Long Bredy, The Cleaning of Bones

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

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

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

Looking towards Long Bredy church from the hollow-way

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

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

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

A view of the three skeletons looking north

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

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

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

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

We will wait, and in the mean time…

I will appreciate the intricacies of my feet.

Cerne, Corfe, Badbury & Alfred’s Tower: Legends in the Landscape

This is another from the NT SW pages and can be found on

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/legends-in-the-landscape

Places have meanings and stories that are deeply rooted. These may not be backed up by written documents but tales are passed down through generations. Sometimes monuments are built to confirm the rumour of events that happened, of associations with famous people or to symbolise a sacred place. The National Trust cares for many of these mythical locations. Here are some in Wessex.

The Cerne Abbas Giant

First the Cerne Abbas Giant in deepest Dorset. Is he the celtic god Cernunnus, the Roman classical god Hercules, or a 17th century cartoon of Oliver Cromwell? There are strong backers for each theory. Should we date him? There is a method that could do it. Would it be better not to know and keep the mystery?

Looking down on the naked chalk figure of the Cerne Giant on the grassy hill

Cerne Giant 

Ancient naked figure sculpted into the chalk hillside above Cerne Abbas

Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury is full of legends and the Tor stands like a beacon in the Isle of Avalon. Was Joseph of Arimathea here? Did he bring the Holy Grail and bury it at Chalice Well below the Tor? Many believe, and come to drink the spring waters.

A view across a field to Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, with the remains of the 15th century tower at the summit

Glastonbury Tor 

Prominent hill overlooking the Isle of Avalon, Glastonbury and Somerset

Corfe Castle

On the site of Corfe Castle in 978 it is said that young King Edward visited his stepmother, but she had him murdered to make her own son Aethelred the king in his place. Edward’s body was thrown down a well and a shaft of light located the place. Water from the well was said to heal the eyes. The legend is preserved on the Purbeck Estate by Edward’s Cottage towards Wareham.

Corfe Castle from the south seen through dawn mist

Corfe Castle, Dorset 

Dominating the village below it, the dramatic ruins of Corfe Castle hold many royal stories of intrigue, treachery and treason. In 978 King Edward, known as ‘the Martyr’, was believed to have been stabbed to death here, while visiting his step mother. In later years the castle became a royal prison to King John, before being reduced to ruins during the Civil War.

Badbury Rings

Badbury Rings hillfort, on the Kingston Lacy Estate, has been linked to the legend of Mount Badon. The place, where in the 5th century, Arthur led an army of Romanised Britains against the advancing Anglo Saxons and had a great victory keeping them from further conquests into Somerset, Dorset and Gloucestershire. Until AD 577 and the Battle of Dyrham.

Visitors at the Badbury Rings at Kingston Lacy, Dorset

Badbury Rings 

There’s evidence of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman occupation at Badbury Rings, but it’s best known for the Iron Age hill fort with its three rings. There are Roman roads passing by, and Bronze Age burial mounds.

Alfred’s Tower

Places of great change, where history hung in the balance. Is Alfred’s Tower such a place? In 878, at Egbert’s Stone, on the boundaries of Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset, King Alfred rallied a scattered army near the edge of defeat and from there won a great victory against the Danish host. This happened a few miles away near the village of Edington beyond Warminster, Wiltshire.

In 1765, Henry Hoare had built a great tower on his Stourhead Estate where he believed Egbert’s Stone to be. Visit and climb his huge structure, built on the high escarpment edge, and take in the wide views of Wessex. Without this place, would we all be speaking Danish rather than English. Who knows, but the land is full of half forgotten stories. Enjoy the mystery.

Smashing news about the Chedworth Villa roman glass

The glass when first found

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

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

The glass fragment showing loops of yellow and white

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Fortnight in the Country

I will arise now and go, and go down into the secluded west. And a small cabin place there, of tools and finds boxes filled: A camping stove will I have there, a tent for sleep. And live alone…but only in the evening when the diggers go home.

The water fills the bucket slowly. There is time to re-visit the trench, around the hedge corner and down the grassy slope. We found the burials today. The trench is deep and needs to be accessed by a ramp. Crossing the site, I enter the pipe trench that disturbed them. We have returned after some years for DNA and to try to understand why they are here.

Kneeling to see. A row of white molars barely fully formed. The bones small and light. A jumble.. pinned down by large stones. At least three people here but the area of stones we have uncovered today suggests that there may be several more.

Who were these children who lived over 2700 years ago in this beautiful place. I hear the trickle of the stream below me and look up to the green rounded hills. This was their home.. unless they were brought here. Did they work and play on this land? Why did they die so young?

The trench-talk was of the joys of prehistory. Ancestors who were greener, more environmental. A religion which valued mother earth …but we know so little. So many British prehistoric religions over thousands of years. Wedding bells merged with the conversation. They would have been so pleased with my plastic bucket gradually filling so conveniently.

