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Buried in time – Mesolithic picks and ‘tranchet axes’

Oh dear! For many years I’ve been telling people that the ‘tranchet axe’, typical of the Mesolithic period (10,000 to 6,000 years ago) was so named because ‘tranchet’ was the French for ‘cross-blow’ and it was this action that produced a chisel-like cutting edge. Not so; a ‘tranchet’ is a hunting or paring knife and puts a slightly different slant on things, if you see what I mean.  ‘Trancher’, the verb, means ‘to slice’, so I’m probably just splitting hairs, but I’ll go with that in future.


Tranchet axe from Whitehill, Bordon.

Tranchet axe from Whitehill, Bordon.

Tranchet axes are comparatively numerous in Hampshire. J J Wymer, in his gazetteer of Mesolithic sites, describes how they vary considerably in size (anything from 100mm to 200mm in length) and that they are often referred to as ‘Thames Picks’, as so many have been dredged from that river.  They would originally have been hafted in wooden shafts, but these rarely survive.  The real ‘picks’ are more crudely manufactured, and often have a distinctive ‘banana’ shape. They can also be larger – the example from Privett is 270mm in length.

Primed for action: a pick from Privett with a replica handle

Primed for action: a pick from Privett with a replica handle

At Broom Hill, Braishfield, near Romsey, 113 axes and adzes were found and, in 1982, this could be claimed as the largest number from any single site in the United Kingdom. Michael O’Malley put this down to the good local supply of quality flint and that the inhabitants may have been making dug-out canoes. This number contrasts with the twenty tranchet axes recovered from Star Carr and neighbouring sites in Yorkshire.

A typical selection from the Willis collection

A typical selection from the Willis collection

George Willis (centre) and companions out searching for flints.

George Willis (centre) and companions out searching for flints.

Another pioneer archaeologist who made the most of the southern distribution was George Willis of Basingstoke. In the 1920s, he and his companions were dedicated ‘flinters’ in the fields of North Hampshire and found scores of artefacts. Their tally for 1928, for example, includes over 70 chipped or flaked axes and adzes and is typical of their endeavours.  They did more than their bit in picking the fields clean – so much so that you’d be hard-pressed to find such a tool in the ploughsoil today.

A more typical discovery would be that made by Adam Carew, in the roots of a tree at Whitehill, Bordon, (top) another area generally rich in evidence of the Mesolithic period.


CBA Research Report 20, (1977) Gazetteer of Mesolithic sites in England & Wales, J J Wymer (ed).

O’Malley, M, (1982) When the Mammoth Roamed Romsey, A Study of the Prehistory of Romsey and District. LTVAS.

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

Willis Archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust


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

Buried in time – the Oakridge well

The Oakridge well - 25 February 1966.

Into the darkness – the Oakridge well – 25 February 1966 *.

Beneath a 1960s housing estate a mile to the north of the current town centre of Basingstoke lies a 26.7 m (87’) deep well; it was originally dug in the late 1st century AD, probably to provide water for cattle grazing on the slopes of a dry valley on the chalk downs.  The well was associated with an occupation site comprising pits, enclosure ditches and field boundaries.  During development of the estate in 1965, the field archaeology group of the Basingstoke Museum recorded the site; the finds suggest continuous occupation from the early/middle Iron Age to the late Romano-British period.

Early days: Miss Margaret Macfarlane, Curator of Basingstoke Museum, leads by example.

Early days: Miss Margaret Macfarlane, Curator of Basingstoke Museum, leads by example.

Although only limited examination of the settlement took place, the well was completely excavated.  After a century of use, the well shaft filled up with both natural and deliberately placed deposits.  Analysis of these, particularly the animal bones, provided information regarding the utilisation and disposal practices of carcasses and also changes in the local environment during the period of deposition which continued possibly up to the 7th century AD.

Miss Macfarlane and Miss Elizabeth Speight haul out the primary silts - February 1966.

