The First Inhabitants:
Tale of a Garden
by Robert Turner

Author, on left, at flintknapping demonstration.

One of the topics that will occupy all our interests is who has walked this land before we were here? This is precisely what Archaeology is all about and why everyone is fascinated to a greater or lesser degree. Who has stood where you stand now? Who were they? What were they like?

I live on the South Coast of England, look on the map below and you will see that I live just to the left of the Isle of Wight in a place called West Sussex. With my wife, I own a property in a town called Worthing. It’s not a big property but I have a front and back garden where, if I want, I can go and dig with no one to tell me “no”. Its mine and this land will grow things, produce food, make flowers and look after me and it all belongs to me, but every now and then I stop and wonder who has said this before? Who has been attached to, and nourished by, these few yards of good soil?

Map of West Sussex

My piece of land has had people here before, not just the people who owned the house before me but over the years and centuries even millennia. My quest was to find who they were, how they lived and are the hypothetical footprints still there for me to find.

The south coast of England is just north of 51 degrees latitude and where I stand less than 1 minute west longitude so I virtually am on the prime meridian. It has a temperate climate and is warmed by the Gulf Stream so winters are not usually that severe, but this was not always the case. Over the last million years Ice Ages have come and gone and although the ice sheets have never quite reached here, quite often this has been a polar desert with no plants, animals or life of any kind. It is in this sometimes hostile environment that life has come and gone in my garden.

When early man first set foot on my piece of land is a matter of conjecture but from finds at Pakefield not that far away we know that archaic humans were here three quarters of a million years ago. That’s 30,000 generations ago a period virtually beyond comprehension. So did this early forerunner of man walk on my lawn? Yeah I would like to think so; it gives me somewhere to start. Somewhere to put a stick in the ground and take a small flight of fancy.

Since this far off epoch the ice has come and gone 6 times, the Cromerian, Anglian, Hoxian, Wolstonian, Ipswichian and the Devensian glacial periods have all left their mark upon the land. My garden has only been able to support life for about 30% of the time in all these millennia but it is in these times of interglacials and interstadials that I know where to look where people used this bit of land I call mine.

So where can I really start and definitely say here someone lived and walked on my piece of land

To answer this I have to go back 485,000 years

Over many years, in an area about 15 miles to the west of me, many flint handaxes, like those from Swanscombe, were turning up in marine sands that were preserved and being quarried. The geology of the area showed that the sands were laid down on top of a beach at the base of a then 300 foot chalk cliff that extended 25 miles along the then coast. The area was a very large embayment that had been cut by a massive river that would in time form the Isle of Wight. A huge lagoon full of salt marsh and grassland had provided a suitable habitat for animals such as red deer, bison, horses and even elephants and rhinoceros. Into this area of plenty had come Heidelburgensis the forerunner of Neanderthal who lived well of the live stock and plants of this fertile landscape. The area had everything a hunter gatherer could want meat, fish, shellfish, berries and a good mixture of edible plants.

Eastern face of the Swanscombe Hand-Axe Sculpture in Swanscombe Heritage Park,
NW Kent. Sculptors David Robinson & Peter Greenstreet of GES Ltd, 2005.
Manufactured by; Bob Hogben, BH Engineering. 

Flint in the chalk cliffs provided a ready available source of raw material for hand axes that were used to kill and butcher and as the site was repeatedly covered by gently flowing water the surfaces were sealed with fine silt that left activity untouched. The preservation was so good that places where people crouched down to make their flint tools have been conserved with every flake discarded still in its original position. In one place the outline of the knapper’s knees can still be seen outlined by the debitage.

So here was my first real encounter with the peoples who I share the land with. A group of hunter gatherers who killed and butchered large animals and left their bones and tools where they were used

The raised beach that was discovered at Boxgrove extends from Portsmouth to almost my front door and is now through orthogenic movement in the last half a million years 40 metres above sea level and there has been a series of digs along its length where and when it outcrops.

Biface found at Boxgrove. More to be found at the official Boxgrove website.

