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!

Sounds of the past

View Eastwards from Golden Cap, Portland in the distance

We have worked with a few art projects over the years, involving objects, processes and site specific projects. One I remember fondly was ’26 and 7 Bones’ in 2012  A contemporary arts project about hands and feet, people and place –  a mapping of connections across place and time – an action, a journey, a collection – and was commissioned as part of the Jurassic Coast Earth Festival 2012, with artists Sue Plamer and Sally Watkins  https://26and7bones.wordpress.com/

We had excavated quite a few sites along the West Dorset coast so Sally and Sue asked if they could work with us, to join the coastguard, blacksmith, herbalist and ornithologist already recruited. Part of the project involved walking up Golden Cap,  talking along the way about what we do as archaeologists and how we feel when working on a site. We had excavated the Bronze Age Barrows and Napoleonic signal station right on the top of the hill over a couple of seasons, with an amazing view as we worked. It was hard to remember that the Bronze Age people would not have had the same view, as the coastline would have been about a mile further out to sea.

As part of the project we were asked to choose a favourite word or place associated with what we did along the coast of Dorset. I chose the word prehistoric, as West Dorset, to me, feels prehistoric, with its hill forts, barrows and stone age objects eroding from the cliffs. It was then turned into music, by punching holes into card in the shape of the word and then fed through a musical box mechanism, a magic moment!

 

 

Views From Hardy’s Monument

Last week I looked out and back from Hardy Monument ..in consideration of someone pivotal… now gone.

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The view south from the Hardy Monument to Weymouth and the Isle of Portland

Hardy’s is high up. The highest point of the vast Bronze Age cemetery of the South Dorset Ridgeway.

Looking distantly down onto a field… now, with dogs gathering sheep… but then, where my caravan was.

A September Sunday afternoon. After the excavation…. ordering the artefacts.

I was leftover. The vibrant dig community gone. A row of bleached grass rectangles. Just the finds supervisor’s tent against the Loscombe Copse.. two fields away.. and the HQ caravan, a little out of sight, beside the barrow …and the lone tree.

HQ was full ..of vegetarian beans, pulses and CND posters ‘do not walk gently…..’ With the blackberries and hazelnuts.. enough to keep me for a while.

From my window, rural Dorset, and just the tinny sound of Terry Wogan leaking from a battered transistor. All that it could manage.

On the table, a plastic bag containing one of the cremations from the barrow.

Each had a gift for the dead. One had a bronze dagger, another a stone archer’s wrist guard. But what of this one? The director had asked me to separate the bone from the charcoal.

That was my job.. on an isolated peaceful Sunday afternoon.

Soon, my survey contract would begin… me and my bicycle, visiting, measuring, researching every Ridgeway barrow… but the winter-let flat and marriage were still 2 weeks away.

So… place the contents carefully on the table and gradually separate the black from the grey-white while listening to the hits of 82.

As the hours passed…the necklace emerged.

The National Trust archaeologists have been to Sutton Hoo. Angus showed us the new visitor access route. How to evoke the wonder of the place from a few low mounds.. ringed with modern distractions? To reveal the very roots of the English…in a nice way.

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The NT Archaeologists on the site of the Sutton Hoo ship burial

What a story ! Local skilled archaeologist Basil Brown asked to excavate a mound…. on the utter brink of WWII. Britain’s Tutankhamun, emerging as the tempest clouds of war gathered. A sand long boat. The decayed planks carefully revealed as a beautiful and curving ridged mould, spaced with clinker nails. That long last peaceful summer…it never rained.

Amazing gifts for a king, gathered in Suffolk from across the known world. The find so great that Brown is edged out by the posh academics from the BM. A poignant photo in the cafe as he respectfully watches the experts at work.

We gather in the wood above the riverside. We imagine the 7th century long boat dragged to its final resting place. Was this Raedwald, Bretwalda, king of the Anglo-Saxon kings? His people gathered around him and the gifts and treasure bestowed in honour of his greatness. Memories and stories. The holy men guided the congregation from life to death and a life beyond his passing.

I stand at the stone tower and look back to the caravan… and beside me a large Bronze Age barrow. The highest of the 600 or so scattered along the ridge between Dorchester and Weymouth…from Abbotsbury to Poxwell.

