On Friday, Phil sent out the results from the preserved woodland found under two metres of peat. A digger bucket had ripped up the branches and twigs just before Christmas and Wessex Archaeology was commissioned to re-excavate the trench on Alderman’s Barrow on Exmoor in West Somerset.
They took samples for pollen, wood, leaves and insects… any evidence they could extract from the archaeological stratigraphy to understand this potentially ancient preserved environment.
How old was it?
Surely…. significantly old… if so much peat had formed above it. Well, the Radiocarbon dates are back and they do not disappoint.
The peat filled valley, Alderman’s Barrow Allotment where the ancient preserved woodland debris deposit was found 2m down.
One sample taken from preserved wood at the west end of the valley, below the peat, was Early Neolithic 3940-3650 BC, an indicator of how long this area had been part of a forest. Hard to imagine now in this bleak, exposed and largely treeless domain.
Further down the valley, below the peat, an 0.7m deep deposit of vegetation was recorded. The C14 date from the bottom sample was Early Bronze Age (2490-2290 BC) and from the upper surface of the wood debris, where the last branches fell… the date range was 1620-1410 BC.
As Phil, the South West Peatland Project Archaeologist said ‘So far it looks like the woodland may have disappeared by the late Bronze Age, which fits quite well with the onset of colder and wetter conditions’.
The excavation in High Wood has just been published.
It reminds me of the day I swung into Badbury Rings car park to ‘Whiskey in the Jar’.
Love the sound of that Thin Lyzzy electric guitar.
As it was a special day, I’d decided to walk across the hillfort to High Wood.
Badbury is the highest and central hill on the Kingston Lacy Estate.. but it is a double hill.
Beyond the hillfort, the land drops away and then rises again through ancient woodland.
Badbury is ringed by its three concentric pairs of ramparts and ditches.. but what lies on the crest of High Wood Hill?
I opened the boot and took out drawing boards, a bucket full of tapes, a toolbox and notebooks. I pulled the camera bag over my shoulder and locked the car.
My route took me across the agger of the Dorchester Roman road, past the Romano Celtic temple, through the western gateway of Badbury.
Mywalk from Badbury car park to the trench in High Wood as a red dotted line using the 1742 rights of way map
I’d had to go into the office before driving down to Dorset and Nancy told me not to hurry. She would look after the site until I arrived.
The bank and ditch had been found hidden by trees in 1987, just before I’d bumped into the body under the windblown tree.
By searching and pacing, the hill top earthworks had turned out to belong to a ‘D’-shaped enclosure about 90m across. The woodland vegetation had stopped it being spotted previously. It had not been easy to see because quarries had been cut through it…hiding its outline.
I walked past the deep ditches and high ramparts of Badbury…High Wood was very different to this. Its bank and ditch were much slighter features.. and.. unlike Badbury, the ditch lay along the inner edge of the bank.
Badbury a defence.. for security, to keep things out .. but High Wood…to keep something in perhaps?
We’d picked up long flint blades scuffed from the leaf litter in High Wood’s ditch…….
I’d reached the summit of Badbury now, we’d excavated flakes of flint over 5000 years old here in 2004. High Wood was also occupied then… but was the enclosure a henge… like Avebury?
If High Wood was a Neolithic earthwork it would be the only one on the Kingston Lacy Estate. The best way to understand it better was to make a surgical incision.
Mark, from English Heritage, had carried out a survey of the High Wood earthworks and from this we could see where the enclosure survived and where it had been cut by the old quarries.
Our trench was placed across the bank of the enclosure, the ditch and part of the quarry.
My walk now took me down towards the east entrance through the trees and grassland. Here, there are many pebbles, the same geology which ovelies the chalk on the summit of High Wood. The quarries were presumably dug to harvest these slingshot sized stones. I’d seen them capping the Dorchester Roman road where the grass had been eroded by cattle.
The Palaeolithic axe found cast aside in a Roman quarry
On the first day of the excavation, we’d found an extraordinary thing. A multi-faceted but worn chunk of grey flint. The oldest object we’d ever discovered at KL. Phil the flint specialist said it was Palaeolithic, over 40,000 years old. It was out of context as we also picked up sherds of Roman pottery in the quarry backfill. Perhaps the Roman quarrymen had found this curious thing as they dug out the pebbles to surface their new road to Dorchester on the other side of Badbury.
I had walked through Badbury’s Iron Age east gate now and was crossing the turning of the Hamworthy to Bath Roman road before entering High Wood.
When we excavated into the bank, we found burnt flint and struck flakes but also prehistoric pottery.
This site was a strange, hidden sort of place to work.
We’d cut out a narrow world in the undergrowth and our conversations seemed hushed and interrupted by bird song. Visitors rarely found us here unless we guided them in… and there were midges.
