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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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