Our last day and it has been so good to work at Max Gate.
Lots of visitors came today and some old friends.
Before tea break we worked hard to get as much of the remaining area in the large trench cleaned down to chalk. Lots of mattocking and shoveling and barrowing onto the growing spoil heap.
Fay sifted the soil from out part excavated circular pit and found a piece of pottery which may be Neolithic. It is the only find from the soil we excavated from the half-sectioned feature.
I then laid out my tapes and began to draw the pits, post-holes and faint ditches cutting the chalk.
The deadline was when Robin arrived with the survey equipment to scan the site and GPS fix our trench.
He set up his targets around the trench and produced a point cloud survey. He then took many overlapping pictures to produce a photogrammetric mosaic of images which will be draped over a digital terrain mode. He showed me the result on his ipad.
Rob and Carol got to the bottom of the ditch opposite the front door of Max Gate. It was almost a metre deep and below the frost-fractured chalk in the lowest filling was a thin veneer of soil including preserved flecks of topsoil trampled there when the ditch was first dug. We peeled it off and the natural chalk rang as we troweled it.
The finds exclusively struck flint flakes and sadly no charcoal or enough bone which can provide us with a C14 date.
In our large trench we found two 2m diameter pits, one part excavated with a small fragment of Neolithic? pot. In addition two parallel shallow gullies set 1m apart with post-holes where they turned at right angles away from each other? An entrance to a passage over 3m long between ditches leading to somewhere beyond the north-east edge of our trench.
We did not find a convincing continuation of the Middle Neolithic enclosure unless our half-sectioned pit was part of it. We noted that in the 1987-8 excavation the enclosure pits faded and became more distant as they headed towards the Paddock. Perhaps there was a wide entrance here. Perhaps the east side was the less desirable area for the groups that dug the pits. Perhaps it was never finished…
The front door trench hit a pit where the circuit should run but we cannot prove that.
A good but puzzling week. We packed up the tools and drove home.
Corfe Castle CBA festival day tomorrow. Minecraft in the Castle on Sunday.
Eleanor and Poppy joined us and together in a line we cleaned back onto the chalk in our large trench.
Tomorrow afternoon the photogrammetric surveyors will come and the trench needs to be ready for final recording.
The last part is very rooty as there is a fir tree beside the trench.
Sarah began to half section one of the pits.
In Rob and Carol’s trench, the prehistoric ditch in front of Max Gate front door is deep and looks like it is one of the Neolithic enclosure pits. We decided to make it longer and broader to enable us to see more of it. Several more flints in the filling but no bone or charcoal yet large enough for a C14 date.
In the evening a zoom talk with Wessex Museums. David in Devizes and Harriet, Michelle and I in Thomas Hardy’s writing study. A great place to hear of Hardy’s archaeology and to talk about our latest discoveries.
Some said they would visit tomorrow…our last day on site.
We managed to clear the rest of the pit feature in the big trench so there was something to show Digging for Britain when the production team came to the site today.
We worked together and pushed back the remnant of the old ploughsoil to reveal any features in the buried chalk. The line of the enclosure is unclear in our 10m by 12m trench …unless the pit is part of it and most of our area is a large gap until the next off the edge of the trench?
It does have the look of the filling of an Iron Age storage pit rather than a Neolithic ditch section. At the end of the day Sarah found a second chalk filled pit. The bottom edge of linear ditches, almost ploughed, are also evident but only as a slight hollow in the chalk.
Carol and Rob have been looking for Thomas Hardy’s original path surface of Max Gate driveway. It is hoped to replicate this when it is replaced in the next few months.
These small 1m square trenches lies close to the line of the circular Middle Neolithic enclosure as it passes the front door of the house.
At lunch time we noted that the chalk bedrock here sloped steeply down and the filling was a typical prehistoric light yellow ochre chalky clay. A patinated flint flake was found in it and when Alice got into the trench she found a fragment of bone. We will see what else can be found in the filling. Hopefully something for a radiocarbon date.
Emma looked around ‘I don’t think it’s real. The whole place will probably dematerialise when we cross the railway bridge’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well the information board was upside down’
‘True.. and the people…All larger than life, the ancient waiter and the eccentric landlord.. the disturbance in the bar and the police.. perhaps we were in a game of Cluedo or a late 60s episode of the Avengers’
Wendover disappeared behind us as we turned left and we started the slow trudge up to the Ridgeway.
The wide views again and a monument at the highest vantage point. A large stone structure erected in 1903 in memory of those who died in South Africa during the Boer War.
There are few archaeological sites associated with this conflict but Bath Skyline has Flatford Camp, a military training barracks set up in 1892. It is shown on the 1904 OS map but on no other editions.