The hidden trench in High Wood
As we dug deeper, it was clear that the bank had been built up from earlier occupation deposits, long, long before the medieval wood had been established here. A time when there were clear views out to Badbury and far out across the surrounding landscape.
Once… the Isle of Wight, the Purbeck ridge and the chalkland of Cranborne Chase would have been clearly seen by the people living here.
Phil said that there was so much later Bronze Age flint that the enclosure may well date before Badbury..about 1000 BC but we found that it was mingled with Iron Age pottery.
I had reached the old, upended beech tree roots where I’d discovered the Early Bronze Age woman …21 years earlier (see Arch NT SW ‘Meeting in High Wood’). From here, my path took me upwards, towards the excavation. I followed the markers we’d tied to the saplings to guide us in.
Our trench had revealed that the earthwork enclosure was built in the later Iron Age about 100BC. It was contemporary with Badbury, occupying its hilltop twin, a few hundred metres to the south west.
Perhaps this was a sacred place. A place to keep something valuable?
At the bottom of the bank, we found large chunks of earlier Iron Age pottery.
Excavating a chunk of Middle Iron Age pottery c. 300 BC below the enclosure bank in High Wood
Our small trench and short stay in the wood had uncovered many layers of time.
There were noises ahead. Laughter, the bright colours of balloons.
A champagne cork burst.
A birthday banner stretched between the trees. Half a century!
Papworth, M., 2022, ‘Evaluation Excavation of an Iron Age Enclosure within High Wood, Kingston Lacy Estate, Pamphill ‘, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural HIstory and Archaeological Society 143, 125-148.
Once, in the Chilterns, we’d discovered a glade with an abandoned rope swing. We’d laughed at each other as we’d swung and glided among the trees.
Best accommodation… quirky Wendover
Best sleep…..cave-like Streatley
Best food …. our beginning at Aldbury
Emma got into her electric Green taxi and waved as it took her soundlessly out of Streatley towards Wantage and on to London.
I trudged back along the quiet lane up to where we had left the Ridgeway yesterday.
No Strada today… but my key aim and objective of the walk was ahead.
A dog walker with earphones approached and I asked how far to Uffington.
‘Just 4km along the path’ he said ‘that’s where I’m parked, not far now’.
Twenty minutes later, a father and daughter approached…they were a little younger than me and Emma… but these were serious walkers, I spotted a tent and accosted them.
Yes they were walking the Ridgeway and had camped in a farmer’s field last night. He had just come back from a successful bid on the Pennine Way. I asked whether many people do it these days and he said that it was now fashionable to take it in as part of the Land’s End to John O’ Grotes trek.
Really…the peat bogs and the hypothermia….all my struggles over it and eventually the final conquest in 89…So now it was just a snack in a greater challenge !
A good conversation and a nice couple… but I felt chastened… and quite honestly a bit of a ‘light-weight’ as I walked on with my tentless rucksack and my fancy B & Bs…. it wasn’t a competition of course.
I paused for a drink… and the dog walker caught me up again.
‘Almost there’ he said.
I said that I wanted to see the White Horse because I was employed by the National Trust and had worked on the Cerne Abbas Giant.
‘ They’ve recently dated that’ he said ‘ I heard a podcast on it. A great thing to listen to when you are walking the dog’ He walked on.
I began thinking that perhaps I should listen to podcasts rather than just contribute to them. No twitter no instagram…I am falling behind. But my current conclusion is … in the time that I have… better to write this.. writing’s fun…a diary of sorts.
And then I was upon it….a National Trust Omega sign announcing White Horse Hill.
I crossed the long grass and sat on the escarpment edge and ate a picnic bar from the snack pack as I chatted to Jan on the phone. I could see the upper edge of the Horse’s head but the figure itself was roped off. A sign pointed to Dragon Hill.
Remembering the Cerne Giant viewing lay-by and the need to protect chalk figures from visitor foot fall erosion. I respectfully followed the signs down to Dragon Hill. There it was below me, a perfect viewing platform. How had I not read about this? I would check my David Miles book when I got home.
What a fine, prehistoric, designed monumental landscape this must be. The later Bronze Age uniquely flowing white horse lines etched in the hillside (OSL dated over 20 years ago and the inspiration of our Cerne Abbas sampling), created so that people could assemble on this high flat-topped mound looking back at the Uffington Horse.
A group of grumpy people were coming down Dragon Hill. An American woman was carrying a small dog. They looked disappointed.
I climbed the hill and my theory fell apart. I got sort of an oblique view of the horse. I should have listened…the dog walker had told me… ‘the best view is from the car park’
I sat on the grass and the wind blew my map away. It landed out of reach, I walked casually towards it and another gust sent it spinning to the edge of the platform. I dived after it and just caught it. Time to retrace my steps.
