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