Monday, October 27, 2008

An aerial view of Whitesheet Hill causewayed enclosure on the edge of the chalk escarpment in Wiltshire. A Bronze Age barrow and cross-ridge dyke also appear in the photograph. (J.E.Hancock)

Ground plans of some typical causewayed enclosures. 1 Windmill Hill, Wilts; 2 Robin Hood’s Ball, Wilts; 3 Whitesheet Hill, Wilts; 4 Briar Hill, Northants; 5 Whitehawk, Sussex. Ditch sections outlined. (Sources: various)

A human skull on the floor of a causewayed ditch at Hambledon Hill, Dorset. (Robin Holgate)

A section across the outer ditch of Windmill Hill, Wiltshire, excavated in 1988. (Alastair Whittle)

These enclosures, of which about 50 are known, are usually roughly circular in plan and consist of one, two or three concentric rings of ditches, dug as a series of irregular pits, probably by gang labour, and separated by undug causeways of soil, rather like a string of sausages. The material from the ditches was thrown up into an internal bank, sometimes revetted with posts or turf, or crowned by a stockade. Many of these banks have now disappeared entirely. It was originally thought that the gaps in the ditches were entrances for droving cattle, and that gaps in the banks corresponded with them. However, it is clear that the banks were much more continuous, with only a few breaks. If entrances existed they cannot always be positively identified, but groups of post holes at Hembury, Crickley, Whitehawk and Hambledon have been interpreted as the remains of wooden gates. Little sense has been made of the interior of the enclosures, which seem to contain a mass of pits, post holes and gullies, perhaps indicating at least temporary settlement.

The causewayed enclosures crown rounded hills in the chalk lands like The Trundle in Sussex and Knap Hill in Wiltshire, but they are also found in low-lying valleys like Abingdon in Oxfordshire and Staines in Middlesex, and on saddles and ridges as at Combe Hill and Whitehawk, both in Sussex. They are almost exclusive to lowland Britain and stretch from Hembury in Devon north to Alrewas in Staffordshire and Barholm in Lincolnshire, with a possible addition at South Kirby in West Yorkshire.

There is as yet little evidence that the majority of enclosures were built for defensive purposes, and the earthworks sometimes slope down the side of a hill across the contours as though deliberately displaying their interiors to the outside world. However, some East Anglian sites seem to have massive stockades inside the ditches, which might be interpreted as a form of defence. Isobel Smith suggests that they follow a ‘predetermined plan carried out regardless of topography’. Size varies considerably from less than a hectare (3 acres) at Rybury in Wiltshire to over 8 ha. (20 acres) at Windmill Hill and Hambledon Hill.

Most excavation of causewayed enclosures has concentrated on the ditches which are usually some 3 m. (10 ft) wide and seldom less than 1.5 m. (5 ft) deep. Where more than one ring of ditches occurs, the outer ring is usually the deepest as at Windmill Hill and The Trundle. It is not clear if each circuit of ditch is contemporary with its neighbour, and some enclosures may have increased their size as their importance grew. At Etton, Francis Pryor has suggested that only a few segments of ditch were dug at any one time. Although the ditches were basically the quarries for bank material, it is clear that they had a part to play in the activities at the site, since they were cleaned out on a number of occasions. Even so excavations show that they frequently contain large quantities of domestic rubbish. This usually consists of layers of animal bones, (especially cattle, sheep, pigs and deer), mixed with fragments of pottery, vegetable refuse and charcoal, broken flints, the occasional dead dog and human bones. Often this rubbish was carefully covered with soil as though to reduce the smell of rotting garbage.

Most of the pottery found in the ditches belongs to round-bottomed, baggy-shaped vessels. Finer quality carinated bowls of Grimston type seem to have been of special significance. Numerous axes of non-local stone and pottery tempered with grit from Cornwall and found as far east as Gloucestershire and Sussex suggest that these objects had been brought to the enclosures from long distances. The animal bones show the cut marks of flint knives, perhaps indicating on-the- spot butchering, and some ox skulls show signs of pole-axing with a sharp flint point over the left eye.

Deserving particular attention are the human remains found in the ditches. A large number of human skulls are recorded, often lacking their lower jaws. Some of these, at Hambledon Hill for example, seem to have been deliberately positioned on the ditch floor, as though to ward off evil spirits. Others are more casually scattered, and mixed with other human bones, suggesting that they may have been swept into the ditch in a cleaning operation. If this is the case then it is likely that they originated in the centre of the enclosure where corpses may have been decay. Roger Mercer has written of the central enclosure at Hambledon Hill, describing it as ‘a vast, reeking open cemetry, its silence broken only by the din of crows and ravens’. This implies that causewayed enclosures played a far greater part in the funeray ritual of neolithic Britain than has been realized. In Celtic Iron Age times human heads were collected as trophies and stored as prize possessions. It is perhaps worth wondering if a similar cult existed in the neolithic period.

