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Hampshire excavations # 6

An occasional series, covering Hampshire digs large and small: the Anglo-Saxon village at Chalton, 1971-76.

After some exploratory investigations in 1971, a major excavation took place on the hilltop called Church Down the following year, led by Peter Addyman, of the University of Southampton.  Tim Champion took over the reins in 1973 and saw things to a conclusion.

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Aerial view in 1972. Building A20, on the left hand side, is a large, long structure with opposed doors, individual large postholes and internal division. It is 12.5m x 7.5m

The work revealed the remains of a number of rectangular timber buildings.  From the ‘several thousand’ postholes excavated at least sixty-one main structures could be identified, assignable to a number of phases.  The buildings ranged in size from small square plans with a single doorway, via larger oblongs, with two doors set opposite each other in the long walls, to structures with either buttress- or verandah-posts.  An anomalous building encountered in the final year of the dig measured 24m in length and 5m in width and was made up of four unequal sections all slightly out of alignment. There were also four sunken-floored buildings of typical ‘grubenhaus‘ type, although one, at over 8.6m in length was of the ‘giant’ variety.

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Close up of building A20.

Until the final season finds were comparatively few, consisting of grass-tempered and sandy pottery, ironwork and an escutcheon from a hanging bowl.  The final flourish produced a wealth of artefacts, and faunal and environmental remains; loom weights, spindle-whorls and thread pickers, show that wool production was important.

A date for the settlement somewhere in the 6th and 7th centuries is appropriate and the range of finds indicates far-reaching contacts for this rural hilltop settlement.  Oysters must have been gathered or traded from the Portsmouth Harbour region and among the pottery fabrics are wheel-turned vessels from northern France. Glass and quernstones were also imported.


Period piece: The Saxon inhabitants of Chalton may have looked like this (Weorod, 2017).

Work on the final reports is still in hand and the excavation images come from two ‘Rescue’ transparencies of 1972 and from the collection of Gareth Thomas.  Gareth has been a keen visitor to sites, buildings, excavations and museums across the south for more than forty years, and has donated much of his photographic archive to the Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Further reading:

Addyman, P & Leigh, D, 1973, The Anglo-Saxon village at Chalton, Med Archaeol, 17, 1-25.

Champion, T, 1977, Chalton, Current Archaeology 59, 364-71

Series by:  Anne Aldis, Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone





Royal Blood transfused


Claire Woodhead (Hampshire Cultural Trust) and Ashvini Sivakumar (British Museum) prepare the condition reports on the Iron Age coins.

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.


Eleanor of Pembroke stands beside Odiham Castle – on her one hand swords, spurs and armour piercing arrows – on the other three stone missiles. But her ‘household roll’ told of servants Gobithesti and Trubodi ad Slingaway, and her maid, Domicella Christiana.

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.

Buried in time – Royal Blood letting

The Royal Blood exhibition ‘Heads and Tales’ is now on show in three of the Hampshire Cultural Trust museums; Andover, Fareham and Aldershot.  Andover features the Iron Age and Saxon periods and rehearses the story of Dead Man’s Plack, in Harewood Forest, where King Edgar the Peaceable (959-975) is reputed to have slain his right-hand man, Aethelwold.


            Royal Blood at Andover – Iron Age artefacts and ‘Dead Man’s Plack’                            photograph by George Turner.

Having sent his loyal servant on a wife-scouting mission to Devon, where the fair Aelfthryth was reputed to be a maid without compare, Edgar was just about coming to terms with the unfavourable reports when he tripped over a beautiful woman in the Forest.  He followed her home and found that it was none other than Aelfthryth. Aethelwold, bewitched by her beauty, had decided to keep her for himself – a bad move.  The King ordered him to saddle up and accompany him on the hunt – whereupon he ran him through with a spear.  The ‘Plack’ – a stone cross – marks the spot where it happened.  He then took Aelfthryth as his bride.

The story found a champion in landowner Col William Iremonger, who had the cross put up in 1825.  An Oxford Professor, Edward Freeman, then poured cold water on it, but that only incensed the famous naturalist, William Hudson, who while out searching for rare spiders in Harewood Forest, ate his lunch in the shade of the cross and imagined he saw the whole tragedy unfurl in front of his eyes.  He was so taken by the story he put it in print (1920).



Edgar and Aelfthryth had a son (Ethelred) and following the King’s death, Aelfthryth was implicated in the murder of his son by a previous marriage – Edward (‘the Martyr’) – at Corfe, so that her son could take the throne. Again it is thought that the medieval chroniclers painted a far worse picture of her than she deserved, and she had nothing to do with the heinous crime.

Aelfthryth’s  close connection to the Harewood Forest area seems to have been through Wherwell Priory, which she is variously credited with founding, or endowing with gifts. She died there around the year 1000.  Comparatively recent work has discovered the plan of the abbey (Priory) church and shown that some of the buildings still survive intact, but a number of graves found in an archaeological dig were left in situ, as the development work was tailored in such a way that they would remain undisturbed.