Who knows what the Late Bronze Age/ Early Iron Age belief structure was. Human remains from this period are incredibly rare but sometimes archaeologists find bits of body mixed up with other debris in huge middens. As I looked at these young bones… life at that time seemed hard, brutal and nasty. How to interpret?

The specialists will come, examine, analyse but next Friday we will leave them here. Put the stones back in place. This was their home where there were people who cared for them (I want to believe they did) and left them to rest.

The bucket is overflowing. I carry it across the field to the cabin.Make tea. Watch the long evening sun highlight the earthworks of the village’s stepped medieval field system.

I will take the short footpath to the parish church beside the field nestled against the hill slope. Enjoy the quiet prayers of the generations.

A full moon is coming and.. through a clear sky, this lovely landscape will be washed silver.

And I will have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, And evening full of the linnet’s wings. WB Yeats The Lake Isle of Innisfree

A place to stay

Eggardon

How to choose a favourite hillfort……

A difficult decision. Particularly in Dorset…..a county adorned with the finest hillforts in the land.

But if you were to choose.

Hambledon Hill drone-2

Drone photo of Hambledon Hill after light snow

Perhaps it would be Hambledon. A huge, beautiful earthwork… curled like a sleeping beast. Walking along its spine is like flying out over the Blackmore Vale.

Or would it be Eggardon, along the Roman road from Dorchester, A to B to Minor… barely a track when it reaches the hillfort. A routeway into time.

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The view west across the Marshwood Vale from Eggardon Hillfort

Here, the chalkland ends. The landscape drops away. Falling out into Marshwood’s deep green network…. hazing out into Devon.

Perhaps Hod Hill, two in one. The largest hillfort in Dorset with a Roman camp stamped into its highest corner. From here, all the surrounding country is visible.. where the rivers Stour and Iwerne meet. Straight lines over rounded Iron Age contours.

Hod Hill AD44 Nick Skelton for NT

Nick Skelton’s drawing of Hod Hill for the NT Dorset Hillforts Guide. Showing the hillfort after the Roman fort had been constructed.

The Roman soldiers, a unit of infantry and a unit of cavalry, occupying long rectangular lines of barracks and stables. Invading foreigners, evicting the natives from their thatched round house homes. A torn place, converted into so much debris, levelled by the occupying forces.

An archaeological choice. Partly excavated in the 1950s by Sir Ian Richmond. From the things he found, the soldiers were here for about 20 years. Long enough for the locals to begin to accept their new situation…. within the Empire.

Before that, people had occupied Hod for about 300 years. Quite a place. Imagine the scale of work involved in making it.. and the organisation required.

Dave’s geophysical survey data from Hod is exceptional. Like an x-ray through the grass. It shows a network of streets spreading out from the hillfort gateways, lined with hundreds of round houses. Here were the patterns of post-holes, the many square granaries and the black blobs from hundreds of grain storage pits. The wealth of this warrior agricultural community.

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David Stewart’s magnetometer survey of Hod Hill showing the density of round houses and storage pits within the hillfort and the trackways fanning out from the gateway (bottom right)

No wonder the Romans occupied this important location. A settlement of such scale.. it spilled out of the hillfort and down along the the Iwerne Valley.

If you go there, particularly in winter, when the grass is short and the sun casts low shadows.. the hollows of the round houses are clear. Walk down a 2000 year street.

If you go there in June, walk the ramparts and watch the clouds of butterflies rising from the orchids along the southern slopes.

Perhaps the choice was Hod Hill…

But… last week…. I arranged to take the new curator round… 6 hillforts in a day. Coney’s, Lambert’s, Pilsdon….

By mid-day we had climbed the narrow road from Askerswell, parked in a lay-by and followed the hedge-lined path to Eggardon’s earthwork gateway.

Such a quiet place, the three rings of ramparts stepping down over a curving valley and the grassland twinkling with yellow flowers.

Eggardon Hill 013 Undated

Aerial photograph of Eggardon Hill looking south-west. Parish boundary bank dividing the hillfort in two. The National Trust half is on the left.

In the distance was a man with something spread out in front of him.

As we approached, we could see that he had a large canvas and beyond lay the sweeping bowl of Marshwood and the Golden Cap coast. How to capture the vast deep green wonder of it? His painting was a fine attempt.

We sat amongst the flowers on the middle battlement and had our lunch…. looking back along the escarpment edge to Pilsdon, Lambert’s and Coney’s

And in the afternoon we went on to Hod and Hambledon…. though I left my heart at Eggardon…. Why had I stayed away so long?

Sometimes we are surprised by moments but we cannot take them for granted. I went back early yesterday to share the experience….but there was deep fog and torrential rain..