Child burials seem to have had a special place in this ritual. At Windmill Hill the deliberate burials of two young children were found in a ditch, together with the skulls of three more. At Whitehawk the excavator found the ashes of a hearth containing fragments of five skulls, all of them of young people between 6 and 20 years. In the same ditch section was the complete skeleton of a young mother with her new-born child. Child burials also occurred in the ditches at Hambledon Hill, where they accounted for 60 per cent of the burials. Some lay crouched in the ditch bottom with cairns of flints above them. At the same site the lower trunk of a 15-year-old boy had been dragged into a ditch, perhaps by animals, whilst the flesh was still upon it. Complete adult skeletons have also been found at Offham Hill (Sussex), Abingdon (Oxon) and Staines (Middx).

Probably the best-known example of a causewayed enclosure, and first to be investigated, is Windmill Hill, 2.5 km. (1 1/2 miles) north-west of Avebury in Wiltshire. Three roughly concentric rings of causewayed ditches circle a low hilltop. The outer ditch has a diameter of 365 m. (1,200 ft). The mean diameter of the middle ditch is 200 m. (660 ft), whilst the inner measures about 85 m. (280 ft). The ditches do not follow the contours of the hill; instead they hang lop-sidedly down the steeper northern hillslope. They may not all be contemporary and recent excavations by Alastair Whittle suggest that the outer ditch may have been added later (plate 8). All the ditch sections are very irregular and vary considerably in size. Excavation by Alexander Keiller between 1925 and 1938 showed them to be flat bottomed, and deepest in the outer circle and shallowest in the inner ring. Only at the eastern side of the outer circle can any trace of the bank now be seen, though the excavations showed that it was present inside all the ditches. We shall probably never know if it was topped by a stockade, thus making it defensive.

Many fragments of early neolithic pottery were found in the enclosure. Nearly one-third of it had been made from Jurassic clays found some 30 km (20 miles) away around Frome and Bath. How such fragile material was carried to Windmill Hill remains a mystery. Also deliberately buried in the ditches were domestic objects such as flint scrapers, stone axes and animal bones suggesting some form of settlement, either temporary or permanent, as well as the skeletons of the two children mentioned above.

A variety of interpretations of causewayed enclosures have been offered over the years. Settlement sites and defended camps were first suggested 50 years ago, and this was possibly closer to the truth than has more recently been supposed. The large quantities of domestic rubbish in the ditches at some of these sites would support such explanations. The fact that some of the rubbish had come from some distance away led to the idea that the enclosures were centres for periodic fairs and tribal gatherings. The wealth of animal bones was used to suggest that the sites were corrals where cattle were annually rounded up for branding, gelding or culling. Following the work at Hambledon Hill the idea of the central area of the enclosures being used as a vast mortuary for the exposure of corpses has proved most popular. There is no clear answer. It is probably wrong to try and see each site as serving the same function but the various similarities between them perhaps indicate that they were most likely ritual cult centres, where people met at certain times of the year to mourn their dead and celebrate the well-being and fertility of their crops, their animals and themselves.

Amongst the causewayed enclosures are a small group of strongly defended settlements with causewayed and continuous ditches, which tend to be sited on hill spurs. The best known examples are Hembury in Devon, Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire, Hambledon Hill in Dorset and Carn Brea in Cornwall. These sites were defended by steep natural hill slopes as well as man-made defences. At Carn Brea a massive enclosing wall, built of boulders and 2 m. (6.6 ft) wide at the base, surrounded an area of 0.8 ha. (2 acres). The local geology precluded the digging of a causewayed ditch. Post holes indicated a number of probably domestic buildings in the enclosure, some of which had been destroyed by fire. Outside, larger enclosures were used for agriculture. More than 800 leaf-shaped arrowheads, some broken, and others amongst the boulders of the rampart, strongly suggested that Carn Brea was attacked on more than one occasion.

Crickley Hill, in its final phase, was defended by a continuous ditch and a strong stone-built internal wall topped by a stockade. Four hundred arrowheads and signs of burning again indicated a dramatic end for the enclosure. A violent end to Hambledon Hill is also seen as likely from the signs of the burning down of the stockade on top of the bank, and the skeleton of a young man with an arrowhead in his chest found there, apparently killed whilst rescuing a child from the burning enclosure.

Roger Mercer has observed that after these defended enclosures went out of use, no further defensive sites are known until the appearance of hillforts a thousand years later. It is unlikely that the causewayed enclosures were dug by the very first farmers who arrived in Britain. At first concentrated communal effort was required to establish the farming way of life with its forest clearance, house building, crop growing and animal husbandry. Only after a generation or two would there be time for large numbers of people to gather at the slack times of the year when the farming calender was not too busy, to engage in the construction of communal earthworks.


karl-james langford said...

Karl-James Langford
Manager of Archaeology Cymru

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