Iron Age hillforts must be one of the most visited types of archaeological sites in the country. Recently I have been up to Barbury Castle a couple of times and have been reminded how impressive and commanding this site is, not just because of its massive ramparts, but also its good state of preservation and all of the other archaeological features you can see from here. It is one of the most impressive of the 35 hillforts we have in the Wiltshire and Swindon area, with panoramic views that take in the Marlborough Downs and the Vale of Pewsey.
Barbury is located between Wroughton and Swindon and the County boundary, as well as parish boundaries, run through the middle of the hillfort. The hillfort was built in the Iron Age, probably around 700 BC and is likely to have been continuously used until the Roman invasion in the mid 1st century AD. It was one of a string of hillforts built close to the line of the Ridgeway, considered to be an ancient long distance routeway. Three other hillforts, Liddington, Uffington and Martinsell are all intervisible with Barbury. It is the most developed and most impressive of the Ridgeway hillforts, having double ramparts on the south side and triple on the north side (possibly an unfinished circuit). In places the banks or ramparts stand over 3 metres in height even now and in the Iron Age would have been topped with wooden palisades and defensive towers. Located at 262 metres above sea level Barbury was built on the highest point of the local area, a beneficial defensive position with commanding views of the landscapes below.
The ramparts at Barbury enclose an area of about 5 hectares and there were two original entrances that survive today at the east and west sides. Unfortunately there has been little modern archaeological investigation to tell us details of the lives lived at Barbury. However, the results of a geophysical survey carried out by English Heritage in 1998 indicate that the interior is littered with hundreds of pits (probably for grain storage) and other features, some of which are the remains of huts or roundhouses.
The interior of the hillfort as well as the ramparts have suffered some damage in the 1940s from the activities of American troops and the Home Guard who were based at the nearby Wroughton Airfield during the war and used Barbury as a training ground. The original hillfort entrances were unfortunately widened by American troops in order to get their trucks into the interior. Fortunately, we have a measured survey drawn in 1884 by General Augustus Pitt Rivers, the first ever Inspector of Ancient Monuments, to show how they would have been.
We are delighted to share this comic by Katy Whitaker, Doctoral Researcher at the University of Reading about where Wiltshire's Sarsen stones come from (some of the theories are pretty outlandish!):
I am researching the past and present use of sarsen stone, those great grey boulders we are familiar with at Stonehenge and Avebury. Sarsens are a special part of the Marlborough Downs landscape. They are best known in prehistoric monuments. During the Neolithic in the period c3,900 - 2,500 BC sarsens were used in other ways, too. This includes as quern stones for grinding grains into flour; in burials; as tools such as hammers; as boundary markers and laying out the first fields. Archaeologists haven't researched the stone in its own right before, so my project does just that. I am based at the University of Reading, with support from the University of Southampton, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre is a partner in the AHRC scheme, and my project will be using archaeological data and archive material from the Centre.
I have written before about some of the amazing finds at the site that will become the Larkhill Service Family accommodation. Archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology and White Young Green have been ensuring that the archaeology has been excavated, with archaeologists from the Wiltshire Council Archaeological Service (mostly me!) helping to ensure that anything affected by the development is properly excavated and recorded. We’ve had Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age finds, including a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, a new (probable) henge and an enclosed settlement (with associated roundhouses). I’ve also mentioned before that we have the remains of a First World War training battlefield, with what has turned out to be over 8km of trenches that have been excavated by the archaeologists and unexploded ordnance specialists that have been working on the site (an example of some of these trenches are shown in this picture – the trenches are white from the excavated chalk being backfilled into them. The second photo shows part of the trench system).
In addition to the trenches, we can now reveal that the practice battlefield also included tunnels and dugouts. On battlefields, dugouts were used for lots of reasons, including troop shelters, medical posts, headquarters and stores. Their position underground meant that they were less likely to be affected by bombs, shells or bullets. We have a number of these at Larkhill, along with a number of tunnels. Both sides dug tunnels into no-man’s-land in order to lay mines that could blow up the other side’s trenches. Counter trenches were also dug to try to stop this. Tunnels were also used as listening posts (listening for the sound of the other side’s digging).