I headed back through Uffington hillfort which lies on the crest of the hill above the White Horse. It consists of two ramparts either side of a ditch with a western entrance. It once had an opposing entrance on the east but it was later blocked. This is a common pattern. It was built 8th-7th century BC and was used through much of the Iron Age and overlay Bronze Age evidence. A lot of Roman pottery had been found here.. and Anglo Saxon burials. A busy place archaeologically.
As much as I can say. The 1989-95 Uffington Project is published in the 2003 Oxford Archaeology book.. (see reference below)
The hillfort was being looked after well by NT. Rough grass and a few mole hills but nothing to see in them. I walked back to the stile and met a cyclist who had propped his bike against a black Ridgeway sign. He said he was cycling the 350km King Alfred’s Way and was loving it.
Just 2km west was Wayland’s Smithy an English Heritage megalithic long barrow managed by NT. It lies within a grove of beech trees and the legend tells how Wayland, the invisible Smith, will shoe your horse if you leave money. I didn’t have a horse so sat on a log and had lunch there. Looking at the stone facade and the burial chamber… where someone had left some flowers.
The site is an Early Neolithic communal burial monument but when Stuart Piggott and Richard Atkinson excavated here in 1962-3 they found two phases of burial, the first was an oval timber-chambered barrow containing the remains of 14 people and built around 3600 BC. The later was the stone chambered barrow of about 3400 BC. This too had bones representing family or clan groups but the megalithic barrow had been badly robbed. The site looks well preserved today but it is a reconstruction. Early 20th century photos show the large stones fallen and the mound dug over and damaged.
A quiet place, National Trust rangers had repaired erosion to the barrow mound and it looked good. I finished lunch just as a group of cyclists crashed into the clearing. I slipped away and a short while later stopped to take a photo of the information board…but there was no phone in the front pocket of the rucksack. I retraced my steps found the phone lying in front of the long barrow. Wayland had left it for me ( I must concentrate). Top tip always double check you have everything before moving on.
So… I was half way through the day and I was 8km into a 28km walk. I had devoted too much time to the archaeology and needed to push on.
I went past a large converted horse box on the path, tucked into a verge by the path… bicycle, car, chairs all overgrown.. a bit Mary Celeste.. What had happened here?
It was becoming overcast and there was a chill wind. I started to cough so put on extra layers. I got to a road, saw a pub but it was now an Indian restaurant… I looked too unsavoury and I was too late for hot drinks apparently.
I was tired by the time I crossed the M4, did a dog-leg across the Swindon road and threw myself down on a verge before the ascent to Liddington Castle.
I’d crossed the border into Wiltshire and was back in the South West! I peeled an orange in celebration as two blokes wandered down the hill towards me. One of them looked at me and said ‘Are you alright ?’ (oh dear, I must look rough).
‘I’m just resting, I’ve come a long way today. Is it OK to walk round Liddington Castle?’
‘Yes you just need to go right on the field boundary at the top of the hill. We live in Swindon and often go for walks here. We’ve been looking at the WWII decoy site up there. The diversion to stop them bombing the town and the railway works.’
We talked of barrows as monuments to be seen by a community and they talked of a grove of trees clearly visible from Swindon where people came to remember loved ones.
‘The trees are full of pictures and flowers and ribbons they said’
They wished me good luck and went on their way.
A few hundred metres on and I walked off the map. 170 went back in the rucksack and out came 157 Marlborough and the Savernake Forest.
No time for Liddington. I left its double ramparts behind me as I turned south. This is Wiltshire’s candidate for the 5th-6th century sub-Roman battle of Mount Badon. There are Badbury place names nearby. Being a Dorset archaeologist, the true location is Badbury Rings of course…..but there are other places available.
I needed another Ridgeway black bench and one emerged in a perfect location sheltered by trees with huge views across the countryside. I looked back toward Liddington on the horizon. Emma rang, she was safe back in London.
The last part was a wearisome slow descent and encirclement of Ogbourne St George. I plodded along noticing how the patterns of blossom, floated down, settled on the ponds and were blown to the edges. One path had stripes where white and pink blossom alternated.
I needed a rest.
At last I found Ogbourne High Street and walked its length to get to the pub.
As ever, but particularly it seemed tonight…it was so great to be shown a room and to just crash out on a bed.
I still had a long way to go.
Miles, D., Palmer, S., Lock, G., Gosden,C. & Cromarty, A.M., 2003, ‘Uffington White Horse and Its Landscape, Investigations at White Horse Hill Uffington, 1989-95 and Tower Hill Ashbury 1993-4’, Oxford Archaeology Unit Monograph 18, Oxford University Press
It has almost been a year now since the excavations took place on the suspected Roman Fort at Budlake Farm on the Killerton Estate, Devon.