Our path took us down through deciduous woodland. The sky overcast, the trees brooding… no dappled light today.
We reached the National Trust property of Pulpit Wood and Grangelands.
Above us, hidden by trees, was a later Bronze Age – earlier Iron Age small hillfort on the brow of Pulpit Hill. Double bank and ditch around its east and north facing edges; univallate to west and south, where the slope of the hill is much steeper. A single clear entrance on eastern side, where the ground is flat. The need to control access along the Ridgeway was clearly important.
‘How are we doing’
‘Average speed 4.6km per hour and we are approaching the 5 miles out from Wendover’
‘Where?, you know, that mirage we stayed in last night’.
Our path followed a row of security posts across a field with some battered signage on each one saying it would be wrong to cross the sign line into the wheat field on our right. It warned of security cameras (It all looked a bit low tech to me). We walked across an entrance drive behind the security gates for Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country retreat. I spotted the great house in the distance.
I thought it was quite British… and understated… that Boris and Biden might screech to a halt to let a couple of Ridgeway walkers pass by before international negotiations.
This is an AONB after all… and barbed wire, searchlights, high fencing and armed soldiers would certainly detract from the aesthetic experience of the National Trail.
Our walking banter was of English sayings. ‘You wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth’
‘What’s that mean anyway?
‘It’s linked to ‘Too long in the tooth’
‘You know… when you buy a horse… you always look in its mouth to see how old they are based on the length of their teeth.’
11am, we crossed a road and bumped into a public house. Extraordinary! How perfectly timed.
‘Well, you wouldn’t look a gift pub in the barrel, particularly if you just wanted a cup of coffee and one of those nice biscuits’
This was a useful rest as there was a steep climb through woodland after the pub. I said to Emma that it would be a shame if I just went bang. She thought it would be a shame and perhaps a little awkward.
Up, up onto Whiteleaf Hill with a great scenic view over Princes Risbororough beside a mutilated Neolithic earthen long barrow.
There were so many Red Kites. We counted a group of 15 circling (we’d run out so they introduced some from Spain a few years ago….they’ve done everso well).
We walked down towards the town. A little muntjac deer emerged from cover and watched as we passed.
We took an erratic course along a minor road, across two railway lines and a golf course.
Everywhere much quieter on a week day. Just the odd dog walker.
At the crest of another hill, at one o’clock, I checked in with Emma for a progress report.Half way, 8.7 miles, our speed average 4.65km per hour and a miraculous Ridgeway seat appeared. We sat on it to see yet more Red Kites wheeling in the sky.
We were ready to consume the wonders we had picked up in Tesco Express. Ginsters pasties regular and vegan and easy peelers. Today’s top tip is to always buy the best because dehydration when walking is a thing and an easy peeler bursting with clementine juice is a huge jolt after a long morning.
This luxurious lunch break has lulled you into a false sense of security.. because…. in fact.. there was jeopardy pent up and ready to strike as the day progressed towards its end.
Last night, the forecast had been one of continuous rain storms building from the east and the further we got from London…. by late afternoon… the better.
The meander stopped and we did a left onto the Swan Way that headed straight south west for 5 miles carrying us to our destination…. Watlington.
We pressed on… the sky increasingly gloomy. The tunnel under the M40 framed nicely the landscape beyond, then through some woods, and suddenly, a violent commotion as a sausage shaped animal with a black tail-tip leapt across our path to disappear into the undergrowth on the other side. ‘Stoat’ we said… a rare glimpse.
Then it rained and we changed into water proofs and it stopped and we got hot so took them off again and then it rained properly….so they went back on…. as we left the path and walked the mile into Wattlington. Emma googled the pub….. it was closed… but there was a note on the door directing us to our rooms. Phew, we had made it.
It was Sunday, so before leaving Aldbury, we stopped for a while in the medieval church of John the Baptist.
We were welcomed in, placing our rucksacks near the font
13th-century wall painting decorating the apse of St Butolph’s Church, Swyncombe
We took communion and shared the peace, worshipping God together like so many before us. We gathered and exchanged vine branches and fixed them to our rucksacks, taking them with us as we walked out into the Buckinghamshire countryside.
This land was new to me, we were walking through parts of Ashridge…. one of the great… National Trust estates. I had heard of it from Angus, fellow NT archaeologist.
Extending over 8000 acres, it has over 3,600 ancient and veteran trees; more than any other NT property. The biggest trees lie within the Frithsden Beeches, a lapsed wood pasture full of ancient beech pollards.
