Hambledon Hill saved for the nation
One of Britain’s finest hillforts has been bought for the nation
The spectacular Hambledon Hill, one of the finest Iron Age hillforts in Dorset, has been acquired by the National Trust. Built over 2,000 years ago, the massive earthwork defences overlie one of the most significant early Neolithic landscapes in Western Europe, dating back almost 6,000 years, and are a place that half of British butterfly species call home.
Standing at twice the height of the White Cliffs of Dover and taller than the Shard in London, Hambledon Hill occupies an area of land the size of 50 football pitches. From the summit of the hillfort you can see across three counties – Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire - and get a real sense of its prehistoric strategic importance.
For the last three decades Hambledon Hill has been owned by the Hawthorn Trust and carefully managed by Natural England as a National Nature Reserve. The purchase by the National Trust is funded by a Land Purchase Grant from Natural England and with money from a legacy left to the Trust for the countryside in Dorset.
The National Trust portfolio of hillforts in Dorset includes Badbury Rings, Lamberts Castle and Pilsdon Pen. The Trust also owns Hambledon Hill’s nationally important neighbour Hod Hill. Together they tell the story of the beginnings of farming, the need for defence and the arrival of the Romans in Britain.
Hambledon Hill has escaped the advances of agriculture over the centuries meaning that its archaeological features remain well preserved and clearly visible on the ground. Causewayed enclosures on the hill date back to the dawn of farming 5,500 years ago and the story of this remarkable place is continued through the Bronze and Iron Ages.
Designated a National Natural Reserve in 1992, 28 species of butterfly, including the Adonis Blue, Dark Green Fritillary and Green Hairstreak, have been recorded here. This nationally important chalk grassland site is also home to at least five species of orchids, such as the Autumn Lady’s Tresses, glow worms, brown hare and a good population of kestrels and meadow pipits.
Dorset is internationally renowned for its hillforts and Hambledon Hill is of preeminent significance, and only challenged by Maiden Castle for the complexity of its history and of its fortifications.
Hambledon’s archaeological earthworks and buried features are far better preserved and more clearly visible on the ground than at Maiden Castle, and the sites also offers a wilder landscape and greater variety of fauna and flora to fascinate the visitor.
Hambledon overlies part of an exceptional complex of Neolithic causewayed enclosures, used by academics and experts to illustrate the nature of our earliest farming societies over 5,500 years ago.
The Neolithic remains on Hambledon include evidence for communal occupation, feasting, conflict, exhumation and burial. Finds of polished axes from the Lake District, Wales and Cornwall demonstrate its wide-ranging importance for trade and exchange at this time.
The continuing significance of Hambledon for burial is demonstrated by the Neolithic long barrow (around 35003000 BCE) that occupies the crest of the hill and the five Early Bronze Age round barrows (around 2200-1600 BCE) that lie around it.
The visual impact of the site is enhanced by the drama of the much later massive sinuous ramparts and ditches. They follow the contours of the hill, replacing a Late Bronze Age (around 1000-800 BCE) settlement enclosure. Throughout the Iron Age, this imposing landscape statement developed as a complex of defensive earthworks with additional ramparts and gateway outworks added at various times from around 600 BCE. Within the defences are the terraces for over 300 round houses enabling visitors to walk down streets and visualise a thriving community.
Today’s stunning views across the Blackmore Vale into Wiltshire and Somerset offer an immediate understanding of the prehistoric advantage of this strategic place.
Hambledon is the northern archaeological partner to Hod Hill which shares this chalk outlier defined by the rivers Iwerne to the east and Stour to the south and west. Hod has little occupation
evidence from early prehistory but becomes increasingly dominant from around 300 BCE. Hambledon holds the evidence for the earliest British prehistoric settlement and Hod continues the story up to the Roman conquest and beyond.
Hambledon and Hod are two halves of a whole and are of such importance that joint conservation ownership and management offers the best conservation protection for these exceptional sites.
Farming seems to have arrived in Dorset and Somerset c. 4200 BCE and an agricultural society had been developing in the immediate vicinity of Hambledon Hill for five centuries before the immense undertaking of enclosure building began. The total life of the complex was 400 years as determined by a substantial programme of radiocarbon dating with some 160 carefully selected samples. Using Bayesian statistics to accommodate all the contextual information, the relative and absolute chronology of this massive complex has been successfully resolved.
The earliest stage of construction was the main enclosure (dated with 95% confidence to 3680-3630 BCE). A sequence of four periods of building activity followed, with the Stepleton enclosure and eastward facing Shroton outworks followed eventually by southern and western outworks in period 4, when the main enclosure was still in use (3350-3310 BCE).