Over the last few months, Nancy has been sending the Budlake finds off to specialists and their reports will enable us to tell the story of the site.
Was it a Roman fort? When was it occupied and abandoned?
If there was a fort.. why was it built here? Was there a settlement here before the soldiers arrived?
What was the date of the far older prehistoric site we found unexpectedly beneath the playing card shaped triple-ditched enclosure?
The red Devon soil is very acidic and therefore corrosive. No bone (apart from cremated bone) or other organic matter like sea shells, leather or fabric could survive in it. Even the pottery has lost much of its finished surface.
We hoped for preserved pollen but none survived.
Fortunately, charcoal was found across the site and this was sent to Cathie. First to identify it and then to assess it for radiocarbon dating suitability.
Some chunks were from mature trees and therefore the date range for C14 would be too large. She selected the fragments of round wood and twig that would provide a closer date.
Our samples were from young oak, ash, gorse, blackthorn and hazel collected from sealed contexts across the site. We sent ten samples off, and eventually, last week, the C14 dates came back.
It turned out they represented a huge date range….from 8537-8297BC to AD 16-124.
Quite a spread… but the dates can be looked at in clusters.
You may remember that our earliest feature at Budlake was a small pit which contained tiny fragments of flint.
These are known as microliths and typical of the middle stone age or Mesolithic period. Our earliest date of c.8500 BC would be good for this but this date, from a fragment of hazel nut shell, was the earliest of four dates from the pit filling. The others were all from ash twigs, a sample from the top, the middle and the bottom of the pit … all dated from between 4700-4500 BC at 95% probability.
I phoned Olaf, our flint specialist. Yes, he felt that the flints from the pit were mixed and though most of the flints seem be typical of the Mesolithic material, there was Neolithic lithic technology evident.
The other three C14 dates from the pit were exciting because they date the soil to a period when the last hunter gatherer communities and the earliest farmers were in contact.
We can now compare the pottery finds and there were 8 small sherds mixed in the Roman deposits which were of fabrics likely to date from the Neolithic and Bronze Age.
Last year’s Trench I cut across the three ditches of the enclosure and found them to ‘V’-shaped in profile and averaging 3m wide and 1.75m deep. They looked typically Roman but contained next to nothing to date them. Fragments of blackthorn charcoal were found in the filling of the middle and inner ditch and both gave dates. From the middle ditch 201BC to 53 BC at 90% probability and from the inner ditch 47BC to AD66 at 95% probability.
Ed, the pot specialist dated the single rim fragment I’d found in the inner ditch as Late Iron Age…so was the triple-ditched enclosure Roman at all?
The other four C14 dates were very similar. Three came from Trench II, at the south entrance into the playing card shaped enclosure, and one more came from Trench III.
In Trench II, the enclosure’s middle and inner ditches had pottery and charcoal found within the debris filling them. From the inner ditch, a fragment of gorse charcoal and one of oak.. together with an fragment of oak charcoal from the middle ditch, all gave dates within a band AD 6 to AD 124 at 90% probability. The last date came from hazel charcoal from the filling of a large ditch found outside the enclosure AD 16-124 at 95% probability.
The mid range of all four would be AD 64-70. This would fit a Devon conquest period occupation of a Roman fort….though tempting, this way of averaging the dates is considered to be statistically incorrect and too precise for radiocarbon dating.
Still, the consistency of these four broad date ranges provides reasonable grounds to conclude that this is indeed a mid-late first century Roman fort and Ed’s pottery report provides back-up from the Trench II gateway ditch terminals.
From the middle ditch, a fragment of decorated South Gaulish samian bowl and part of a North Gaulish gritted mixing bowl together with a white ware butt beaker were all distinctively mid-late 1st century. The sherds of amphorae found in the gate-way post-pit had been imported from Spain and were also of a typically early Roman type.
Archaeology can be annoying because it rarely gives definitive answers. The best it can do is to use all available evidence to nudge us closer to the truth.
The case is scientifically well evidenced now to argue for a mid to late 1st century Roman fort at Budlake… but other finds give us the scent of an earlier presence there and perhaps the displaced mid-late Iron Age C14 dates and fragments of pottery suggest that the Romans occupied an existing settlement… fragments of which were scooped up and thrown into its ditches just as the Mesolithic was thrown into an earliest Neolithic pit.
The photo taken in 1984 shows the whole field full of archaeology and. it is hoped that further geophysical survey and excavation by Exeter University and Killerton’s HART volunteers will start to further unravel the palimpsest of time of this fascinating place.
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.
