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Buried in time – ‘the unique qualities of human actions’

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Petersfield Heath; George Anelay (left) Claire Woodhead and Stuart Needham discuss the latest discovery.

To Petersfield, to see the third year of excavation at the ‘People of the Heath’ community project, and an opportunity for Hampshire Cultural Trust conservator, Claire Woodhead, to discuss the processes involved in dealing with their latest Bronze Age find (for an update on the project see their excellent bulletins).

The twenty or more burial monuments on the Heath were first put on record in a comprehensive fashion by a youthful Stuart Piggott, a native of Petersfield. Several small diameter circles were evident among the larger barrows and the project has now examined four of them. George Anelay who along with Stuart Needham is directing the project, told me how they all differed and that they hadn’t revealed an obvious similarity of purpose, with no central burial feature present. It put me in mind of one of Stuart Piggott’s own memorable passages (in ‘Ancient Europe’ – he went on to become Professor of Archaeology at Edinburgh) about ‘the unique qualities of human actions’ and their inability to create identical sets of circumstances – all this in a pre-industrial age of course!

It took me back to my own adventure with an early Bronze Age burial site – in Buckinghamshire – which found a remarkable parallel in Hampshire – with, it goes without saying, differences in detail. We’ve already visited Stockbridge Down in this series to view an execution cemetery and the hillfort at Woolbury, but in the late 1930s, J F S Stone and N Gray Hill excavated a round barrow, which ‘although small…was found to possess some unusual features’.   The main occupant was a Beaker period crouched female burial, accompanied by one of the distinctive vessels and a bronze awl, but the rarity was the surrounding ditch, which was composed of five segments – they are usually continuous. In 1978 I had the good fortune to dig a ring ditch threatened by quarrying at Ravenstone, Bucks, and this monument was composed of four ditch segments with, at the centre, a Beaker period crouched female burial, accompanied by a pot and a bronze awl.

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Recording the Ravenstone segments

But that wasn’t the end of the story. At Ravenstone, the female burial was a secondary interment; beneath her was a deep burial pit containing a coffin – but no body – it was presumably a cenotaph. At Stockbridge Down there were cremation burials later than the main burial, dug into the ditch. This has only now got me scratching my head for a point of process I’d missed before. At Stockbridge the excavators were content that the ditch was dug to surround the burial – so female crouched burial, Beaker, awl, causewayed ditch were apparently contemporary.

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At Ravenstone the causewayed ditch surrounded a deep grave-pit with a coffin (generally an attribute of a male Beaker burial). So the female crouched burial, pot and awl were interlopers – and the depth of her grave suggested that it was indeed dug through a barrow mound (the actual mound had been subsequently ploughed flat). Therefore two very similar plans are perhaps not as similar as they seem. They’re certainly not identical, are they Professor? It’s one of the joys of being an archaeologist.

 

References:

Allen, D, The Excavation of a Beaker Burial Monument at Ravenstone, Buckinghamshire in 1978, Arch J Vol 138 for 1981.

Piggott, S, 1965, Ancient Europe

Stone, JFS & Hill, N G, 1940, A Round Barrow on Stockbridge Down, Hampshire, Antiquaries Journal, Vol XX

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

 

 

 

 

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Buried in time – reflections on the Late Iron Age

In the autumn of 1994 a metal detectorist found a Late Iron Age decorated bronze mirror, the first from Hampshire, at Latchmere Green, near Silchester.  It was associated with the cremation burial of a woman and a child, and tells of a tradition of high status metalwork ‘reflecting the British nobility’s contacts with, and travels in, Italy in the late 1st century BC and early 1st century AD’.  

'generally poor condition' the Latchmere Green mirror.

‘generally poor condition’ the Latchmere Green mirror.

The mirror was unearthed just within Bramley parish, at the southern edge of a known Roman site close to the junction of the Roman roads from Silchester to Winchester and Chichester. This settlement had been previously surveyed (Corney, 1984) and had yielded pottery finds of the late 1st to early 2nd century, through to the 4th century AD.

The decorative motifs - as drawn by Steve Allen, University of Reading, Dept of Archaeology.

The decorative motifs – as drawn by Steve Allen, University of Reading, Dept of Archaeology.

The mirror itself was badly corroded, with the handle and plate separated, and was in generally poor condition. Assuming circularity, dimensions were estimated as 170 mm diameter, giving a 227 sq cm surface area; it was 1.1 mm thick. The overall length (mirror and handle) was estimated to be about 263 mm.