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The plundered burial mound beside the Hardy Monument.

Presumably, the tomb of one the greatest Dorset barrow men but truncated and burrowed into long ago. Its contents taken without record. like so many of the barrows at Sutton Hoo… except Mr Brown’s wonderful discovery…

and mine in 1982…the amber and shale.. hidden but then emerging from the charcoal. Lozenges and cones, with holes drilled for the long rotted thread.

As the sun passed to late afternoon, his mini-van bumps across the field to meet me. I wait to show him.

Years before, the newly graduated Weymouth students had followed him to the shores of Poole Harbour and spent the summer easing a Roman pottery workers’ settlement from the stubble. We got food poisoning…the motorbike got a flat. His back gave out… but we tenderly carried him on the finds table to the trench edge. A battle stretcher but with cheesecloth and loons.

On a road to Emmaus, at his requiem mass, we gathered to honour him and remembered.

Look around you.

‘There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend’

Quern quest

Looking east from Seatown, West Dorset

Looking east from Seatown, West Dorset

As Martin so eloquently puts it ‘the cliffs are leaking archaeology’ especially in West Dorset, with its soft geology and erosion by the sea. Luckily for us there are keen-eyed locals who walk the same routes and notice changes and strange objects laying on the beach or sticking out of a fresh landslip.

A few weeks ago I found a message on my desk to ring a Mr Bickford who had found what he was sure were parts of a quern stone used for grinding corn and some clay loom weights, near Seatown in West Dorset. I felt a little jolt of excitement, as regular readers of this blog will recognize Seatown as the place where we excavated a Bronze Age burnt mound and two Iron Age ovens. (see 20/07/2015 burnt mound the story so far). Could we have more evidence to fill out the story of the Iron Age at this site, or was this a new place to investigate further along the cliff?

The layer of burnt flint and stone can be seen in the middle of the picture

The layer of burnt flint and stone of the ‘burnt mound’ can be seen in the middle of the picture

I rang and arranged to pop over to Seatown and look at what he had found and record were they came from. So it was that I headed west on a bright and sunny morning, deep blue sky above and spirits high. I was not disappointed!

I met Humphrey in the car park and we walked up the hill to his house, round the corner and into the garden. What I saw took the last of the breath away that the climb up the hill had left me. On the garden table were three large pieces of quern, both upper and lower stones, and next to them what looked like one and a half very large triangular clay loom weights!

“Wow! Oh yes they are exactly what you thought they were”

The top and bottom stones together as used

The top and bottom stones together as used

The pieces of quern stone

The pieces of quern stone

 

 

 

 

 

 

The stone the quern is made from is not local to the immediate area. We have had a few geologists look at images and one suggestion is that it may be continental! But they need to see it in the flesh, so to speak, so they can see every mineral and inclusion.

The loom weights are very large and have more holes than necessary so may not be loom weights. If they were they would have been used on a warp weighted loom, to make cloth by keeping tension on the warp(fixed thread)

The loom weights

The loom weights? probably something else but what? 

Hopefully my hand gives a scale to the size of the weights

My hand gives a scale to the size of the weights

Both the quern and the possible loom weights are probably Iron Age and the small piece of pottery found with them looks very like the Iron Age pottery from the ovens found when excavating the ‘burnt mound’ site nearby.

A reconstruction of a warp weighted loom, the weights are along the bottom behind the lowest bar

A reconstruction of a warp weighted loom, the weights are along the bottom behind the lowest bar

A roman hand quern very similar technique to an iron age quern

A Roman hand quern, using a very similar technique to an Iron Age quern

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once again we are on the trail of more information about a site. Try to solve the mystery of the weights and it’s a trip to the geologist first to see if we can track down the origin of the quern stone, who knows what stories we can then tell about the people who lived at Seatown over two thousand years ago.

Giving memories a voice

We can write down our memories for future generations to read, but we can also hear the past through sound recordings and videos.

Today Alex is visiting from The Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network (CITiZAN http://www.citizan.org.uk), an organization set up in response to dynamic threats to our island coastal heritage. It is a community archaeology project and actively promotes site recording and long-term monitoring programmes led by volunteers.