Ashridge was a monastic estate founded in 1283, the medieval woodlands were established over more ancient field systems and a network of other archaeological earthworks which can now be mapped beneath the trees using LiDAR.
Just a short walk today… we would pick up pace.
Soon we were back at Tring railway station, 24 hrs after we left it and still with 125 miles to go.
I said to Emma we’d had a gentle start…things would become more intense. No problem for her of course.
I clutched my North Chilterns 181 OS map..tracing my finger along the green diamonded line that wound its way across the paper. ‘You Boomers’ she said, ‘I can track our course by smart phone’..
‘You Millennials’ I smiled ‘you’ve lost the art of map reading, the wider view’
We compromised with Strada ….and Emma plotted us digitally… giving distance and our pace in kms per hour.
Beyond Tring, our hedged path took us through buttercup fields. Then over a high narrow bridge arching over the deep cutting of the busy A41. A bright blue sky, criss-crossed by plane vapour trails. A lorry honked us as we entered countryside again.
Lunch was submarine rolls from Aldbury post-office with a view back to Ivinghoe Beacon.. and then we entered the woodland of Tring Park.
A dappled day, bright sunlight flickering in flecks and circles through the tree canopy. A long avenue with sudden wide vistas out over the escarpment. Every tree trunk unique.. gnarled, nobbled, smooth, grained and architectural. We enjoyed the patterns and textures as Emma captured images for a future design.
The woodland became less ordered, it wound past long abandoned hollow-ways cut by overgrown quarries. There were the last nub ends of bluebells, the verges now brightened by red campion and cow parsley.
On the outskirts of Wendover a large church with advance notices of Jubilee celebrations, then the park busy with people enjoying the late afternoon sun.
We found the accommodation and Emma phone-tracked a Tesco Express… we needed to reload the fruit pouch with easy peelers.
As February comes to an end, so the Wessex Hillforts and Habitats Project also officially closes but this does not mean that the conservation work will cease.
Each of the 12 hillforts of the project will have a management plan which sets out funded actions that the ranger team and volunteers will carry out annually. This will ensure that each site will remain on top form for nature and archaeology.
And for visitors to these special places there will be the Wessex Hillforts Guide. Here is the second of Julia Lillo’s drawings which visualise what three of the hillforts may have looked like over 2000 years ago.
Park Hill Camp is on the Stourhead Estate in south-west Wiltshire… on the edge of Somerset and Wiltshire.
It is placed on the crest of a ridge between two valleys that funnel water into.. what is now the great 18th-century lake. The centre-piece of the internationally famous landscape garden created for Henry Hoare in the 1740s.
This is the source of the River Stour that flows through Dorset, past Hod and Hambledon hillforts, past Spettisbury and Badbury Rings to Dudsbury and finally to Christchurch Harbour and the Iron Age trading settlement of Hengistbury Head ….where the Stour finally flows into the sea.
Park Hill is nearest of three hillforts around the Stour’s source and its construction may be linked to a sacred and strategic significance. Perhaps the local Iron Age people revered this place where their great river was born. Something to wonder at… but who knows ?
It is a hidden hillfort. Not well known. The whole site was covered in pine plantations before the NT was given the Stourhead Estate in 1944. Now Kim is gradually unveiling the hillfort and grazing the site so that it can be a grass covered, better conserved and visible archaeological site.
This month’s storm blew another tree down just outside the west entrance.
The initial woodland clearance was carried out by shire horses dragging the heavy trunks off site. Thus protecting the archaeology by preventing any rutting into the soft ground surface.. which heavy forestry vehicles might have caused.
Anyone inside Park Hill, has no sense of its position in the landscape. Everything is hidden by trees. NT plans to cut views through the conifer plantations towards the other Stourhead Estate hillfort on White Sheet Hill and across the valleys to north and south.
There should be spectacular views from here and the LiDAR demonstrates this.
So, with the trees stripped back by LiDAR I turned the terrain model to show the hillfort looking back towards the lake and Stourhead House.
After some rough sketching, I asked Julia to draw the view as it might have been in the Iron Age.
The difficulty with Park Hill Camp compared with Badbury Rings is….there has never been an excavation on the site and it has never had a geophysical survey. Very difficult with trees all over it.. Now the trees are largely gone we plan geophysics in the autumn.
However, we can see the earthworks and have a good idea of the entrances and can compare Park Hill with other hillforts where we have more information…so we’ll try to illustrate it anyway.
The eastern gateways through the two ramparts are clear as earthworks. Visitors would have to weave their way into the hillfort in full sight of the guards. A good security check.
Once again, Julia has shown much detail within the hillfort. Fenced homesteads with stock enclosures, granaries raised on stilts, weaving frames, outhouses and people. Imagining a busy place full of life rather than a quiet area of grassland surrounded by woodland.
