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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,
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’.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Hampshire Historic Environment Record (HER) is a fantastic tool. Under its alternative title of the Archaeology and Historic Buildings Record (AHBR) it can be accessed and interrogated on-line in all manner of ways. If you want to know whether your village, town or parish hides items of archaeological or historical interest it’s the place to start, and it can lead you on a trail towards obscure reports (we call them ‘grey literature’) as well as published evidence.
Using the database it’s easy to get hooked on searching for your favourite type of site – Roman villas, for instance (104 results) – and then while away an evening, sifting through the various leads, which might head you towards some splendid find displayed in a museum, or alternatively into a ditch terminal. As more and more illustrative material becomes digitally available and linked-in, the historic environment will be more and more at our fingertips and our appreciation of what has gone before will be much enhanced.
One large step along this route has been taken by the staff of the Hampshire County Council Historic Environment Section, with the release of the Atlas of Hampshire’s Archaeology. Using the 50,000 records at their disposal, David Hopkins (County Archaeologist) and Alan Whitney (Historic Data Manager) have produced a set of forty maps which span the periods from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) which began around 10,000 years ago, to the end of the Roman occupation (about 1600 years ago). The excellent base maps employ either topography (15 altitude bands) or landscape type (derived from a palette of 25 pastel shades) and this, together with the river systems, allows the current character of the country to be easily read.
When it comes to putting things on the map, there are at least forty different symbols employed, but these range from just three for our Middle Stone Age ancestors, to eleven on one of the Roman maps. This inevitably leads to a bit of congestion, especially when the symbol for a single find is essentially larger than an industrial estate, but care has been taken to make everything fit sympathetically.
A genuine sense of distribution can be obtained for all periods – and an appreciation of the physical relationship of communities with soil types and river systems. It highlights the enigma of the Neolithic in Hampshire – long barrows, yes, but why on earth no causewayed enclosures, cursus monuments or henges? It also shows how, by the following Bronze Age – to judge from the spread of round barrows – there were no ‘no go’ areas. In the Iron Age – a period blessed with 14 maps – grain and wool processing are among particular activities that can be teased out and ‘banjo enclosures’ also have their part to play; on the Roman maps, the layout of the road system brings communications well and truly to the fore.
Roman roads are an interesting subject, and have a number of people committed to their study. The current maps don’t include the routes through the New Forest surveyed by Arthur Clarke (2003), the last Archaeology Officer of the Ordnance Survey, which would enhance the western approaches. Other features that don’t fare well (in the Bronze Age) are the so-called ‘ranch boundaries’, sometimes termed ‘Wessex linears’, which are represented by a static symbol when their role, interpreted by some as the first tangible manifestation of territories (Cunliffe, 1993), would be better shown by a true representation.
The maps are accompanied by short essays summarising the character of each period, particularly with regard to the landscape. Indeed, the word ‘landscape’ wins out in any word count and is perhaps a little repetitive, especially when it is contrasting the ‘farmed’ with the ‘wild’. True, the landscape is the canvas holding the scene together, but with such vivid and varied pictures being painted by the human activity, it could perhaps be allowed to slip into the background a little. Alternatively, simpler maps showing the advance of the ‘farmed’ at the expense of the ‘wild’ would make the point – but would take a lot more preparation!
The maps throw up a number of issues not explored in the text, issues that tend to dog distribution maps. The concentration of finds in certain areas will be the result of individual fieldwork (George Willis et al around Basingstoke, for example, or Malcolm Lyne (2012) in Binsted and environs) and the growth of certain towns (Basingstoke, Andover etc) will have provided many more opportunities for discovery than other locations. Aerial cover will also be uneven, although in time the increasing use of LIDAR will bring greater equality. As a result there will inevitably be some bias on display, but the maps do a brilliant job in presenting the current state of knowledge and providing food for thought.