I teach illustration, planning and section drawing at Sussex University and therefore get involved in many digs with the professional units as their site recorder. The Boxgrove project (put Boxgrove project in your search engine or Valdoe project or Slindon Bottom) has been extended and in my next chapter I will report on the digs and the finds

Chapter II Digging the Lower Palaeolithic

I must start with some geology to set the scene. Following the Jurassic, 136 million years ago, the whole of the South of England was immersed in a shallow warm sea and this laid beds of various materials down starting with a series of clays called the Wealden beds. This was overlaid by the lower greensand then the gault marine clay and upper greensand and it was on these beds that the chalk was laid down. [editor's note: You can read more about this, here:]

Chalk is a 98% pure calcium carbonate although the lower “grey” beds can contain clay minerals, silt grade quartz and glauconite. The upper beds epitomised by the white cliffs of Dover contain a series of layers of flint that made the region such an attractive proposition for early man. These white beds, up to 1100 feet thick were laid down very slowly it is estimated at about an inch every thousand years. Subsequent tertiary folding uplifted the Downs into a dome and depressed what would eventually become the English Channel. In the last 64 million years further folding and subaerial erosion produced the present day structure and topography.

Sea erosion into this uplifted land produced cliffs and because chalk is so friable the wearing away continually exposed the embedded flint that made beaches and pebble deposits.

In Sussex we have a series of “old” beaches buried in places by tertiary deposits and exposed in others. It is one of these beaches that were being formed in the lower Palaeolithic when early man used it as a hunting and living area. Due to orthogenic movement this raised beach is now well above sea level at the 40 metre contour.

Near the tiny village of Boxgrove there are quarries extracting aggregate and for a long time hand axes were found that promoted investigation into the site. The area is between two inliers of chalk, the Portsdown anticline to the west and the Littlehampton anticline to the east. The northern boundary is a relic buried cliff and it was at the base of this buried cliff that the beach developed. The south of England is tectonically active so the relationship to present day compared to half a million years ago has somewhat changed. The cliff is still there but now only about 35 feet high and lies below a considerable amount of overburden.

In the last 10 years since the first discoveries at Boxgrove bore holes have been sunk following the old cliff line sometimes up to 30 to 40 feet deep and at Slindon Bottom the ancient beach currently lies exposed so we now know where it is so since 2006 a series of small pits have been dug to sample the beach itself and the overlying strata.

Unless you are clearing a large area for health and safety reasons trenches must not have vertical sides of more than 5 feet (1.5 metres) so the first requirement for any excavation is a JCB or similar mechanical excavator. It is very easy to tell the depth in terms of ancient deposits as a series of sands and silts is very well defined. The finds bed is delineated by the residue of the salt marsh and decayed plant life into a layer called the Mg.Fe. layer (magnesium and iron) that is a brown bed about a quarter of an inch thick and looks for all the world like a crème brulee. This layer is all that’s left of the marshy horizon and its contrast to the bluish sandy silt above it is very pronounced.

A JCB excavator.

Before we go into detail about the raised beach itself and the archaeology let me relive for you the latest excavation at the Valdoe quarry to give a feel of what its like to dig this far back into the past. The position of the beach was known from a series of bore holes carried out the year before and the site itself is about 2 miles west of the main Boxgrove quarry.

Climate is what you expect but weather is what you get and the first day did not let us down. Cold wet and what can only be described as miserable. We parked our cars just off the Goodwood road and started the quarter of a mile trek down a puddle path to the site. Bore hole information had revealed that we needed to go down some 3 metres (10 feet) so the JCB had removed the overburden so the site descended in three steps and had stopped at 2.5 metres. The first job was to clean back the western and northern walls and expose the strata so a geological record could be made of all layers from the top soil down and to make safe the two intermediate platforms. The final cut was a trench 2.1/2 metres by 1.5 metres but the surface cut a 6 metre square.

The geology of the site was quite complicated with, from the top downwards, top soil and leaf mould and a mixture of top soil and gravel. Below this was a series of beds with solifluction gravel intruding into three separate dry valley deposits. Following this was a series of calcerous solifluction gravels and a broad layer of lower brick earth. Just above the MgFe layer was a thin white layer of chalky marl and below the various Slindon silts.

A look at the stratigraphy mentioned above.

Finds were confined to the lower part of the brick earth and the top of the Slindon silts. So the mechanical digger had ceased its operation in the solifluction calcerous gravel leaving the last half metre or so to be dug by hand.