Then the full illustration with the fort in its landscape, farms and fields and meadows, trees on the steeper slopes.. crossed by tracks and pathways disappearing into the distance.
Tim is giving the introduction to the Killerton Green Recovery Project. He is talking about wetland creation and areas of habitat formation and woodland planting.
This is our contribution to ‘Winterval’, a National Trust South West virtual conference. Tim is in the Rangers Base at Killerton, Devon and I’m in the, today empty, Tisbury hub in Wiltshire.
The conference is all about nature enhancement. Bringing back the wildlife by extensive habitat enhancement on the lowland estates.
I have 5 minutes to speak up for historic environment. It’s been a quiet day.
I want to talk about the multi-faceted jewel of the English Landscape, that National Trust cares for the design within its topography, its poetry, its artistry, its ecological wonders and of course that multi-millennial layering of human endeavour.
People in need.. homing in on the advantages of geology and terrain…
That National Trust has huge potential for positive land management… works best when it understands and balances the significances of each place.
Too much for 5 minutes?… Aren’t people the problem that have caused the decline in nature? Are Historic Environment specialists…are Archaeologists out of step? Don’t we understand the urgency.. the global war against Climate Change?
All is possible with balanced and inclusive planning.
‘Can you hear me?’….. a pause.
‘Yes, you’re coming through loud and clear’..
I imagine the South Western scattered staff listening… inhabiting homes and offices and Land Rovers from Hidcote to Cape Cornwall.
‘This is a map of Killerton Park and the River Culm floodplain from Ellerhayes to Collumpton. It is LiDAR faded over the Ordnance Survey. A terrain model with the names of places breathing through it. The stippled zone is the registered park and the red lines are the scheduled monuments. The blue dots are the known archaeological sites.’
I think I’ve sent them all to sleep.
‘Note the lack of blue dots in our Culm floodplain Green Recovery project area. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence…to coin a phrase.’
‘We should expect particularly fine preservation in the river deposits. That red circle at the top of the hill overlooking the river is Dolbury Iron Age hillfort and flint from here shows that Bronze Age, Neolithic and Mesolithic peoples occupied and reoccupied this vantage point over thousands of years.’
‘Timber and organic remains survive in waterlogged deposits. There may be woven timber trackways, fish-traps, jetties, sluice gates, leats and waterwheels… who knows? There is high potential for preserved environmental remains. Pollen and plant fragments which will give the biological biography of the riverine environment’
We need to be careful where we plant our trees and excavate out scrapes.
Wetland archaeologist Anthony completed Killerton’s Culm floodplain study and heritage impact assessment. Petra checked out the Culm’s soil profiles.
She spent the summer test pitting, sampling and augering along the river and her report has just arrived.
I show them pictures of pollen. How tiny, beautiful and ancient they are.. sitting quietly preserved in the watery silts for such a very long time.
‘And here at last is the whipworm egg’.
A picture of it had been highlighted in the preamble for day two of Winterval.
‘Lost from the gut of some medieval farmer …buried in a deposit containing large numbers of cereal pollen. ‘
Petra’s report notes that the percentage of cereal grain here is remarkable. Found in the upper deposits near Columbjohn. Perhaps intense local cereal production but also the proximity of grist mills using the river’s power to make flour from ground wheat.
The river has snaked and meandered, backwards and forwards, cutting and recutting its path. The LiDAR shows the palaeochannels. Different survivals in different places will reveal different time zones of the story. The types of pollen indicate huge changes in the environment through time.
Petra gathers the percentages of pollen types in coloured blocks on her bar charts. The woodland pollen is light green, the grassland herbs are blue, the ferns dark green and the cereal yellow.
At Cubby Close Cottage, near the middle of the project area, the organic remains are very good. Certainly earlier than the Columbjohn sequence. At 90cm down the augured column, the deposit contains 8% cereal pollens and 26% woodland. At 120cm, the cereal is down to 4% and the woodland is up to 48% but at 150cm 90% of the pollen is from trees, nearly all alder and the rest herb and fern pollen. No cereals are detected.
Petra would need funding for C14 dating to pin down dates more precisely but dense alder woodland is typical of Neolithic/Bronze Age pre-farming river valleys. At 150cm The Cubby Close Cottage deposit demonstrated a pre-farmed landscape. Higher up the column, the impact of settlers becomes clear. People felling the woodland and turning the land into fields to graze stock and plant the first crops.
