Max Gate and the South Dorset Ridgeway

What would you say was the best archaeological landscape in England ?

The west end of the Ridgeway from the Iron Age hillfort of Abbotsbury Castle east along the Chesil Beach towards the Isle of Portland.

The west end of the Ridgeway from the Iron Age hillfort of Abbotsbury Castle east along the Chesil Beach towards the Isle of Portland.

Yes you guessed it Dorchester, Maiden Castle and the South Dorset Ridgeway…

did I hear somebody say Hadrian’s Wall? Stonehenge?… well granted Avebury’s got a lot going for it. It’s not a county town though.. doesn’t lay claim to being a Roman civitas capital despite there being a large Roman settlement beside Silbury Hill.

Doesn’t have a Waitrose overlying its henge, built as a circle of massive oak posts 380m in diameter. Doesn’t have a Waitrose come to that. Yes you can still see the great bank and ditch of Avebury’s henge, you’d have to go to the east side of Dorchester.. to Mount Pleasant to see anything like that and of course Avebury has its megaliths… but so does Max Gate.

This whole area is a top level Neolithic-Early Bronze Age ceremonial landscape. Dorchester has a line of henges and Neolithic enclosures of various dimensions overlooked by the most impressive of Iron Age hillforts, Maiden Castle. This overlies a unique monument, the later Neolithic bank barrow 600m long which in turn overlies the causewayed enclosure built about 3600 BC.

The view towards Maiden Castle and Dorchester from the heathland east of Hardy's Monument

The view towards Maiden Castle and Dorchester from the heathland east of Hardy’s Monument

South of Maiden Castle is the great chalk Ridgeway.. 18km long dividing Dorchester from the beautiful Dorset coast. Stonehenge has many Bronze Age burial mounds but as the antiquarian William Stukely said, after a Ridgeway visit in 1724, ‘For sight of barrows I believe not to be equalled’ (and he’d spent a lot of time at those Wiltshire places). Walk the ridge on a misty October evening and the burial mounds loom across your path… many have deep clefts, evidence of barrow diggers, treasure hunters and the curious who left their mark centuries ago.

Between the parishes of Poxwell in the east and Abbotsbury in the west there are over 600 burial mounds of various shapes and sizes.. on the ridge itself and in groups on spurs of land running north towards the county town. At either end, the cemetery is defined by further bank barrows and the view to the south takes in the great shingle bank of Chesil Beach as though between the coast and Maiden Castle the whole cemetery is enclosed as a massive ‘cursus’ designed out of the natural landscape.

The Tulks Hill barrows near Abbotsbury Castle.

The Tulks Hill barrows near Abbotsbury Castle.

What’s all this got to do with the National Trust? At the west end it has a group of barrows at Tulks Head near Abbotsbury Castle. Then there’s Hardy’s Monument (built as a memorial to Thomas Masterman Hardy, Nelson’s admiral). This is a small property with just a bit of land around Hardy’s tower but includes a barrow and a half. It’s small but can claim to be the highest and near central point of the vast Ridgeway barrow cemetery.

Hardy's Monument. The highest point on the Ridgeway.

Hardy’s Monument. The highest point on the Ridgeway.

But this blog is about Max Gate, Thomas Hardy, the writer’s, house which lies between the Waitrose circle and Mount Pleasant. All sorts of famous people visited Thomas here, Laurence of Arabia on his motor bike, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Rudyard Kipling. To get to Max Gate, they all had to walk across the c.3000 BC Neolithic enclosure, which is equivalent in size and date to the earthwork that encloses Stonehenge.

The refurbished resistivity meter beside the stone found during the 1980s excavations.

The refurbished resistivity meter beside the stone found during the 1980s excavations.

Last week Dave and I went there for the day to survey the north garden.. to see whether we could map the buried circle and find remains of any later features. These include Iron Age and Roman burials which have been discovered around Max Gate, both by Thomas Hardy himself and as recently as last year (see bodies in trenches).

Caps the gardener had prepared the site for us and showed us where the tea making facilities were.. but geophysics likes large open areas.. small gardens are full of obstacles and for Dave’s magnetometer there was a lot of metal in the form of water pipes, fences, fruit cages and a shepherd’s hut.

A busy garden of fruit cages, sheds and bonfires the Neolithic enclosure lies beneath.

A busy garden of fruit cages, sheds and bonfires the Neolithic enclosure lies beneath.

