The Lord Mayor, Leaf Cover and Charcoal Luck: A Hillfort Excavation at Seven Ways Plain, by Dr Wendy Morrison

Thursday 25 November 2021

Here's an update from our Beacons from the Past Project Manager, archaeologist Dr Wendy Morrison, on her recent solo excavation of Seven Ways Plain Hillfort at Burnham Beeches. The excavation took place from Wednesday 27th October to Tuesday 2nd November. Read Wendy's article about the challenges of excavating in a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), a visit from the Lord Mayor of London, and more importantly, what she discovered. You can also watch the playlist of Wendy's video updates of the taken throughout the week.   

An Autumn Excavation at Seven Ways Plain, by Dr Wendy Morrison

Autumn’s cold is descending upon us, like the beech leaves above our heads. It’s hard to believe that a mere three years ago, I was willing those leaves to drop faster, as they were holding up the first flights of our Beacons of the Past Lottery Funded LiDAR survey. Now, after the passage of time, half of which we have spent under various pandemic restrictions, I’m taking stock of what the LiDAR has done for the project, and what else has been possible.

Local Relief Model visualisation of LiDAR at Seven Ways Plain hillfort image ©CCB


Thanks to the thousands of volunteers who are spotting and recording archaeological features, and the hard working core of Review Panel volunteers, we have been able to provide local authorities to inform decisions made concerning the protection of features in the landscape when developments are put forward.  Additionally, the discovery of so many new features enriches and in some case changes our understanding of how the Chilterns were settled and shaped over the last several thousand years.

Not all of the archaeological discovery happens at the point of a mouse cursor these days, though – the point of a trowel still comes into play (though not as often as I’d like!). This past month, at one of the project hillfort sites, an excavation took place. Hosted by project partner Corporation of London,  we’d dug at Burnham Beeches before, in 2019 successfully fielding over 80 volunteers in a community trench across what turned out to be a very likely medieval enclosure ditch and bank, probably for managing deer herds. You can read the report here. However, due to COVID considerations, a small trench with a lot of people in it wasn’t really a sensible thing to do. And yet, we really wanted to secure some further information about the hillfort.  Had the 2019 earthwork been firmly prehistoric in date, it might have helped us with our hillfort thinking, but as it didn’t seem to be, it was time to think again.

A trench across the ramparts seemed like the sensible thing to do - a bit of dating evidence trapped in the layers that make up the banks would help pin down when the earthwork was constructed! However, Seven Ways Plain hillfort is not only a Scheduled Monument, but also a SSSI and managed woodland pasture with ancient pollards on it. This meant that in order to secure the proper permissions, the trench would have to be where it could do no harm to pollard roots, or other protected features. After a long consultation, only a small slice of space was found to meet all the requirements – a trench only a metre wide!  

I decided to dig it myself – it shouldn’t take long, it would keep the COVID risk down, and for fun, I would Live Stream all the action. What could possibly go wrong?

Burnham Beeches was selected to house the bulk of the vehicle fleet destined for Normandy Beaches in 1944.The reason? – All that tree canopy hid the troops very well. Funnily enough, that tree canopy is also very good at blocking a 4G signal! So no Live Streaming for me…which was probably to the good; as my mentor once (jokingly?) told me, ‘archaeology is 95% tedium and 5% mild interest’.

Instead, I documented each day with a series of videos, taking the viewer from the laying out of the trench, right the way through to backfilling. The week went well, with well over 500 visitors to see a live dig in action; even the Lord Mayor of London called in with his entourage. I was lucky to have an old friend and colleague come out to dig with me at the weekend, and to have one of the rangers help me backfill at the end. So not an entirely solo dig!

The Lord Mayor's visit on 28th October


And what did I discover? Well, I could be churlish and say ‘watch the videos to find out!’ But in a nutshell, the miraculous occurred – I found a scrap of dating evidence in both the layers of the construction as hoped, and in the undisturbed lowest silts filling the ditch, which possibly will help date when the hillfort went out of consistent use. In both instances, this evidence was in the form of charcoal, which if of sufficient quality and quantity, will produce radiocarbon dates. To find dating evidence in a rampart earthwork is very lucky under any circumstances – to do so in a 1m keyhole was amazingly good luck! Dating the concrete structure that had disturbed much of the ditch fill was easier- a 1941 George VI half-penny sorted that…

All in all it was a very successful week of investigation. An interim report will be forthcoming and will be posted on the CCB website, as will a full report when the radiocarbon dates come through (there is about a 6-8 month wait at the lab) so do watch this space! Next April we will have a new community trench at Burnham Beeches, so do sign up for the Project mail list to be sure you are in the know. 

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