Storm Archaeology

I had an urgent phone call at Tisbury the other day.

Looking west. Where the river meets the sea at Seatown. Golden Cap in the background.

A few years ago, Humphrey had found the fragments of a granite rotary quern (for grinding grain into flour) washing out of the cliff. He had picked this up below the Seatown Iron Age site we excavated in 2015.

Now he had spotted something else.

A recent storm had scoured the gravel from the river mouth at Seatown.. a hamlet flanked by parts of the National Trust’s Golden Cap Estate in Dorset. The sea had exposed what he thought was the site of an ancient fire…charcoal surrounded by hazelnut shells.

Another storm threatened over the weekend and he thought that the site might be covered again or washed away. I agreed to drive down on the Friday afternoon and have a look.

At Chideock, I took the narrow road down to the beach. The car park was scattered with seaweed and huge rolling breakers smashed against the beach. I opened the boot and put on water-proofs and boots and filled my backpack with sample bags, trowel, notebook and camera. The river had swelled with months of rain and I followed it a few metres towards the sea.

The grey clay exposure at Seatown Beach with black fragments of preserved wood jutting out of it

I then saw what Humphrey had spotted. Black worn timbers jutting out of a grey sticky clay. The sort of clay that excludes all oxygen and enables wood to survive for 1000s of years. The waves were pounding the gravel beach but the tide was far enough out to enable me to crouch down and look at the exposure.

There were footprints and dog paw marks across it… as it was everyone’s riverside route to the shoreline. I quickly cleaned the site up. The area visible was only about 5m long and 2m wide. it seemed to continue under the beach gravel…although it could not be seen, the site was probably much more extensive.

A close up of the clay with a black fragment of wood sticking out top right and around this little black blobs which are the hazelnut shells.

There was a jagged tree stump half a metre in diameter jutting out of the clay and nearby part of a fallen tree trunk of similar size. Around them were many hazelnut shells. I collected a wood fragment and some of the shells and looked for anything that might date the site. This clay was deep down at the river level with the sand and clay lias cliffs rising up on either side. The land had been cut sheer by the wave action that wears away this soft geology year. One of many National Trust coastal sites effected by coastal erosion. I thought of Brownsea in Poole Harbour and Gunwalloe and Godrevy in Cornwall where new archaeology is revealed each winter.

But at Seatown….was this archaeology at all?.or a buried Jurassic forest many millions of years old… but would the hazelnuts survive for so long? I drove away with my samples, drawings and photos ready for some background research.

The next storm blew a field maple over in front of Kingston Lacy House in south-east Dorset. Back in 1990, a storm blew a tree over close to the mansion and revealed the site of the 12th-15th century Kingston medieval manor. .

The field maple on the north side of Kingston Lacy House tearing up remains of the demolished medieval manor house where kings once held banquets for their important guests.

I asked Dave and Gill to have a look and they reported large lumps of stone and mortar exposed in the roots. On closer inspection they saw a medieval clay roof tile and an oyster shell. A leftover from a banquet held in the house …perhaps for John of Gaunt or his son Henry IV.

Close up of the tree roots which have disturbed mortar and building rubble from the old manor house.

A few days later, Mark (National Trust Ranger), drove me out to High Wood. This lies on a hill east of Badbury Rings on the Kingston Lacy Estate. A huge beech tree, over 250 years old, had crashed to the ground.

The fallen beech tree in High Wood

As we drove across the fields, we talked again about the High Wood skeleton revealed by an earlier uprooted beech tree… that fell in the great storm of 1987.

The rain pelted down as we wrapped our coats around us, got out of the car and walked a few yards into the wood. I was awed by this huge fallen tree. We stood under the wide root plate. No bones this time..just a lot of roots mixed with earth and chalk ripped from the ground…but near the centre, something different, the dark soil gave way to burnt orange-red clay that formed a circular area about 1-2m across. I knelt down and picked over the fallen debris. Chunks of light grey flint crackled with many fine lines. These flints had been heated in a fire. This appeared to be a hearth of some kind.

We were getting wet and had other places to see… but Dave and Gill investigated a few days later and recovered struck flakes of flint.

High Wood has been there at least since the 14th century and lies at the heart of the medieval Kingston Lacy deer park. This land has not been ploughed for many hundreds of years so a hearth might survive from the prehistoric period. I’m looking forward to seeing the finds and reading Dave’s report….

Lt. Twisden and ‘Golden Cup’ Signal

Rescue excavation at Golden Cap cliff edge 1992Taken by a Royal Navy helicopter from HMS Osprey, Portland.

Rescue excavation at Golden Cap cliff edge 1992Taken by a Royal Navy helicopter from HMS Osprey, Portland.

Once, before we started to dig, there were clouds of tiny black insects that flew into our faces like sand.

When the wind blew, the golden sand was blown from the cliff face, it gradually covered everything. Over time, it had buried the 2m high line of stone cairns, converting them to vague undulating mounds.

When the fog came down, you couldn’t see a thing, you needed to watch your step, you could be anywhere.

On the wet days, we looked out to sea and waited for the next black bank of cloud to roll in. There’s nowhere to hide, a tepid thermos crouched beside a gorse bush is a bit hopeless, better to keep working and keep warm.

