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Category Archives: Iron Age
An occasional series covering Hampshire archaeological digs, large and small.
A ‘Banjo’ Enclosure in Micheldever Wood, 1973 – 1979.
‘Banjo’ enclosures are identified by their shape – a more or less circular enclosure, with outer bank, and parallel ditches leading away from a single entrance. The name was bestowed by B T Perry, when he was studying different forms of Wessex earthworks in the 1960s. He selected Bramdean, east of Winchester, as a typical example and excavated there in 1965 & 66, in the 1970s and in the 1980s. By this time the initial recognition of the type-site, i.e. the ‘banjo’ (O==) had been replaced by the realisation that they often formed part of a larger complex or ‘syndrome’.
Perry’s 1960’s excavations were comparatively limited and ten years later the opportunity arose to investigate another example, although under quite different and difficult circumstances. The route of the M3 motorway, from Basingstoke to Twyford Down, sliced through Micheldever Wood and, although archaeological surveys had taken place, the Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar trees formed an impenetrable mass across the area concerned. It was not until a huge geological test-pit was dug that the enclosure ditch and Iron Age pottery came to light. Further survey work showed that an extensive occupation site lay under the line of the proposed motorway.
The main excavation, led by Peter Fasham, took place from August 1975 to March 1976, with follow ups in mid-winter 1977-78 and 1979. Because of other commitments to M3 archaeological work, post-excavation analysis took a while – and publication was in 1987.
Pit diggers – and the photographer’s vantage point.
The main period of occupation at the Micheldever ‘banjo’ took place in the last two centuries BC (Iron Age). The evidence suggests that the enclosure was surrounded at that time by both arable and pasture fields, as well as woodland. Within the settlement were at least 14 pits, many of which could have been used for grain storage, and the animal bones recovered showed that cattle, sheep and pigs were present. Pig bones occurred more often in the ditch than those of sheep, and this appears to have been a deliberate, chosen method of disposal.
Eighteen human burials were found, eleven of which were of infants. They included a double grave of ‘unique closeness’ – presumably twins. One of the adults was of Romano-British date. He had been buried in hobnailed boots. His skeleton had extensive indications of arthritis, particularly in his shoulders and back, with a healed fracture to a leg (tibia) which had developed osteitis. His skull displayed evidence of severe infections in both jaw and sinuses and, to cap it all, his scalp as well. It must have been a hard life.
Other finds from the Iron Age use of the site included pottery and briquetage (salt trays), clay loomweights and spindle whorls and a number of metal objects, including socketed sickles.
Following the excavation at Micheldever Wood, archaeologists were prepared to accept ‘banjos’ as settlements but, in 1993, Barry Cunliffe excavated such a site at Nettlebank Copse, near Danebury. Far from clarifying the use of these enigmatic enclosures, his work showed that an ‘open’ settlement of pre 300 BC was surrounded by the ‘banjo’ ditch around the time of its abandonment.
The site may then have lain mainly dormant, apart from the quarrying of chalk, until the 1st century BC, when it was used for specialised purposes such as feasting, but not occupation.
The other feature of ‘banjos’ is that with the increase in aerial reconnaissance, particularly the use of Lidar, the number of known examples continues to grow. Twenty four were listed for Hampshire in the 1960s, whereas the number on the county AHBR is now 124!
Every picture tells a story!
Cunliffe B & Poole C (2000) Nettlebank Copse, Wherwell, 1993, English Heritage & OUCA Monog 49, Vol 2 part 5.
Fasham, P (1987) A Banjo Enclosure at Micheldever Wood, Hampshire, Hants Field Club & Archaeol Soc, Monog 5.
Perry, B Excavations at Bramdean, Hampshire 1983 & 1984, with some further discussions of the Banjo syndrome. Proc Hants Field Club & Archaeol Soc 42, 35-42
Archive held as A1978.15 (R 27) by the Hampshire Cultural Trust.
Series by: Anne Aldis, Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone
An occasional series covering Hampshire archaeological digs, large and small
Houghton Down, Stockbridge; 1922, 1994, 1997.
Was this both a Roman villa and an Iron Age farm? A dig in 1922 by E A Rawlence, a Salisbury surveyor, found a substantial Roman aisled building containing a bath house. The excavated baths were covered by a shed until the 1930s. Rubbish accumulated, including a dead pig and barbed wire, and the hollows were eventually filled in. Later, aerial photographs showed circular buildings, storage pits, and fenced and ditched fields in the immediate vicinity.
