The Wessex Hillforts & Habitats Project

Early morning last week…a drone took off over Hambledon after light snow. Perfect conditions, the snowflakes had settled into the valleys of the great encircling hillfort ditches… and streets of round house platforms became visible as rows of hollows outlined in white.

Hambledon Hill light snow shows the dimples where Iron Age round houses once stood.

These photos help illustrate the majesty and awe of this vast archaeological site and has helped us launch the National Trust’s Wessex Hillforts and Habitats project. With the help of Marie, our project officer, the People’s Postcode Lottery have granted over 100,000 pounds to get the project started.

The primary purpose of the project is to enhance the conservation of 13 NT Iron Age hillforts scattered across Dorset and South Wiltshire …but it will also inspire people to get involved and to carry out monitoring and research. It will also create new interpretation to bring these grassy hill top earthworks to life as places to be appreciated, valued and better understood. Alongside this.. to highlight nature, particularly the plant and insect life. Each hillfort’s unique topography nurtures precious habitat undisturbed by agriculture for over 2000 years.

Purple spotted orchids growing on the sheltered slopes of a hillfort ditch

So.. where are these places. I’ll list them out for you…. and as some have featured in previous blog posts I’ll reference these while we have a quick tour.

We’ll start in Wiltshire and from there head south and west and eventually end at the Devon border.

Figsbury Ring, north-east of Salisbury. A circular rampart and ditch with a view back to the great cathedral spire. Strangely, Figsbury has a wide deep ditch within the hillfort ..potentially Neolithic but there is no rampart.. where did all the chalk go?

Figsbury Ring from its rampart top showing the wide deep ditch inside the hillfort.

South of Salisbury, Wick Ball Camp above Philipps House, Dinton.. NT only owns the outer rampart.

Then there is the icon of Warminster, Cley Hill (blog posts “Upon Cley Hill’; Upon Cley Hill 2”), a flying saucer shaped chalk outlier with two round barrows on the summit..a strange hillfort.

To the south west, at the source of the mighty River Stour, is the Stourhead Estate with its two hillforts. These are Park Hill Camp, its views hidden by conifer plantation and Whitesheet Hill  (blog Whitesheet Hill Open at the Close) with wide prospects across the Blackmore Vale towards Hambledon and Hod. We’ll follow the Stour to reach them.

Hod is the largest true hillfort in Dorset, the geophysics has shown it full of round houses…a proto town… and there are the clear earthworks of the Roman 1st century fort in Hod’s north-west corner (blog post Hod Hill Camp Bastion)

Hambledon is close by, just across a dry valley, perched high on a ridge, surrounded by the Neolithic, you feel like you’re flying when standing there. (blog post Archaeology SW day 2014, Hambledon Sunset)

Follow the Stour further south and you reach the triple ramparts and ditches of Badbury Rings on the Kingston Lacy Estate. From here you can see the chalk cliffs of the Isle of Wight (blog post Badbury and the Devil’s footprint)

Now from Badbury take the Roman road west to Dorchester and keep going beyond the county town, glancing at Maiden Castle as you pass(Duchy of Cornwall, English Heritage).

The Roman road continues straight towards Bridport but branches from the A35 road before you reach the village of Winterbourne Abbas.

It has now become a minor road.. a couple of miles on… it branches again..still straight but this once arterial Roman route to Exeter has dwindled to a narrow trackway with grass sprouting from the tarmac.

Don’t lose heart…keep going…and you will break out onto the chalkland edge and the multiple ramparts of Eggardon Hill.

From Eggardon, the other hillforts emerge as sentinals ringing the high ground overlooking the Marshwood Vale, and, to the south, the cliffs of Golden Cap.. and beyond, the sweep of Lyme Bay and the English Channel.

Winter woods at Coney’s Castle

Next to the west is Lewesdon Hill, a small fort but occupying the highest land in Dorset, nearby is the second highest, the flat top of Pilsdon Pen, surrounded by double ramparts and enclosing Iron Age round houses, Bronze Age round barrows and the pillow mounds of  the medieval rabbit warren.

The last two in the Project guard a gap through the Upper Greensand ridge at the Devon border. Coney’s Castle has a minor road running through it and on its south side are wonderful twisted moss covered oaks… and beneath them the deep blue of bluebells in the Spring. Lambert’s Castle was used as a fair up to the mid 20th century, remains of the fair house and animal pens can be seen there ….but once again the views are spectacular, particularly in early morning after frost with the mist rising from the lowland.