One hundred and fifty years after Aelfthryth, Wherwell was again at the heart of the action, following the ‘Rout of Winchester’, but that’s another chapter.

Further reading:

William Henry Hudson, 1920, Dead Man’s Plack and an Old Thorn

Wherwell Priory – survey and excavations – Hampshire Studies 53, Roberts; 55, Clark and Roberts; 58, Manning and Rawlings.

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


Buried in time – a spot of self indulgence

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.


April showers on Maiden Castle – it was freezing!

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.


Checking out some of the landslip at Eggardon.


More Eggardon

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’.


Heading up to Hambledon

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!


Warm, dry, beer on tap – The Cricketers

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. Theres still time Im still searching.


Inside South Cadbury; Christopher Musson, deputy director in 1966 (in yellow) tries to recall where they put the trenches. Glastonbury Tor sits on the horizon

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

dave breiddin

My first hillfort dig! Y Breiddin near Welshpool…somewhere around 45 years ago!




Buried in time – the Danes in Wessex

To Winchester City Museum, for the launch of a new book ‘Danes in Wessex’, edited by Ryan Lavelle and Simon Roffey of the University of Winchester.  The book stems from a conference held at the University back in 2011, but the editors also widened their net to include contributions from a number of specialists who were not at the original event.


As might be expected from a volume which covers a period when the power of the sword was more influential than the power of the word, a good number of the papers are about warfare. Thomas Williams looks at ‘The Place of Slaughter: Exploring the West Saxon Battlescape’, while the aptly-named Derek Gore conducts ‘A Review of Viking Attacks in Western England’.   Among other dark offerings is ‘Death on the Dorset Ridgeway: The Discovery and Excavation of an Early Medieval Mass Burial’ by Angela Boyle.   It’s not all cut and thrust, of course, and I, for one, look forward to reading about ‘Orc of Abbotsbury and Tole of Tolpuddle’, who according to Ann Williams, enjoyed ‘A place in the country’.

The fragment of carved relief in the Winchester City Museum

The fragment of carved relief in the Winchester City Museum

Another delightful offering is sure to be ‘Danish Royal Burials in Winchester: Cnut and his Family’, by Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjolbye-Biddle.  Professor Biddle was at the Museum to give his blessing to the book and enthralled his audience by describing the action taking place on a fragment of stone sculpture from Old Minster.  A prostrate, bound man grapples with a large dog-like animal, which has its muzzle pressed hard against his face.  This may well be depicting the episode of Sigmund and the Wolf, from Volsunga Saga.

Having seen nine of his brothers devoured nightly by an evil-looking she-wolf, Sigmund is saved by his twin sister Signy, who sent her servant to smear his face with honey and put some in his mouth. When the wolf licked the honey and thrust her tongue into his mouth in search of more, Sigmund bit hard. The shock made the wolf jump backwards and break his bonds, but Sigmund didn’t let go and tore out the lupine tongue, killing the beast.

Reading about the episode I was transported back a couple of weeks to the cinema – and a viewing of ‘The Revenant’.  I’m not sure a mouthful of honey would have done much to help Mr Glass in his encounter with the bear but despite the differences in time, terrain and weapons of choice, the film certainly conveyed the feeling of a rough, tough, raiding-party world.

A coin of Cnut - 1016-1035.

A coin of King Cnut – 1016-1035.  ‘CNVT REX’

The ‘Big Theme’ at several Hampshire Cultural Trust venues this year is ‘Royal Blood’, which looks at the role of royals from the Late Iron Age onwards.  A touring show (Basingstoke, Winchester, Gosport) starting in September, is complemented by offerings at the Community Museums.

Alfred the Great - guardian of Wessex and Winchester.

Alfred the Great – guardian of Wessex and Winchester.

Further reading:

Ryan Lavelle & Simon Roffey (eds), 2016, Danes in Wessex; The Scandinavian Impact on Southern England, c 800 – c 1100. Oxbow Books.

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

Buried in time – an execution cemetery on Stockbridge Down

Woolbury hillfort in 1989, with Stockbridge Down beyond it - upper middle left in the image.

Woolbury hillfort in 1989, with Stockbridge Down beyond it – upper middle left in the image.

The preparation of a site for a bonfire on the hill east of Stockbridge, to mark the 1935 Jubilee of HM King George V, led to the chance discovery of a human skull and other bones. This resulted in two seasons of excavation by Dr N Gray Hill in the summers of 1935 and 1936 and the uncovering of a cemetery containing at least 41 identifiable burials, in an area of about 100 square metres.

Plan of the 41 burials, showing their haphazard nature - the two postholes are also shown.

Plan of the 41 burials, showing their haphazard nature – the two postholes are also shown.

A nearby ‘barrow’, which had ‘well-defined chalk walls’, was also examined but produced no convincing evidence of association with the burials. Finds of clay pipe and glass, and the absence of any Bronze Age material, led the excavator to conclude that its origin may have been as recent as the 17th century.