Lower Palaeolithic finds are like gold dust so the area was removed by hand trowel a quarter of an inch at a time so not to miss a single thing. And so began the lengthy process of clearing, tidying, examining the JCB spoil heap for sporadic finds and the dig itself. No shoes or boots were allowed on the exposed final surface and in the confined space only two diggers at a time could work kneeling on a pallet and reversing their position after every inch or so removal.

By now we were into day three and arriving on site discovered that there was about 3 inches of rain water flooding our trench. Before digging could resume lunch boxes were pressed into active service to bail out the site and car sponges were required to mop up the last of the water. Looking for the MgFe layer is a frustrating time as you cannot rush the dig and every now and then you uncover a hint of brown that just might be it, only to have your hopes dashed as it’s just a bit of subsequently deposited material. I do not know about the Sun shining on the righteous but as the Sun did come out in the afternoon its arrival marked the first signs of the layer we were all looking for. Then the excitement of a find, each piece when discovered has to be photographed in situ, measured, its dip angle and orientation noted and then, and only then can it be lifted.

Rain in the excavated pit.

Cleaned out.

I cannot adequately express the sheer excitement of holding in your hand something that was made and has lain there where it was dropped 485,000 years ago. You hold it, look at it and just know you are the first person to touch this for half a million years. Then even more exciting in a small area four axe sharpening flakes, left where they were dropped when putting a new edge on an axe. You really had to be there. Everyone crowds round. Everyone wants the first look. Cameras appear. The bits are really tiny but they are so special. I can go on for hours about this and months later the moment is still vivid in your mind.

A precious find emerges!

Never mind digging up a Roman Pot or a medieval jug this stuff is 250 times older. I am sure you, when reading this, think I am a bit daft but let me tell you this is a real wow! moment or should I say a Wow! Wow! Wow! moment. Then its soil samples, photographing, drawing and recording, measuring everything in with the total station and clearing up and the start of the post excavation work.

The find in context.

More finds!

The mechanical digger quickly fills in all that work and we are back to the muddy path, the cars, the drive home and a very satisfying large scotch.

Pit at dig's end.

I have no idea how many tons of material has been removed and put back or how many hours of labour went into that small handful of flint but was it all worth it? For me an unequivocal yes and would I do it again, yes, because that’s archaeology.

So what do we know about this early peoples and their environment. To answer that question we need to go back to Boxgrove.

100,000 years before the emergence of Neanderthal a large brow hominid roamed this land. Descended from Egaster, Heidelburgensis with his basic flint tools was the master of all he surveyed. He inhabited this part of the world probably from the East across east Dogger Land that would later become Holland. The climate was easy and the land rich in wildlife. Red Deer were in profusion and so the living was good and it would be many centuries before the onset of the Anglian Ice Age.

A small area in the South of England was ideal for living as an embayment provided grass land sheltered from the prevailing winds, salt marsh with a profusion of shell fish and a ready supply of flint outcropping from the chalk cliffs.

The main tool of the period was the hand axe and over 300 were recovered from Boxgrove. These multi purpose tools were the Swiss army knife of its period and it is thought that they also may have had a social connotation as well as a hunter gatherer implement. Social standing could have been signified by the perfect hand axe and sexual display was not ruled out. The living was a family gathering type grouping with man, women and child all belonging to a social network. The role of the males would have been very much the hunters but after the kill everyone would have joined in the preparation of the carcass and the amount of bone found with cut marks indicates a fairly sophisticated level of dismemberment with little wastage.

The silt beds at Boxgrove were covered with a fine deposit from slow flowing water so the preservation is perfect in every detail. Today things were still in the same position as they were half a million years ago when they were covered. A kill would have fed the group for a considerable period so there must have been time for teaching others and being with children that would have further added to the development and survival of the group.

There is not that much we can tell about the day to day life of Heidelburgensis but it is just possible that a crude shelter was erected just next to where my garden shed is today and was the home for about 20 people and I can just imagine dad and his two brothers coming up what would become my garden path with a young deer and being greeted with the excitement of a good feast tonight.

