Ham­ble­don Hill saved for the na­tion

One of Bri­tain’s finest hill­forts has been bought for the na­tion

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

Pre­vi­ous own­er­ship

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.

Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­mains

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.

The ex­ca­va­tions

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 re­mains

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

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