Basket engraving on the reverse side of the mirror plate was found to be in the form of a whirligig or triskele,  with the lower arms extended at right angles to the axis of the plate in pelta (or shield-like) loop patterns, giving the impression of a pair of eyes.

This elaborate style of decoration, known as ‘irregular oblong block’, is not unlike that of the 1904 ‘Colchester mirror’ and other similar finds and is thought to date from the late 1st century BC to the early 1st century AD, while the plate area links the mirror with the south-eastern group* of mirrors, centred on East Anglia and the London Basin. Up to 60 mirrors of the period are now known, and many of these finds have been made over the past three decades.

For a number of years a replica of the Holcombe Mirror (Devon) was on display at the Museum of the Iron Age, courtesy of Nicholas Riall, who found the original on an excavation in 1970.

For a number of years a replica of the much better preserved Holcombe Mirror (Devon) was on display at the Museum of the Iron Age, courtesy of Nicholas Riall, who found the original on an excavation in 1970.

Samples of metal taken from the handle and plate of the Latchmere Green mirror consisted wholly of ~88% copper and ~12% tin with a trace of phosphorus, which showed that the mirror was not of Roman manufacture. Roman mirrors always contain more than a trace of lead and a lower proportion of copper with tin.

Following the initial discovery, a small controlled excavation (5 x 5 m) unearthed a late Iron Age pedestal jar, lying on its side in a shallow pit. The jar contained a quantity of cremated bone and the evidence suggested that the mirror had been placed as a ‘lid’ closing the jar. Also present were fragments of iron pin and other pieces associated with brooches. These latter were found to be comparable with finds at Silchester and Thetford and again can be dated to the very late 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD.  The wheel-thrown jar, although in a very fragmented condition, is of a type identifiable with the pre-conquest period.

The cremation was unusual, in that the small fragments proved to be very probably of a female, aged 30 or more, with a child who was not newborn or an infant. That the adult was most likely to be female is evidenced by the fact that such mirrors have never been unambiguously associated with Iron Age male burials. The small fragments of cremated animal bone present were found to be of pig – again an occurrence consistent with animal bone finds in other Iron Age burials.

Mirror, mirror in my hand, Who is the fairest in the land?

Mirror, mirror in my hand, Who is the fairest in the land?

In summary, the evidence points to a late pre-conquest or early post-conquest date for this Late Iron Age high-status burial, possibly of a mother and child (but see below).  As to the triskele design with loops it can only be said that this is of unknown origins but no object associated with it has been datable to earlier than 1st century BC. The ‘masterly’ and ‘mature’ embellishments, as they have been described, would appear to be unique to Britain.

*As the Latchmere Green discovery is an outlier to the south eastern group, it was included in the Dating Celtic Art programme of radiocarbon dating (Garrow et al, 2009). The dates realised (360 – 50 and 360 -110 cal BC) seem too early (2nd century BC) for the associated brooches and pottery vessel, and there is the intriguing possibility that one of the individuals (the one dated) had been cremated some decades before the double burial was actually made.  

References:

M Corney (1984) A Field Survey of the Extra-Mural Region of Silchester, in M Fulford, Silchester Defences, 1974-80.

M Fulford & J Creighton (1998) A Late Iron Age Mirror Burial from Latchmere Green, near Silchester, Proc Prehist Soc, Vol 64, pp331-342.

D Garrow et al (2009) Dating Celtic Art: a Major Radiocarbon Dating Programme of Iron Age and Early Roman Metalwork in Britain, Arch J, Vol 166, pp 79-123.

Archive A1994.26, held by Hampshire Cultural Trust

The Latchmere Green mirror is currently on display at the Museum of the Iron Age, Andover.

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

 

Buried in time – an unfinished hillfort and an English Earl

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Ladle Hill on an April evening in 2008 – a Bronze Age ‘linear’ links the camp to the scarp, and the ‘saucer barrow’ describes a perfect circle to the north.  The many dumps inside the fort are ditch spoil waiting in vain to form the rampart.

One hundred years ago Dr J P Williams-Freeman felt that Ladle Hill was a prehistoric camp caught in the process of being flattened by early 19th century farmers, desperate to break-in new agricultural land to make a quick profit in the troubled times resulting from the Napoleonic Wars. It was aerial photography, in 1930, that gave Stuart Piggott the opportunity to look at its layout more objectively and, with O G S Crawford, come to the conclusion that it was a hillfort that had been started, but never finished.

The existence of an apparent palisade (visible between the segments of ditch) leaves open the possibility that there was already an enclosure in existence before fort construction began, but in the absence of excavation, this cannot be proven. It may, for example, have been a deeply cut ‘marking out’ feature.

