Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Any Old Iron?

Where is that roundhouse? Yes, I am going on a diet.

We all have a tendancy to dwell on the treasures and fabulous artefacts of the past. People from all over the world will travel to Egypt to see the pyramids, but very few then take the trouble to visit the villages where the people who made them lived. Likewise the press will trumpet the Shropshire Hoard or the latest news around the saga of what we should do with the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. But artefacts that are well-made and used every day can be just as moving and the ordinary places where people lived can be as exciting as a grand hillfort or Roman villa.

Ringmore map with Iron Age fields to left.

On Saturday we band of Heritage Hunters travelled to the village of Turnworth to climb the hill to the Ringmore Iron Age settlement. This is one of the very few places that still exist on our crowded island where you can walk down a trackway, see a round patch where a roundhouse stood and the fields where people worked over 2,000 years ago. In our mind's eye we can see someone, around 500 BC, unhitching a plough, stretching off the cramps in their shoulders after a hard days work and heading off home for a meal and a drink.

That house would have been a substantial, weatherproof building to withstand all that could be thrown at it throughout a British year of storms, gales and snow and in the summer a cool place to rest from the heat of the day. Such houses can still be seen today, where they have been reconstructed from excavated ground plans. It was soon noted that certain rules have to be followed:
  1. don't put an opening in the roof - this will act like a chimney and draw the fire up into the roof and burn the place down
  2. space is everything - there is no need for a central post as this is the strongest part of the structure, with the roof at 45%.
At 15m diameter the space created is substantial. The smoke-stained thatch above you soars up in the manner of a cathedral nave and floor space for dozens of people. These structures could have lasted 40-50 years, if they had wanted to stay in one location and probably repaired, re-thatched and even wholly rebuilt when patching-up was not feasible.

We did take a long time tramping over the wet grassy pasture, trying to work out what was where, as indicated on the National Trust map downloaded from their website. Many comments along the lines of "no, no, no, that bank is this one (pointing to the map), so the roundhouse must be here (pointing to the ground)" were exchanged. Dave's "yeeees" meant "you're wrong".

Eggardon Hill with hillfort to right - Dave's photo 

Sunday saw me back at Eggardon Hill, once more blasted by wind and squally rain. The magnificent view once more occluded by cloud. But my intrepid band was up for seeing one of the best disc barrows in the UK and, in my opinion, the best hillfort. The central barrow is surrounded by a huge 43m in diameter bank and ditch with a small added bowl barrow set onto the bank to the SW. It is estimated that there are c.2,000 barrows in Dorset, most having been ploughed flat. Many of the surviving examples have been 'knocked about a bit' by retired colonels and clergy during the barrow digging craze in the 19th century. Hopefully they did not find the central burial of our barrow and our ancestor(s) rest there still. When newly built what a white beacon it would have presented to the villagers below.

On to the hillfort and it is unfortunate that they have been so named. 'Fort' conjures up cowboys and indians or mediaeval castles with soldiers holding out against a seige from an enemy army. The 'Celtic' cultures had a tradition of the individual fighting warrior and had no 'armies'. They had to assemble a hoard when facing the Romans but it stood little chance against an organised force with a centralised command structure. The fact that Vespasian (a future Emperor) 'rolled up' the hillforts, with his II Legion Augusta, indicates that these places were not effective for defence against such a foe, and why build such huge ramparts and ditches to keep out small bands of raiding warriors? It is better to see hillforts as primarily status objects incorporating a use as market places, religion and ritual sites and as a symbol, both practical and symbolic, for the head family as protecters of the tribal resource.

As anyone visiting Eggardon will admit, it is not a place one would want to live permanently. So, they should not been seen as settlements either. With no water, and fully exposed to the weather, it was much better to live in the sheltered valleys. But even into the 20th century people would gather on tops of hills for markets and fairs (Tan Hill Fair) with little idea as to the origins of this tradition.

Overlooking the Marshwood Vale and Askers Valley Eggardon is still a dominating presence. D-shaped in plan it covers 14.5 hectares and is a multi-vallete hillfort (3 sets of banks and ditches), with the southern section having to be rebuilt when it collapsed. One can imagine the Celtic swear words when that happened. The interior is pock-marked with c.500 pits, these being for grain storage, some reaching 9 feet in depth. Lined and capped with clay they were air tight so that the grain remained fresh. Some roundhouses can be seen as faint circles when the grass is low. Industrial activity is evidenced by iron objects that were 'finished off' on site i.e. smithing not smelting. The remains of a shale bracelet, worked on a lathe, dated to the 3rd century BC.

Two Bronze Age barrows existed here, untouched by the hillfort users. One was destroyed by ploughing on the north side under one parish, the other surviving in the south parish. This was dug in 1965, not something we would do today due to scheduling protection. Made of flint sitting on a red clay surface (cremation fire?) 6 vessels were found with the cremations of an adult and child.


Canon ball
Walking along the southern ramparts, we fought the howling wind to return to the cars. But a special mention should be made of Paul and his artefacts. From out of his pocket he drew a round piece of iron which he siad he had found near Eggardon. Being in an area of chalk and Upper Greensand Beds this was obviously human made. A canon ball! Could it be Civil War? I would like opinions. But next he held up a small finds bag and in it was a beautiful arrowhead found in the Valley of the Stones near Portesham. Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age? As they say 'it's still out there' if you look around.            

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