Hampshire Archaeology

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Digging deeper

The Hampshire Historic Environment Record (HER) is a fantastic tool. Under its alternative title of the Archaeology and Historic Buildings Record (AHBR) it can be accessed and interrogated on-line in all manner of ways. If you want to know whether your village, town or parish hides items of archaeological or historical interest it’s the place to start, and it can lead you on a trail towards obscure reports (we call them ‘grey literature’) as well as published evidence.

Using the database it’s easy to get hooked on searching for your favourite type of site – Roman villas, for instance (104 results) – and then while away an evening, sifting through the various leads, which might head you towards some splendid find displayed in a museum, or alternatively into a ditch terminal. As more and more illustrative material becomes digitally available and linked-in, the historic environment will be more and more at our fingertips and our appreciation of what has gone before will be much enhanced.

One large step along this route has been taken by the staff of the Hampshire County Council Historic Environment Section, with the release of the Atlas of Hampshire’s Archaeology. Using the 50,000 records at their disposal, David Hopkins (County Archaeologist) and Alan Whitney (Historic Data Manager) have produced a set of forty maps which span the periods from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) which began around 10,000 years ago, to the end of the Roman occupation (about 1600 years ago). The excellent base maps employ either topography (15 altitude bands) or landscape type (derived from a palette of 25 pastel shades) and this, together with the river systems, allows the current character of the country to be easily read.

Landscape studies: the enigmatically-named 'Soldier's Ring' is represented by the hedgeline and diagonal boundary; Bokerley Dyke is on the horizon.

Landscape studies: the enigmatically-named ‘Soldier’s Ring’, a Romano-British enclosure, is represented by the hedgeline and foreground diagonal boundary; Bokerley Dyke is on the near horizon.

When it comes to putting things on the map, there are at least forty different symbols employed, but these range from just three for our Middle Stone Age ancestors, to eleven on one of the Roman maps. This inevitably leads to a bit of congestion, especially when the symbol for a single find is essentially larger than an industrial estate, but care has been taken to make everything fit sympathetically.

A genuine sense of distribution can be obtained for all periods – and an appreciation of the physical relationship of communities with soil types and river systems. It highlights the enigma of the Neolithic in Hampshire – long barrows, yes, but why on earth no causewayed enclosures, cursus monuments or henges? It also shows how, by the following Bronze Age – to judge from the spread of round barrows – there were no ‘no go’ areas. In the Iron Age – a period blessed with 14 maps – grain and wool processing are among particular activities that can be teased out and ‘banjo enclosures’ also have their part to play; on the Roman maps, the layout of the road system brings communications well and truly to the fore.

The 'banjo enclosure' at Nettlebank Copse - investigated as part of the Danebury Environs project.

The Iron Age ‘banjo enclosure’ at Nettlebank Copse – investigated as part of the Danebury Environs project.

Roman roads are an interesting subject, and have a number of people committed to their study. The current maps don’t include the routes through the New Forest surveyed by Arthur Clarke (2003), the last Archaeology Officer of the Ordnance Survey, which would enhance the western approaches. Other features that don’t fare well (in the Bronze Age) are the so-called ‘ranch boundaries’, sometimes termed ‘Wessex linears’, which are represented by a static symbol when their role, interpreted by some as the first tangible manifestation of territories (Cunliffe, 1993), would be better shown by a true representation.

The maps are accompanied by short essays summarising the character of each period, particularly with regard to the landscape. Indeed, the word ‘landscape’ wins out in any word count and is perhaps a little repetitive, especially when it is contrasting the  ‘farmed’ with the ‘wild’. True, the landscape is the canvas holding the scene together, but with such vivid and varied pictures being painted by the human activity, it could perhaps be allowed to slip into the background a little. Alternatively, simpler maps showing the advance of the ‘farmed’ at the expense of the ‘wild’ would make the point – but would take a lot more preparation!

George Willis and friends picking the fields around Basingstoke clean of worked flints - in the 1920s.

George Willis and friends in the 1920s – picking the fields around Basingstoke clean of worked flints.

The maps throw up a number of issues not explored in the text, issues that tend to dog distribution maps. The concentration of finds in certain areas will be the result of individual fieldwork (George Willis et al around Basingstoke, for example, or Malcolm Lyne (2012) in Binsted and environs) and the growth of certain towns (Basingstoke, Andover etc) will have provided many more opportunities for discovery than other locations. Aerial cover will also be uneven, although in time the increasing use of LIDAR will bring greater equality. As a result there will inevitably be some bias on display, but the maps do a brilliant job in presenting the current state of knowledge and providing food for thought.

And in so doing, they are the perfect spur and complement to further research. The national ‘Atlas of Hillforts’ , for example, is nearing completion and it will be interesting to see how much variety is proposed in the survey for the forty or so ‘hillforts’ on the Hampshire map. Also, the Roman layout is forever being reconsidered – including roads that deviate for unknown reasons – whither Vindomis? etc ; and the monumental ‘desert’ that is the Neolithic remains as intriguing as ever.

So do make use of the maps – and having taken in the broad sweep of thousands of years of human history, consult the Historic Environment Record, and dig a little deeper.

Dave Allen, Curator of Hampshire Archaeology, Hampshire Cultural Trust

References;

Clarke, A (2003) The Roman road on the eastern fringe of the New Forest, Hampshire Studies, Vol 58, 33-58

Cunliffe, B W  (1993), Wessex to A D 1000. p129 ff

Lyne, M (2012), Archaeological Research in Binsted, Kingsley and Alice Holt Forest, BAR British Series 574

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