Castle Hill, Little Wittenham, Oxfordshire

Hillfort:  OS Grid Reference – SU 5696 9244

Also Known as:

  1. Sinodun Camp
  2. Wittenham Clumps

Getting Here

Either reach this from Dorchester’s Dyke Hills by crossing the bridge over the Thames at its southwestern side and walk thru the village and up the fields to the wooded rise on your left; or simply get take the road between Brightwell-cum-Sotwell to the delightful village of Little Wittenham and, on your right-hand side, notes the unmissable clump of trees and rise in the fields on your right.  That’s the place!

Archaeology & History

Major Allen’s 1932 photo

To be found on the southern side of the River Thames, across from the huge Dyke Hills camp, this prominent enclosed hillfort was thought to be a place where the tribal peoples of differing groups converged — the Dubonni, the Catuvellauni, and Atrebates peoples.  And to this day it remains impressive.  Long thought to have been merely the province of Iron Age settlers, in more recent years it has shown to have had a longer and richer history than academics previously dare write about.  In Jean Cook’s (1985) fine work on the archaeology of the region, she described the typical narrative Castle Hill elicited from professionals until only a few years back, saying:

“The hillfort on Wittenham Clumps covers approximately 4 hectares (c. 10 acres) and comprises a single ditch and rampart.  It commands superb views northwards up the Thames valley and to the south and west across the Vale of White Horse to the Berkshire Downs, where a series of similar hillforts follows the line of an ancient route — the Ridgeway.  The fort has never been excavated, although frequent past ploughings have produced Iron Age and early Saxon sherds as well as Romano-British pottery.  However, to the south of the hillfort…a well-stratified Iron Age settlement was found.  It seems probable on the basis of other excavated sites that the fort was permanently occupied.  It would have developed as  a regional administrative and political centre, with specialist craftsmen and traders and would have performed some of the same functions as a medieval market town.”

Although Cook’s latter remarks should be addressed with caution (market economics was far from the mythic perspectives of Iron Age people), this great site was of obvious importance.  But later excavations at the site in 2002-03 showed that the site had in fact been used by neolithic people and, around the tops, flints and other remains were found that took human activity here back into mesolithic times, with some finds dated around 6000 BC!  More surprisingly (to archaeologists anyway) was that Castle Hill continued to be used way into medieval times!

Thankfully much of this place is still pretty well-preserved and is well worth exploring to historians, pagans and walkers.

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Cook, Jean, “Before the Roman Conquest,” in Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.
  2. Cook, Jean & Rowley, Trevor (eds.), Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.

Links:

  1. An Interim Summary Report on Excavations at Castle Hill, Wittenham Clumps

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Castle Hill

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Castle Hill 51.627848, -1.178521 Castle Hill

Dyke Hills, Dorchester, Oxfordshire

Settlement:  OS Grid Reference – SU 5735 9364

Also Known as:

  1. Dorchester Dykes
  2. Dorchester Fort

Getting Here

Easy to find.  From Dorchester town centre, take the road at the bottom of town where the church is and walk along to the end where a footpath takes you into the field.  Once here you’ll note a rise in the land at the end, stretching away to the west and the River Thames.  That’s your Dyke Hills!

Archaeology & History

Plan of Dyke Hills (after Cook, 1985)

This site is another example of the considerable neglect shown to the prehistoric archaeological remains in and around the Dorchester region, despite Jean Cook (1985) describing the place as “a site of major local, regional and national importance.”  Which is a pity, as the site here was once huge and it seems that much could have been learned from here.  (you’ve gotta ask: do those doods who allegedly work for English Heritage care more for the ancient sites, or the money their organization gets?)

Lane-Fox’s 1870 survey

It would seem that the majority of the site was Iron Age in nature, with snifflings of Bronze Age remains scattered here and there. The primary position of the massive dykes and construction of internal domestic structures immediately below (south) of the dykes, was hemmed in on all sides by the surrounding River Thames and one of its tributaries, giving the place an excellent position in terms of food, plus shelter and protection from any intrusive tribes or hungry winter animals.

The first excavation at the huge dykes that define the northern edge of this ‘monument’ was done in 1870 by the renowned General Pitt-Rivers, then later Colonel Lane-Fox (at the time the Secretary of London’s Ethnological Society), as they were very concerned about the damage that was being inflicted upon the site, when the local landowner allowed sections of the banking to be “reduced for cultivation.”  An article in the Saturday Review magazine on July 2, 1870, told of these concerns and what was written — as Jean Cook so rightly tells — “has a depressingly modern ring to it”:

“…the fortress at Dorchester and the fortress on Sinodun (Castle Hill) are among the most speaking monuments of the earliest history of our island, and till lately they were among its most perfect monuments.  But it is a grievous truth that while we are writing, the dykes at Dorchester are being levelled.  Hitherto the neighbourhood ground has been grazed and the harmless sheep is no foe to history; but it has lately occurred to the owner of the ground hat a few shillings more of yearly profit might be gained by turning pasture land into arable; and to such a sordid motive as this these precious antiquities are at this very moment being sacrificed.  At least a third of the dyke has already been lowered, and will gradually be utterly destroyed beneath the yearly passage of ruin’s merciless plough share.  Such wanton destruction naturally aroused the indignation of men of taste and knowledge, especially in the neighbouring University.  A vigourous appeal to the owner to stay his hand was made by some of the most eminent Oxford residents, and an attempt was made to call public attention to the subject by describing the state of the case in various newspapers…”

Lane-Fox’s 1872 photo

But the digging into the dykes continued.  For some time at least — until Colonel Lane-Fox himself went to the see the landowner and “persuaded” him to stop what he was doing.  A method we should always keep in mind ourselves…

The modern state of the Dyke Hills is summarised once again in Jean Cook’s (1985) fine survey of the region, where she wrote:

“This great enclosure, known to archaeologists as an oppidum, covered 46 hectares (c. 114 acres) and as defended by a massive double bank and ditch to the north and to the east.  The southern and western boundaries have all but disappeared, but can be traced in lines of modern field boundaries beyond which the Thames forms a natural boundary.  The interior is (now) empty, but cropmarks reveal that it is full of enclosures, pits and circular houses aligned along a regular pattern of internal roads.  Although there has been no scientific excavation within Dyke Hills, ploughing of the site has produced one of the densest concentrations of Iron Age coins in Britain.”

It would appear that this site was of considerable importance for local tribes and would have been home to powerful chiefs and impressive-looking shamans!  The large Castle Hill site immediately across the river would have had obvious links to this once-omportant prehistoric settlement.

References:

  1. Cook, Jean, “Before the Roman Conquest,” in Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.
  2. Cook, Jean & Rowley, Trevor (eds.), Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.
  3. Williams, Geoffrey, The Iron Age Hillforts of England, Horace Books 1993.

 © Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Dyke Hills settlement

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Dyke Hills settlement 51.638652, -1.173026 Dyke Hills settlement