The resistivity meter is now mended and worked well (see upon Cley Hill 2).. once it was reassembled properly. The readings were quite bland but we hoped to find buried megaliths like the two in the garden. One was found by Thomas Hardy and the other during the building development that swept away the western part of the site in the 1980s. All that remains of the ancient circle lies beneath Max Gate.. and that, as we found when we downloaded the data, is largely hidden from view.

The outline of the excavated part of the Neolithic circular enclosure of c.3000 BC with Max Gate and Dave' survey placed over it.

The outline of the excavated part of the Neolithic circular enclosure of c.3000 BC with Max Gate and Dave’ survey placed over it.

Hod Hill: Camp Bastion, Dorset

One of the two Iron Age gateways through the ramparts of Hod Hill. The largest hillfort in Dorset. Perhaps Ptolemy's 'Dunium'

One of the two Iron Age gateways through the ramparts of Hod Hill. The largest hillfort in Dorset. Perhaps Ptolemy’s ‘Dunium’

Yesterday, we walked along the rampart and I asked the group to stop at the gate and look back and imagine. Beyond Stourpaine, the Dorset landscape faded towards the coast and Poole Harbour.

This is where they had landed and below us the soldiers were arranged into companies ready for attack. The scouts on the hill top, spotted the target and signaled its range and distance to the artillery and then.. it started, awful twangs and whirrings as an avalanche of ballista fell on the chief’s house and compound.

At least, this was Sir Ian Richmond’s story when he excavated the compound in 1956. How else to explain the Roman ballista bolts embedded in the walls and floors of the two round houses there, all angled and pointed in the same direction.

There are no cemeteries or massacre deposits of the war-dead here, unlike Maiden Castle or South Cadbury. Perhaps dismayed by the initial onslaught, they opened the gates and let them in. The round houses were abandoned, piles of sling stones and spear heads were found, left in the cupboards by the front doors. Perhaps the conquerors told them to go at once and leave all weapons.

Hod Hill. Iron Age entrances bottom left and top right. Roman fort bottom right

Hod Hill. Iron Age entrances bottom left and top right. Roman fort bottom right

We walked on along the north rampart and came to the point where Iron Age hillfort defences are severed by the straight lines of the Roman fort. Built in the highest place, with 360 degree views, to the best military design. The ditches laid out to lure attackers into a killing zone. Within javalin range. Easy to enter, difficult to leave. A bank and ditch across the entrance to prevent direct assault and then the narrowing of the causeway to the gate.

Part of David Stewart's geophysical survey of Hod Hill. Iron Age entrance bottom right. Roman fort edge top right. Note the trackways radiating out from the entrance between the dense concentration of round houses. The numerous black blobs are storage pits. The small groups of four blobs between the tracks are probably    post-holes for granaries raised on stilts.

Part of David Stewart’s geophysical survey of Hod Hill. Iron Age entrance bottom right. Roman fort edge top right. Note the trackways radiating out from the entrance between the dense concentration of round houses. The numerous black blobs are storage pits. The small groups of four blobs between the tracks are probably post-holes for granaries raised on stilts.

Inside rows of timber barrack blocks in centuries, 500 men and then the larger long buildings cavalry units, another 300 mounted troops. The HQ building and hospital either side of the main road and across the way the houses for the commanders. The equestrian commander, of senior rank, had the bigger house (bit of friction there perhaps, Agricola mentions that infantry and cavalry often didn’t get on).

Here they were, 2000 years ago, in hostile territory. The nearest base about 10 miles away to the south. Bit like the wild west perhaps. Patrols, messages conveyed, supply trains attacked by the wild rebel elements.. perhaps. Who knows? The history is lost to us but from Vindolanda on Hadrian’s wall, we have rare letters that survive and from these we can imagine what it was like.

Where did these soldiers come from? A walk along Hadrian’s Wall is like a walk through the Empire. Each fort had a garrison from a different place but they carved the names of their cohorts on memorial stones. Perhaps from Spain or Syria, Tuscany or Gaul.

Hod hill is a great place to imagine, particularly in the Spring, particularly when the cowslips are out and the orchids are beginning to bloom.

Nick Skelton's illustration of Hod Hill from the National Trust's Dorset hillfort guide book. We have imagined the Roman fort established after clearance of the British settlement

Nick Skelton’s illustration of Hod Hill from the National Trust’s Dorset hillfort guide book. We have imagined the Roman fort established after clearance of the British settlement