Hampshire Archaeology

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Buried in time – a Saxon vill at Cowdery’s Down

Aerial view from the northwest in 1979. Saxon buildings are visible to the left of the caravans - as modern access roads and houses start to take shape.

Aerial view from the northwest in 1979. Saxon building plans are visible to the left of the caravans – as new access roads and houses start to take shape.

In the late 1970s an area to the east of Basingstoke was designated for housing development ; aerial photographs identified a site of potential archaeological interest on the spur of a hill called Cowdery’s Down. Subsequent large-scale excavations over four seasons, led by Martin Millett, produced evidence of activity from the Bronze Age to the Civil War but the most significant features were sixteen rectangular post- or plank-built houses and two sunken-floored huts dating from the 6th and 7th centuries AD.

Simon James at work on a detailed site drawing.

Simon James at work on a detailed site drawing.

During the excavations, site draughtsman Simon James created interpretive sketches of the buildings: he based these not only on the ground plans of the structures, but also on the properties of the timbers revealed in the substantial foundations of post-holes and wall trenches cut into the chalk subsoil.  Carbon 14 dating confirmed the Middle Anglo Saxon date.  The preservation of the details of construction makes the site unique in Wessex and such was the quality of the discoveries, and the pressure on resources, that the archaeologists agreed to work an additional week of the dig on half pay!

Post 'ghost'; revealing the detail of the plank impression - Structure C10, north door, west post.

Post ‘ghost’; revealing the detail of the plank impression – Structure C10, north door, west post.

Collecting a charcoal sample from a post and plank slot in Structure C12

Collecting a charcoal sample from a post and plank slot in Structure C12

One of the reasons for the high quality of the evidence of Anglo Saxon building techniques was the presence of timber ghosts. These were preserved because the timbers had been rammed into holes and trenches cut into the chalk; the below-ground timber survived the destruction of the buildings before rotting to leave voids (the ghosts) – which later filled with topsoil plus burnt daub and charcoal from the superstructure.

One of Simon James' suggested reconstructions for building C12.

One of Simon James’ reconstructions for building C12.

Simon James’ reconstructions have been widely reproduced, though alternatives have been suggested for some of the details, such as the presence and structure of raised timber floors in the most complex buildings.

Site plan of Structure C12.

Site plan of Structure C12.

The building layouts share characteristics with other sites of the period: rectangular forms with opposed doors, usually in the centre of each long wall; some structures included an annexe at one or both ends, with or without external doors. At the Cowdery’s Down settlement the size and distribution of the entrances suggests that the buildings were used for habitation rather than agriculture.

Structure C12 during excavation.

Structure C12 during excavation.

The fine quality of the structural carpentry implies a high status site – a vill, or royal enclave . Very few finds were discovered, and this cannot be explained away by poor preservation conditions.  One possibility is that occupation was seasonal: in such cases, crop and meat processing would have taken place elsewhere.  Alternatively, rubbish may deliberately have been disposed of away from the settlement.

Artist's impression of the settlement at its peak (Mike Codd).

Artist’s impression of the settlement at its peak (Mike Codd).

There were three phases of building: during the first two phases, structures were built of vertical posts set in individual post holes; later, thick planks were set in continuous foundation trenches.  With each successive phase of building the roofed area of the settlement more than doubled.  Aisle posts were absent: roof supports were pushed back to the walls. The excavation report proposes that crucks across the middle of most buildings supported a ridge-piece  and helped to tie the walls. This type of roof structure contrasts markedly with Romano-British aisled buildings.

A scale-model of one of the houses, made by Stephen Oliver, can be seen in the Willis Museum, Basingstoke.

Further reading

A1978.1  Archive deposited with the Hampshire Cultural Trust

Millett, M. 1983, Excavations at Cowdery’s Down, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1978-81, Arch J, Vol 140, pp.151-279.

James, S., Marshall, A. and Millett, M. 1984, An Early Medieval Building Tradition, Arch J, Vol 141, pp.182-215.

James, S. Drawing inferences; visual reconstructions in theory and practice, in Molyneaux, B. (ed.) The Cultural Life of Images: Visual Representation in Archaeology, Routledge, 1996, pp.22-48.

Cunliffe, B. Wessex to A.D. 1000, Longman, 1993.

Series by – Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone

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