We know really very little about Heidelburgensis but if we were to meet him on the street today would he be out of place. An adult male was about six feet but much sturdier than today’s males. The body lacked prolific hair and the flat face and stereoscopic vision made him very much like us. The rib cage tapered towards the bottom of the abdomen which indicated that the gut brain ratio was in tune with modern man and this in turn indicates a full and nutritious diet. With his stone axe Heidelburgensis had access to parts of a kill that were the highest protein, bone marrow and the brain. His tools kit contained the right equipment to get into heavily boned areas and therefore it is not inconceivable that he was a scavenger of any kills in the landscape even after the larger carnivores of the period had finished with their carcasses. The legs of Heidelburgensis tapered inwards from the pelvis again indicating a totally upright stance and the shoulder joints had full mobility to perform many tasks including throwing, climbing and carrying.

It can therefore be assumed that this was like us in many ways and possibly washed, dressed and with a haircut our primitive man could walk down my street without turning too many heads.

This then was the forerunner of Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens. Driven out of this part of the world by the encroaching ice as the world cooled. Millennia would pass before the land would warm up and recover its foliage and animals but as this came about a “new” intruder was on this land.

Chapter 3 Digging for Neanderthals

We now enter a long period where I must speculate. These are the periods of Neanderthal.

I am surrounded by areas of Neanderthal habitation the nearest being just along the coast to the West of me at Barnham. The south east corner of what will eventually become the England that I would recognise. This area is full of places where our enigmatic ancestor lived and died such as Swanscombe, Clacton, Lynford in Norfolk, Purfleet, Thurrock and Hoxne  

Following the Boxgrove finds the Anglian cold stage wiped out all life but following this the first signs of Neanderthal were around the Hoxnian interglacial at 400,000BP but were quickly lost due to the onset of the next ice age, in due time the Perfleet interglacial dawned and back came Neanderthal.

The millennia following showed the same pattern over and over again until we come to 120,000BP and the prolonged Ipswician interglacial when we had one of the warmest periods of the last half million years. The trees, plants animals in profusion were here but no sign of early man. Why, when conditions were so conducive to habitation we had a period of non humans is unknown but it would not be until a short interstadial in the Devensian ice age do we find the local appearance of my early neighbours. There is some evidence that England may well have been an island in previous periods when sea levels rose following the ice melt but this is not conclusive as it may well have been possible for Neanderthals to cross the English Channel as it was then

What was my back garden like in these periods of habitation when Neanderthal reigned supreme as top of the predator chain? Neanderthals had a large brain case, buried their dead and produced a very sophisticated tool kit so we can imagine that life was somewhat structured. The development of thicker set bodies and the ability to survive in a colder climate would have greatly helped with the diverse extremes of climate.

Butchery marks on animal bones show a developed system of co-operation as on the mainly grasslands a kill would mean fast dismemberment of the carcase before the smell of blood attracted the large scavengers and hunters that contested for game.

I like to think that the extended family was much more of a well knit group than Heidelburgensis and in my minds eye I can see my back garden now in use as a hunting camp with all the family active in one way or another as dad and his brothers and perhaps an eldest son bring home the butchered remains of a deer or perhaps an even larger quadruped.

We know from skeletal remains from France and Germany that Neanderthal was an active hunter as injuries and breakages mended are commonplace so I like to think that exactly where I now grow gooseberries the Neanderthal group collected for their meal before sleep on a balmy evening. I can just see them happy, well fed and relaxed sharpening an axe in preparation for tomorrows adventure

Each time there was a re-emergence of Neanderthal the tool kit changed often for a more and more sophisticated way of manufacture. The final incursions between 60,000 and 40,000 during a short interstadial in the Devensian showed the development of the elongated leaf point and it is in this period that our next excavation took place.

A Neanderthal tool kit ( Photo: Dr Ralph Solecki).

To understand the setting we have to look at the scenery and structure of the South Downs the southern residue of the chalk and other cretaceous beds uplifted and then worn away and stand on the outcropping of the lower greensand overlooking the wealden clay 200 to 300 feet below us. If we look to the south there is an undulating terrain of the gault clay and upper greensand and about a mile away the rise of the escarpment of the chalk downs rising steeply another 300 to 400 feet. To the north there is a wide sway of grassland with sporadic trees and in the very far distance there is just visible the outline of the chalk escarpment of the north downs.

This lower greensand gives up a wonderful vantage point to see game crossing the plain and  would have made an ideal spot to become the base for living and camping. Today the view from this position is still stunning and allows you to see at least 40 miles on a clear day.

