ‘Constable’s House’. Then the trenches were refilled and we pushed the wheelbarrows back down the hill.

Trenches gone.

Trenches gone.

So that’s it. Many thanks to everyone for their help and support. Those who dug and encouraged and particularly the staff of the NT Corfe Tea Rooms.