Dorset life in the Iron Age | Looking Back

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The latest Winterborne Kingston dig reveals the lifestyle and habits of our Dorset forebears more than 2,000 years ago, says Roger Guttridge

Dr Miles Russell describes the latest dig to some of the open day visitors
All images: Roger Guttridge

Fresh insights into life in Dorset more than 2,000 years ago are emerging following the latest Bournemouth University archaeological dig on the chalk downs near Winterborne Kingston.
Since 2009, students and volunteers have carried out 11 excavations on eight sites at North West Farm.
‘The earliest thing we have found is Bronze Age from 1400 BC and the most recent has been post-Roman at about AD 500 – so almost 2,000 years of archaeology,’ says Dr Miles Russell, Bournemouth University’s senior lecturer and archaeological field work director.
The digs have captured the public imagination and more than 1,000 people turned out for the latest open day on 3rd July.
The main feature this year was 65 Iron Age pits dug into the chalkland, with depths ranging from 1 metre to 2.5 metres and dated to 100 BC and earlier.
They are sited within a banjo enclosure of banks and ditches, so-called because it is shaped like the musical instrument with a long neck or entrance as well as a circular enclosure.
The banjo dates from 300 to 100 BC and was probably used to contain cattle.
Two roundhouses were also found but the floors have been destroyed by ploughing.
It’s thought the pits were originally used as sealed underground larders for storing grain, meat and dairy produce.
But they also appear to have found a second purpose.
‘Many contain animal bodies that had been dropped in before the pits were back-filled,’ said Dr Russell.
‘We think they put animal body parts at the bottom as offerings to the gods.
‘We have found sheep, cattle and horse body-parts but with the flesh still on them and the bones still articulated.
‘We have also found the complete remains of a few dogs, which may have been hunting dogs or perhaps guard dogs. Britain was known for its hunting dogs.’
The animal parts date from about 100 BC, around the time when the pits were abandoned and 150 years before the Romans arrived.
Dr Russell says the latest discoveries are leading to a better understanding of rituals of that period.
‘The majority of the animals we’ve found were not butchered for meat,’ he says.

Bournemouth Univeristy students Katie Spurgeon (left) and Katrina Tomlinson excavating a 2.3-metre pit

Dorset burials
The 2022 dig also uncovered five human burials from 100 BC to AD 50, bringing the total from all sites excavated to about 60.
The five were all buried near the top of the disused storage pits.
This was after the site was abandoned, suggesting that the bodies were brought there by people living nearby.
‘Dorset was almost the only place in the country where they buried their dead in the Iron Age, so we’re able to get information about health, nutrition, injuries and age at death that we don’t get anywhere else,’ says Dr Russell.
The human remains have been taken to the university to be studied before being reburied close to where they were found.
The archaeologists are still uncertain about how people on this well-drained chalk downland obtained their water.
The bones of hundreds of frogs found at the bottom of some of the pits imply that there must have been ponds or some other regular water source nearby.
Yet no clay-lined ponds have been found, suggesting that the locals may have had to fetch their water from the Winterborne stream more than a mile away.
‘It’s something we have been unable to resolve,’ he says.It’s assumed that the frogs were attracted into the pits by dampness or water at the bottom, and having got in, they couldn’t climb out.
Together, the North West Farm digs are contributing to a potential re-writing of the presumed history of the area at and before the Roman invasion in AD 44.

Volunteer archaeologist Lorraine Pither with a cow’s skull and horse mandibles recovered from the pits

The traditional assumption is that the local Durotriges tribe lived in hillforts such as Maiden Castle, Hod Hill, Hambledon Hill and Badbury Rings and fought to defend them against the invading Romans.
‘But the evidence suggests that the hillforts were mostly abandoned 100 years before the Romans arrived,’ says Dr Russell.
‘What has been interpreted as evidence of battles might simply have been target practice.
‘There was something happening at the big settlements with hillforts, and some of the big banjo enclosures are coming to an end at the same date. Nobody knows why.’
The archaeologists expect to return next year to an area with so much archaeology that Dr Russell says it would ‘take centuries to dig it all’.
Finds on adjoining sites in previous years have included Iron Age roundhouses from 100 BC and a Roman villa close to the graves of five people who may have been its owners.
‘Of the 700 villas excavated in Britain, so far no others have produced a burial ground,’ said Dr Russell in 2014.

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