It all started with John Hartley of London a consulting physician and fellow of the Linnean Society who, when retired, decided to build himself a house in Sussex. The year was 1900. Whether it was ostentation or just the need for grandeur the house was somewhat of a monstrosity complete with fake crenulations and battlements. Named “Beedings” the house was soon referred to as Hartley castle by the local populace as it dominated the crest of the escarpment of the lower greensand.

Beedings "castle" (photo from Beedings Project website).

In laying out the foundations several Roman finds were made including amphora, pottery and silver Roman coins. The digging soon revealed that there were a series of filled fissures on the hill crest and soon flint artefacts were being discovered. The first record shows “ten well worked flint flakes and two cores”. Building progressed and Hartley duly moved in and July 2010 his notes show trays of 2,300 fragments of flints. The finds were noted in 1911 to be of Palaeolithic origin but work done by Eliot Curwen, local archaeologist catalogued them as a Mesolithic aboriginies dagger factory and another member of the Curwen family Cecil went on record agreeing with this statement in 1954.

The sad history of the finds is that they were donated in 1939 to the Museum of Archaeology in Lewes by Harley’s daughter and subsequently, as according to Curwen, they were of little import or value most of the collection was dumped down a well. The collection now consists of 199 pieces of flint and as there are 19 pairs of break refits this makes a total of 180 tools.

Starting with Jacobi in 1986 this collection has now been re evaluated by several experts and pronounced to be Early Upper Palaeolithic and of Neanderthal manufacture. At this point it is permitted to give a small scream of frustration as the greater part of one of the world’s best Neanderthal assemblages was discarded through sheer ignorance.

Following some geophysical work in the field next to Beedings house, University College London wished to re evaluate the site and a team under the direction of Dr Matt Pope was set up to excavate a series of fissures or gulls, their correct title, in undisturbed land 20 feet away from the house.

The digs that took place for two weeks in the summers of 2007 and 2008 excavated seven trenches across the gulls and other features that showed up on the resistivity. The first task on any site of this nature is de turfing, a job not for the feint hearted as this is thick downland turf and then the careful troweling could be undertaken.

The gulls are cracks in the greensand hilltop crest opening slowly as pressures on the Wealden clay below increased. In section each gull is a very deep v shape but at the surface anything up to 4 metres wide. As these gulls formed they were continuously infilled with silts and clays and so resemble a knickerbocker glory with its tapering glass and its layers of goodies. Each section of layers in the gull represented an older period and therefore was really a time capsule waiting for us to dig to the correct layer. The top soil and just below contained a mixture of the last 2,000 years with modern, medieval and Roman pottery as we descended.

The Neanderthal layer was approximately one metre down in the centre of the gull but shallower nearer the edges. There is a natural movement of material the centre of the gull and this causes clastic dykes to form in the gull centre formed from larger pieces of greensand as they eroded into the gull. The lower greensand is rich in glauconite that oxidises and turns a very dark brown from the greenish yellow of the undisturbed natural.

When excavated the clastic dyke looks for all the world like a wall running down the centre of the trench and we had great fun allowing our site director the privilege of knocking it down to allow further excavations. At the time it was commented on that he had demolished the only Palaeolithic, Neanderthal, wall in existence but our Director is a great chap and took the kidding with great aplomb.

Every piece of flint on the site was brought in and was either debitage or tools or broken tools. We have a mixture of piercers, scrapers, awls, burins and broken blades including one 5 faceted tip about an inch and a half long. The importance of this discovery made the television six a’clock news and is downloadable from the web by searching “Beedings” or “lithics at UCL”.

All together a total of 164 finds were recovered from site and the academic interest was great so we were visited by all the top people in Archaeology in the UK and it was a real pleasure to rub shoulders with and talk to the real professionals. [editor's note: visit the Beedings website for more pictures and information!]

So what did the site tell us about Neanderthals? Their organisation ability for collective hunting and planning was apparent as was the selection of the site showing that hunting was not just a hit and miss affair. The finds show a level of technology that was very sophisticated compared with their forerunners and collectivisation ensured a safer and more stable structure to their society.