We were to meet Keith there, the Historic England Inspector. It was to review the management of the hillfort
It was positive, the conservation grazing and scrub removal now enabled the details of the earthworks to be seen. The result of a lot of hard work. After discussion, the ranger and farmer agreed the next set of actions and we descended the steep hill….back to the little car park on the road to Child Okeford.
Hod’s ranger, Michael, wanted us to look at Turnworth. I hadn’t been there for years but Simon our nature conservation advisor offered to guide me through the back-roads. Keith would come along too… together with Marie and some of the West Dorset rangers.
It was still very early spring, overcast but warm enough as we crossed the Stour, skirted the edge of the Blackmore Vale and started to rise onto the chalk again.
It had been a long morning, we parked up on a verge beside the property gate and Simon walked across and joined me in the car. The others had gone hunting for lunch in a shop somewhere.
We ate sandwiches and talked of our families and the National Trust.
Our usual combination of archaeology and nature conservation in a landscape…beside a long quiet road, lined with mature trees on the lower slope of a chalk escarpment.
Keith arrived and said that he had agreed my application and would make sure the scheduled monument consent for Cerne Abbas would be processed before the start of our excavation there on Monday.
A couple of landrovers swung onto the verge and Michael unlocked the gates. We began the ascent of Turnworth …or Ringmoor as it is sometimes called.
I’d not done my homework.
What was this landscape all about? We’d noticed the large trees along the Turnworth Road but it was clear that another avenue diverged from our lay-by and followed the path we were on. The trees were mature, gnarled and twisted and had been planted along the hollow of a wide, dry coombe. There were gaps… and a couple of large trees had recently fallen.
The fallen tree once part of an avenue shown on the 1791 map.
So this place was more than common sheep pasture… at some time it had been included in a designed landscape… though why this avenue had been planted was hard to tell. It seemed to go nowhere.
We stood beside the fallen giant tree, its root plate now vertical.
‘How old is this’ I asked Simon.
‘Its been here well over 200 years’
We walked round to see the tangle of roots. Nothing clearly archaeological in the debris. Large nodules of flint in clayey brown earth.
‘I wonder why these trees were planted here?’
‘The site of Turnworth House lies over the ridge’ said Michael ‘huge place, burnt down in the 1940s, there’s just a bungalow there now’
We followed the trees for a while and looked across the pasture field. This National Trust property is an island of grassland in a sea of deep ploughing. Outside this reserve, the archaeological earthworks had been levelled by arable farming long ago.
The Turnworth Estate map dated 1791 which shows the ‘Y’ shaped avenues of trees. We had lunch where the avenues join and walked up the hill along the trees to the left. Far left, the pond can be seen and below a dark mark is the now ruined cottage. The circle, left of centre, is presumably the Iron Age farmstead enclosure.
Turnworth was Tornworde in 1086, a manor held by Alfred of Spain (I looked it up when I got home). Alfred’s a Saxon name.. how did he survive as a landholder in the new Norman regime… and why of Spain.. curious
This pasture field had not been ploughed in the last few hundred years and still had medieval strip lynchets carved into the steeper slopes. A place of community farming within its strip field system… until the lord of Turnworth decided to include it in his wider parkland…complete with tree-lined carriage drive.
A break of slope, marking a medieval strip lynchet terraced into the slope.
I’ve just made that up. Definitely tree-lined but was it a carriage drive? Nice idea but no clear evidence. The 1791 enclosure map shows the trees clearly. Already well grown by then.
We turned away from the medieval, left the re-wilded avenue behind and climbed steeper up the ridge to see the main attraction.
This is the bit that even the medieval cultivators set aside. Sheep pasture long before the Saxon open field system was established.
A high down-top with wide views out across the lowland of the Blackmore Vale, Hardy’s ‘Vale of Little Dairies’.
As we crested the slope, we found ourselves in an area of short grassland dotted with occasional trees and bushes. Emerging from this were distinct banks enclosing rectilinear plots of land. We entered an old trackway, defined by two parallel banks, that led us along a curving path into an oval enclosure with two level areas created…for round houses.
We had entered an Iron Age world. A rare survival. We were standing in a homestead where a farming family once lived some 2000 years ago. It was surrounded by their small square fields linked by trackways. The sort of fragile ancient earthworks that have usually been ploughed flat, sacrificed to the demands of modern agriculture.
Aerial photograph showing the prehistoric field system preserved on Turnworth Down. The oval Iron Age farmstead enclosure can be seen top left, With the trackway on its left side.
Who knows when this land was first cultivated but the farmstead on Turnworth Down probably continued to be used without much change throughout the Romano-British period. It has never been excavated so dating is hazy….but definitely old, very old.. and precious. A scheduled monument of course, as Keith reminded us.
This place had not been completely ignored by people in the intervening years. There were pits, deep pits. They are shown on the 1880s Ordnance Survey map as ‘disused gravel pits’…though mainly dug for extracting flints for 18th and 19th century road hardcore or for local buildings and walls.
