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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.


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: the Winchester Hanging Bowl

The Winchester hanging bowl

The Winchester hanging bowl

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 scramasax and spearhead.

The scramasax and spearhead.

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’.

Detail of enamelled roundel

Detail of enamelled escutcheon

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’.

Excavations at Oliver's Battery 1930. W J Andrew et al - six men in a trench!

Excavations at Oliver’s Battery 1930. W J Andrew et al – six men in a trench!

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!

Further reading

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.


The Daily Grind

We’re back in the office for another ‘Collection Selection’ video. This time, we’re looking at quern stones, which were used to turn wheat into flour.


Video kindly made by Alex Thomson.

St. Catherine’s Hill

For today’s video we have left our Chilcomb offices and gone on a short walk to St. Catherine’s Hill. There’s a lot to see up the hill, including a labyrinth, a hill fort and a bet that resulted in a stand of trees being planted in one day.



Note: Dave got the Hants Field Club volume number wrong in his excitement, so to give it its full style and title it is Saint Catharine’s Hill, Winchester, by C F C Hawkes, J N L Myers, C G Stevens, Hampshire Field Club Proceedings, Volume 11 (1930).


Video superbly made by Alex Thomson

Seeing the light of day – Sparsholt Roman Villa


The Roman villa at Sparsholt, just to the north west of Winchester, was excavated in the 1960s, with follow-up work in the early 1980s, by the late David Johnston.  He had begun work on the publication and, following his death in 2011, this was taken forward and brought to fruition by the the Hampshire Field Club, with additonal authorship by Dr Jonathan Dicks.

SPAR D54 spar.B.7

An Iron Age enclosure existed on the site but the Sparsholt villa began as a single rectangular aisled building of the mid to late 2nd century.  This evolved into a courtyard villa with a defining wall enclosing a main house, barn, and the aisled building.  There was also an adjacent ‘hall’.  The villa was abandoned in the late 4th century.

A mosaic floor during excavation - it is now in the Winchester City Museum.

A mosaic floor during excavation – it is now in the Winchester City Museum.

Among the finds were two fine mosaics, one of which is the central feature in the Roman display at Winchester City Museum.  The site  also produced large quantities of painted wall plaster and an array of pottery, animal bone, glass, stone and metalwork.

Excavation reveals a finely turned stone column.

Excavation reveals a finely turned stone column.

The report is published as Hampshire Field Club Monograph 11 – Sparsholt Roman Villa, Hampshire; Excavations by David E Johnston.  Details of how to obtain a copy can be found on the Hampshire Field Club & Archaeological Society website.