The deep alluvial deposits across the Culm floodplain are a direct result of this Bronze Age deforestation 4000 years ago. The alluvium happened as the farmer settlers converted the valley to farmland. They created an open ploughed landscape, made it vulnerable to soil erosion after heavy rain, sending the ploughsoil downslope into the river.
Petra found a similar pollen landscape pattern on the Aller within the Holnicote Estate on Exmoor. Similar National Trust nature recovery schemes will create opportunities to compare pollen profiles along the Stour at Kingston Lacy in Dorset and the Windrush at Sherborne, Gloucestershire. Four counties, four geologies…how would they compare?
Archaeology turns out to be quite relevant to the historic/natural environment interface.
All this archaeological preparation on the Culm meant that we dodged the significant deposits. The archaeological watching brief during the excavation of the scrapes for wildlife revealed one Victorian bottle marked ‘Ascetic Elixir’ and two scattered machine cut timber planks.
Back to Winterval…. 2 minutes left and two more slides.
‘Now, about tree planting and the need to pre-plan for geophysical survey…
after all, absence of archaeological evidence …is not evidence of archaeological absence.
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday, We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning, We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day, Today we have naming of parts. Japonica Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens, And today we have naming of parts.
New Year’s Eve and I’ve finally finished the Battlesbury report!
As locals, we’ve walked there for years. A 5 minute trip from home – through the barracks and past the Land Warfare Centre. Up the hill – U-turn at the RA base by the tank and the guard with the machine gun.
Open the boot by the path and drag out the wheelbarrow…I’ve done this so often in the past 6 months. The big blue builders bucket filled with tapes, pegs and lines, put in the cable drum, add the data-logger suitcase…drape the dual probe frame over all.. and I’m ready.
The path to the hillfort is a gentle incline, the cowslips are just coming out. Up through Battlesbury’s west gateway. This is the steep bit. Time to rest and admire the panoramic view across Warminster and Salisbury Plain….
Then the steady trudge up to the highest point- the concrete pillar trig point, the survey base centre line.
The army are here today, spaced along the rampart with equipment and aerials. A Hercules flies over and then trails parachutists, floating down onto the chalkland horizon.
It always takes time to relocate the yellow plastic survey grid tent pegs. Stretch two 100m tapes out along them, link them with the two marked lines to start the next grid and then assemble the earth resistance meter.
I’m on my own today.. I need to pace backwards and forwards from the control reference point to the datalogger. I can sometimes persuade a passing stranger to stand by the machine and call out the number as I move the remote probes.
‘Can I ask you what you’re doing?’
The question is put by a large authoritative man in uniform. Presumably the officer in charge.
‘I have a permission letter from Defence Estates… and a licence from Historic England. It’s in the bucket somewhere..’
‘That’s fine.. I’m just interested.’
‘I’m an archaeologist..work for the National Trust… but while on furlough I’ve volunteered for Defence Estates. Nobody’s ever mapped the archaeology under the grass here.. it seemed a good opportunity to come out and do it.’
‘Found anything ?’
‘Yes it seems the hill’s covered with stuff. Traces of timber framed round houses and storage pits. I put the spikes in the ground, the readings are collected in the logger on top of the frame and the data is downloaded into the computer when I get home. Yesterday it found a circular drainage gully for a building just over there beside the rampart, probably over 2000 years old.’
I point towards the hillfort edge where the soldiers are making calculations.
‘What are you doing today.’
‘We’re sorting targets for the artillery’
I look towards the tiny figures in the far distance packing their white parachutes.
He smiles. ‘Just a training exercise’ and walks away.
This has been such a good place to gradually get to know as the seasons change. I look up at the huge clouded skies, out across the hillfort defences, east towards the lyncheted Middle Hill and to Scratchbury Camp beyond.
Why are there two large hillforts so close together? It’s like NT’s Hod and Hambledon in Dorset. This would still have been Durotrigan territory in the Late Iron Age.
I look back towards the town and see NT’s Cley Hill rising out of the level lands towards Bath and Trowbridge. This huge chalk mound, a boundary marker between the Durotriges and Dubunni, their distinctive coinage concentrations meeting at the chalk escarpment which rises from the east side of Warminster.
Dave has brought up the Bartington and so there’s both resistivity and magnetometry across the same grid. Janet often helps me. After a few grids we stop and open flasks of coffee. One lounges in the wheelbarrow, the other rests on the upturned blue bucket…we eat chocolate … the wind in our hair and the larks singing above us.
An unexpected flash of excitement… the meter numbers rise to a crescendo down the normally 40-60 ohm resistivity lines….65, 80, 92, 105, 100, 95, 74, 58…..and in neat sharp blocks too. Definitely something under the ground….something solid and building like.
The foundations of a structure appear on the computer.. 30m long and 15m wide..
