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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’.
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.
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.
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.
‘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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Oliver’s Battery, an enclosure on the south west side of Winchester, or ‘Oliver Cromwell’s Battery’, as it sometimes appears, was thought in local folk-lore to date from the English Civil War. In 1930 W J Andrew, acting on behalf of the Hampshire Field Club, determined to put this to the test. A Mr Talbot had recently leased the site and its surrounds from the County Council, and it was from him that Andrew obtained permission to dig. In late August he examined a tumulus just to the north and sank trenches at the southwest and northeast corners of the enclosure. The barrow produced an ‘extraordinary confusion’ of bones and other finds, including buckles and clay pipes and the southwest corner was unrewarding, but in the northeast corner he hit the jackpot.
The trench had been moved a couple of feet during laying out and this minor adjustment brought to light the 6th century burial of a young male, accompanied by a beautifully decorated hanging bowl (placed upside down on his chest), an iron hunting knife or scramasax, and a short spear. News of the discovery was soon filling the pages of the Hampshire Chronicle, and it was now that a ‘difference of opinion’ between Hampshire County Council and Mr Talbot arose. Who could give permission to dig? Who owned the artefacts that had been found? Counsel was instructed and advice taken as both sides dug in their heels. Sir William Portal, Chairman of the Council ‘specially [hoped] that any legal action taken with regard to Oliver’s Battery will be of quite a friendly disposition’.
September appears to have been a tense month, but by mid-October Mr Barber, Secretary to the County Council, was in possession of the bowl. It was placed on exhibition at the Castle (the Council Offices) with a Police Constable in attendance, but the arrangements were not ideal for all, as a letter to the Southern Daily Echo, dated 2.12.1930, clearly shows.
Sir, I was informed that a Saxon bowl, an ancient relic of a bygone age, was on view at the Castle, Winchester, so I took a party of friends to see it on Saturday afternoon, only to be informed that the bowl was put under lock and key at 12 o’ clock and could not be seen; further it can only be viewed on other days between the hours of 10 and 4 o’clock. Might I suggest that these are the hours of the leisured class and that some consideration should be given to those that work? DISAPPOINTED (Southampton).
In spite of the difficulties more than 3000 people managed to see the bowl. By this time, agreement had been reached about the longer-term future of the find and a long period of loan to the British Museum was soon to begin. The bargain struck was that a replica would be made and there was debate about whether this should faithfully copy the bowl or ‘look new’. In the event the pristine look was chosen, although the argument that a worn specimen would be ‘unintelligible’ to the public, seemed to forget that a few thousand had already seen it and, one would hope, marvelled at it.
Despite all these complications, Andrew and his crew were back at the Battery in 1931 and the County Council gave them permission to dig. Work took place in mid-June but the results were disappointing – how could they possibly compare with what the British Museum had dubbed, in 1930, ‘the outstanding English event of the year’.
An interesting postscript to the dig was provided by Christopher Hawkes in 1953, when trying to answer the City Museum’s query about the date of the barrow and Battery. ‘…it was a real old Victorian dig’ he wrote, ‘done by old Mr Andrew and old Mr McEwen with their gardeners and Williams-Freeman, Karslake and Warren (to say nothing of Crawford)’. Clearly Hawkes was impressed by the venerable nature of the team, if not the quality of the interpretation.
The Winchester Hanging Bowl is now displayed in the City Museum while the ‘young male’, described by some authorities as a ‘sentinel burial’ still guards this side of the city – the excavators left him in place!
Hants Field Club Newsletters 47, p 2-4; 48, p 5-7.
Hants Field Club Proceedings Vol 12, p 5-19
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.
Christchurch got its name because of the important Priory, built in the late 11th century. One hundred years before, a small settlement named Twynham (for the two rivers) had grown up on the site and was one of King Alfred’s fortified burhs. About 100m to the north of these defences is an area known as Bargates; here in 1977 trial excavation revealed a Bronze Age ring ditch and seven Saxon inhumations. The following year the main dig uncovered a pagan Saxon cemetery of at least 30 burials and four cremations. The grave goods indicated a date of late 6th to 7th century. Subsequent excavations in the town failed to find evidence of 5th to 9th century date, so it is not possible to suggest how the cemetery might relate to any early ecclesiastical foundation preceding the priory.