But on the warp factor 10 days, when the world is gin clear and the sun bakes Golden Cap, the views are breathtaking. The distant, curving sweep of Chesil Beach, lures the eye to the axe-head profile of Portland. And to the west, Lyme Bay fades out to Devon’s Start Point.

The view from Golden Cap east to Portland on a good day

The view from Golden Cap east to Portland on a good day

The micro-macro shift of concentrated measuring, at the section face, of individual stones, and then looking up to be surprised by the Marshwood Vale and the vista across Dorset into Somerset.

I’ve never worked here in winter. My daughter was still a baby the first time. She was at university the second. In this equivalent span of years, John Twisden had occupied and experienced Golden Cap. He and his crew and his family. We found their loose change,a button, remains of meals and the vessels they ate from.

Discovery of a mixing bowl belonging to John Twisden's signal station

Discovery of a mixing bowl belonging to John Twisden’s signal station

Napoleonic signal mast like the one erected into the Bronze Age cairn at Golden Cap

Napoleonic signal mast like the one erected into the Bronze Age cairn at Golden Cap

From 1796-1814 they lived in a little wooden signal hut, its foundation cut into the sides of the cairns for shelter. Their job was to watch for French invasion, for Napolean’s army, and to signal with an arrangement of flags and black canvas balls to neighbouring stations on equally isolated hill tops miles away. The signal mast was erected in a deep pit cut through the centre of one of the Bronze Age cairns.

Once or twice when the fog came down, there were false alarms. Rumours spread, riders were sent and the militia were assembled but the enemy soldiers never came.



Every few years, John, his wife Anne and family marched down the hill to Stanton St Gabriel Chapel and baptised their latest baby. It’s now a ruin but its good to stand where they stood. He was just a name for a while but it turns out that he came from a wealthy family, a disinherited orphan. He joined the Royal Navy at 12 and sailed on the ‘Victory’. Journeyed to America and the Carribean and commanded gun boats guarding the English Channel. His Admiralty letter to go to Golden Cap must have seemed like a career set-back, and as it turned out, he was retired from there when the war ended.

Stanton St Gabriel Chapel

Stanton St Gabriel Chapel

He worked on the canals in Devon, even invented and patented a new canal lock device before he won a court case and regained his family’s ancestral home and estate. Bradbourne House in Kent. A good Jane Austen novel perhaps, probably not enough balls and socialising.

! Oo Ah Ya ?

It’s been a week of conservation performance indicators, West Dorset, Sherborne and Chedworth, Bath Skyline and Dunster.

The view west from our excavation at Thorncombe Beacon in 2003

The view west from our excavation at Thorncombe Beacon in 2003

On Friday, at Kingston Lacy, it was good to get outside and walk the park, garden and estate with Nigel, Andrew and Peter who head the countryside staff. To pause for a while beside the medieval earthwork hidden in Abbott Street Copse and observe the blossoming of the first bluebell. The place will be a sea of colour within a fortnight…

The start of our excavation of the medieval earthwork in 1998

The start of our excavation of the medieval earthwork in 1998

Wednesday, Row Z, Trevor Brooking Stand. Carroll nods the ball down to Vaz Te who drives it into the back of the net. To the left, The Red Devils fall silent and around me the terraces erupt with jubilation.

A thin voice behind shouts ‘oo ah ya?’

(good question)

And as one, the massed ranks of the Iron Army turn and jab outstretched arms at the enemy tribe through a line of peace-keeping policemen.

‘OO AH YA!?, OO AH YA!?, OO AH YA!?’

The gut wrenching thrill of it, a little dangerous.

Like a rain drenched Lodmoor.
Standing in a Saxon shield wall drumming spears on wood ‘OUT!, OUT, OUT!’, the Vikings charge (well, students visiting Weymouth from Wolverhampton) ‘WODEN!, Oo Ah Ya!’

The Civil War caused the loss of the outer defensive walls but the mansion remained.. unlike Corfe which was demolished by the victors.

The Civil War caused the loss of the outer defensive walls but the mansion remained.. unlike Corfe which was demolished by the victors.

Perhaps the Royalists shouted it from the wall tops of Corfe and Dunster as they they drove back their Parliamentarian attackers in the 1640s.. fellow Englishmen.

Who are you? Who are we? What made us who we are?



Who are you? This is the question we ask on every archaeological excavation with varying degrees of success. Two years ago we excavated a line of round barrows on the edge of a cliff at Golden Cap in West Dorset (see the top illustration of the blog). The sea is eroding them away, they will be gone in 50 years. We found Early Bronze Age flint beneath the stone cairns and patches of charcoal at the centre of two of them.

The charcoal gave us radiocarbon dates of 2100-1900 BC. The soil gave us a rich pollen profile that demonstrated that this had been an oak, hazel forest before it was cleared for the barrows. The coastal geomorphologists calculated that the cairns had been built 2-3km inland 4,000 years ago and the sea had since eaten into the coast bringing the monuments within a few metres of the ocean. No bones survived, no obvious grave goods. Who were these people who had built these monuments on this 192m high ridge top so that they could be seen from miles around.

We don’t know. Their customs and habits would seem very strange to us.. We found other pottery and other finds though and were able to find the name and fascinating life story of a man. It is particularly satisfying when history and archaeology co-habit. I’ll tell you about John..

Pottery found filling a deep post-pit cut through the centre of a cairn on Golden Cap

Pottery found filling a deep post-pit cut through the centre of a cairn on Golden Cap