Lambert’ s Castle after frost.

A baker’s dozen of hillforts of the 59 the NT looks after in the South West.

One might imagine that these huge works of humanity look after themselves… but they need to be cared for.. we must have farmers willing to graze the right number and type of stock on them….at the right times;  NT rangers and volunteers to cut regenerating scrub and fix fencing and gates…

If not, these nationally important scheduled monuments and SSSIs will deteriorate. The earthworks will become overgrown and grassland habitat will be lost, archaeological knowledge locked in the layers beneath the soil will become disrupted… and the views into the landscape and across and within the hillforts will become hidden.

The Wessex Hillforts and Habitats Project promises to be an exciting time of conservation and discovery. The work has now begun!

Space ….

The morning was sunny and frosty, the Black Redstart on his winter migration had appeared in the garden and as I drove to work, large flocks of Woodpigeon flew up from the fields with small groups of winter thrushes, as a Red Kite slowly glided across the valley.
I was on my way to continue setting up my new work space at Dinton, ten minutes further towards Salisbury from the office. I have new tables, heaters and shelving to unpack The boxes of finds needing cleaning, sorting, marking, recording and packing were already there waiting to be opened. I met Rosemary and we headed into the big space with mugs of tea and a mallet! There was shelving to put together as well as the boxes and equipment to sort out.

Lets get it sorted ready to clean the Roman painted plaster

We were getting on great, the heaters seemed to warm the space efficiently, the shelving was going together well with the help of the mallet, when bang my archaeologists back decided it was time to make itself known! Rosemary carried on and finished the shelving, then we had to abandon the day. I always think that an archaeologist just starting out would be a great long term study for a medical student to monitor the wear and tear on the joints!

Mushroom boxes, the ideal finds washing drying racks

So, dear readers, you will have to wait a little longer to see if we find any different designs on the Chedworth roman painted plaster.

It’s all in the name..

Close up detail of plaster work around the top of the ceiling above the marble staircase

Once again I headed for Kingston Lacy with a mission to check under the floorboards in the house. A condition survey was being carried out by Clivedon Conservation on the plaster ceiling above the marble staircase.

Douglas and Tina (National Trust paintings conservator) surveying the painted plaster ceiling

It was while looking under the floor in the third Tented Room above the ceiling that Douglas from Clivedon Conservation spotted some writing on one of the joists of the superstructure, but he had not had time follow it up further.

“James” written in pencil on the wooden joist

So as well as looking between the joists for objects lost down the cracks between the boards or hidden on purpose, I had a look at the faces of the joists to see if I could find more writing. It was difficult to get the right lighting and angle to make out the words, especially as not all the boards had been lifted. But with the help of torches and various settings on my camera I could make out one full name, a part name and a date!

The surname “Game” to go with the first name James

The complete name was James Game, followed by the name Isaac and something illegible, presumably a surname, and then the date November 25th 1837. William John Bankes commissioned Charles Barry in 1835 to remodel Kingston Hall. This work was completed circa 1841, so the 1837 date fits with work being carried out in the house.

November 25th 1837

With access to the 1840 census I thought I would look up James Game to see if I could find him in the area or on the estate. It was exciting to find someone of this name living at Hillbutts, a small group of dwellings beside the boundary of the parkland around Kingston Lacy house. But best of all, his occupation was listed as a joiner!

I think the second name of Isaac starts with an N? All ideas and suggestions welcome, then we’ll see if we can find Isaac on the census as well!

I think the surname of Isaac starts with an N, or perhaps M

The name Isaac written in pencil


Hearth & Home 545 Kingston Lacy

Buildings archaeology tends to be less straightforward than dirt archaeology. Standing structures in 3D are not sealed beneath the ground. You have to work out whether the thing you are uncovering is an original piece of the building, in its right place, or part of an older building moved and recycled from somewhere else.

Fireplaces are good evidence. Usually the massive inglenook fireplace has been infilled by a nest of smaller and smaller fireplaces as fashions, usage and the technology of heating changed. These days it’s all the rage to open up and expose the original large fireplace again and this unseals evidence of the everyday lives of the families who lived there centuries before.

