There were fortresses on the heights

“They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights.” [1]

As well as the barrows and stone-circles of my two previous posts, the Wessex Downs have quite a large number of Iron Age fortresses on the hilltops. The closest of these to Avebury, and the first I visited was Barbury Castle, a few miles south of Swindon.

Barbury Castle

Barbury Castle is perhaps the most remarkable of the Ridgeway hill forts. It’s on the edge of the Marlborough Downs with views in all directions, on the Ridgeway, and it’s huge! It is defined by a broadly elliptical double rampart with a ditch in between, which even after two millennia of erosion, remains quite steep and imposing. The fort was built in the 6th century BC as a refuge against warring tribes. At times of attack, people would bring their animals and shelter in huts inside the 12 acre enclosure. The outer bank was reinforced by huge sarsen stones and the inner bank was topped by chalk blocks and a continuous wooden fence.

The fortress is clearly visible in this satellite photo, taken from Google Earth Pro, and also just outside the western entrance can be seen a round barrow which dates from 1,700 BC.

Barbury Castle  (Google Earth Pro)

The fortress lies on the Ridgeway track, and has  a track running through it with eastern and western entrances through the ramparts. The entrances were defended by wooden gateways and semi-circular earthworks. Pottery, iron tools, weapons and vehicle fittings dating from 300-1 B.C have been found, but it appears that the fortress was abandoned as a living area in the 1st century BC. From a later period, there is also evidence of Roman-era metalwork inside the fort, and pottery around the small mound outside the north-western rampart. Possible Saxon burials have also been discovered, together with weapons of that time; a knife, spearhead and a seax dating 5-700 A.D.

Ditch and ramparts near the western entrance to Barbury Castle

Legend has it that the Saxons (the first and more successful German invaders) defeated the Romano-British here in 556 CE at the Battle of Beran Byrig. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year states: Her Cynric 7 Ceawlin fuhton wiþ Brettas æt Beranbyrg (This year Cynric and Ceawlin fought with the Britons at Beranbury). Ceawlin later became King of Wessex in 560 CE.

More recently during the Second World War, the dominant position of the fort was exploited as part of the local anti-aircraft defences, with some damage to the entrances, as well as the positioning of guns and the digging of trenches and such positions around the interior.

Liddington Castle

Liddington Castle sits on the hilltop, seen from the west.

I was not able to locate any clear directions to reach Liddington Castle beforehand. I managed to locate the Castle itself on google maps but when I got there it was surrounded by farmland. I first tried to approach it from the west via a track which led on to the Ridgeway, but after about a mile realized I was heading away from the Castle. So I returned and went to the other side of the hill on which it sits, and found the Ridgeway track which led uphill towards it. It sits on the edge of the Downs on top of a quite long and steep hill and has two ramparts and ditch enclosing an area of approximately 7.4 acres, with two entrances cut through it. Liddington Castle was constructed in four stages, likely beginning during the very late Bronze Age / early Iron Age, 700-500 BC.  The last stage of construction was probably in the late Iron Age, but it could possibly have occurred as late as the Roman, even the post-Roman era.

Ditch and rampart of Liddington Castle near the western entrance

It was once thought to be the location of Badon Hill [2-4]; the mythical site of King Arthur’s great victory over the Saxon invaders, though recent excavations have found no support at all for this. Finds of pottery from the post-Roman era suggest that the fort may have been re-occupied in some form, adding weight, but still no evidence whatsoever, to the Badon Hill theory. The earliest mention of the Battle of Badon is in Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), written sometime in the period 510-540 CE [5]. Gildas states that the Battle of Badon occurred 44 years earlier, so sometime in the late 400s, though he does not mention Arthur. Some three hundred years later, Nennius identified Arthur as the victorious leader of the 12th and last battle against the Saxons at Mons Badonicus [6].

Returning from the Castle, I passed a hilltop after a few hundred metres on which there was a concrete bunker.  I looked this up when I got back home, and discovered that it was a “Starfish Bunker” built in the Second World War as the control centre for a large-scale night-time decoy to protect nearby Swindon from bombing.  The “Special Fire” or “SF” sites became known as Starfish (SF) sites and consisted of elaborate light arrays and fires, controlled from a nearby bunker, and laid out to simulate a fire-bombed town.  By the end of the war there were 237 Starfish decoys protecting 81 towns and cities around the country.

Starfish Bunker near Liddington Castle

Flowers near the Starfish Bunker

Uffington Castle

The Bronze-Age Uffington White Horse can be seen for miles away leaping across the head of a dramatic dry valley in the Ridgeway escarpment. The Horse is only part of the unique complex of ancient remains that are found at White Horse Hill and beyond, spreading out across the high chalk downland. It is 110 metres long, and in 1990 archaeologists dated it to the late Bronze Age, some time between 1380 and 550 BC.[ They also discovered the figure was cut into the hill up to a metre (3 ft) deep, not simply scratched into the chalk surface.