Excavations by Professor Barry Cunliffe and his team in 1994 and 1997 for the Danebury Environs Project showed that, yes, it had been occupied, not quite continuously, between 700 BC and the 4th century AD. Generations of farmers extended the fields, pastures and ditches, dug wells, buried their dead, and built furnaces for metal-working and corn-drying ovens. The main activity took place in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, when there may have been more than one family in residence. By about the year 200, the main buildings were in masonry rather than timber, and included the aisled hall and a narrow building, also used for living and eating in. The farm had expanded from a modest to a prosperous state.
The aisled building, 27.2m long by 13.6m wide, had been carefully constructed and was a substantial structure that would have been visible for miles around. It had a chalk floor, full-height flint walls on greensand corner foundations, a central nave and light from a timbered clerestory. The roof, supported on 14 stone and timber piers, was made of hexagonal Purbeck stone tiles. In the south wall (and probably also in the north) there was a large door opening – over 2m wide.
By the late 3rd century the building had been subdivided by timber partitions. It had a large oven inside. It was evidently now the main working area of a moderately prosperous farm. It also had a large bath suite retrofitted into the northwest corner. A cold plunge pool was started outside the building, but abandoned after only a day’s work! Making a breach in the gable end wall had caused serious structural damage, and so the design was hastily changed and the plunge pool moved to the north side instead of the west – but still outside the main rooms!
A new strip building then enlarged the farm’s living accommodation. Beer was brewed from surplus corn. But there was still little in the way of fine, non-local pottery or decorative ornaments. By the end of its life, in the middle of the 4th century, the building housed a smithy and piles of building material for recycling.
The dig unearthed 13 burials. Two were Roman cremations, two were adults buried close together in the old western enclosure ditch, and nine were infants, buried, here as elsewhere in Roman Britain, under the floors of the Roman buildings.
Houghton Down archives A1994.35 & A1997.55 are in the care of Hampshire Cultural Trust
The Danebury Environs Programme: The Prehistory of a Wessex Landscape, Vol 2 Part 6: Houghton Down, Stockbridge, Hants, 1994, by Barry Cunliffe and Cynthia Poole. English Heritage and OUCA Mono 49, 2000.
And Vol 2 Part 1: Houghton Down, Longstock, Hants,1997, Mono 71, 2008.
Series by: Anne Aldis, Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone
It seems like only yesterday that ‘Royal Blood – heads & tales’ was being installed at Andover, but since then versions of the show have visited Fareham and Aldershot and are still in situ at Alton, Christchurch and Eastleigh. Now the exhibition has gone up a notch and ‘Royal Blood – births, battles and beheadings’ has just opened at the Sainsbury Gallery, Willis Museum, Basingstoke.
The larger venue allows for a more expansive display but the time frame has been narrowed to cover, in six steps, the period from 100 BC to AD 1649. Star attraction of the Iron Age case, on loan from the British Museum, are items from the ‘Alton Hoard’, including coins of Tincomarus, an Atrebatic leader. Representing the Romans are objects from recent work at Silchester and a previously unseen enamelled belt buckle with military connections, from Kingsclere. The Saxons chip in with buckets and buckles, but of the most exquisite and rare variety, from Breamore and Monk Sherborne.
The medieval period focuses on Odiham Castle, one of Hampshire’s hidden gems. As well as a fragment of the building raised for King John, there’s the county’s oldest example of the Great Seal, added to an Andover charter 10 years before the Magna Carta. This is rarely seen outside the Hampshire Record Office. Also on show is a beautiful heraldic horse harness pendant of the Despenser family.
For the Tudors the Tichborne Spoons, a remarkable example of Elizabethan craftsmanship, shine out, but the Stuart period focuses on the Civil War, with armour, a sword and a hoard of 122 silver coins capturing the strife and disruption so widespread at the time.
In addition, hunting – a popular pastime at all periods – and music are celebrated, both via the pages of Tudor volumes, on loan from Winchester College.
Reminding us, throughout, that history is about people not about things, are the costumed figures dressed, appropriately, in shades of red. These majestic personages, based on historical individuals, led far from genteel existences and questions of birth, battles and beheadings were ever present in their royal lives.
Royal Blood is at the Willis Museum until the end of October – Admission Free.
It seems like only yesterday that ‘Royal Blood’ was being installed at Andover, Fareham and Aldershot…and already it’s time to up sticks and cases and graphics and objects and move things to Alton, Christchurch and Eastleigh. At Alton it’s the Allen Gallery that hosts the touring exhibitions and last week saw RB safely installed, with particular mention of the Late Iron Age and Civil War periods.
