Wessex from the Air Plate 1

Wessex from the Air Plate 1 is in Wessex from the Air.

Reference No. 246. County. Dorset. 14 S.W. (130: D. 11, E. 11). Parish. Stourpaine. Latitude. 50° 53' 40" N. Longitude. 2° 20' 12" W. Height above Sea-level. 400 ft. (121 metres); summit, 471 ft. (143 metres). Geological Formation. Upper Chalk. Time and Date of Photograph. 7.2 p.m., 14th July [1928]. Height of Aeroplane. 5,200 ft. (1,585 metres). Speed of Shutter. 1/90th of a second.

About midway between Salisbury and Dorchester, the River Stour enters the chalk region of Dorset. There is thus formed in the steep escarpment of the downs a pass or natural gateway through which communication is possible between the ports of Poole and Christchurch on the English Channel and Somerset and the Bristol Channel. To-day this gateway is of little importance, though used by road and rail; and the two bastions which Nature has left there — Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill — are no longer inhabited. Formerly it was otherwise; not only were these two hills occupied by fortified villages, but so also were at least three others near by. It is possible that this concentration of hill-forts along the sides of the Stour Valley may have been due to the need of an abundant perennial water-supply; it is certain that this need influenced the choice of a habitation-site; but the presence of similar hill-forts elsewhere at a distance from perennial streams proves that other considerations must here have influenced the choice. Amongst them we may reasonably put considerations of strategy; for if the builders of these hill-forts were related to the tribes whom Caesar fought in Gaul their military prowess must have been of no mean order.

'The fortress of Hod Hill,' wrote Sir William Boyd Dawkins in 1900, 'four miles to the northwest of Blandford, forms one of a series of strongholds on the River Stour. To the north of it, at a distance of about a mile, is that of Hambledon [Map]; to the south-east, a distance of four and a half miles, is the fort of Buzbury Rings [Map], and at about nine miles that of Badbury Rings [Map]. These four are on the east side of the river. On the south-west, Spettisbury Rings [Map] overlooks the ford at Crawford Bridge. All, with the exception perhaps of the last, from their size are clearly fortified oppida, capable of protecting a comparatively large population with their flocks and herds.'

We cannot do better than quote Mr. Heywood Sumner's description of the earthworks themselves; 'The camp on Hod Hill was surrounded on the north, the east, and the south sides by triple entrenchments; and on the west by double entrenchments along the steep scarp that falls abruptly to the Stour Valley. The outer bank and ditch on the east and south sides have been partially effaced by cultivation, but they can be traced all round, with gaps in their continuity. The Ordnance Survey ignores this continuity; hence the frequent description of Hod Hill Camp as being surrounded by double entrenchments.

'At the south-western corner, the entrance from the Stour Valley (i. e. the West Gate) is commanded by an outer, flanking bastion, and here the defences are specially strong. The inner bank rises to the prodigious height of 41 feet above the ditch, with a rise of i foot in 2 feet. To scramble up such a bank with a measuring-rod is not easy; imagine such a scramble with a fierce stone-throwing Briton above! We get some idea of the defences of these camps even by peaceful survey.

'This may be supposed to have been the most important entrance, as it would always have been needed for the defenders of the camp in order to obtain access to water — the Stour. There is another specially defended entrance on the eastern side above Steepleton (i.e. the Steepleton Gate). Here the approach to the camp winds between ramparts that must have commanded an enemy on their left flank as they struggled up the narrow pathway of danger; while the incurving horns of the inner bank gave further protection to the defenders of the area. Besides these there are three other entrances which may or may not have been original.'


Mr. Sumner then describes the smaller enclosure in the north-western corner, which has been proved, both by its castrametation and contents, to be a Roman camp of the first or early second century. The camp was formed by cutting off a corner of the bigger one; and it has therefore only two 'Roman' sides. Otherwise, both in size and appearance, it closely resembles the westernmost (D) of the Agricolan camps at Cawthorne, Yorkshire (see Fig. 4). Mr. Sumner calls to our notice the resemblance in execution between this camp and Soldier's Ring (Plate XLIX). Both have the characteristic neatness and precision of Roman earth-work.

Mr. Sumner continues:

Hutchins's History of Dorset, vol. i, 1861, p. 306, gives a "Plan of British and Roman entrenchments on Hod Hill", and the following extract gives a description of the area of the Roman camp, since ploughed up. "The whole appears to be formed with the greatest regularity and precision, and the same order seems to have marked out the disposition of the interior. The marks of tents or huts may still be traced at regular intervals, and appear to have been placed in lines facing the front of the camp, three or four deep, with a large open space between them and the entrenchments. Wide level roads intersected the camp from each entrance. There can be but little question as to the origin of this work; every surviving portion answers perfectly to the system of encampment followed by the Romans, and so minutely described by Polybius (bearing in mind, of course, the difference rendered necessary by the smaller size of this work); and the imagination is wonderfully assisted by the configuration of the surface in supplying the doubtful links. This camp therefore acquires extraordinary interest, if we call to mind that in all probability it is one of the most perfect known of the Roman entrenched camps."