Information on Eggardon:

Eggardon Hill Nick Skelton for NT

Nick Skelton’s reconstruction drawing of Eggardon Hill for the NT Dorset Hillforts booklet. It shows the fort after the landslip through the ramparts on the southern slope and all the Iron Age round houses within seen as earthwork hollows and on Dave Stewart’s geophysical survey of the site.

  • Crossed by parish boundary Powerstock/Askerswell. Trust owns the best preserved southern half.
  • Like Badbury this place gave its name to a Saxon Hundred (district court) meeting place
  • There are two barrows in the hillfort, that to the north has been levelled by past ploughing and that to the south is still an earthwork but was dug in antiquarian times and again in 1965 by George Rybot. He found the cremated remains of an adult and child c.3500 years old.
  • He excavated the long linear banks that criss- cross the hillfort interior and dated them to the Early Iron Age about 500 BC. He excavated the hollows and circular banks and found them to be round houses and storage pits.
  • There has been massive collapse of the southern ramparts… later partly repaired… so the land slip is thought to have taken place in the Iron Age.
  • The entrances are at the east and west ends where the land is level and needs strong defences. The fenced land ownership along the parish boundary runs through the gateways.
  • A 70m wide octagonal earthwork enclosure on the summit marks the position of a tree clump.. is said to have been planted by Isaac Gulliver in 1776, the owner of Eggardon Farm and a notorious smuggler. The plantation was used as a mark for ships to bring contraband to the Dorset coast.

 

Sleeping Through the Ages: Corfe to Brownsea

One of the occasional posts written for the NT SW site.

How did you sleep last night? Did you have a nice quiet room to yourself? A comfy mattress?

Such luxurious solitude we take for granted but if we look back through National Trust properties we glimpse an older, more communal lifestyle.

Lodge DCOC429 Corfe Castle

Lodge Farm: Sleeping on the first floor for security. The 15th-century double and single windows, on the left, light the communal hall. The double window on the right is the solar or private chamber of the house where the head forester and park keeper of Kingston Lacy slept.

DCOC462 Corfe Castle

The open medieval hall of Lodge Farm

In medieval times you needed to be rich to have some sort of privacy. In places like Lodge Farm on the Kingston Lacy Estate, the Treasurer’s House at Martock or even the Gloriette within the great royal castle of Corfe ..almost everyone slept in the great hall.

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Treasurer’s House, Martock, Somerset: The late 13th-century great hall is on the left. The kitchen is on the far right and food was brought to the hall through the left doorway into the hall. In the middle is the ornate window on the first floor which was the solar or private chamber of the lord, the Treasurer of Wells Cathedral.

At the end of the meal, the trestle tables were cleared away and the household hit the hay…which covered the floor.. concealing all sorts of debris.

Beyond a timber screen at the end of the hall was a room called the solar. Nothing to do with the sun. This was a place for some solitude and was reserved for the lord and his family and probably a personal servant.

Everyone else was in the hall picking out the best spots close to the hearth, the cleaner hay or perhaps a stuffed straw sack with a log for a pillow. Wrap your cloak around you it’s going to be a long night.

My thoughts turn to crowded hostel dormitories. People turning up late, or going to the loo in the middle of the night, banging doors, the earthquake snorers and long whispered conversations.

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Corfe Castle: Standing at the centre is the tower of the 12th century keep. The great hall was on the first floor, The king’s chamber and chapel were in the floor above. To the right is  open gothic window part of the ruin of King John’s first floor hall house known as the ‘Gloriette’

Now we take our central heating for granted.. but for most of us, before the 1970s, either you had a pile of blankets and an eiderdown or you found some bodies to snuggle up to.

Corfe Castle 49121 Aug. 1993

An early 19th-century reconstruction drawing of the ‘Gloriette’ of Corfe Castle. Once the trestle tables were stacked away, plenty of room to sleep.

On Brownsea Island, there was once a large brickworks with a purpose-built labourers’ settlement called Maryland. The density of accommodation seems extraordinary. Maryland was built in 1853 and consisted of 20 dwellings each with two bedrooms. The 1881 census records 117 people living there. At 4 Maryland, Mr Whittingham his wife and four children also provided accommodation for four pottery labourers….rather cramped!…. all in a two up, two down tenement….apparently quite normal for Victorian times.

Maryland

Maryland village on Brownsea Island: An arc of five buildings each containing four homes but with lots of occupants.

So, count your blessings and enjoy your sleep tonight

Another glass bottle Amman

In our globe trotting tour to try and locate the source of the glass bottle fragment we found at Chedworth in 2017.

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Here is one I found in the Capital Museum on a hill at the heart of Amman, Jordan.

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Similar pattern but not quite right. It is thought to have been from a fish shaped bottle much like the one to the right of the fish-scale pattern decorated bottle.

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The Roman ruins are rather more impressive in this eastern part of the Empire. Our piece of glass is very rare for Britain and travelled a long way west to become buried in Gloucestershire.

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