The conversations with regular visitors circling the rampart. Encouraging my marathon effort. Did people actually live here once? I have promised an article in the Warminster Journal…..
So extraordinary, to experience the vegetation and landscape changing slowly. No two days here were ever the same. The autumn’s steady loss of bright leaves; the shortening sunlight hours and those intense red dusks towards Cley and Frome. The sharp frosts and glowing mists of mornings. But then, the evenings lengthening, the green sparks beginning, lighting up the twiggy trees. At the last, the flowers, already the grasslands thicker and harder to walk through. The grid disappearing.
Since then, I’ve been trying to write up the survey report.
Looking through all the historic maps and aerial photos. Carol sent me information in the Wiltshire database. No evidence of a building where the readings were high. I was looking closely for something military… a likely explanation would be that it was a structure built and demolished at some time since Battlebury’s acquisition by the War Department in 1928.
1812, Richard Colt Hoare in his Ancient Wiltshire describes Roman coins found in Battlesbury’s plough soil. The building-like anomaly is located near the east gate. Just like the Romano-Celtic temple found by Wheeler at Maiden Castle in the 1930s. A Roman temple would be my tentative suggestion in the report. Its outline looks a bit like the one built high on Brean Down in Somerset with annexes on its north and south sides.
Up in the attic, I locate Mr Manley’s notes on Battlesbury, photocopied years ago in Warminster Museum. He was there in May 1922 when they built the reservoir near the trig point and dug a water pipe trench down across the hillfort to the west gate. His conclusion, that the streets and gullies he saw in the trench section demonstrated a town layout of timber framed buildings like those he had seen in Palestine during WWI.
Victor Manley was a schoolteacher at Sambourne School ..it’s where our children went. There is still a picture of him in reception.. though it was a secondary school back then.
He produced detailed sketches of Battlesbury and wrote about the active quarry by the west gate where in 1773 they found a Roman coin hoard….where the cemetery was disturbed. He writes of a scatter of bones…which he kept and then discarded. Was this an Iron Age war cemetery like the one Wheeler found at Maiden Castle’s east gate? The chalk pit is just grass now.
A scatter of clues hinting at past events.
In 2020-2021, there was only time for the east third of Battlesbury hillfort to be geophysically surveyed.. It’s a huge place. Perhaps one day they’ll be time again to do the rest.
Though the National Trust only owns Cley Hill (see ‘Upon Cley Hill’), it is only one of four local hillforts linked by a network of field systems and farmsteads… Cley is only a small part of this significant but still poorly understood Wiltshire landscape…
Of course, the true significance….of any one place.. can only be understood in its wider context. So much more to discover.
I said goodbye to Louise and drove back across the heathland towards Corfe Castle. A hot day in Purbeck and three white horses blocked the narrow road where a clump of trees had given them shade.
We put the brakes on, got out and walked towards them.
A few of us had met to walk the archaeology of an apparently empty piece of landscape, jutting out as a low peninsula into Poole Harbour.
We walked the line of an early tramway towards an overgrown jetty where, in the 18th-19th centuries, thousands of tons of fine ball clay, dug from the heath, had been loaded onto barges to feed Josiah Wedgewood’s pottery industry.
We stopped by some molehills where Pam had found some medieval pottery, perhaps part of the salt production business that used to supply Corfe Castle. Certainly salt pits are shown here on Ralph Treswell’s map of 1586.
My interest that day was rather different though.
Louise had been looking into the documentation for Middlebere within the Bankes Archive held at the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester. The Bankes family had owned the whole of the Corfe Castle Estate from the early 17th century until 1982 when it was bequeathed to the National Trust.
She had found some WWII correspondence from Frederick Otto Rhodes. Mr Rhodes had been Mr Bankes’s steward and land agent for several decades in the 20th century. At a time when tending a great estate was a lifetime’s vocation, carefully guarding the property of his employer.
From 1940-45, the war department took over large areas of the Middlebere and Studland peninsulas and Mr Rhodes had discovered that damage was being done to Mr Bankes’s White House cottages at South Middlebere.
Louise had emailed transcripts of his letters which described the stripping out of the buildings, robbed for materials to help build a searchlight battery and gun emplacement. The letters describe the military facility and the White House and the costs the war department must pay to compensate Mr Bankes.
These were new archaeological sites. They were not on the National Trust’s historic buildings sites and monuments record.
Before my visit to Purbeck, I looked at the old Ordnance Survey maps and Mr Rhodes’s letters to fix the sites on the database map.
The White House was easy to find. It had been the farmhouse for an area of heath converted to arable during agricultural improvements in the mid 19th century. Unfortunately none of my maps covered the 1940s so I could not see the site of the searchlight battery.