These two, the main enclosure, and the Hanford and western outworks (3510-3320 BCE), are not only the most substantial constructions, but they also lie at either end of the 3-400 year development of the site, a physically impressive, societally significant, construction that initially faced east across the Iwerne onto Cranborne Chase and was defended from that direction.
Finally, after a period during which the defensive enclosure appears to have been attacked on at least two occasions and young men killed by arrowshot, the western outworks referred to above were built that seem to reverse the role of the site from impressing people living in, and defence from, the east - to the assertion of power towards the west and the Vale of Blackmore. Here may be seen the first glimpse of power politics in the British context, over 5000 years ago.
Settlement or transient centre?
Is this a site at the centre of settlement and social vigour? At every stage of the detailed and fascinating investigations by specialists, the conclusion has been that while the people had come from farming settlements, Hambledon stood on
marginal land, still afforested, certainly not intensively farmed – the natural habitat of the red and roe deer, marten and badger whose remains occur on the site. This was border country between populations, relatively remote from settlement.
The evidence suggests periodic, probably seasonal, visitation by large groups of people. They brought with them selected cattle, pigs and sheep for slaughter and feasting (the first probably as beasts of burden and surplus to the requirements of milk production, evidence for which has been found in pottery residues), and ready processed grain and other foods. Judged by the imported goods, these visitors came from the north and west, from the river Severn and as far as Devon, if not further.
Prestigious objects are largely found in the main ritual enclosure, where pits occur with ‘rich’ deposits, recut or, sometimes, marked by a post. The ditches of this enclosure and its long barrow were repeatedly recut to deposit food debris and objects.
Human skeletal material occurs frequently, sometimes with traces of exposure, excarnation and defleshing. Skulls are frequently found in primary deposits in the ditches. Pattern and recurrence are everywhere, an extreme example being the interment of two children, each with a possibly inherited skull deformity, in the same segment of causewayed ditch but in contexts that must be several generations apart.
After all aggression had ceased and the site was deserted, users of Beaker pottery recognised and marked the then defunct enclosures. Early Bronze Age fields were laid out, and a Middle Bronze Age settlement was built atop one Neolithic enclosure. Later Bronze Age ‘burnt mound’ activity took place in the Iwerne valley.
Hambledon overlies part of an exceptional complex of Neolithic causewayed enclosures, used by academics and experts to illustrate the nature of our earliest farming societies over 5,500 years ago
Eventually, sometime in the mid 1st millennium BCE, the need to create a habitable fortified centre, easily defensible, that could accommodate, in an emergency, a large number of people became once again a necessity, possibly not physical, but psychological. It would appear at present that such a defended centre appeared, first of all, on the northern point of the spur of Hambledon Hill at about 600-700 BCE.
Iron Age occupation
This fortification, deliberately obliterated, was apparently succeeded by the main Iron Age phase of the occupation and fortification of Hambledon Hill’s north spur when a multivallate defensive system was built on the hill – massively impressive to this day, yet so cleverly done that the actual engineering to achieve this daunting effect is a masterpiece accomplished under highly skilled direction.
At a date around 600 BCE hundreds of relatively tiny 7-9 metre diameter round house foundations were built, originally probably with conical thatched roofs, on carefully dug platforms that were installed not only in the interior of the fortified enclosure but they also flowed over into the quarry depressions whence had been extracted the content of the innermost rampart. Construction of platforms went on so that rapidly the whole interior of the enclosure became filled with 4-500 dug platforms.
Such houses, so closely organised and spaced, can only have been occupied for a short span at any one time. Was this another seasonal meeting place as has been suggested for the Neolithic enclosure that preceded it by 3000 years? Designed to impress the countryside all around like the ultimate Neolithic complex, was it the ultimate successor after a period of relatively untroubled individual farming, when Stepleton was quietly farmed, heralding a return to more ‘difficult’ circumstances?
This ‘fortress’ cum ceremonial centre may have lasted some time before a rationale was established that required a less remote and more accessible centre, probably built on Hod Hill immediately to the south.
Later a Romano-British field system covered the hill, and an Anglo-Saxon cemetery was set by the parish boundary on the Stepleton Spur. The hillfort itself was brought into cultivation during the 12th - 13th centuries at the high point of agricultural expansion before the emergence in the 16th -17th centuries of the origins of our modern landscape. Oliver Cromwell fought a skirmish there in 1645, and, a century later, Colonel (later General) Wolfe exercised his troops there before going on to scale the Heights of Abraham.
This precious microcosm of the English past is now, thankfully, preserved in perpetuity for the nation.
Diagram showing the different parts of Hambledon Hill
Skeleton of a young male in the Stepleton outwork ditch with arrowhead by his neck
Massive traces of burning in the ditch of the Stepleton outwork
Common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza Fuchsli)
Stunning views from Hambledon Hill
Hambledon Hill in context of local villages and sites