The centre of a building is the hearth. It’s where the warmth is. Where the meals are cooked. The 4500 year old Neolithic houses recently found at Durrington on the Stonehenge Estate had hearths at their centres.


The dark circle in the middle of the white rectangle is the hearth in the centre of the 4500 year old house excavated at Durrington Walls in 2007

The ordinary medieval cottages at Kingston Lacy would have had open hearths with the smoke seeping out through the thatch, but by the 16th century some would have had two closely set roof trusses to catch the smoke and direct it out through a vent ( a smoke bay). By the early 17th century, when brick was becoming more common in Dorset, cottages were getting fireplaces.

People worked out various ways to use the heat from the fire to get various jobs done. When an inglenook is opened up there is usually more than a fireplace. There may be hooks to hang meat or other things on… A small alcove perhaps for keeping salt dry, perhaps the remains of a mechanism for turning a spit and very often a bread oven and if you’re lucky its iron door, complete with catch still in place.


  • An oven built into a fireplace on the Killerton Estate, Devon. The detached iron door has been left in the oven

I had tea with an old couple in their cottage at Corfe Castle about 25 years ago. They still had their bread oven and told me how their parents burnt the gorse on Corfe Common to make ‘blackstock’ this was harvested by the tenants of the Corfe Castle Estate to burn in the bread ovens. When the oven  was hot enough the ash was raked out and the bread could be baked.

Last week I went to 545 Abbot Street on the Kingston Lacy Estate. This was one of the last cottages on the Estate to be repaired up to modern standards. It has been a long process to find the money to repair all the hundreds of cottages across the Bankes Estates.


545 Abbot Street before work started. The brick infill was probably originally wattle and daub traces of this survive inside.

It is an early 17th century timber framed building, originally infilled with wattle and daub but this was largely replaced with bricks  in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the centre of the building  is a large brick structure containing a massive infilled fireplace. When I first went there in 2014 there was a 20th century range built into the blocking.


The infilled inglenook fireplace at 545 with the range inserted.

When I revisited, the original fireplace had been exposed. Not one but two brick bread ovens side by side but on the left another opening with a circular void continuing up to the first floor. At this level, the blocked entrance to the chamber could be seen cutting through the original wattle and daub screen infilling the roof truss there.

I’d only seen one other of these features at Kingston Lacy: a cottage at Tadden where the void turned out to by a curing chamber. This was a good way to preserve bacon by smoking it next to the fire. The meat was cut up into joints and hung on a rack from the first floor placed on a tray which would allow the smoke to circulate evenly. There are recipes for the smoke, burning ash or oak was usually favoured and perhaps a few juniper berries mixed with sawdust to improve the flavour.


The surviving wattle and daub infill on the first floor  of 545 above the inglenook. Cut into the collar are two inserted posts for a door into the curing chamber which was later blocked.

But was it a curing chamber? It might have been for drying corn either for milling into flour or for seed corn for the next crop. Another possibility  is that it was used as  a kiln for drying barley as part of the malting process to create beer. All these processes have been found in fireplaces across the West Country. Tony is making the archaeological record as the building is repaired and he will hopefully find the evidence that will give us the answer.

So the family living here in the 17th and 18th centuries were small-scale farmers and these tenants would have grown cereals in the open fields and kept livestock in the paddocks around the cottage. It is described as ‘house garden yards and orchard’ on the estate map of 1774 but at that time the land belonged to Sir William Hanham. The Bankes family bought it a few years later. The small farms were uneconomic and during the 18th-19th centuries they were absorbed into larger farms and the multipurpose fireplaces gradually went out of use..

I hope the new National Trust tenants enjoy their new home. They probably won’t be smoking bacon though.






Steep climb to the wow!

It’s easy to take for granted the archaeology in the landscapes we work in, those special sites we can visit when ever we need to replenish our souls. All the archaeologists in the National Trust are spread across all the different places and landscapes in the Trusts holdings, each with a range of sites and wow’s.

Hambledon Hill

Hambledon Hill

We try to all meet up a few times a year to discuss common issues and share new discoveries and ways of working. The last gathering was down in Dorset here in the south-west, and we managed to do a whole day in the field, working on site management issues. The ‘fields’ we choose were  the adjacent hill forts of Hambledon and Hod. Two of the 7 and a half  hill forts we look after in Dorset. The climb up and down and up and down again was helped by a stop mid way for tea and biscuits provided by the Rangers who manage the sites and had joined us for the day.

