Excavating the CA archive: The National Trust, 1967-1987

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 6 June. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI352, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of
Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

When I started writing these columns on the history of Current Archaeology back in 2016 (beginning in CA 320), I was employed by Historic England, the government’s advisory body on the historic environment. Recently, however, I accepted a new position at the National Trust, working across south-east England on the amazing sites and landscapes in the Trust’s care. With this change in roles, it seemed appropriate to devote my next few columns to National Trust sites that have appeared in the pages of CA down the years. I am pleased to report that such appearances have been regular and diverse, featuring sites spanning prehistory to the late 20th century and ranging across the country. This column focuses on some of the Trust’s sites – and the stories that appeared about them – from the first two decades of the magazine, between 1967 and 1987.


The first mention of the National Trust in the pages of CA comes in issue 15 (July 1969), with the much-loved Housesteads Roman Fort in Northumberland, part of the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site. This feels like an auspicious place to start my explorations of the CA archive, since the fort was acquired by the National Trust in 1930 but has long been in the partnered and highly successful care of both the Trust and English Heritage. CA was on Hadrian’s Wall in 1969 for the first of its periodic special issues on the area, timed to coincide with the ‘pilgrimage’ to the Wall undertaken every decade since 1849 by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne (see my column in CA 326 for more on this event). Alas, the 2019 pilgrimage is fully booked, but do add a note to your diaries for your July 2029 holiday plans – and look out for the next CA, which will be the latest of those special issues.

The cover of CA 15 showcased the first National Trust site to be mentioned in the magazine: Housesteads Roman Fort.

For issue 39 (July 1973), CA visited another Roman site in the combined care of the National Trust and English Heritage: the Roman city of Viroconium, better known as Wroxeter. The best-preserved sections of the city are managed and opened to the public by English Heritage, but one third of the city has long been in the ownership of the National Trust as part of nearby Attingham Park, a 4,000-acre estate with an 18th-century mansion at the heart of its parkland landscape. A wonderful day (in fact, multiple days) can be spent exploring this area, following in the footsteps of many visitors down the ages, including CA, which visited in 1973 to catch up on the long-running fieldwork then under way on the city (see my column in CA 338 for more on this).

Long-running fieldwork at the Roman city of Wroxeter, part of which lies in the National Trust-owned Attingham Park estate, featured in CA 39.

CA 96 (April 1985) saw the magazine back at Housesteads, this time reporting on fieldwork at what remains one of the finest and most heavily visited stretches of the Wall, just west of Housesteads, between Castle Nick and Highshield Crags. Here, scouring had been taking place due to the sheer number of visitors, and so a 300m length of wall and footpath was excavated and consolidated. As the magazine explained, ‘[the] excavations have revealed that certain sections of the Wall were built with a very hard white lime mortar: in places, it appears that the mortar was either applied very excessively to the outside wall, or there was an attempt actually to render the Wall. If so, the Wall would have been gleaming white.’ The excavations also revealed some intriguing finds at arguably the single most iconic location along the entirety of the Wall: Sycamore Gap, a site that has appeared in countless film and TV productions over the years. Here, almost uniquely for the Wall, a dump of pottery was discovered of late Antonine date, around AD 175, and sealed by later additions to the Wall itself. The reasons for the deposit remain unclear to this day.

CA returned to Hadrian’s Wall in issue 108 (February 1988), following up on an unexpected discovery made in the summer of 1987 that shows the surprises that the Wall continues to be capable of revealing. As Jim Crow, the National Trust archaeologist who led the fieldwork at this time, explained in the magazine, ‘Hadrian’s Wall was usually constructed to an extremely regular pattern. Every mile there was a mile-castle and between the mile-castles there were two smaller towers, known as turrets. Last summer, however, an exception to this rule was discovered at Peel Gap, where a third tower was discovered between turrets 39A and 39B’. As the author continued, ‘the solution possibly lies in arithmetic: the gap between 39A (Peel Crags) and 39B (Steel Rigg) is the longest interval between turrets known on Hadrian’s Wall… the Peel Gap tower lies midway between the turrets to close this gap’. So another chapter was added to the story of the Wall and of the Trust’s care for it.

The magazine returned to Hadrian’s Wall for CA 108’s cover story on the joint National Trust and English Heritage fieldwork at Peel Gap.

From the Roman frontier, CA swept south for our next National Trust site. Issue 21 (July 1970) took a close look at Belle Tout in East Sussex, the dramatic cliff-top Bronze Age enclosure that forms part of the Trust’s landholdings of Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters. This article, coincidentally, was written by – at that time – a new and little-known name on the archaeological scene, Richard Bradley, who went on to forge a distinguished career in prehistory at the University of Reading, where he is now Emeritus Professor. Bradley was exploring Belle Tout as part of his wider reassessment of Beaker settlements. He made an excellent case for the national significance of the site, a case that has stood the test of time, including return visits by a later generation of archaeologists. This is a site, and an issue, that I shall return to in a later column.

Heading further back in time, CA 27 explored the glorious Bronze Age hillfort of Mam Tor.

Speeding back north, another stunning Bronze Age site in the care of the National Trust made an appearance on the pages of issue 27 (July 1971). The magazine visited glorious Mam Tor, a Bronze Age hillfort near Castleton in the Peak District. This is a location deeply loved by walkers – and stargazers – for its uninterrupted views and minimal light pollution. CA headed to the site to report on the results of a recent excavation by the University of Manchester that helped provide excellent evidence for the nature, extent, and dating of prehistoric settlement here. The site is freely open to the public and is well worth a visit, but as both CA and the National Trust make clear, it is one for the hardier visitor. At 517m above sea level, it is one of the highest hillforts in Britain, and the Trust’s website highlights that it has ‘a strenuous ascent with steps and rough surfaces’. Do please visit, but be sure to go prepared!

So went the story of the National Trust in the first 20 years of CA: prehistoric and Roman sites of amazing complexity in some of our most dramatic, and most beloved, landscapes. In subsequent columns, I shall return to Hadrian’s Wall, but will also travel widely across the Trust’s estate, exploring everything from the resting places of Anglo-Saxon monarchs to the humble, but equally cherished, childhood homes of some more modern British icons – I hope that you’ll join me again.


Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 6 June. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI352’

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