Mr Rhodes had made a list of actions required to restore Middlebere to its pre-war condition and the costs the government were to pay in compensation for each item on the list. This included removing the searchlight battery and associated buildings and trackways.
Not much was likely to be visible now.
Perhaps the latest air photograph on the database would give me a clue to locate the demolished military facility.
In pasture land, just north of the site of the White House, I zoomed in and saw a parch mark rectangle with two rectangular blobs within it…..’How easy was that !’ was my initial thought….but then I looked closer.
No, this looked much older than a searchlight battery. It reminded me of buildings within enclosures detected through geophysical survey on the Roman settlement at Kingston Lacy.
I zoomed out and suddenly there were lines and circles and linear boundaries everywhere.
The photographic cover of the area was taken in a dry and revealing year and suddenly this apparently empty and uninhabited landscape reeled with the evidence of an intense past palimpsest of human activity. The property boundaries, enclosures, house and outhouse foundations, stretched out for many hectares across the land either side of Corfe River..all along towards its outflow into Poole Harbour.
Earth has not any thing to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty: This settlement now doth, like a garment, wear The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, kilns, workshops, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will: Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still! (William Wordsworth ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ apart from the italics)
Middlebere it seems would have been a power house c. 400BC to AD400, one of the Purbeck industrial settlements… Arne, Fitzworth, Cleavel, Goathorn and Studland, the peninsulas jutting into Poole Harbour. Here boats would have arrived and taken salt, pottery, shale products, Purbeck stone and agricultural goods out to the wider world.
This took me back to 1989 when Wessex Archaeology got a glimpse of this site when an oil pipeline crossed a northern section of Middlebere. They found Neolithic and Bronze Age evidence but particularly Iron Age ditches and gullies. I remembered too those excavations at Cleavel Point where we uncovered so much Roman activity particularly Black Burnished ware kilns and cubes of different types of Purbeck stone prepared for the mosaic makers.
Back to our visit this year.. and the White House cottages were completely gone. Now an overgrown scrub woodland. A patch of bamboo marked the site of the outdoor privy. They were grown as a screen apparently.
Oliver found some chunks of brick and concrete amongst the heather, a little to the south west of the White House site. So I’ll mark the searchlight site there on the map…but I wanted to see the ancient Middlebere settlement.. so clear on the air photographs. I left them in WWII and walked about a 100 yards north of the wood and gazed out across a level sweep of grassland. Nothing to see at all.
Time for home…but what of the horses. Two agreed reluctantly to shuffle from their shade but the third gave us a stubborn hard stare. We spent some time leaning against him and coaxing… assured him he could have his cool tree back once we had driven past…eventually he sighed and shifted. To give him his due, he gave us time to run back to the cars and get past.
We were able to leave the quiet heathland behind, turn right below the castle ruin and enter the 21st century, rejoining the holiday traffic flowing back towards Wareham.
I turn the pages of my blue Cerne Abbas correspondence file….here it is!
Minutes of the National Trust meeting 3rd February 1994. In attendance David, Head of Archaeology; William the Giant’s warden; Ivan, Managing Agent and the local NT archaeologist.
From the lay-by the Giant looked faded. William had recently done some re-whitening …but next year ..with the National Trust’s centenary(1895-1995) , as part of the celebrations, the Giant would get a complete makeover with the help of volunteers.
It was agreed that the rebuilding of his nose the year before had been a success.
Now we needed to build on the experience of the research carried out on the Uffington White Horse.
Action: to organise a meeting between all the interested parties and together build a research project to enable us to get a date for the Giant.
After four years of consultation the research design was created and agreed.
It would include a detailed contour survey of Giant Hill, a review of the local landscape archaeology and documentary evidence…. but particularly excavations across the deeper stratigraphy, clearly visible from a build up of sediments at his feet. This would be the best place to get the samples to obtain an optically stimulated luminescence date (OSL)
…but the funding failed…. The the research design document stayed in the files….. It remained as evidence of what might have been.
22 years later and we approached another centenary. This time the Giant’s centenary. I asked again and Hannah the General Manager said ‘yes, let’s do it …. This is the Cerne Giant’s acquisition centenary year ! (by the way…coinciding with National Trust 125 year celebrations).
And at last we are here, perched on the steep slope of Giant Hill, on the very last afternoon of our week of excavations.
Ben is taking arty shots with the camera, close ups …of the Gamma Spectrometer…, interviews with Nancy, Peter and Carol who are closing down trench D…. the 6H pencil gliding over the permatrace. He tells us about some of the people and places he has filmed and then says he’s done…leaves us the brownies as a gift and waves farewell as he walks down the hill..