I am really pleased that my garden could have been part of this era and that my bit of land nurtured and assisted this most important stage in evolution

Chapter 4   Round Houses

The Devensian ice age was particularly severe in Northern Europe and the Americas and did not let up until 12,000 BP. Then followed a brief episode of rapid cooling when it was believed that the retreating Laurensian ice sheet changed the course of the melt water flow out through the Great Lakes and the Hudson river. This is turn stopped the gulf stream for a few centuries so it was not until 11,000 to 10,000 BP that the climate settled down to allow Homo Sapien to return to my garden.

The topography at that time was very different from today with Britain being a peninsular of Europe with no North Sea or English Channel. The great rivers of the Seine, the Rhine and the Thames all flowed westwards making a very wide barrier so the migration of peoples was not from France northwards into England as many texts would tell us but through Germany and Holland and then westwards into Southern England.

These new people of the Mesolithic were still hunter gatherers and the terrain would have been mostly woodland. Oak, Elder and a variety of deciduous trees would have covered the landscape but here on the South Downs where the soil is shallow large stretches of open downland would have made this an idea habitat. Our ancestors would have had to compete with bear, wolf, wild pig and some fairly large quadrupeds to carve their existence out of this land.

This is the time of the microlith, tiny detailed flint flakes that made compound tools. The proliferation of tools was immense over 120 tool types and a desire for the very best black flint. The numbers of people living in this area must have been quite considerable and with flint being so prolific the numbers of tools enormous. Every site in Sussex and Hampshire that I have been involved in has had prodigious Mesolithic blade finds and sporadic bits when walking the dog is common place.

From 6,000 to 8,000 BP the skills were changing as the transition from hunter gatherer to farmer took place. The populous became far more static and the land clearances of trees started to make way for a new era that of the Neolithic.

New ideas of living meant new tools and new usage of flint. Sickles adze, axes burins fabricators all changed and if possible even more tools, especially scrapers were used and discarded into the landscape to be found later on by me and others.

About 6,000 BC the melt waters of the glacial stage raised sea levels to such a state that vast tracks of Doggar land became lakes and eventually were breached by the rising waters and formed the North Sea. This in turn made a massive surge of water down the great river channel and formed the English Channel cutting England from France.

During this whole time there was a gradual change in the way we lived. The flint mines soon gave way to henge’s, causeway enclosures, long barrows and of course stone circles. Is there anyone reading this that has not heard of Stone Henge, seen the megaliths, wondered at the feat of human endeavour. Our landscape is full of hill forts, barrows and causeways many of them still very evident today. My garden is about a mile and a half from Cissbury one of the major hill forts on the South Downs (try “Cissbury Hill Fort” in your search engine or look in Google earth) so I can totally believe that this bit of land was hunted on and farmed during these few millennia.

The South-West end of Cissbury Ring from the air (photo from Sussex Archaeology website).

The Bronze age followed by the iron age covered the 1,500 years BC and was a time of settlements and intensive farming. The hill tops were still in common use as defensive positions and at Arundel and Nore Hill 10 miles west of me there is an area of many square miles that was bounded by ditches and covered in lynchetts that gives a fair idea of just how many thousands lived in the local community.

Although I have no evidence I imagine my garden was the site of a round house and banjo enclosure surrounded by fields of wheat and barley and a profusion of root and green vegetables. The house was 24 feet diameter and thatched to keep out the rain and winter storms and was a home for mum, dad, children, relatives and in the winter the livestock.

Just up the road is a reconstruction at Butser so I have a perfect idea of what it was like (click Butser Iron Age Village to go to official website) the round house was the centre of living for generations and was usually surrounded by a bank and ditch with a narrow causeway entrance thus giving the name “banjo enclosure”. These enclosures often contained three or four round houses and showed that the community was larger than the extended family and was possibly the first concepts of village settlement.

Roundhouses at Butser Farm (photo by Bob Wishoff)

One June morning several years ago the phone rang as I was just sitting down to breakfast. The BBC were calling to say that there was to be a television programme in the “Time Team Series” in the following month digging on the South Downs about a mile from where I live and would I like to assist in the programme. These calls do not happen that often when you get on national TV so I graciously condescended to accept (I am allowed a few bits of artistic licence in this text). So I was about to become a TV personality and with a very quiet Yippeee I casually spread the news to everyone I knew.