After reading the foregoing description of what was to be seen within the area of this small Roman camp, it is very disappointing to turn to the plan that was taken in 1858 (Hutchins, p. 307). The area is a mere blank! Hutchins gives some account of numerous relics that have been dug up from time to time within the area of the camp on Hod Hill. They were in Mr. Durden's collection at Blandford, but are now in the British Museum. Roach Smith (Collectanea Antiqua, vol. vi) says of them "These antiquities have been collected by Mr. Durden during a considerable number of years in the course of agricultural operations." From which it appears that there had not up to then been any systematic excavation at Hod Hill. The iron weapons found point to occupation during the later portion of the prehistoric Iron Age. The Roman camp, or Lydsbury Rings [Map], as it is called, yielded a number of Roman relics, turned up apparently by the plough. The coins found give a very early date to the Roman occupation of this portion of Hod Hill.

The disappointing plan given in Hutchins's History of Dorset was "taken in 1858, just as the workmen were paring the turf preparatory to cropping the western portion of the area, and prior to the ancient traces being obliterated" Lydsbury Rings [Map] had not then been disturbed, but its area was subsequently ploughed over. In the preface to Dorsetshire: Its Vestiges, Celtic, Roman, Saxon, and Danish, by Charles Warne, 1865, he says: "Thus, and that very recently, the Roman Castrum within the Celtic camp and Oppidum on Hod Hill has, to the lasting disgrace of those concerned, been ruthlessly destroyed; the plough has passed over its Praetorium, and the site once occupied by the surrounding host, with all its details so well defined, is now no longer to be traced; thus an example of Roman castrametation "the finest of its kind, in fact unique, has been obliterated, and that without a voice being raised or an effort made to stay the hand of the despoilers."

'Accordingly, from these two extracts we may assume that the whole of the area of the Roman camp and part of that of the outer camp have been ploughed over.' The actual area once ploughed can clearly be seen on the air-photograph. It occupies about half the total area of the outer camp; the straight furrow-lines can still be distinguished, giving to the western portion a texture or graining quite different from that given by the unploughed turf of the eastern half.

'In the autumn of 1899 excavations were carried out within the area of Hod Hill Camp by Sir Talbot Baker, under the supervision of Professor Sir Boyd Dawkins; and the results are recorded in the Archaeological journal, vol. lvii, 1900. Circular hut enclosures and pits were the earthworks that were examined, and from the relics found in them, "it may be inferred that the settlement on Hod Hill continued to exist from the pre-Roman age well into the time when the Roman influence was dominant in this district". No sections were cut through the defensive banks and ditches, consequently there is no positive evidence as to the original construction or date of the outer defences of Hod Hill Camp....

'The inner rampart that defends the great circuit of the camp on Hod Hill seems to have been strengthened—raised—on three sides, north, east, and south, by means of excavations from the inside. In places these take the shape of semicircular hollows from which spring the ramparts, in other places the shape of a broad and shallow ditch. The summit also of this inner rampart is humpy and irregular, while the summits of the outer ramparts are even and continuous. This may be well seen from below, looking up at the camp from the Steepleton and Hanford road.

The spacious area of this camp is covered with low humps and shallow hollows—now too much wasted by cultivation for definite survey record. They suggest that this site was sought after and fully occupied in prehistoric times.

'The excavations by Professor Sir William Boyd Dawkins.... showed that Roman relics were only found within and near Lydsbury Rings. Apparently but a small portion of the area was occupied by the Romans. And the coins found suggest that their stay was short. When the military necessity of occupying this outpost ceased, the site seems to have been abandoned. There are no signs of continuous occupation throughout the Roman period, such as General Pitt-Rivers found by his excavations at Woodcutts, Rotherley, and Woodyates.'

A visit was made to the hill in December 1925 to see what remains were visible inside the Roman camp. The two raised causeways, leading from the entrances to the centre, are still plainly visible; and so is the traverse outside the southern gate. (This is barely visible on the plate on account of the lighting.) For the rest, a few flinty banks, mostly running east and west, are all that remain.

In the unploughed eastern area of the large pre-Roman camp are innumerable hut-circles. These are perfectly preserved, and are in every instance round. For the most part they consist of a depression, sometimes surrounded by a raised bank, usually more accentuated on the upper side of the depression. Between these hut-sites run two tracks, still quite easy to follow, forming the village streets. At the end of one of these is a square banked enclosure measuring 57 ft. each way. Other less regular banks occur elsewhere.


John Aubrey, Mon. Brit. (Bodleian), i, fol. 25.

Arch. Journ. lvii. 52.

C. Roach Smith, J.B.A.A. iii. 94—9 (Roman camp); xx. 202.

Coll. Ant. vie i, Pls. i, ii, iii. (Vol. iii. 10 says no coins later than Claudius, but see Arch. Journo lvii. 65.)

C. Warne, Ancient Dorset, 1872, pp. 65—9.

Proc. Dorset Field Club, vols. xvi. 157, 158; xix, p. lxxx.

Gent's Mag., 1840, Part 1, pp. 635—6 (Gent's Mag. Library, R.D. remains, 1887, Part 1, p. 58); 1865, Part 2, p. 299 (ibid., p. 59)

Hutchins's History of Ancient Dorset, 1861, vol. i, pp. 306—7.

R. A. Smith, British Museum Guide to the Antiquities of the Early Iron Age, 2nd ed. (1925), pp. 132—4 and figs. 93, 146, and 145 (plan),

NOTE. I am indebted to Mr. R. A. Smith, F.S.A., for several of the above references.