The Uffington White Horse and Dragon Hill

Directly behind the White Horse in the photo above lies Dragon Hill, a small roundish hill with a flattened top, said to be the site where St. George, England’s patron saint, slew the dragon.

The White Horse was scoured every seven years during a local festival to prevent it disappearing under vegetation and period scouring has been continued since 1990 by the National Trust. The Horse was covered during the Second World War so it could not be used by the Luftwaffe for navigation. Tolkien took inspiration for the Barrow Downs from this region and quite possibly the White Horse was his inspiration for the flag of Rohan also.

 

White horse and Uffington Castle (Google Earth)

On White Horse Hill is an Iron Age hillfort known as Uffington Castle. A simple design of one rampart and ditch, the castle at 860 feet (262m) above sea level forms the highest point in Oxfordshire, with views for miles around over six counties. This hillfort, defended by a bank and ditch, was built during the Iron Age (300 BC – 43 CE).

Walking the ramparts of Uffington Castle

Segsbury Camp

It started to rain while I was at Uffington Castle, and I headed onwards about 7 miles to Segsbury Camp, which is up a long farm road leading out of the village of Letcombe Regis.

The Google Earth satellite photo below shows the camp sitting on the crest of the Berkshire Downs. Segsbury Camp or Segsbury Castle is an Iron Age hill fort with an extensive ditch and ramparts and four gateways. Excavations in 1871 found a cist grave and human remains, and determined that the fort was occupied between the 6th and 2nd centuries.

Segsbury Castle (Google Earth)

I very much enjoyed visiting these Iron Age hill forts along the ancient Ridgeway track, and was impressed by their size and the still quite impressive ditches and ramparts after more than 2,000 years of weather, grazing, farming and other human activities.

“There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again.” [1]

[1] J.R.R.Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. Chapter VII. In the House of Tom Bombadil.

[2] Hirst, S. et al. “Liddington Castle and the battle of Badon : Excavations and research 1976“. Archaeological Journal. 1996, vol. 153, pp. 1–59.

[3] Ashe, Geoffrey. From Caesar to Arthur, pp. 162–4

[4] Wood, Michael, In Search of Myths and Heroes (2005), pp. 219-220.

[5] Gildas. De Excido et Conquestu Bitanniae. Project Gutenberg Ebook. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1949

[6] Nennius. Historia Brittonum. Translated by J.A.Giles. Medieval Latin Series,Cambridge, Ontario 2000. Available at http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/nennius_giles.pdf

 

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Exploring the Barrow Downs of Wessex

I recently had an opportunity to spend a weekend exploring Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age sites on the Wessex Downs. Britain’s “oldest road”, the Ridgeway, runs 87 miles (137 kilometres) across the Wessex Downs eastward to the Berkshire Downs and the River Thames. It has been in use for over 5,000 years and I briefly visited it over 30 years ago.

West Kennet Long Barrow, an early Neolithic grave.

West Kennet Long Barrow

At the western end of the Ridgeway, a couple of miles from Avebury, I visited West Kennet Long Barrow which was built during the early Neolithic period around 3,650 BC. There are five stone burial chambers in the eastern end, and at least 46 people were buried here over a 1,000 year period. The entrance consists of a concave forecourt with a facade made from large slabs of sarsen stones which were placed to seal entry towards the end of its life.

Large sarsen stones guard the entrance to the Barrow

Dry stone walling of oolitic limestone has been used to fill the gaps between the large sarsen stones. Such limestone does not occur locally and must have been transported from the Cotswold hills some 20-30 miles away. The burial mound is 100 metres in length and sits on a prominent chalk ridge about a kilometre south of Silbury Hill. In total, it is estimated that 15,700 man-hours were expended in its construction.

The entrance passage in West Kennet Long Barrow

The early Neolithic period was a revolutionary period in British history when agriculture was widely adopted as the primary form of subsistence, replacing the previous hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  One of my maternal line ancestors, Urwen, lived around the period that the West Kennet Long Barrow was constructed, and may even have lived in this area. I have written about my maternal line ancestors in a previous post, in which I estimated that Urwen was my great*292nd grandmother (maternal-ancestors-ice-age-europe-and-britain).

Inside the burial chambers

Silbury Hill

Clearly visible about 1 km away is Silbury Hill, built around 2,400 BC at the beginning of the Bronze age. This dates it over 1,200 years later than West Kennet Long Barrow. Silbury Hill the largest and tallest prehistoric  structure in Europe, standing about 30 metres high and 160 metres wide.

Silbury Hill, seen from near West Kennet Long Barrow

Comparable in size to some of the smaller Egyptian pyramids, it was built at around the same time. No burial chamber has ever been found inside and its purpose remains a mystery. It is estimated to have involved about 4 million man hours of work over a period of between 150 and 400 years (based on radiocarbon dating [1]), and clearly involved a massive and sustained communal effort over many generations.