One of the deep disused 18th-19th century quarry pits.
Then we came across a short long mound on the hill top. This could be a ‘pillow mound’. Was this place used as rabbit warren at some time? These high out of the way places were often used to farm rabbits with pillow mounds built to house them.
In the highest corner of the property, Michael led us to a pond beside a ruined cottage. Perhaps this building was once a keeper or stockman’s house …remote beside its watering hole.
Fifty years or so ago it became too inconvenient a place to live.. or perhaps there was insufficient cash or inclination to repair it.
The silted pond and become a wildlife reserve. The natural and historic environments, mutually beneficial and blended in the landscape.
We discussed future management needs, made a plan and took a new route back down the hill.
The terraced boundaries of the prehistoric field system drifted under the mature woodland of the lower slopes. We were soon surrounded by moss and fern covered ancient trees. Craggy outstretched branches, open grown, demonstrating that they had once matured in managed open parkland.
In single file, we meandered deeper into the trees. A visit like many before, though it felt like a conclusion. Looking back, there seemed to be something…etherial, enigmatic…a line of figures disappearing into a fading light.
One of Turnworth’s open grown parkland treescovered in fern and moss.
I have tried to find out more about Turnworth. The names of the owners of parish and park. The church largely rebuilt in the 19th century, the mansion house gone in the fire and its historical records perhaps gone too. All those hidden past lives in this small pocket of Dorset.
I can list the owners back to the 18th century …but not much more…The documents show that the great house was once a wealthy, thriving place. In 1861 mum and dad, 12 children, a governess and 13 servants all lived there… all named in the census.
Though, at the top of Turnworth Down, the names of the windswept occupants of the ancient farmstead will remain a mystery, alongside the hopes and dreams of Domesday’s Alfred of Spain.
It is evening. The sun casts long shadows and the man lingers a moment beside the shrine, watching the life-spring of his home trickle into the octagonal basin. He turns and walks the length of the corridor, up the stone steps, along the passage and finds his wife in the dining room.
‘Did you hear the news ?
‘Yes…we are governed by selfish incompetents. How on earth will we be able to manage here in the future?
‘I think we have enough for now…but it’s the children I worry about.’
By the end of the 4th century, Chedworth Roman Villa was at its best. A fine home for a wealthy family.
Whatever became of it? How did such a place become a ruin?
Archaeologists investigating the Romans generally depend on an abundance of finds for dating. Coins, pottery and all the other lovely things that the Empire enabled merchants to import from around the Roman world.
This world gradually fell apart. The tap was turned towards off in the 5th century. Some coins enter Britain in the early 400s and there was some pottery production. A few shipments of exotic wine made it as far as Gloucestershire.
There is a piece from a 6th century Palestinian amphora unearthed at Chedworth. Could there still be people living at Chedworth able to afford such things?
Whatever…. finds are few and generally the events of the 5th-7th centuries are tough for archaeologists to unravel.
A challenge then: particularly as the upper archaeological levels were stripped away and discarded in 1864, when the Villa was discovered, and then rapidly excavated down to its mosaics.
So…come and visit Room 27 with me in Chedworth’s North Range. It is 2017 and I am excavating the trench in the north-east corner.
I must warn you….I am going to talk stratigraphy at you… I have to I’m afraid, you won’t believe me otherwise. Archaeologists live and breath stratigraphy. How can things be proved without it?
So, I am kneeling in my trench: In front of me is the north wall of the room and immediately to my right, beyond the east wall, are a line of archaeologists in Room 28.
They are working backwards from the north wall carefully uncovering and cleaning a mosaic. They are finding a row of circles containing three and four petalled flowers alternating with woven knots and linked by woven strands of guilloche in red, white and blue tesserae.
Their room is more exciting than mine. I only have a thin band of a plain crushed tile and mortar floor (opus signinum) surviving against the north wall. Below this is the floor’s mortar bedding and below this the floor’s mortared limestone hardcore which survives across my trench.
I told you I’d talk stratigraphy. This is the important sequence of events, most recent at the top and the earliest at the bottom…. and what you extract from each of the distinctive layers is important to enable you to unpick the past…. century by century.
You know…. if you went on holiday and forgot to cancel the papers… they’d pile up below the letter box. The earliest would be at the bottom.
So.. the hardcore which supported the crushed clay tile and mortar floor. Well, it covered the foundation trench for the wall between Rooms 27 and 28.
We have come to the point in the sequence of events when the wall was constructed.
The builders dug the trench, placed the foundation stones for the wall in the trench and then shovelled soil and rubble..and anything lying about… back into the trench, packing it against the newly built wall.