We chose the Late Iron Age because there’s a hoard known as the ‘Alton Hoard’ in the British Museum. The find was of particular significance because it contained coins of a tribal leader previously known only as ‘Tinc’ – and believed to be ‘Tincommius’ (by adding the ‘Tin’ bit to his father’s or grandfather’s name). The new finds (well, 1996) contained coins marked ‘Tincomarus‘, causing excitement across the numismatic world. Incidentally, although the hoard is said to hail from Alton – it’s actually from Froxfield – ‘and that’s nearer to Petersfield’ as one mildly indignant Altonian told me.
Whichever corner of East Hampshire the coins hail from, they’ll be on show in the main Royal Blood exhibition, which begins its tour (at Basingstoke) in early September.
The other featured element at the Allen Gallery is the ‘Storming of Alton’, and this Civil War episode couldn’t have reached its climax much closer to the exhibition’s location. In December, 1643, as Alton was occupied by a Royalist force of 900, the Parliamentary General, Sir William Waller, gathered 5000 men and began a night march, ostensibly towards Basing. He turned towards Alton, however, and surrounded the town. A fierce battle ensued, with Waller getting the upper hand by using a number of lightweight leather-barrelled field guns, recently received from London.
The defenders fell back on the church of St Lawrence, a stone’s throw from the Museum. The attackers tossed in grenades, before storming the building. Colonel Richard Bolles led the defence, defying his men to surrender. With his death, however, they laid down their arms and over 800 were taken prisoner and marched off to Farnham.
Among the items on display is a small iron shot unearthed in Alton Churchyard, which must be from one of the leather-barrelled guns. Other parts of the exhibition reflect on the careers of Waller and Sir Ralph Hopton – friends before the war, but on opposing sides during the conflict – and there is the full sweep of the Heads and Tales timeline, from the Atrebates to our very own Elizabeth II.
Royal Blood; Heads & Tales – Allen Gallery, Alton, 16 July to 18 September
Bury Hill’s earthworks are quite prominent on the summit of a low rise at the confluence of the rivers Anna and Anton, near Andover. An Early Iron Age hillfort of 10 ha (24 acres) occupies the site but was superseded by a much stronger circular fort of half the size. The earlier enclosure, tested by geophysical survey and excavation, had no evidence of occupation, but it was a different picture in the later camp, which was densely packed with features.
What was striking about Barry Cunliffe’s work here in 1990 was the remarkable haul of horse harness and chariot fittings. The excavation produced six copper alloy terret rings, three strap unions, two small strap rings, a linchpin and an antler side piece capped with a copper alloy disc, as well as numerous iron horse bits and nave rings. Actual horse remains comprised 48% of the animal bones found, about ten times higher than at nearby Iron Age sites, suggesting highly specialised activity at Bury Hill.
Calculations show an average height of eleven hands for a horse population aged between one and fourteen years. With less than 5% juvenile mortality it is likely that the animals were not kept for breeding and they may have been semi-feral, similar to New Forest ponies today. With peak mortality at age six or seven years it is also unlikely that they were exploited for meat. The probability is that the herd was carefully managed, with the emphasis on horses for riding and chariot use.
It seems clear that the community viewed the chariot as a symbol of prestige. It is likely that the vehicles were manufactured at the site and the necessary specialised metalwork made there by craftsmen working for the local elite. This was a group potentially more warrior-dominated than in previous Iron Age generations and ties in with Caesar’s descriptions from 54 BC, when the Late Iron Age forces ranged against him included up to 4,000 chariots!
The Wessex Hillforts Survey has identified an oval enclosure of approximately 1.6ha (4 acres) just outside the later camp at Bury Hill, with its largest entrance facing towards the fort. Is this where the elite warriors – the royal house guard or comitates – strutted their stuff, leaving the artisans to their carpentry workshops and smithies inside the defences?
The allegiance of this Late Iron Age ‘arms factory’ is not clear. The local Atrebates tribe were pro-Roman, but suffered incursions from the Trinovantes and Catuvellauni. Whoever it was they followed, there’s no doubt that the later 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD were turbulent times, if the importance given to the production of weapons of war is anything to go by.
Royal Blood Postscript: In later times Polydore Vergil (16th century) and Sir Richard Colt Hoare imagined Edmund Ironside and the Danish King Canute occupying Bury Hill and Balksbury respectively, as they slogged it out for possession of England in the early 11th century, but there is no hard evidence for this episode from either site.
Cunliffe, B & Poole, C. 2000. The Danebury Environs Programme: The Prehistory of a Wessex Landscape Vol 2, part 2. Bury Hill, Upper Clatford, Hants, 1990. English Heritage and Oxford University Committee for Archaeology Monograph no. 49.
Series by: Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Jane King, Lesley Johnson, Peter Stone
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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,