To Dorset, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hillfort Studies Group, a loosely connected band who have a particular interest in these striking, mostly hill-top, frequently monumental enclosures from our later prehistoric past (the Iron Age). The first annual field trip organised by the group took place in Dorset and we more or less retraced their steps.
Highlights included Maiden Castle, where Niall Sharples, who dug there 30 years ago, in the footsteps of Mortimer Wheeler, related how the fort sat on top of a Neolithic causewayed enclosure and how it had developed from small beginnings to become one of the most complex in the country. The latest theory is that additions to the rampart became all-important (think job-creation schemes) and the site grew and grew like an enormous bubble until the Roman army came along and burst it – or not.
Eggardon Hill is a brilliant site, but has a parish boundary, and a fence, running right across the middle. Half is looked after by the National Trust and half is in private hands, so never the twain shall meet. The south side has an extensive landslip with ramparts re-arranged by or respecting this natural phenomenon, depending on your point of view! It’s Thomas Hardy country (the ‘Trumpet Major’) or, if you prefer, the nearby Jurassic coast hosted ‘Broadchurch’.
A site which conjured up particular memories for me was Hambledon Hill. This is another monumental enclosure with impressive earthworks, but like Maiden Castle it sits on top of and beside a Neolithic encampment. Forty-two years ago I dug here for Roger Mercer in the first year of his long campaign. We camped on top of the hill and it was ‘eventful’. I can’t remember how many times the tent blew down, but I do recall waking to see a sky full of stars – it must have been before the days of sewn-in groundsheets!
Solace was provided by The Cricketers at Iwerne Courtenay, and the locals who invited us in to have occasional baths!
My reason for digging at Hambledon was to gain first-hand experience of working on a Neolithic causewayed enclosure. They exist in some number in Dorset, Wiltshire, they turn up in Sussex, the Thames Valley – all over the place in fact – but no-one has yet found a proven example in Hampshire. There’s still time – I’m still searching.
Finally, we celebrated another half century by visiting South Cadbury (Somerset). It was here that Leslie Alcock dug between 1966 and 1970, looking for traces of ‘Dark Age’ reuse of the Iron Age site which might give some credence to John Leland and William Camden’s 16th century assertions of the link with the legendary King Arthur. Arthur resisted all attempts to pin him down, but the excavation was a turning-point for British Archaeology, capturing the public imagination and ushering in an era of large scale digs as well as the creation of a crack team of dedicated professionals, who dug the whole year round.
Incidentally, the Red Lion, which was to Cadbury what The Cricketers was to Hambledon, is now called ‘The Camelot’.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Jane King, Lesley Johnson, Peter Stone.
Hillforts: Danebury, near Andover, is perhaps the best studied hillfort in Europe. Visit the Museum of the Iron Age to learn more. A ‘Hillforts Atlas’ including over 4,000 sites is currently being compiled.
and now the indulgence