Another view of Silbury Hill from the other side

Overton Hill Barrow Cemetery

About 1 mile east of West Kennet Long Barrow on Overton Hill lies a Bronze Age barrow cemetery known as the Sanctuary Barrows or Seven Barrows. These burial mounds are over 4,000 years old and dated to the early Bronze Age, around the same period as the construction of Silbury Hill. The barrows are recorded are far back as AD 939 in the Charter of Athelstan and by the 17th century the site was known as Seven-barrow hill, from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Seorfon Beorgas’  although the site really consists of twelve round barrows.  It is not be confused with the similarly named Seven Barrows near Lambourn in Berkshire where there is a barrow cemetery containing around 40 barrows.

Bell barrows on Overton Hill

The prominent mounds to the north of the A4 road mark the start of the Ridgeway and consist of the five barrows, four are examples of bell barrows, with a smaller fifth bowl barrow in between. Both burials and cremations have been found there, and these were sometimes accompanied by grave goods such as pottery and bone and flint implements. The general construction of these barrows consisted of building material up and around bodies/remains within. The barrows had secondary use by peoples of other periods spanning hundreds of years. Often, later surface burials or burials nearby were created.

Three of the Seven Barrows

About 150 north of the barrows shown in the photo above, part of the London-Bath Roman road crosses the barrow field and is clearly visible in satellite photos, although the low mounds and ditches on either side of it are not prominent on the ground, with a height of about 0.5 metres. Three of the burial mounds located right next to the Roman road have now been identified as Roman burial mounds, thought to be a unique occurrence in Britain. Perhaps the Romans were inspired here to take on the local customs?  Post-holes found on the mounds suggest that they were surrounded by a fence. Roman and post-Roman Anglo-Saxon weapons and remains were found in them [2].

Some of the Seven Barrows on Overton Hill

The Sanctuary

Across the busy A4 road from the Seven Barrows is the Sanctuary, the site of a stone circle that once formed the terminal point of the West Kennet Avenue of standing stones (see below). Large enough to contain the outer ring of stones at Stonehenge its earliest parts are dated to around 3000 BC which is about the same period as the earliest part of Stonehenge (about 20 miles away) was constructed. It is believed to have only become linked to the distant henge at Avebury when the avenue was built about 2400 BC. Although John Aubrey in 1649 recorded it as a double ring of stones in 1649, all the stones disappeared and the site was lost until rediscovered in 1930.  Excavations have revealed the locations of the stones (blue markers), and also of post holes (red markers) that were used for a timber structure.

The Sanctuary

The Barrow Downs

J.R.R.Tolkien Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings while living in Oxford, which is about 40 miles from Overton Hill, and closer to some of the other Barrow cemeteries on the Wessex Downs. Almost certainly, these Barrows were the inspiration for his Barrow Downs in the Lord of the Rings [3] where Frodo and the other hobbits encountered a malevolent barrow wight who ensnared them in a barrow.

It is said that the mounds of Tyrn Gorthad, as the Barrowdowns were called of old, are very ancient, and that many were built in the days of the old world of the First Age by the forefathers of the Edain………..Some say that the mound in which the Ring-bearer was imprisoned had been the grave of the last prince of Cardolan, who fell in the war of 1409 [4]

In the previous Chapter, Tom Bombadil gave the hobbits a description of the Barrow Downs which could very easily have been describing the North Wessex Downs and their barrows that I visited.

Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up on to the Downs. They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight. [5]

Windmill Hill

Later in the day, I spent an hour trying to locate a route to Windmill Hill, which is about 1 mile northwest of Avebury and only accessible by a hard-to-find farm track. The top of this low hill was the site of a large Neolithc enclosure formed by three concentric circles of ditches. It was built around 3,650 BC, the same time as the West Kennet Long Barrow, and was in use for about 300 years. The large mounds on the site are Bronze Age burial mounds dating from about 2,000-1,500 BC.

Approaching Windmill Hill and already inside the Neolithic ring of ditches.

The large barrow at the centre has a prominent ditch around its base.

References

[1] Alex Bayliss, Fachtna McAvoy & Alasdair Whittle. The world recreated: redating Silbury Hill in its monumental landscape. Antiquity 81 (2007): 26-53.

[2]  Historic England. Three Roman burial mounds, a Bronze Age bowl barrow, a pagan Saxon inhumation cemetery and a short length of Roman road on Overton Hill. June 1994. Available at https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1008461

[3] J.R.R.Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. Chapter VIII. Fog on the Barrow-downs.

[4] J.R.R.Tolkien. The Return of the King. Appendix A, I, iii, Eriador, Arnor, and the Heirs of Isildur.

[5] J.R.R.Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. Chapter VII. In the House of Tom Bombadil.