And in so doing, they are the perfect spur and complement to further research. The national ‘Atlas of Hillforts’ , for example, is nearing completion and it will be interesting to see how much variety is proposed in the survey for the forty or so ‘hillforts’ on the Hampshire map. Also, the Roman layout is forever being reconsidered – including roads that deviate for unknown reasons – whither Vindomis? etc ; and the monumental ‘desert’ that is the Neolithic remains as intriguing as ever.
So do make use of the maps – and having taken in the broad sweep of thousands of years of human history, consult the Historic Environment Record, and dig a little deeper.
Dave Allen, Curator of Hampshire Archaeology, Hampshire Cultural Trust
Clarke, A (2003) The Roman road on the eastern fringe of the New Forest, Hampshire Studies, Vol 58, 33-58
Cunliffe, B W (1993), Wessex to A D 1000. p129 ff
Lyne, M (2012), Archaeological Research in Binsted, Kingsley and Alice Holt Forest, BAR British Series 574
‘One of the few drawbacks of air-photography’ state Crawford & Keiller in Wessex from the Air (1928) ‘is its failure to register colours’. They were moved to say this because the enclosure at Meon Hill, near Stockbridge, had revealed itself as a ‘semicircle of brilliant scarlet [poppies] sharply outlined against the bright yellow of a field of oats’.
The plate that accompanies the entry in their book (above) emphasises the point (spot the enclosure!) but the reason they were so pleased with what they saw from above, was that they were actively searching for the lost ‘eorthbyrig’, literally ‘earth-bury’ or camp, mentioned in the bounds of Longstock in AD 982. They counted the discovery of the Meon Hill site, on 12 July, 1924, ‘as one of the most successful results of the season’s work’.
Eight years later the site was excavated, on behalf of the Hampshire Field Club, by Dorothy Liddell. She dug three ‘cuttings’ or trenches. Trench I sectioned the ‘V – shaped’ ditch on the northeast side of the ring, Trench II tackled the northwest sector and Trench III the southern side. All three cuttings yielded flint flakes, implements and ‘pot-boilers’: plus pottery and metal finds of Iron Age and Romano-British date. The excavators gave up counting the pot-boilers – fire-crazed lumps of flint – as there were so many!
Trench II revealed an earlier ditch, cut through by the ring, but the discoveries that aroused greatest interest were the result of later activity in this area. Ten skeletons were found, their graves dug into the soft soil of the enclosure ditch. Six of the males, aged between 20 and 50, had been decapitated. Burial orientation and a few associated small finds suggested a late 10th century date, and the site bears comparison with the ‘execution cemetery’ found on Stockbridge Down, just across the valley. Interestingly, one of the three complete skeletons was identified as female, while the final individual was missing both skull and upper body and may have been disturbed by animal burrowing.
A second season in 1933 resulted in the discovery of 24 pits and 29 postholes with ‘numerous other hollows and depressions’ cut into the chalk varying in depth from 1 to 7 feet (0.3 to 2.2m). The conclusion at the time was that a group of underground Iron Age dwellings had been found, whereas today we would be happy to call them storage pits. Some of the postholes no doubt belonged to surface-level Iron Age roundhouses.
Meon Hill lies on Houghton Down, about ½ mile west of Stockbridge. The location boasts magnificent views along the Test Valley, in sight of Woolbury, Danebury and Quarley. In former times the enclosure was touched by the Stockbridge-Salisbury road, which now veers away from it, and tradition has it that a drovers’ inn once stood within. Today the site is all in cultivation.
Archive (not the skeletons) held by Hampshire Cultural Trust.
Crawford OGS & Keiller A (1928) Wessex from the Air, p107
Liddell, D (1934) Excavations at Meon Hill, Proc Hants Field Club, 12, 126-162
Liddell, D (1937) Report on the Hants Field Club’s Excavations at Meon Hill, Proc Hants Field Club, 13, 7-54
Photographic illustrations from the excavation reports.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, and Peter Stone
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Today’s blog video is all about the Portmore Head, an Iron Age carved stone head.
Video kindly made by Stacie Elliot.