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2007: Prehistoric Field Systems and Little Combes Excavations


The later prehistoric use of this landscape is well attested with Bronze Age barrows and occupation sites and Iron Age hill enclosures, however the dating of some sites such as the Goosehill enclosure and of wide spread features such as cross ridge dykes is ambiguous. During May 2006 we started our landscape survey to characterise some of these features by looking at the land immediately to the south of West Dean College. David McOmish (English Heritage) helped to train some of our students in topographic survey by looking at the slopes below the Trundle (where a Neolithic Causewayed Enclosure and Iron Age Hill Fort are located) where they identified a series of large lynchets. Lynchets are banks which are formed at the end of a field because the soil, loosened by the plough, gradually erodes down slope, stopping at the end of the field where it probably met a field boundary. We were particularly interested in this area because a number of small platforms were identified next to the lynchets, at one of which moles had revealed knapped and fire-cracked flint as well as a couple of sherds of pottery which led us to believe this might be a Bronze Age hut platform similar to those excavated by Peter Drewett (1982) at Black Patch. However lynchets have been variously dated to the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Romano-British and early Medieval periods; indeed it is possible that some of these fields remained in use for millennia. So, we decided to investigate when this area of land was brought into cultivation and what social, economic and environmental factors have shaped the changing use of this part of the landscape.


In November 2006 a group of 2 nd year undergraduate students led by Mark Tibble and Tobias Richter began a detailed topographic survey of the lynchets. While we were undertaking this the Estate Manager, Simon Ward, informed us that earlier in the century the area was used for a golf course, and the location of the platforms we had identified did indeed correspond with the 9 squares shown on the 1912 Ordinance Survey Map! However, in April 2007 Mark Tibble undertook a magnetometer survey of this area which showed areas of high magnet reading (possibly due to extensive use of fire) close to the platform where we had encountered the flint and Bronze Age pottery. We focused the 2007 and 2008 summer training course on this area and Ulrike Sommer directed the excavations to address several different questions: When was this area of land brought into cultivation? How were the fields initially defined? Was their evidence for any associated activities, such as occupation? When did the fields go out of use? Our excavations revealed a surprising quantity of fairly large sherds of Middle Bronze Age flint tempered pottery which suggests that the lynchets came into use earlier than the major period of construction at the nearby Trundle Hill Fort. A pitted surface on the upper part of two lynchets may suggest that hedges ran along the top of the slope, but it is currently unclear if these were laid out at the start of lynchet formation or if they developed later. The high density of fire cracked flint and survival of the low fired pottery is more than would be expect from manuring practices and this leads us to believe that there was indeed some domestic occupation or other activity in the immediate area of Trenches 1, 2 and 5, but we have not yet located this. 


In 2008 we opened further trenches, partly to assess the potential hedge line, this revealed the extensive area of pitting, however the rounded nature of the chalk and with fine silt infill suggests that this was in fact a relic of the acidic soil underlying a Mesolithic forest which has been protected in some areas underneath the banks of the lynchets. During informal walking in the area we have identified similar lynchets covering over 200 hectares in the immediate area, some of which Rob Davies is mapped for his undergraduate dissertation. It is likely that these all date to the same period, suggesting a time of intensive arable agricultural which subsequently collapsed and that the field systems have been preserved precisely because these fields have rarely been ploughed in subsequent years. A few eroded sherds of Roman Pottery could suggest a continued use of the lynchets into the Roman Period, but this area has largely been used as sheep pasture since historic times (as suggested in a map of 1623). Drewett P. 1982 Later Bronze Age Downland Economy and Excavations at Black Patch, East Sussex Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 48 pp321-400.

Cunliffe B. 1973 The Regni. London: Duckworth.

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