Monday, 10 October 2011

The Hill's Are Alive

Dorset is a county where you can walk from one unique archaeological site to another in minutes. This weekend we visited one of the largest Iron Age hillforts in the UK and one of the most famous Bronze Age 'Bowl' barrows.
Maiden Castle

Maiden Castle, as we see it now, was constructed between 450 BC and 200 BC and covers 47 acres. Driving into Dorchester it still dominates the town. But this massive monument is not the whole story. 6,000 years ago Neolithic farmers constructed one of the earliest features from our distant past to survive in our landscape, a causewayed enclosure. This consisted of two concentric circles deliniated by a series of elongated flat bottomed pits. Sir Mortimer Wheeler was digging here in the 1930s and was rather surprised to come across this puzzling feature. The most famous example is at Windmill Hill and we still do not know for sure what they were used for. They certainly could not be used for defense as the many gaps in the circle (the causeways) would make it easy for attackers to gain access to the interior. There is no settlement evidence (houses, domestic rubbish) and although two burials were found at this MC example (two child burials with pottery, animal bone and limpet shells) they were not funerary monuments. Suggestions that they were market places and ritual centres (that old standby) have been put forward. The Essex example at Orsett has evidence of palisades and how they were used to control access into the interior areas of the monument. Many cattle bones are found and remains of charcoal in the ditches and burnt areas suggest perhaps of slaughter and feasting.

What ever they were this MC example was abandoned around 3,400 BC. A remarkable long period of use. The other Neolithic monument to be found here is also hard to interpret; the Bank Barrow. Once again Dorset is a county that can say that out of only a handfull of examples it has three and possibly four of these enigmatic features. They are unique to Britain and the MC example is 546m long with two ditches 19.5m apart. Like other examples this one has been extended at some point, to its present length. No burials, as in long barrows (except secondary) and they have been interpreted as boundary markers.

The first hillfort was constructed in 600 BC and covered 16 acres of the eastern part of the present hillfort. The entrance was faced with limestone blocks brought from 2 miles away. During the Middle Iron Age many small hillforts were abandoned and large hillforts like MC extended. In the 1980s many strucutres, roundhouses and grain pits were recorded. But it would be a mistake to describe these places as either 'castles' or settlements. No one in their right minds would live in such windswept places with no water supply permanently. Also I/A people did not wage warfare with armies (until the resistance to the Roman Empire). Hillforts are now seen as statements of power and status and places where the tribal resource is seen to be 'protected'. The tribes would gather here, also, for events, rituals and markets. Many people into the modern age continued to gather on hilltops for events and markets.

The Romans took hillforts easily but they continued to be seen as places for ritual. The Romano-British temple built here after AD 367 is evidence of that. The so called 'war' cemetery is now seen to be one where people buried their dead carefully in this important place, even though it had ceased to be used as in past generations. 

Clandon Barrow

Clandon barrow was dug in 1882 by Edward Cunnington, who found the treasures now housed in the Dorset County Museum. Including an incense cup, a grooved dagger, a Kimmeridge shale macehead with gold inlay, and the gold lozenge similar to the one found at Bush barrow near Stonehenge.

Bush Barrow lozenge

The primary burial was not found, but two later inhumations of the Roman period were located in stone cists near the top of the mound. 

Bournmouth University has now established that the mound is in fact two mounds, one on top of the other (as can be seen here, where the notch is). All the treasure was from the later mound. So the occupant is still safely resting, as s/he has been for over 4,000 years.    

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