The programme was to re-investigate a dig carried out by a local archaeologist by the name of John Pull back in the early part of the last century. On the South Downs just north of where I live is Harrow Hill, Cissbury Hill and Blackpatch an area covered with Mesolithic flint mines. John Pull had excavated several of these flint mines and had also found a large circular ditch that apparently had no entrance (try Blackpatch, Cissbury, John Pull in your search engine)

The programme for Time Team was to investigate what remained of these earthworks and mines as the area had been extensively ploughed in the 1950’s Broadcast in March 2006 (series 13 programme 151) the three days of excavation shown on the television had been recorded in the summer of 2005 and in reality took longer than three days.

The area of downland turf had been cut before our arrival at 8-30 on the Friday morning and we assembled in the farm barn for a health and safety talk and a note that there could be unexploded munitions in the area as the hill was used during WW2 for the training of troops. We were then all issued with a wrist band to denote who was officially on site as workers and required feeding. Coffee and hot bacon sandwiches were the order of the day and I was feeling that I really could get used to this kind of Archaeology.

The walk up to the site was about a quarter of a mile and we all stood around while the geophysical research started several days before was completed. We all watched as the opening shots for the TV programme were recorded and panoramic views of the site were filmed and the plans of John Pull’s recording were mulled over. By 11-00 we were all a bit fed up standing around when it was discovered that the interpretation of the original records was wrong and we were several hundred yards too far south.

This meant getting the farmer and his grass cutter out again and a further swathe of meadow cut. By this time it was lunch and we all trooped back to the yard for a really good BBC meal cooked in their massive on site trailer. I must say the food was excellent as I had now had two meals and not yet done anything.

By the use of a magnetometer several sites had been identified and the round ditch, 30 metres diameter discovered and we arrived back on site to see a big yellow JCB starting to remove the turf. None of this de-turfing by hand on the TV programme, that is apart from the little bit done while the cameras were rolling.

The grass was thick downland turf and below this about 10 to 20 cms of top soil and then a thin layer of sub soil and we were on the chalk. It is recorded that a considerable portion of this part of the downs was ploughed and bulldozed in the early 50’s to bring more land into agricultural use so you can imagine the relief when a part of a great circular ditch appeared as a brown stained gully under the blade of the JCB.

The JCB was digging a blade width trench across the anomaly so about  a metre and a half was exposed. It was then down to hand trowling to clean the section and my job to record the trench thus far. Then the ditch was dug and proved to be about 2 metres wide and a metre deep and V shaped. We know that the John Pull excavation had revealed the ditch several decades before  but it was soon discovered that the ditch was not fully revealed, just the infill that left a layer about 10 cms thick to the original wall of the ditch so we had a sample for dating.

So ended my first day with a recording of the section of the ditch exposed. As I was completing the drawing the JCB was behind me waiting to get into the trench to expose more of the ring ready for diggers the following morning.

Day 2 started bright and early and we arrived on site to see that over half of the ring ditch had been exposed so an army of diggers  set to work to expose the ditch in 2 metre sections with 2 metres between each worked section. And so we each had our own small bit to excavate. Before mine was complete I was called away by the site Director to record other trenches that a second JCB had uncovered looking for small circular features that had been recorded by the John Pull dig. It was thought that these were possible round houses or smaller circular enclosures but no evidence was found as the land had been ploughed away.

What we did find in profusion was tree throws as this was the time of the land clearances and  trees were ripped over rather than being felled. A tree throw is very distinctive and leaves an imprint of a crescent shape almost exactly the shape of a turf edging spade.

On the far side of the slope there had also been clearances of an area of flint mines and round houses that had shown up on the magnetometer survey and two of these had been cleared of turf showing the circular row of post holes and the shallow drip ditch. The houses were cut into a slight slope so were deeper into the hill side at the back. The ditches had to be excavated with care as often there are prenatal burials in them. On another site we had found two burials in the same round house and it is not known if the children were still born or died at child birth. The one thing we were sure was that this was not a sacrificial offering although we have found headless chickens buried in foundation before that were sacrificial offerings.

The flint mine was as we thought just an in-filled pit so no further work was done as we could have gone down 10 or 12 metres and time did not permit.