Alex will be soon leading a walk at Studland on the Dorset coast, looking at the WWII sites, and as well as research for the tour she hopes to play snippets from our sound archive of local people talking about what it was like, what they saw and stories of life in Studland during WWII.

Studland played an important part in WWII as a testing area for amphibius tanks and  fougasse (burning sea). In April 1944 Prime Minister Winston Churchill, King George VI and General Dwight D. Eisenhower (Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces and in charge of the military operation) met at Fort Henry on Redend Point at Studland to watch the combined power of the Allied Forces preparing for D-Day.

Alex l listening to the taped memories and working on her tour notes

Alex listening to the taped memories and working on her tour notes

 

The copies of the small sound archive we hold at the office are all still on original cassette tapes. For younger readers there is a picture below of what one is!

A cassette tape

A cassette tape

 

 

Alex has had to come and use our old technology to be able to then record a digitized copy for use in the field. We will need to digitize our archive so the recordings are more accessible. Luckily we have a cassette transcribing machine and a cassette player. The transcriber has extra controls so you can slow the tape down, change the tone and various backspace and counter options. It even has a foot pedal control!

Transcribing machine –  a special purpose machine which is used for voice recording processing, so the recording can be  written in hard copy form.

The Transcribing machine

The Transcribing machine

 

 

One day these machines will become part of the archaeological archives. At the moment they are thankfully still available and needed to play the memories from the past.

Burnt Mound, the story so far

The garden seat at Shedbush Farm, Golden Cap Estate. Time to analyse the evidence and tell the story of the site.

The garden seat at Shedbush Farm, Golden Cap Estate. Time to analyse the evidence and begin to tell the story of the site.

The soil is back in the trench and we are left with the drawings, the photographs, the soil samples and the finds.

What does it all mean?

We started with a leaflet on burnt mounds produced by Historic England. It concluded that..nobody really knows what they were constructed for but most are found beside water courses and have a trough beside them. This has led to the idea that stones were first heated on fires and then thrown into the water filled trough. The hot water might then be used to create a sauna or sweat lodge or could be used to steam heat food for feasting perhaps. The hot rocks on cool water caused them to shatter and the waste fragments were regularly cleared from the trough and heaped into a mound beside it.

Nice ideas but our location was not beside water. We found that pushing a small container full of water up hill in a wheelbarrow was hard work. The stream flowed in the valley, beside the car park, about 20m down slope from us. There may have been a trough but we did not find it, unless it had dropped off the cliff or lay outside our deep narrow trench.

Our mound is made of lots of small blackened pieces of Upper Greensand sandstone and chert mixed with ashy silt and towards the bottom increasing amounts of clay. The product of a lot of work.. collecting and burning the wood and stones to break them down into such as small size. A very windy spot, on a shelf of land half way up Ridge Hill.. now Ridge Cliff because since the Bronze Age the sea has claimed most of it.

The mound is the waste product of a process. It looks like an industrial waste heap..if so, what was produced here? Perhaps stone was broken up to create temper to hold pottery together during firing. No pottery found in the mound though. Perhaps metal was worked nearby.. no slag in the heap though. Just stone and charcoal and clay.

These were farmers and good agriculture was a matter of life and death so could the mound be anything to do with soil productivity. A few generations ago, charcoal and stone were the ingredients to feed the kilns which were used locally to produce lime that was spread on the Victorian arable fields to counteract the soil’s acidic nature.Producing lime from local stone requires high temperatures and careful stacking of ingredients. Without a stone kiln structure perhaps the windy hillside would enable a fanning effect to increase temperature within a Bronze Age stack. This explanation is not very satisfactory…

Perhaps the mound is a pyre. A significant feature never understandable to us because we cannot comprehend the belief system that created it. Too easy and a bit of a cop out but perhaps true.

Above the mound we found flint scrapers and a few bits of chunky coarse grained Bronze Age pottery but the C14 analysis of the charcoal will confirm or deny our current estimate of about 1000 BC.

Nancy working on one of the Iron Age ovens high above the top of the Bronze Age burnt mound. About 40 generations had come and gone since the final cooling of the burnt mound and the lighting of the oven.

Nancy working on one of the Iron Age ovens high above the top of the Bronze Age burnt mound. About 40 generations had come and gone since the final cooling of the burnt mound and the lighting of the oven.