The Bargates site was located on fertile river gravels in an area of lowly-populated heath. Because of the acidic soil conditions bone did not survive, but teeth and ‘body stains’ could sometimes be traced. Three of these were complete outlines and seven partial. Metalwork did survive, however, and eleven of the 30 graves were most probably armed males, which is an unusually high proportion. Other graves contained knives and buckles, which do not help to determine sex. Female ornaments were rare: there were no brooches and only one bead was found on the site. The four cremations were probably of adults, one of whom was probably a young female.
The grave goods which indicated male burials were shields (usually associated only with adult males) and spears (not necessarily indicative of an adult). Grave 5 had evidence of a shield showing that it had contained an adult male. The shield boss was cone-shaped, like others on the site. Some of the graves contained evidence of organic material preserved in corrosion products in the form of negative casts. Corrosion-preserved wood present in Grave 5 was identified as alder, a species used for shields. An iron spearhead with a leaf-shaped blade was also found, its haft made of hazel, again identified from corrosion products. Traces of textile survived on one face of the spearhead. As spearheads were usually placed away from garments, this suggests that the weapon had been placed on woven cloth or that cloth was draped over both the weapons and the body. Grave 5 was one of the richer graves in the cemetery, and like 22 of the other graves it contained a knife.
From the graves with reasonably complete skeletal stains it was possible to determine several different modes of burial and the position of the grave offerings also revealed some patterns. The spearhead in Grave 5, for example, pointed south: this suggests that the head looked south. The wider context of the Saxon cemetery suggests a settled community with established burial procedures, but the location of the settlement site remains unknown.
Further reading: Excavations in Christchurch 1969-1980, Jarvis (1983) Monograph 5, Dorset Natural History & Archaeological Society.
Some of the Bargates finds are displayed in the Red House Museum.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.
The 6th century Saxon cemetery discovered at Portway East (an industrial estate) lies to the west of Andover. The site overlooks the valley of the River Anton and is close to Bronze Age burial mounds and the presumed routes of the prehistoric Harrow Way and Portway Roman Road. The cemetery was excavated by the Andover Archaeological Society in 1973-5 and found to occupy an area of at least 60 x 45m. Sixty-nine inhumation burials and 57 deposits of cremated bone were recovered.
The condition of many of the skeletons was poor, mostly because of plough damage, but the surviving evidence shows that infections were less common here than in other early Saxon cemeteries. Additionally, there was an absence of conditions such as malignant tumours, common in many early populations. None of the bones had been gnawed by predators, so the corpses were probably deeply buried originally and the graves looked after. Of the individual burials identifiable by sex, females outnumbered males and 20 out of the 32 recognisable female burials contained grave goods in the form of a necklace or bracelet.
One such occurrence was Grave 44 which contained a juvenile estimated, from the development of her teeth, to have been 12 to 14 years old. She was identified as female because of the objects in the grave. These included a fine necklace made of a string of beads of amber and coloured glass. Like most of the inhumations on the site the body had been laid on its back with legs extended. The grave was rectangular with well-cut sides and the plan produced by the archaeologists gives a clear indication of the interior layout. The necklace stretched from either side of the neck across the chest, with amber and glass beads generally alternating. The distinctive decorations on the glass beads indicate a date sometime after AD 550 and, in the absence of 7th century objects from the site, a date in the second half of the 6th century seems appropriate. The grave was one of a pair and the other contained the relatively well-preserved skeleton of a female of 25 to 35 years of age.
The quality of the necklace from Grave 44 suggests that the young girl would have been of high social status. Other items include a set of bronze toilet implements and a ‘girdle group’. The toilet implements included an ear scoop and were held on a bronze ring. A strand of thread (possibly flax) wound around the ring, and this may have served to suspend the implements from her neck. The ‘girdle group’ was an elaborate set of items of uncertain function. This was found at waist level and included a rectangular iron loop probably used to suspend the items.
Further reading: Excavations at Portway, Andover 1973-75, Cook & Dacre (1985) OUCA Monograph 4.
Some of the Portway finds are on show at Andover Museum
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.