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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.


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 medieval chapel of Rishton.

Until the Local Government Reorganisation of 1974, Christchurch was in Hampshire, and the Hampshire Cultural Trust still looks after the Red House Museum and much of the archaeological material from the locality. One of the most enigmatic sites in the area is St Catherine’s Hill, just outside the town, which is peppered with sand and gravel quarries, reservoirs and an array of historic monuments, including the ‘lost’ chapel of a ‘lost’ village.

The Francis Grose plan of 1777

The Francis Grose plan of the late 18th century.

On 20 November, 1777 a letter from Francis Grose was read to the Society of Antiquaries in London. In it he described an ‘ancient fortification’ on St Catherine’s Hill, which overlooks the Avon and Stour valleys to the north of Christchurch. The ‘camp’ was 55 yards (50m)square, bounded on three sides by a double earthen rampart 8’ (2.4m)high, with a 20’ (6m) wide ditch between them. On the fourth, southern side stood a single rampart. Grose noted three entrances and further earthworks to the north. He drew his findings on a plan, emphasising that it was ‘not taken with any instrument’ but was ‘accurately placed’.

The 1871 map, showing the enclosures and a scatter of smaller monuments.

The 1871 map, showing the enclosures and a scatter of smaller monuments.

A more detailed survey of the enclosure appears on the 1871 OS map, which shows numerous other earthworks on the hill, including ‘tumuli’ (Bronze Age burial mounds), ‘watchtowers’ and a ‘fort’ to the north of the camp. It also places the site of St Catherine’s chapel within the square enclosure.

The enclosure was not investigated archaeologically on any scale until 1964, when Michael Ridley directed the Bournemouth Archaeological Association over several seasons, hoping to find proof that it was a particular type of Roman fort – a signal station.  In an interim report on the excavations, published in the Christchurch Times on 22 September 1967, Ridley described the various ‘ravages of the site’ that had taken place previously.  During the late 19th century the hill was used as a practice ground by the Horse Artillery, and an appropriate military button was found during the excavation.  In 1914, the hill was again used as a training ground and a Mills Bomb exploded on the site. The excavators found the remains of this device.  Also in 1914, and again in 1921, the Bournemouth Natural Science Society dug some exploratory trenches across the enclosure.  All of these factors combined to make the 1960’s excavations ‘most difficult’.

Excavations in progress on the rampart and ditch.

Excavations in progress on the rampart and ditch.

They were made more difficult still by vandals, who constantly disrupted the excavations by breaking down fencing, pulling out marker pegs and digging holes in the carefully laid out grid system.  The most serious incident was the destruction of the wooden site hut which was burnt to the ground, along with the society’s equipment valued at £75.  Considering that the budget for the entire excavation was a ‘paltry’ £15, this was a severe blow.  Nevertheless, the volunteers from Bournemouth Archaeological Association, local WEA classes and local schools persevered.

Ridley’s excavations examined both the interior of the camp and the surrounding banks, but found very little Roman material.

The piece of limestone rooftile with a fishy shape on it.

The piece of limestone rooftile with a fishy shape on it.

Medieval finds were more common, including a variety of building stone, ceramic roof tiles and slates, a few glazed floor tiles, fragments of window glass, painted wall plaster, and pieces of pottery.  A few animal bones and oyster shells were also found.  The most celebrated find was a drawing or graffito on limestone of a fish.

Ridley suggested that a succession of chapels stood inside the enclosure (the camp), but that the final demolition was so thorough that no foundations or plan of the building could be recovered.   The best evidence for its existence comes from documentary references of 1302, 1306 and 1331, which place it on ‘Richedon’ or Rishton Hill (apparently named after a local village).  The earliest dedication appears to have been to St Leonard, but later documents attribute it to St Katherine.   The dissolution of Christchurch Priory took place on 28 November, 1539 and Ridley suggests that St Catherine’s chapel was destroyed around the same time.

The Friends of St Catherine's Hill hold a History Day every other year. At the recent event a WWI 'tank' was among the attractions, emphasising the many military activities that have taken place on the hill.

The Friends of St Catherine’s Hill hold a History Day on the summit every other year. At the recent event a WWI ‘tank’ was among the attractions, reflecting the many military activities that have taken place on the hill.

Further reading

Ref: Archaeologia Vol V 1779 pp 237-240

The fish graffito is on display in the Red House Museum, Christchurch.

CRH1971.52        The archive is held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust.

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