By day three the whole site had been cleared and a large tree throw appeared in the centre of the ring surrounded by small pits capped with a flint nodule. In each of the pits was a small object, a piece of pottery, a flint tool, and some were stained so obviously something biodegradable had been put there. Lots of filming went on and it was also the open to the public day so lots of parties turned up to look and comment.

A large pit was discovered next to the tree throw and this was filled with large flint nodules that had been mined from the other side of the hill. So what was this place? Unfortunately we do not know but resorted to good old standby of “religious significance” “ritual activity”

Whatever was happening here no one was living in this part of the Downs. The pits were obvious token burials and the main pit was flint taken from the mines and put back into the ground. Your guess is as good as mine.

Although Time Team is supposed to go for three days on the fourth day I was back helping to record the full site. Then the back fill and clearing up just shows you how misleading a TV programme can be. This then was the Mesolithic and I can believe that these people travelled down the hill a bit and camped and lived in my plot of land. So my front garden could have been a ritual site as well so I can add another chapter as to who owned this land.     

Chapter 5    Here come the Romans

The Month was September the year 55 BC. Ships seen off the coast at Dover marked the massive change that was starting in my garden. Julius Caesar was trying to gain power by extending the Roman Empire. The landing at Deal was less than spectacular as he lad been separated from all his cavalry but none the less he fought his way off the beaches and Britain had been invaded. Over the next two months the Roman invaders marched on to the Thames at London had a few battles and then before winter set in returned to Gaul. The conquering of Britain was mainly political to get “Britanicus” as an added name and the setting of taxes as tribute was instantly forgotten but the first signs of a new world order were there.

It would take another 98 years before Claudius brought back the Roman army in 43 AD and by then Britain was a trading outpost of Roman Europe and so quite a few tribes, especially along the south coast, welcomed the Romans as friends especially the Atrebates, later to be called the Regni  and their king Togodumnus. The South coast became immediately a client kingdom and a magnificent palace was built to show his Roman status (put Fishbourne Roman Palace in your search engine). The Roman landings were all along the South Coast and as I have a good landing beach in my town of Worthing I can just see the Roman infantry being welcomed by the locals and building a marching camp on my front lawn.

Part of the geology of Sussex is that there is a strip of highly fertile soil called brick earth that is about half a mile wide that runs parallel to the downs and the sea (referred to in our Heidelburgensis dig). This strip was exploited by the Romans and was settled with farms along its whole length from Portsmouth to Brighton. Many of the farms were tenanted or owned by the local populace and were very quickly Romanised. The round house and the enclosure soon gave way to the villa and ditches and the Iron Age way of life was no more.

From London northwards the Romans faced fierce opposition epitomised by Queen Bodicea (pronounced boo-dik-a) and several years and several emperors were to come and go until in Hadrian’s time England and parts of Scotland and Wales were tamed and under Roman law. North of Hadrian’s wall and the Antonine wall there were the barbarians of Scotland who were never conquered.

Queen Bodicea.

So my garden was farmed and settled until 410 AD by either Romans or Romanised Britain’s and for those four centuries this was a stable landscape with farms, herds of domesticated animals and markets and trading centres. As my garden has very good and fertile soil I am sure I was part of an estate in these years and this creates further images of who was here and how they lived.

A few miles to the west is a series of farms in and around the Town of Arundel and its river the Arun. One of the farmers, Luke Wishart, a friend of mine, said one day would you like to look at my Roman site? And proceeded to tell me that pottery had turned up in his field and on a very dry year strange parallel markings had shown up in his crop. We walked over to the field that is a sizeable piece of land of 10 or 12 hectares and waving his hand in a general direction Luke said “in that sort of area” “It was a few years ago so I do not remember exactly where”.

The following weekend several of us, with the land owners permission, had a general wander over the field and in the space of 30 minutes had bags of brick and tile, worked flint, CBM (ceramic building material) and about 15 pieces of fineware pottery including three bits of Samian pot. Samian for the uninitiated is the Gallo Belgic and Gaul manufactured high status Roman pottery. If you find Samian it means very rich living as only the top rank of the times could have afforded such luxuries. And after a few minutes we had three pieces. This was another of those “wow” moments.

We all looked at each other but no one wanted to say much as three bits of pot does not make a villa but the excitement was there. So these few moments was the start of quite a lot of digging as we did not know it then but we had found the missing Roman Villa.

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