Miss Macfarlane and Miss Elizabeth Speight haul out the silts – February 1966.

Excavation revealed that the weathering cone at the well-head narrowed from a diameter of 4.3 m to only 1.2 m at a depth of 4 m.  The diameter remained approximately constant to a depth of 22.5 m, the level of the water table (which is probably the same now as when the well was in use).  The lack of space in the shaft gave considerable difficulties to the excavators, particularly for the 4 m below the level of the water table, where pumps were required.


In the chalky silt at the bottom of the well (coloured blue in the section illustration) was found an almost complete late 1st century AD flagon, probably deposited as a propitiatory offering in order to ensure a good supply of water.  Also found near the bottom in the primary deposits were some pieces of waterlogged wood which may have formed part of the winding gear: these may have fallen from the top of the well when it was abandoned, about a century after it had been dug.

The shaft then became a depository for unwanted material, making up the fill above a depth of 26m (85 feet) for almost 2m (coloured green in the illustration). Large quantities of bone refuse – waste from butchery or skin-processing – indicate that stock-raising continued. These layers contained pottery of late 2nd century date including a samian bowl in small pieces. This was decorated with figures of inebriated revellers, including dancing and flute-playing satyrs accompanying the god Bacchus (Dionysus).

Bacchic frieze on a samian Dr 37 bowl - the original rubbing by Dr Joanna Bird. The pot would have been made c 100-125.

Bacchic frieze on a samian Dr 37 bowl – the original rubbing by samian specialist Dr Joanna Bird. The vessel would have been made c 100-125.

A second period of deliberate dumping occurred in the late 3rd / early 4th centuries (coloured yellow).  Two almost undamaged small, already 150-years-old, Antonine samian flagons had been carefully deposited.  Other evidence of ritual behaviour included the deposit of large numbers of dog and puppy bones and two hare skeletons.  This deposit comprises both rubbish and material of funerary/religious nature, including the co-mingled bones of two adults.

The two flagons of Central Gaulish Lezoux samian

The two flagons of Central Gaulish Lezoux samian

Over 2m (7 feet) of material (uncoloured in the section illustration) accumulated over a 50 year period before deliberate deposition resumed in the late 4th century (coloured orange in the illustration) from a depth of 20.5 – 16 m.  Large quantities of animal bone were found, possibly all deposited within one breeding season.  Some represented processing waste, but a number of complete cow skeletons were also found.  Human skeletons (3 adults and 3 children) were also present and it has been suggested that a disease, such as anthrax, hit both the human and animal populations.

Above a depth of 16 m (52 feet) the fill was weathered chalk with almost no deliberate deposits (coloured pink in the illustration).  During this period (late 4th to 7th centuries) the settlement was overgrown: evidence comes in the form of wild animal species – including swallows which probably nested in the shaft.  A few human and domesticated animal bones indicate that the area was not completely deserted.

Further reading:

Oliver, M, 1993, The Iron Age and Romano-British Settlement at Oakridge, Proc Hants Field Club & Arch Soc , Vol 48, pp.55-94.

Maltby, M, 1994. The Animal Bones from a Romano-British well at Oakridge II, Basingstoke, Proc Hants Field Club & Arch Soc, Vol 49, pp.47-76.

1965.426 etc; Archive held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust

  • *The Basingstoke Museum field notebooks show that the depth reached by 25 February was about 47 feet – just over half way to the bottom.  The water table was reached on 3 May. Pumps were installed and digging recommenced in mid-June.  The work was not without its dangers and on 13 June, M Forward was taken to Casualty with a cut cheek that required two stitches and an anti-tetanus jab! By mid-August fragments of wood, straw and twigs were being retrieved, as well as lots of pottery.  The end was in sight!  It’s doubtful if a local group would attempt such an excavation in such a way today – health and safety issues would prevail.

Some of the finds are on display at the Willis Museum

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

Basing House

Here’s a tour of Basing House to give you a flavour of what is it like there.


Video kindly made by Alex Thomson.