What is clear, however, is that the west side of the fort picks up the line of a Bronze Age boundary ditch – a ‘Wessex linear’ – which runs along the edge of the scarp, and there is also a fine Bronze Age disc barrow just to the north of the defences.    airb131

Beacon Hill viewed from the south.  The inturned entrance is clearly visible, but the blocked gate in the long west side, is difficult to distinguish.  Lord Carnarvon’s grave, in the pointed angle at the western end, is also hard to make out.

Beacon Hill (3.8 ha) is one of the finest hillforts in the county. It has never been ploughed, or excavated to any extent, and it contains quarry scoops, hut circles and pit hollows in abundance. The Royal Commission made a masterly contour-survey of these features, published in 1991, and English Heritage followed with a varied menu of remote sensing techniques, published in 2006 as part of their Wessex Hillforts survey.

Williams-Freeman noted numerous ‘hut circles’, some large, some small (pit hollows) within the fort. He was not aware of the probable blocked entrance on the west side of the site, or the subtle, centrally-located folds which have been considered as possible traces of a much earlier Neolithic enclosure.

Nor would he have seen the Trig Point, near the site of which Leonard Woolley and Lord Carnarvon, owner of Beacon Hill and nearby Highclere Castle, excavating in August 1912, found a brick hearth, clay tobacco pipes and other evidence of the manning of the eponymous beacon.

Lord Carnarvon's resting place.

Lord Carnarvon’s resting place.

The enclosed grave was also a thing of the future. It was while in Egypt, just four months after Howard Carter had summoned him there to view the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb, that Lord Carnarvon cut an infected mosquito bite while shaving, contracted blood poisoning, and died of pneumonia. His body was brought home to Highclere and interred in his lofty tomb on the last day of April, 1923.

 

Further reading:

J P Williams-Freeman (1915), Field Archaeology as Illustrated by Hampshire.

S Piggott (1931), Ladle Hill – an unfinished hillfort, Antiquity 5, 474-85

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone for Hampshire Cultural Trust

with thanks to pilot extraordinaire, Ginny Pringle.

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.

chment

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 (and a housing estate) – Balksbury plateau enclosure

When the much-needed Andover bypass swept around the southern reaches of the town in the late 1960s it sliced through the southwest corner of the 18 ha (45 acre) plateau enclosure of Balksbury.  From that moment on, the earthwork’s days  were numbered.  Housing developments eventually arrived and now carpet nearly all of the interior, but at least the disappearance of the archaeology was well-documented, and six episodes of excavation are on record.

General view of the 1973 excavtions

General view of the 1973 excavtions

In 1939 the southern side of the defences was examined by Jacquetta Hawkes, while husband Christopher was busy excavating at nearby Bury Hill.  Twenty years later the northeast corner of the enclosure was looked at during house-building.  More substantial opportunities came in 1967 with the arrival of the bypass and again in 1973, when the same excavator, Geoff Wainwright, undertook one of his celebrated ‘big digs’, uncovering 10 ha of the interior.  The Central Excavation Unit investigated a further 2 ha in 1981.  Finally, between December 1995 and April 1997, another 5.5 ha of the interior was examined, additional work took place outside the enclosure, and a section of bank and ditch was looked at in detail.

Excavations in 1997

Excavations in 1997 – examining the ‘defences’

Viewed as a whole, the site produced evidence from Neolithic to Late-Roman date, although the earliest activity is represented only by stray finds, including a Beaker burial of an adolescent female.

Beaker burial

The BAlksbury Beaker burial

The Balksbury Beaker burial

Around the 8th-9th centuries BC (Late Bronze Age) large-scale clearance of woodland preceded the construction of the enclosure.  A single entrance was found to the southeast as well as three phases of bank and ditch, some involving timber strengthening.  If there was any occupation at this period, it apparently took the form of a few four and five-post structures, scattered around the periphery.  In the Early Iron Age the evidence is more substantial, with three round houses and 27 storage pits identified.  Pits also dominated in the Middle Iron Age, with 90 attributable to this phase, but there were no recognisable structures.

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Iron Age pit (half sectioned) and roundhouse (post ring and porch).

Iron Age pit (half sectioned) and roundhouse (post ring and porch).

In the Late Iron Age and Early Roman periods a number of pits and gullies were dug but the type of activity they represent is elusive.  It does, however, appear to merge into the later Roman occupation which involved a substantial building with ovens (and painted wall plaster), a corn-drier, small enclosures, pits and burials.  Finds included both local and imported pottery, worked bone and stone, coins and jewellery, including 11 brooches, four bracelets, five rings and a buckle plate.  Part of a scabbard for a La Tene 1 type dagger, a rare find from a settlement site, is of Middle Iron Age date.