The technical archaeological term for this is ‘the foundation trench filling’ and anything found in this helps date the construction of the wall. My boring opus signinum floor and my neighbours’ exciting mosaic floor must be later than the wall because my floor is built over the foundation trench filling. You cannot lay out a mosaic design to fit a room until the walls are built. That makes sense doesn’t it? Hold onto that thought.
In August 2017, I looked carefully for finds from the soil of this precious ‘filling’, a coin would be excellent in such a context…but no, all I got were fine strands of charcoal twig, two small fragments of animal bone (traces from a meal I suppose) and a single black piece of pottery.
This east wall foundation had cut the foundation trench of the north wall and the stones of the east wall abutted the north wall…. What I’m saying is that the east wall was not part of the original construction of the North Range.
Pete had dug another trench at the other end of Room 27 in the south-east corner. The soil was much deeper there. The building had been constructed into a valley slope. It was cut into the bedrock on the north but the foundations needed to be much deeper to the south and to make a floor, lots of soil needed to be brought in to create a level surface. A wedge of soil above the sloping bedrock deepest against the south wall.
The style of construction of the south wall looked much the same as the north wall and the east wall butted up against it and was clearly a later construction. There were sherds of pottery and charcoal in the foundation trench of the south wall….
So the contemporary north and south walls were continuous through the space which became Rooms 27 & 28. When our new wall was inserted it became the east wall of 27.. which of course…was the west wall of 28.
We soon found out that the mosaic in Room 28 had been worn away in the centre of the room. There had been a workshop here. Two fireplaces or hearths had been made out of reused bits of villa and built into the burnt eroded centre of the room.
At the end of the 2017 excavation, we thought we had the answer. In the 4th century, a new wall had been built in the North Range to create two new rooms. A plain floor was constructed in 27 and a new mosaic created for 28. By the 5th-6th century, Chedworth was falling apart. The economy had crashed and the once rich owners had abandoned Its beautiful mosaic rooms…..it was not being looked after.
Instead, 28 had been turned into a workshop…..or so we thought.
Join me now at a wooden picnic table in the summer sunshine of 2019. We are in the stable-yard of a National Trust mansion house where Nancy and her volunteers have finished processing the Chedworth finds.
The charcoal strands from the foundation trenches of 27’s south and east walls, along with the ash from 28’s late hearths will be sent for radiocarbon dating. The pottery from the south wall foundation trench looks good for the 2nd century. A flanged bowl with acute cross-hatch decoration is particularly appropriate. Jane the pottery specialist will check it out…I wonder what she will make of my black bit from the east wall trench filling.
The radiocarbon dates come back first. The charcoal from the south wall matches the pottery …mid to late 2nd century. We have had similar dates from other parts of the early North Range.
Then I see the date from the charcoal found in the foundation trench of the inserted east wall…AD424-544 at 95.4% probability !! That’s not even tentatively into the 5th century…it might even be 6th. I contact the mosaic specialist.
‘Have you come across any British 5th century mosaics?’
‘No, the economy collapsed, coinage and pottery production disappeared. Would a mosaic business survive? Would a villa have the confidence and wealth to redesign the house and lay new floors? Anyway… what about the 5th – 6th century workshops in Room 28’
‘The radiocarbon dates say they’re 12th to 14th century. Medieval rather than Dark Age’
‘The dates must be wrong. The Room 28 mosaic is one of the later more poorly constructed mosaics. There are lots of mistakes in the design but I would need a lot more proof before I could believe that it was made in the 5th century.’
I ask around.There are hints.of late mosaic floors but radiocarbon dating within British Roman villas has not been common.
I need confirmation. Nancy gets the larger of the two pieces of animal bone found in the foundation trench and Mark, Chedworth’s manager, agrees the funding to send it for a second radiocarbon date. It could be just a stray piece knocking around the site from an earlier period…but it’s worth a try. The result will take several months to process.
Then the pottery report comes back from the specialist. The fragment of black pottery from the trench turns out to be Late Roman Shelly Ware. It dates from after AD 360…it could be much later but nobody knows when production stopped for this ceramic type…anyway it confirms that our inserted wall was at least a latest Roman construction.
We waited…and waited… and eventually our second radiocarbon date was ready….
Not as clear cut as the charcoal date but the bone date definitely supports it. In the 95.4% probability band the date is split AD 337- AD432 (87%) and AD491 – AD531 (8.4%).
The radiocarbon date is measured from when the animal died or the wood was cut and burnt. It then becomes debris to lie around and then fall into the building trench for a new wall…..against which the mosaic floor was later built.
We have at least a 5th century mosaic at Chedworth…could even be 6th century but that would be pushing things a bit. There are two other mosaics in the North Range with Room 28’s late style. The corridor mosaic (Room 33) is particularly quirky.