A gentle day, not too windy, not too cold, occasional blue sky and high cloud.
Nancy, our ornithologist, has been identifying birdsong when we ask her. Now she calls to us..she has seen a curled adder beside some bramble at the boundary fence. It reminds us of the lizards… watching from wall tops as we cleaned mosaics at Chedworth… the slow worms oozing from crevices…the Roman snails gliding across the grass.
Phil leaves next. He’s going back to Gloucester University with his samples and readings and hopes to have the results by July.
Katherine has got in touch. She reminded me of 1996-97 ..when she and Tim of Bournemouth University had brought a companion to meet the Giant ….and convened a hearing…. to examine the full range of evidence …and agree a date for his creation..
Yes, that was quite a thing. We also did a bit more geophysics on him ….but the results were poor.
Katherine provided for our lonely Giant ….just what he needed…a Giant sized woman carrying a cloak for him. She was marked out in white tape on the hillside… but the Giant seemed unfriendly… almost aloof “she is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” and remained staring forward ….out across the undulating Dorset landscape.
So she went away… after photographs of course.
The Giant’s trial took place in the village hall where ‘archaeologists, historians, poets and earth people’ met and debated the evidence. The result? ..42 thought he was prehistoric, 29 thought he was either medieval or post-medieval, 12 that he could be both and there were 9 who spoiled their ballot papers…couldn’t make up there minds i suppose….. so there we are…and of course that was long ago.
This is the 21st century!
Mid-afternoon, and Mike and Julie call it a day. They have collected and documented the soil samples for molluscan analysis and micromorphology. They ask whether we can bring the chalk blocks from the upper and lower chunky chalk layers to identify which geological beds they were quarried from.
The four of us press on. Peter, Carol and Nancy have moved to the right foot trench B and I am plotting location plans for each of the four trenches. The feet are done…just the elbows now.
There are legends of course. That he was a Giant who terrorised the neighbourhood and having had his fill of killing and eating the local flocks of sheep. He lay down on the hillside to sleep and the villagers crept up and killed him…marking out the outline of his body….as a memorial.
And what of the mysterious letters or numbers recorded between his legs by John Hutchins in the 18th century. He was told they read IAO but believed they were numbers… 748 perhaps orginally 1748…one of the dates of rechalking? Anyway it is said that a labourer removed them in the 19th century and nothing now can be seen.
Perhaps our planned high resolution laser scan will pick up any subtle traces left behind.
Anyway, I’ve finished the drawing now…It’s gone 5.30 and Nancy chucks me a spade. I go to trench A, the left foot, and backfill in reverse order leaving the chalk until last of course. I mustn’t get too enthusiastic or the stones bounce out and roll down the slope. I want to leave him in good condition and emulate the fine backfilling and returfing already completed at the elbows.
The sun is low in the west by this time I get to the turf. We’ve done a lot of jumping on the fill and tamping with the heavy steel tampers. We’ve borrowed them from Michael the Area Ranger who has looked after the Giant since William’s time.
With excavations… there is always too much soil to fit back in the trench. It fluffs up during a dig …but it needs to all go back in, otherwise, when after a few decades it compresses again…your excavation will be clear to see as a dip in the ground.
One last picture of the backfilled trench to fulfill the scheduled monument consent condition
It’s getting dark now. Peter and Carol load up with tools and follow the terraced path down the slope towards the stile.
Nancy and I look around to see what’s left.. quite a lot, including a tamper. “Don’t forget the chalk blocks”. I use gravity and they roll and bounce down the hill and the big one breaks in half as it hits the Giant’s boundary fence.
They’re retrieved when we reach the stile and are rammed into the top of the bucket. I somehow balance the tamper over it as we stagger down the rickety wooden steps.
Through the gate, the coppice avenue is gloomy twilight. This is two trips, best leave the rest and take the tamper and drawing boards to the car.
I pass Nancy on the way back and…. at last… we are finished in a dark car park. Carol has to go to her family north of Bath …we thank her fondly and say goodbye.
Why are last days like this?
I have chucked my car keys in the boot with the tools. Peter brings his torch to locate them and they are found.
That’s it..we stand together as night settles. We did it ….but only just…the world is closing down around us.
“When shall we three meet again in thunder lightening and in rain. When the Hurley-burley’s done. When the battle’s lost and won”
We smile and I give them my thanks ….and blessing as we drive off to Gloucestershire, Weymouth and Wiltshire.
Passing through Godmanstone towards Dorchester, I think of William, David and Ivan… It took a quarter of a century but we did it in the end.