At the west end, the mound was cut by a later ditch and above this we found the two ovens. Not kilns we think now. Their entrances are simple and facing the prevailing wind to the south-west. The pottery in and around them seems to be Late Iron Age, about 2000 years old but apart from the ovens and the cluster of pottery around them, no post-holes or other settlement features were found at this level. There were a scatter of stone finds which suggest local industry here. The kind of roughly worked flint which is found in Purbeck interpreted as lathe bits to turn shale bracelets. We only found one chunk of shale at Seatown though. This was far from its geological source in Kimmeridge.

I came across a cube of green flint. It looked like an exotic mosaic cube when it was first brought up by the mattock. Other fragments were found at the same ovens level and they were obviously selected and brought here for a reason. Ali, the site’s geologist is looking into the source of this rock. Perhaps used and worked to create jewellery?

So we need to go away and analyse the samples, look at the soils and the ancient pollens within them examine and compare the finds.

It was good to hear Mike talk about the soils when he visited and I could see them change as I drew them. rising up the section beyond the last flint finds. Ploughing each season, helped by gravity dragged the soils down from above. This land was part of Chideock’s open fields in medieval times before the land was enclosed in 1558. About 20cm below the surface we found 17th and 18th century pottery mixed with bits of slate… but by this time the soil was wind-blown sand.. a sign that the cliff was approaching fast and after 3000 years, the end of the burnt mound was nigh..

Evening over Golden Cap beginning the walk back to Seatown from the burnt mound.

Evening over Golden Cap beginning the walk back to Seatown from the burnt mound.

Day twelve – end of the section line

 

 Clive and his digger arrive on site

Clive and his digger arrive on site

The final day, nose to the grind stone, no tea break and a late lunch.

Martin cracked on with the last of the drawing and recording, Carol and Millie finished digging the eastern end. I attacked the possible second kiln/oven and finished revealing the opening of the first one. Rob and Fay went for the natural bedrock in their trenches, with help from Clive and his digger 🙂

Looking west along the trench Carol working in the eastern end and Martin recording the section
Looking west along the trench Carol working in the eastern end and Martin recording the section

 

Martin recording the extra information uncovered in the eastern end of the trench

Martin recording the extra information uncovered in the eastern end of the trench

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Due to the efforts of all the diggers Clive only needed to do one scoop to hit the bottom of the burnt mound material, the thin buried soil it was sat on and he top of the natural bedrock. The layer under the mound was very pale grey and silty. We took a sample of this to look for pollen and to look at the soil make up, one of many samples taken through the mound.

The small scoop taken out by the digger after Fay had cleaned it up, so we could see the layers better

The small scoop taken out by the digger after Fay had cleaned it up, so we could see the layers better

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The kiln/oven finally gave up its form, the charcoal spread out of the opening. The second kiln/oven had a layer of burnt clay but no charcoal under that layer, just a brown soil, but one side of the opening was very clear to see. Both had an opening facing the same way, west-south-west.

The kilns/ovens side by side

The kilns/ovens side by side

The charcoal was very well preserved as I found earlier. It’s amazing that the structure of the wood is locked by burning and we will be able to see what species it was thousands of years later.

Well preserved charcoal

Well preserved charcoal

Then the sad moment came for Clive to start filling in the trench, and time for us to eat a sandwich, re-hydrate and have some Women’s Institute lemon drizzle cake provided by Fay. Yummy!

Clive starts the back filling

Clive starts the back filling

We had one last task to do, with Clive happy to help we just dug out the area next to the kiln/oven to see if we had another one to the inland side, alas we didn’t but it was worth a look as we would always have wondered.

The last few scrapes

The last few scrapes

With one last look at the cliff edge that had been our ‘office’ for two weeks we headed down to pack up the tools and then for a well earned cuppa.

Martin and Rob reflecting on the last two weeks

Martin and Rob reflecting on the last two weeks

We will post updates about all the samples we took and the radiocarbon dates as we get them back from the specialists. The pottery and flints need washing before we send them for identification and dating. So keep watching the blog.

NEWS – The next dig will be Chedworth Roman Villa, from 18th August, see you there 🙂