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People of The Heath – Petersfield Museum’s Heath Barrow Project

This exciting four-year project was initiated by The Petersfield Museum to enable historians and archaeologists to understand who designed, constructed and venerated a collection of Bronze Age Burial Mounds.

There are 21 known burial mounds, otherwise known as barrows on Petersfield Heath, 15 Bowl Barrows, 4 Saucer Barrows, 1 Disc Barrow with 2 tumps and 1 Bell Barrow. They form one of the largest and best preserved barrow cemeteries in the South of England.

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Bronze Age knife : Credit L Lyn Pearse
Bronze Age knife discovery : Credit  Lyn Pease

The project was awarded Heritage Lottery Funding and funds from the South Downs National Park Authority for scientific research of the site over September 2014.

The fieldwork and research Directors of this project are, respectively, George Anelay of West Sussex Archaeology and Dr Stuart Needham, working with many volunteer diggers and researchers from the surrounding area. Dr Nick Branch of Reading University – Palaeo-environmental Studies – will carry out analysis of soil samples and any environmental finds, such as wood, in the hopes that we can pin down dates and understand what the land was like in the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Ages.

Over September we started work on three areas – Barrow 11, a small patch of high ground which in the past had revealed Mesolithic (10,000 – 4,000 BC) flints, and a low-lying, boggy area which, following a geophysical resistivity survey, showed a large ditched enclosure.

Bronze Age honing tool discovery : Credit : Lyn Pease
Bronze Age honing tool discovery : Credit : Lyn Pease

As I had been one of the geophysical survey team earlier in the year I was given the chance to dig a trench over 40 metres long x 2 metres wide across the ditched enclosure, not alone I hasten to add. The de-turfing proved to be extremely hard work as although the underlying soil is mainly sand, the bog grass had deep and very tenacious roots and the turfs could only be cut using very sharp spades and lots of jumping on the spades giving the effect of manic pogo-stick bouncing archaeologists behaving like loons. Once we had cleared part of the trench a couple of us set to work to find the ditch.

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In doing so we were rewarded by finding the most beautiful Neolithic flints, identified by our expert, Anthony Haskins of Oxford East Archaeology. Anthony was so excited by the quality of our finds that we realised very early on in the 3 week dig that we had some very special flints indeed. Our luck carried on until the very last day when we were still finding ‘wonderful things’.

After a week of hard digging in the eastern end of our trench we found the top of the ditch that we had hoped to find and that’s when the fun started. We gradually worked our way down through many context layers and then we found a huge layer of wood running along the ditch bottom.

This layer was approximately 80 cm wide by approximately 1 metre long but as it disappeared into the baulk its’ true length may never be known. It was 40 cm deep and we are still not clear what its’ purpose was. Many theories were discussed as is the way with archaeologists and we discussed and considered our findings at great lengths. The three main theories were: a tree trunk fallen into the ditch, a planked revetment to prevent the ditch side collapsing, or a planked entrance way over the ditch.

A large slice was cut off by Dr. Needham and was carefully wrapped in cling film ready to be transported to Reading University for analysis – we await the results with great anticipation. We were also very lucky to find Neolithic flints both beside and under the wood once we had removed it.

There was also a large stake of very well preserved wood (under the water table), which has also been sent for analysis. Other samples were taken from the section and base of the trench in the hope that seeds, pollen and insects will be found and help us to understand the landscape of The Heath in prehistoric times. We also found a few small pieces of twig or reeds, between 1” and 2” long, these still had bark on them and were very well preserved in the bottom of the waterlogged ditch. One piece seemed to have a notch cut into it. These were all bagged up and sent off for analysis.

Sadly by the end of the 3 weeks we were still unable to work out what the enclosure was used for, but we hope to revisit this area of The Heath again next year and open up another trench across the ditch.

Meanwhile in the 2 other areas of the dig great finds were being excavated, including thousands of Mesolithic flints from the higher ground site and in a small test pit to one side a piece of Neolithic pottery was a great and exciting find. On the Barrow 11 site there was a huge feeling of elation as find upon find came up, volunteers who had never been on a dig before were having exciting experiences.

Finds included a fine grade whetstone with a hole bored at the top to enable it to be hung either around the neck or waist, this whetstone helped identify the whereabouts of a small Bronze Age wooden coffin up to 4,000 years old at the centre of the Barrow Mound, this find is of national significance. Unfortunately no bones were found but this could be due to poor soil conditions. Fragments of a bronze dagger were also found near the whetstone and the coffin but due to the soil conditions no metal properties remained. It was identified as Camerton-Snowshill style by Dr Needham.

Also in this area were found 9 flints and 2 further whetstones of courser grade. Other tang and barb arrowheads of the Bronze Age period were found whilst digging the large trench into the barrow. The way in which the barrow was constructed was fascinating to see, with the layers of turfs used being so clearly defined in the deep section. Layers of sandy soil and decomposed turf showed up as a checkerboard effect all the way from the Bronze Age ground level to the top of the raised mound.

But apart from all this really exciting archaeology in my home town of Petersfield, one of the over-riding memories I have of the dig will be the involvement of so many volunteers. I have been digging since I was 12, and I enjoyed seeing novice diggers finding ‘stuff’ for the first time and getting totally immersed in experiencing the joy and comradeship that I have known on so many digs that I have been involved with over the years.

We are all looking forward to digging next year and learning more about The People of The Heath.

Written by Lyn Pease

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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