The 'T'-shaped corn drier from the Romano-British phase.

The ‘T’-shaped corn drier from the Romano-British phase.

In the mid-1990s, the final phase of excavation concentrated on the nature and economy of the enclosure, rather than its wider landscape setting.  The enclosure, at 18 ha, was too big to be defended effectively and its description as a ‘hillfort’ is wrong.  It probably marked out an important place in the landscape, a focal point for communal activities, which may have included feasting, exchange of goods, and the means to build social relationships.  Later activity took place in the centre of the site and the impression is of a succession of small farming settlements taking advantage of an existing, but redundant, enclosure.

Further Reading:

A1978.12  Archive held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Balksbury Camp, Andover, Excavations 1973 & 1981, Wainwright & Davies (1995), English Heritage Archaeological Report 4.

Excavations at Balksbury Camp, Andover 1995-97, Ellis & Rawlings (2001), Hants Studies Vol 56.

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

Geoffrey Wainwright (third from left) who led the 1967 and 1973 digs.

Geoffrey Wainwright (third from left) and some of the diggers in 1973.

Ken Smith (left) and the 1981 excavation crew.

Ken Smith (left) and the 1981 excavation crew.

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.

well

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.

Buried in time – ‘a mass of mortality’.

Fallen - and fracturedIt’s twenty-five years since the great storm of 25 January 1990 toppled the Great Yew in Selborne churchyard. This celebrated tree, mentioned by Gilbert White in The Natural History of Selborne (1789), and in 2002 elected one of Britain’s greatest 50 trees by The Tree Council, had reputedly stood for 1000 years. A serious attempt was made to resurrect it, but the trunk had split from top to bottom in the fall and the effort to bring it back to life failed.

IMG_0007

In preparing the ground for the ‘repotting’ operation it was necessary to enlarge the root hole and an area of 10 sq m was excavated to a general depth of 0.75m. This revealed seven graves, four of which were quite shallow. Wherever possible these burials were left in situ. Many disarticulated remains were found, representing at least another 20 individuals – ten of them adults, and ten children.

The deepest burial -furthest from camera - no grave cuts could be seen in the homogenous soil.

The deepest burial is furthest from the camera – no grave cuts could be seen in the homogenous soil.

The deepest burial was 1m from the surface and cut into the surviving subsoil beneath where the tree had stood. Seven nails with traces of wood suggested that this adult male was buried in a coffin and a piece of green-glazed pottery of 13th/14th century date came from the grave fill. The young yew may have had a diameter of c 1m by this time, suggesting an age of 2-300 years. An overall age of 1000 years therefore seems possible for the Great Yew. A plaque inside the church adds a tentative 400 years to this, but as the heart of the tree was rotten, dendrochronological (tree-ring) dating was not possible.

Inside the church there is information about the yew and a fine array of Selborne Priory inlaid tiles.;

There is more information about the yew inside the church and a colourful array of Selborne Priory inlaid floor tiles.

The highly disturbed and populated nature of the area close to the Great Yew, with the buried remains of twenty-seven individuals represented, would not have been a surprise to Gilbert White. His simple grave (1793) is located at the northeast corner of the church and his observations in ‘Antiquities of Selborne, letter IV’ suggest why.

Considering the size of the church and the extent of the Parish, the churchyard is very scanty; especially as all wish to be buried on the South-side which is become such a mass of mortality that no person can be there interred without disturbing or displacing the bones of his ancestors’.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

The bones recovered from the excavation were reburied nearby, as a plaque on the church wall now relates. Another inscription marks the grave of John Newland ‘The Trumpeter’. Newland took part in the Selborne Workhouse Riot of 1830, but not such a big part as W H Hudson related in his Hampshire Days. He escaped with a six-month prison sentence, while his co-conspirators were transported to the other side of the world. One detail of the story that sticks in my mind is that when Newland’s wife walked to and from Winchester to attend his trial, their baby suffered frostbite to the nose – poor mite.

The Trumpeter's marker and the Great Yew stump, 2015

The Trumpeter’s grave marker and the Great Yew stump, 2015

A1990.28

Further reading:

D Allen & S Anderson, 1991, Excavations beneath the Great Yew, Selborne, Hants Studies, 47 pp 145-152.

W H Hudson, 1903, Hampshire Days.

Jean Newland, 1998, Echoes of a Trumpet.

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.