Anyway, time to go back to the worried owners of Chedworth Roman Villa…. having their conversation in the dining room…one evening at the end of the 4th century.
‘Don’t worry. The kids will be alright. Cirencester (Corinium) and the rich villas surrounding Roman Britain’s second largest town will keep the Romanised flame flickering for a little while after the Empire’s soldiers sail away’ …
but……perhaps the great great grandchildren should watch out.
In a very rare historical survival from the early 6th century, the British monk Gildas writes of corrupt government and warns of trouble brewing …but according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the Saxons didn’t defeat the Romanised British kings of Bath, Gloucester and Cirencester until the Battle of Dyrham in AD 577.
Plenty of time for new 5th century floors to be made in West Country villas. Let’s find some more.
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.
Mike and his wife Julie have arrived early and have already begun the sampling. He will wait in the car park for Phil from Gloucester University,
We were afraid that he might have to cancel but it is fine.
He arrives and I say hello before carrying the drawing equipment up the hill.
Julie is in the right foot trench taking samples from the side I have just drawn. I have left the tape and line level across the north facing section and continue measuring the various layers of soil and chalk.
I’m never quick enough and it takes me so long but it is a crucial job and it must be done right. In the end, the section drawings and the samples are the gold we will mine out of these little quarries into the Giant.
Phil and Mike tour the trenches and discuss what we have revealed, They are particularly pleased with the orange brown colluvial (hill-wash) accumulation cut by the bottom chunky chalk layer. These layers survive in the foot trenches A and particularly B and rest on the hollowed terrace cut into the chalk… which… according to the reading of the section…is the earliest human event at the Giant.
If Phil can date the colluvium we can date the Giant.
I finish with B and move on to Nancy’s trench A, the left foot. I like this one. The lower chunky chalk cutting hasn’t penetrated the chalk and the colluvium running under it. As indicated elsewhere, the natural hill slope has been artificially cut away and the colluvium sits in it.
Julie calls me up to C… the elbow of the club wielding arm. Mike describes blocks of soil he has collected in sealed silver trays. These cross the layers I have numbered and described. I write down his reference numbers and measure the sample areas onto the section drawing.
This sample, he explains, is for molluscan analysis. Tiny snails living in the soil, their distinctive shells survive well in a chalk soil. They are very fussy about the environment they live in and their shells in sediments can tell us what the hillside was like during different periods.
Mike explains that one of the shells he has spotted was only introduced to Britain in the medieval period and if this is found in the lower colluvium it will extinguish our hopes of a Roman or prehistoric Giant.
His other samples are to study the soil micromorphology. The analysis of this, in the lab, will help us understand the process of sedimentology that caused the soil to build up within and around the Giant’s figurative trenches… during the different phases of his formation. How much is natural and how much is caused by human action.
There are several cylindrical holes too. Here, sections of black plastic pipe about 3cm in diameter have been knocked into the section and sealed. These are for the optically stimulated luminescence dating. Even if we don’t have the funds to date all of the samples they can be stored for future analysis.
Phil is now down in the right foot, Trench B. I go to visit him. There are several OSL holes but the widened section of the trench has been used to place an auger horizontally against the colluvium at the bottom of the trench and drill a deep core into it.
I find the hole filled with a cylindrical device about 6cm in diameter with a wire leading from it to a yellow data logger.
This is new to me. I ask him what it is and he says it is a Gamma Spectrometer. I try to look intelligent and to ask intelligent questions. Phil explains that it measures gamma rays emitting from a source. Most materials contain gamma rays but chalk is largely inert and produces very low quantities.It will take time to collect the data. This will be the reference point for the date we hope to obtain from the sediments.
OSL relies on calculating the time since the sediment was last exposed to sunlight…or was optically stimulated. I ask Phil how accurate it would be, whether it would be successful. He spoke to me in science and gave me a politicians reply. I would have to wait and see…there was a good chance…with a fair wind at our backs, a calm sea and a clear sky….and precision measuring back at the university.
Ben turned up and introduced himself. He had been sent by head office to film us. The BBC and none of the other communications people could now come.He had half expected to be called off himself but he was pleased to meet us and the Giant. He had some questions to ask me..
We stood near the Giant’s left shoulder and i tried to say optically stimulated luminescence to camera and failed. Below me, Mike was augering the low grassy mound of the severed head. I went over and inspected his soil column. Definitely an archaeological feature, we would have to do some geophysics before deciding whether further excavation was justified.
I suggested that Ben interviewed Mike and Phil who would explain things better than me and of course Nancy, Peter and Carol who were putting back Trench C to a state as close to the way we had found it as possible….slidy boot marks would disappear in time.
Yes things were progressing nicely on this the last day. Just finish drawing the Trench A section and mark the trenches on the plan.