(These pictures show the entrance to one of the dugouts, with steps leading down, and another with a cob wall and doorway forming a room inside.)
The presence of these tunnels and dugouts (along with the trenches, ammunition, grenade fragments and food containers – amongst other things!) show that the troops training here were learning to undertake all aspects of trench warfare. They may well have come from all over the Commonwealth, but we know for a fact that we have people from the Wiltshire Regiment, drafted West Yorkshire coal miners, Manchester Scouts and troops from Australia. We know this thanks to the over 100 pieces of graffiti that have been found written on and carved into the chalk of the defences. Sometimes the graffiti was written in soot from candles, but more often if was written in pencil on the chalk.
Conservation has been undertaken on a rare Visigoth Brooch here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. We were honoured with a visit by the finder of the artefact Matt Smith, who came for a tour of our facilities and to view the work being undertaken.
Thought to be only the second of its kind found in the country the iron and copper alloy brooch has been identified as a late 5th, early 6th-century AD type, predominantly found in southern France and central Spain. The brooch was uncovered during excavations undertaken by Operation Nightingale and Wessex Archaeology at Barrow Clump on Salisbury Plain.
The brooch formed part of the grave goods associated with one of the female burials on the site, and Matt’s first solo grave excavation. Significantly, well preserved organics remain on the surface of the object with the weave of the fabric visible through the microscope.
The brooch arrived at the conservation labs after x-radiography revealed the decorative copper alloy inlay. Still covered in corrosion products and soil from the burial environment, clues to the presence of preserved organics were just showing through the soil covering. Cleaning started slowly with scalpels and pins under the microscope to remove the soft chalky soil and reveal the extent of the organics.
Are you interested in the rich and diverse landscapes of Wiltshire but wondered what influences and activities have shaped them? Have you ever tried to identify traces of the historic in the present day? These questions and so much more can be answered by the use of the Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Landscape Characterisation Project dataset!
It could be useful for those:
• Producing neighbourhood plans or design statements
• Investigating their local parish, town or village
• Involved with planning or strategic decision making • Undertaking academic research for school, college or university
The project started in 2012 and ran until the end of 2016 and was sponsored by Wiltshire Council, Swindon Borough Council and Historic England. The actual data itself and was created by studying historic and modern maps, aerial photographs and archaeological data to build a complete record for Wiltshire and Swindon. But what exactly will be made available to you?
• The complete dataset of c.14,500 HLC records, covering every part of the county giving details about the present and past character and attributes of the landscape for each land parcel
• Maps of historic landscape character built from the records so patterns and distributions across parishes, districts and the whole county can be seen
• A comprehensive and easy to read report explaining how the project was carried out, the sources used and descriptions of the different landscape types out there
• Case studies showing how you can use HLC data to investigate historic towns, historic farms and places like the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site
On 31st July this year, as part of the Festival of British Archaeology, Tom Sunley (Historic Environment Records Data Manager) and I led a tour of a section of the Wansdyke in Wiltshire. Our focus of the walk was looking at the most impressive part of the Wansdyke which runs from Morgan’s Hill to the western edge of Savernake Forest (known as the eastern Wansdyke), across the stunning landscape of the Marlborough Downs, see map below.
We had a great turn out of people and were blessed with a pleasant summer's day. We started the walk from Knapp Hill car park, SU 11570 63822, just over a mile north of Alton Barnes and walked up to Tan Hill which affords the best views of this section of the East Wansdyke.
From Tan Hill we headed east back along the Wansdyke path to Red Shore then headed south down the byway back to the car park. In total this circular walk is approximately 5 miles long.
The Wansdyke is a long linear defensive earthwork consisting of a substantial bank and ditch. At its most impressive on Bishop’s Cannings Down it is over 45 m wide, with a bank of over 5 m, producing a scarp slope of 12.5 m. Whilst there is still some debate over the exact western terminal, it is generally considered to be the hillfort of Maes Knoll in north Somerset and at its eastern end Savernake Forest near Marlborough.