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Buried in time – Woolbury’s fort and fields

Woolbury hillfort viewed from the northeast - the 1989 excavation in the foreground

Woolbury hillfort viewed from the northeast – the 1989 excavation in the foreground; Stockbridge Down with its Ancient Fields, middle left.

Above Stockbridge, on the eastern side of the Test Valley, stands a two-mile long irregular ridge; an Iron Age hillfort – Woolbury – occupies the summit, its single rampart and ditch enclosing 7.5 ha.  The wider area had seen some small-scale excavation, notably of a Late Saxon execution cemetery in the 1930s, but in 1989, Professor Barry Cunliffe examined the hillfort and its defences, as part of the Danebury Environs Programme.

Crawford & Keiller's vertical air photograph (taken 1924)

Crawford & Keiller’s vertical air photograph (taken 1924)

Crawford & Keiller's interpretation

Crawford & Keiller’s interpretation

The ridge had been sporadically used during the second millennium BC when at least 15 Bronze Age barrows were constructed.  In addition, an extensive system of linear earthworks was created, probably before or during the early centuries of the first millennium BC.  These features were revealed in a dramatic air photograph published by O G S Crawford and Alexander Keiller nearly ninety years ago.  They include a regularly laid out field system on gently sloping land to the south-east of the ridge; this is separated by a linear boundary from an area of unploughed pasture, which is where the barrow cemetery survived.

Worm's-eye-view at Woolbury. The hill is capped with clay-with-flints, a more difficult subsoil to work with than the Danebury chalk.

Worm’s-eye-view at Woolbury. The hill is capped with clay-with-flints, a more difficult subsoil to work with than the Danebury chalk. At least there’s not a cloud in the sky – well, almost.

Subsequent surveys and excavation have demonstrated that the linear boundary bank running along the shoulder of the ridge was of two phases; the first pre-dated the hillfort ditch and the second diverged from the original to skirt it.  Barry Cunliffe stated that his overall impression was that a major phase of land allotment occurred in the Middle to Late Bronze Age, extending from Woolbury to Stockbridge Down.

One of the main aims of the Environs Programme was to improve the understanding of the settlement and economy of the communities inhabiting the chalkland landscape of the Danebury region in the first millennium BC.  The evidence that an earlier field system continued in use after the hillfort was built meant that Woolbury was a good candidate for the study of an agrarian regime juxtaposed with unploughed pasture.  A trench was dug across the hillfort ditch to test its relationship to other features (a linear slot and quarry) which were found to pre-date it.  Pottery evidence suggests that the ditch had been originally dug in the Early to Mid Iron Age before being abandoned.  Silt accumulated during the Late Iron Age, and the remaining hollow filled gradually during the Romano-British period.  The ramparts appeared to have been ‘dump-constructed’, lacking vertical timbers and internal supports.

A Woolbury ditch being cross-sectioned.

A Woolbury ditch cross-sectioned.

Although 2 per cent of the area within the defences was excavated, no postholes or other evidence of structures of certain Iron Age date were found.  The only evidence for Iron Age activity within the defences was from the contents of six pits, only one of which produced Early Iron Age pottery.  The single identifiable entrance through the ramparts had retained a very simple form and the implication is that the fort was not intensively occupied and its defences were not developed.  Its function appears to have been entirely different from that of Danebury which served as a centre for activity and influence.

Barry Cunliffe describing the latest findings to members of the Danebury Trust.

Professor Barry Cunliffe describing the Woolbury findings to members of the Danebury Trust.

Barry Cunliffe has suggested that hillforts such as Woolbury, Quarley, Figsbury, and the early fort at Bury Hill, saw little occupational use and acted as the boundary markers for a core territory with Danebury as its focus.

Archive: A1989.25    held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust

References:

Barry Cunliffe, 2000, Introduction, Volume 1 of The Danebury Environs Programme, the Prehistory of a Wessex Landscape.

Barry Cunliffe and Cynthia Poole, 2000, Woolbury and Stockbridge Down, Stockbridge, Hants, 1989, Volume 2 Part 1 of The Danebury Environs Programme, the Prehistory of a Wessex Landscape.

OGS Crawford and Alexander Keiller, 1928, Wessex From The Air.

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

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1 Comment

  1. Marie Keates says:

    Interesting. I must visit some day.

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