A visit to Martin Green’s remarkable Down Farm Museum is highly recommended, says Rupert Hardy, chair of North Dorset CPRE
Martin Green may farm 260 acres of land organically on Cranborne Chase, but he is best known for his extraordinary archaeological work there, and for the impressive Down Farm Museum he set up behind the farm, which is full of his finds – flint tools and prehistoric artefacts from the Paleolithic to the Romano-British period.
His family has been farming here since the 30s and he started picking up flints as a child, his curiosity sparked by his father’s interest. The Greens knew the area the farm had prehistoric remains, but their profusion was only unearthed by Martin, who started digging in 1976.
His hero was General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, the Victorian soldier, scientist and archaeologist, who excavated many sites on the Rushmore estate and elsewhere. His mentor was Richard Bradley, who became a Professor of Archaeology at Reading University.
Although Martin was not formally trained, he worked closely with Prof Bradley in the late 1970s on the Pitt-Rivers project which re-examined the large and important Pitt-Rivers collection of 26,000 archaeological and ethnographic objects to a new museum at Oxford University.
There are a number of excavated and sensitively preserved prehistoric sites, including round pond barrows and henges (enclosures surrounded by ditches and banks), on the farm. One of the most extraordinary is the Neolithic Dorset Cursus which crosses the farm. Overall, it runs for six miles, mostly westwards, but this was only fully realised in the 1950s. It is the longest in Britain and Martin has only recently excavated part of it. Originally consisting of a pair of parallel banks, some of the Cursus is still visible. It is assumed the Cursus served a religious or ceremonial function related to its southwesterly orientation following astronomical alignments. From the eastern end you can see the midwinter sun set behind the long barrow on the ridge of Gussage Down; a magical experience if you are lucky enough to get a sunny winter solstice.
Martin believes the profusion of sites on his farm related to the location of the Cursus here, but another factor may be the Ackling Dyke, a Roman road which also crosses the farm.
Another remarkable site on the farm is the Fir Tree Field Shaft, which is estimated to be more than 25m deep, even though it has only been excavated to 13m. The shaft was formed by natural processes due to water percolation from melting glaciers at the end of the Ice Age. Finds in the pit range from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic, covering the period from hunter gathering to farming, and including bones of deer, aurochs, flint tools and pottery. Some of the deer clearly fell in. Aurochs were ancestors of modern cattle, domesticated by Neolithic people but long extinct.
Many universities, including Cambridge and Reading, have been involved in the digs on the farm, with students receiving practical courses on excavation techniques and going on archaeological field trips run by Martin.
In recognition of his work and knowledge, Martin was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science by Reading University. In 2000 he wrote a book about archaeology and his farm, “A Landscape Revealed: 10,000 Years on a Chalkland Farm”, which is a fascinating read. Prof Bradley said of it: ”Martin must be the most professional amateur [archaeologist] in Britain, but his work is so important that the term is simply not sufficient. His achievement is unique, as this book shows us”.
One recent development has been the construction of a Neolithic house at the Butser Ancient Farm museum in Hampshire, modelled on the one Martin excavated at Down Farm.
Farmer or archaeologist?
Martin sees advantages in his joint roles as farmer and archaeologist which enable him to distinguish what is genuine (or not), such as crop marks. He believes strongly in protecting the environment, and he is in the process of introducing rare breed cattle, which will help establish more wild flowers in his fields. He sees technology as a major aid to archaeologists; geophysics shows how the Cursus functioned. Drones and 3D laser scanning (LiDAR) are also very useful tools, through which more prehistoric sites are being discovered on Cranborne Chase and elsewhere every year.
Surprisingly, his favourite artefact is a flint knife found in Yorkshire, not Dorset, which you can see in his museum. Asked what conveys his life’s work he quotes the words of General Pitt-Rivers: “It was if some unseen hand had guided me to be the owner of such a property”.
Dorset CPRE has organised several visits to Down Farm. Groups of six or more are welcome at his museum – please contact Martin on email@example.com. He can lead tours of the prehistoric sites on the farm too, which I thoroughly recommend.