A welcome break thanks to our wonderful rangers

A welcome break thanks to our wonderful rangers

As we reached the top of Hod Hill we got our first glimpse of the size of the ramparts and scale of the area inside them. Hod Hill even has room for a Roman fort in one corner!

Standing on top of one of the ramparts at Hod Hill

Standing on top of one of the ramparts at Hod Hill

Group exercise  on Hod Hill

Group exercise on Hod Hill

With colleagues from areas of the country that don’t have many hill forts or any at all,  commenting on how lucky we were in Dorset to have such magnificent monuments in our landscapes, I saw these sites with fresh eyes.

Stood on Hambledon Hill with Hod Hill in the background across the valley

Stood on Hambledon Hill with Hod Hill in the background across the valley

On the next sunny winters day do it, make the climb to the wow. Once on top of these hill forts you feel like a giant and you can touch the sky.

The snaking lines of ramparts, a giant sculpture from the Iron Age

The snaking lines of ramparts, a giant sculpture from the Iron Age

From sea to land

A winter view of Godolphin House

A winter view of Godolphin House

The out building next to the house

The out building next to the house

It’s amazing what is contained within all the estate and farm buildings the Trust looks after. Often while working on something else you notice other things of interest or the odd and quirky! While working at Godolphin cataloging  archaeological objects found on the estate, we went into one of the out buildings, were some worked stone and architectural pieces of wood are stored.

The upper room of the out building next to the main house was dark and full of portable  objects from small pieces of tile to large lumps of wood. But it was the only fixed object in the room that caught my eye.

Side view of the strange branch and machine

Side view of the strange branch and machine

It is a lovely wooden branch, chosen for the natural curve it had. This was fixed to the ceiling at one end  and the wooden floorboards at the other, and attached to it is a metal machine of some kind. There is a hopper at the top, an arm for a handle and a hole underneath.

The arm for the handle and the hopper at the top

The arm for the handle and the hopper at the top

What could it have been used for?   I needed to ask  Mal (the property development manager) whose family had worked on the estate for generation’s, he is a font of knowledge and sure enough he told us it was an oyster shell crusher!   Oyster shells and other shells were used for many things in the past, to add to clay to help stop pots exploding in the kiln, to add to mortar or help with leveling wall courses, or to help fertilize the land. Oysters have many other interesting facts attached to them especially in an archaeological context, but more of that another time possibly  from a  guest blogger 🙂

closer view of the machine

closer view of the machine

Toothbush at the ready

As with every dig there is always a lot to do once the site has been excavated and finally back filled. It all comes under the heading of post-excavation and not just pot washing 🙂 One big job is to clean all the finds and maybe make more discoveries under the dirt.

Washed finds from Tyntesfield Conservatory

Washed finds from Tyntesfield Conservatory

So it was off to Tyntesfield with washing up bowls, toothbrushes, and seed trays (and chocolate biscuits) to meet some hardy volunteers willing to do pot washing out side in October!

Vic and Liz brave the chill wind

Vic and Liz brave the chill wind

Vic and Liz had worked on the  Conservatory excavation – see this blog Tyntesfield Conservatory day 1 – and were interested to see the next stage and to help process what they had dug up.


There were many small pieces of polychrome  tile that made up the mosaic  floor, when cleaned we could see that  they all had makers marks on the bottom so we were sure they were all Minton Hollins & Co, they match ones in the house.

Not all finds need washing, the metal work is usually gently dry brushed and then packed into air tight polyethylene boxes with silica gel and a humidity indicating strip as it has to be kept dry. This way we can create a micro climate for the metal work to slow down any corrosion.

A cast iron flower waiting to be repacked

A cast iron flower waiting to be repacked

Charlie using a goat hair brush to clean the soil of the lion

Charlie using a goat hair brush to clean the soil of the lion, the dg site can be seen behind him

As it was half term for the schools we had lots of interested visitors and one young lad Charlie, joined us for a short time to help clean the soil off the lion 🙂 he was very interested in conservation and collections , a future NT conservator or curator!

A clean lion

A clean lion

I left Vic and Liz with more boxes of finds to wash, hopefully they can find a lovely warm place to do the rest 🙂 Great job guys, I will send more biscuits 🙂