The digging of an industrial-scale pipeline is not the ideal manner in which to investigate archaeological sites. The first few pages of the British Gas ‘Southern Feeder’ volume, published in 1984 and describing work along a 220 mile (350 km) project undertaken in the mid 1970s, make no bones about the difficulties encountered in trying to retrieve information in this way. One good thing about such enterprises, however, is that they invariably throw up new and unsuspected sites, and such was the case near Martin, a small village in the westernmost parish of Hampshire, close to the sinuous contours of Bokerley Dyke.
Bokerley Dyke is a substantial linear earthwork with origins in the Bronze Age and a later call-to-arms, in all probability, to contain Saxon westward expansion after the fall of the Roman Empire. A plan was mooted to dig a section through the bank and ditch to accommodate the gas pipe, but this was vetoed by the DoE, possibly because General Pitt Rivers had excavated a substantial part of it just to the north, near the Ackling Dyke Roman road (he reconstituted the dyke after the dig). In the event a hole for the pipe was bored beneath the monument.
Just 2 km east of the dyke the pipe trench sliced through a rich area of Late Iron Age occupation. The Avon Valley Archaeological Society investigated the site, but harsh winter weather (1976) and earlier than anticipated back-filling limited their efforts. Nevertheless, they were rewarded with ditches, possible house sites and twenty storage pits, some of which produced large quantities of pottery and other domestic debris.
The main period of occupation seems to have taken place in the first half of the 1st century AD, followed by a temporary abandonment and a limited reuse. The majority of the pottery was late Iron Age Durotrigian ware, including a near complete ‘tankard’. The forms and fabrics of Durotrigian pottery were looked at by Brailsford in 1958 and the tankard was one of the definitive vessels described. Fragments were known from Mill Plain, near Christchurch, but most examples came from sites in Dorset – heartland of the Durotriges – to the west of Bokerley Dyke.
In addition to the pottery, several fragments of quern (grinding stone) were found, as well as animal bone and one or two metal objects. Perhaps the most intriguing finds were pieces of a carefully worked fired-clay ‘collar’. This had been burnt to a bright red, almost glazed, finish in places and contained obvious thumb and finger prints. The most likely interpretation is that it was part of an oven. In looking at the finger and thumb prints, you can’t help but wonder if they were made by the hand that grasped the tankard, two thousand years ago.
Brailsford, 1958, Early Iron Age ‘C’ in Wessex, Proc Prehist Soc 24, p 101
Catherall et al, eds, The Southern Feeder, The Archaeology of a Gas Pipeline, British Gas, 1984, p172, Site BS/M 65
RCHAM(E) 1990, The Archaeology of Bokerley Dyke, (H C Bowen), London HMSO.
Visiting Bokerley Dyke – and the Ackling Dyke – is made easy by virtue of the Martin Down Nature Reserve which has a good car park off the A354 (Salisbury to Blandford Forum) but take care crossing the road if you want to see the Roman agger. Also here, hidden in the long grass, is a Bronze Age enclosure excavated by General Pitt Rivers and a myriad of other monuments, but it is Bokerley Dyke that most demands attention, and rewards effort!
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.