Excavation in progress. In the general view, skeleton 16 is in the foreground; in the close up (skeleton 19) both a man and dog had been decapitated. The dog's head was not in the grave.

Excavations in progress. In the general view, skeleton 16 is in the foreground; in the close up (below) both a man (skeleton 19) and dog had been decapitated. The dog’s head was not in the grave.

The cemetery graves were generally shallow, haphazardly aligned, narrow and of short length. In one case the interment was less than 15 cm (6”) below the turf and in no other instance was an undisturbed burial found at more than 90 cm (36”) below that level. Frequently a body had been flexed to fit into a grave and it was apparent that little attention had been paid by the grave diggers to earlier burials: in all, nine skeletons had been cut through and occasionally assemblages such as a foot with ankle bones were found at some distance from the associated skeleton.

All of the skeletons were males in ‘the prime of life’ although one was probably in his mid-teens and two were ‘middle-aged’. In general they appeared to be in good health, although there was plenty of evidence of worn teeth, associated with the consumption of bread made from coarsely ground flour, and crude dentistry. One or two skeletons showed past injuries which had healed well, while examination of the several thousand bones showed little evidence of serious disease. Typically the individuals would have stood about 1.70 m (5’ 6”) in height although one may have been about 1.85 m (6’ 0”) tall.


Among the finds associated with individual burials were six silver coins of the reign of Edward the Confessor which were minted in Winchester* (they were hidden in a small bag under an armpit of skeleton 19 and missed by the grave diggers).  There were also two bronze and three iron buckles identified as belonging to the post-conquest period, a ‘wrist-fastener’ and three iron rings, along with evidence of a leather belt. The skeleton of a large dog and the skull of a hornless sheep were also found. There was also a piece of coarse, grey-ware, decorated pottery identified as part of a glazed pitcher, of a type known to be common in the area c. AD 1100.

The indifferent and callous nature of the burials identifies the site as an execution cemetery and it is interesting to note that similar groups of burials have been found along the line of the Winchester-Old Sarum road at Lopcombe Corner, Meon Hill and Old Sarum itself. Two near-identical post holes, found in close proximity to the burials on Stockbridge Down, may have been the sites of gibbets, and an unexplained spread of oyster shells was found across the site.

The path up to Stockbridge Down

The path up to Stockbridge Down

Under the Norman kings ‘Forest Law’ barred anyone other than the king from exclusive ownership and use of a forest. William II Rufus (1087-1100) introduced the death penalty for infringements such as poaching, in place of the mutilation prescribed by his father, William the Conqueror (1066-1087).  This punishment was continued, although with less rigour, into the reigns of Henry I (1100-1135) and Stephen. Forest Law was administered by special justices appointed by the king.

Bearing in mind that only officers of state acting under royal authority would have the power to order the execution of a large number of men over an extended period of time, it seems fair to conclude that the cemetery contained the remains of those put to death for infringement of Forest Law, presumably during the reigns of William II Rufus and Henry I, although the former is perhaps more likely (but see the case – below* – for an earlier start, at least, for the cemetery, based on the coin evidence).

Further reading:

N Gray Hill (1937) Excavations on Stockbridge Down, 1935-36, Proc Hants Field Club, vol 13, 247-259.

* In a follow-up paper published in the British Numismatic Journal in 1955, R H M Dolley refines the dating of the coin hoard and argues that it is with ‘considerable exactitude’ that he can date the execution of the man in question to ‘not earlier than the autumn of 1065, and before the summer of 1066’. There is even enough evidence to suggest the event took place ‘before Christmas’.  The six coins, which were concealed in a linen bag, presumably fixed by wax to the hairs under his armpit, included three from the same die (the moneyer Anderbode) another struck by Anderbode and two made by Leofwine. Three of the coins are in the British Museum, two lost, and one held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust.

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


Buried in time – a Saxon vill at Cowdery’s Down

Aerial view from the northwest in 1979. Saxon buildings are visible to the left of the caravans - as modern access roads and houses start to take shape.

Aerial view from the northwest in 1979. Saxon building plans are visible to the left of the caravans – as new access roads and houses start to take shape.

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.

Simon James at work on a detailed site drawing.

Simon James at work on a detailed site drawing.

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!

Post 'ghost'; revealing the detail of the plank impression - Structure C10, north door, west post.

Post ‘ghost’; revealing the detail of the plank impression – Structure C10, north door, west post.

Collecting a charcoal sample from a post and plank slot in Structure C12

Collecting a charcoal sample from a post and plank slot in Structure C12

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.

One of Simon James' suggested reconstructions for building C12.

One of Simon James’ reconstructions for building C12.

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.

Site plan of Structure C12.

Site plan of Structure C12.

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.

Structure C12 during excavation.

Structure C12 during excavation.

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.

Artist's impression of the settlement at its peak (Mike Codd).

Artist’s impression of the settlement at its peak (Mike Codd).

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.

Further reading

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