Excavating the CA archive: The National Trust, 1986-2005

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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 4 July. 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 DIGI353, 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.

This latest column continues the thread that I began last month, exploring Current Archaeology’s coverage of sites in the care of the National Trust. Last time I looked at stories from issues 1-100 (1967-1986), and this month I delve into issues 101-200, spanning 1986 to 2005.

CA 110 paid a visit to the popular walking and picnic spot Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire, where a team from the University of Nottingham had uncovered evidence for a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, an Iron Age defended settlement, and a post-Roman ‘palace’.

The National Trust’s Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire sits on a prominent spur of the Cotswold escarpment, offering magnificent views. It is a popular site for locals and visitors alike, and rightly so: on a fine day there are few better spots for a walk and – if the weather is kindly – a picnic. In issue 110 (July 1988), CA paid the site a visit to celebrate 18 years of fieldwork there by the University of Nottingham. From 1969 onwards, a team from the university had been revealing the rewarding and complex history of the site, one where no ploughing has ever damaged the archaeological deposits, enabling even ephemeral traces of past activity to be picked up.

That history began with a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, but the team showed that later the hill became an Iron Age defended settlement with a pathway at the bottom leading up to a platform (possibly a shrine), and then, in the post-Roman period, the stronghold of a ‘petty chief’ with a ‘palace’ within the former Iron Age palisaded enclose. Work continued at Crickley Hill until 1993, and in total nearly 1,000,000 artefacts were discovered in one of the most comprehensive archaeological projects of its kind.

A very different landscape, and one with more challenging conditions for both visitors and archaeologists, came in issue 133 (March/April 1993), when CA headed to the Brecon Beacons, specifically Pen y Fan and Corn Du, the two highest points in southern Britain and famous as the training ground of generations of British soldiers at the army’s infantry battle school there. CA visited to explore how the National Trust, in partnership with the National Park Authority, was dealing with erosion to archaeological sites caused by soldiers and visitors – hundreds of thousands of them each year.

So bad had erosion become that, in May 1990, the Trust surveyed the area, leading to rescue excavations in 1991 at Pen y Fan, and in 1992 at Corn Du, to recover what archaeological deposits remained before the sites there were completely destroyed. As the magazine explained, the challenges of undertaking fieldwork nearly 890m above sea level were considerable: ‘thanks to 666 Squadron Army Air Corps, we were able to have our site-hut and equipment airlifted at the start and end of each season… but we had to climb up every day between times’. If any of the archaeologists who undertook this strenuous work are reading this, do get in touch with your memories and ideally your site photos – this surely wins a special award for being members of the SAS of archaeology.

CA 142 explored the archaeology of White Horse Hill, whose immediately recognisable horse was covered during the Second World War, then uncovered afterwards.

No less iconic (but certainly less strenuous) a site appeared in issue 142 (March/April 1995), when CA visited White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire, reporting on a group from the Oxford Archaeological Unit who were lucky enough to live and work on the hill in mid 1993 as part of a joint English Heritage/ National Trust survey and excavation. The team revealed everything from Bronze Age to Romano-British settlement, as well as evidence of the covering and uncovering of the famous horse during and after the Second World War. As the magazine explained, the horse was covered during the war to prevent it becoming a landmark for enemy aircraft, and then at the end of the war it was exposed once more by agricultural workers, under the direction of archaeologist W F Grimes.

A Liverpool council house – the home
of a different type of icon, Paul McCartney – was the subject of an article by National Trust archaeologist Robert Woodside in CA 154.

When it comes to British culture, the National Trust is an equal opportunity organisation. How many other charities give their members and visitors the opportunity to rub shoulders with prehistoric and 20th-century icons alike? I’ll explain. CA moved from White Horse Hill in issue 142 to the fabulous if humble homes of some Liverpool lads who put Britain on the map in a very different way in issue 154 (September 1997). The Trust had at this time acquired 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool, the home of Paul McCartney between 1955 and 1963. It was here that the Beatles formed as a band, writing such famous songs as ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Please Please Me’ at the house.

As National Trust archaeologist Robert Woodside explained, ‘when people think of archaeology, they usually think of holes in the ground, grassy humps and bumps, and, increasingly, historic buildings. The study of a 1950s council house may be unusual, but if we as archaeologists insist that archaeology is “the understanding of human activity through the study of the material culture of the past”, then we must accept that history has no boundaries and no cut-off point’. Hundreds of thousands of visitors agree: the combined tours of Forthlin Road and ‘Mendips’ (the childhood home of John Lennon, also now in the care of the Trust) are hugely popular, attracting visitors from around the globe.


Two rather more conventional archaeological sites were covered in issues 156 (March 1998) and 180 (July 2002): the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset and Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. The former is perhaps as celebrated a part of the British landscape as the Fab Four, featuring – for good and bad – on virtually every possible form of consumer item, often amusing – but, perhaps, sometimes embarrassing – unfamiliar visitors. It was given to the Trust nearly 100 years ago, in 1920. A little-known fact about the Giant (which is usually viewed from afar) is that above the chalk-cut figure is a rectangular earthwork enclosure known as the Trendle, believed to date to the Iron Age. Part of the ongoing challenge for the Trust is managing this delicate downland landscape, which means leaving it alone as much as possible – the chalk is replaced every decade or so, a process that takes days of work by National Trust rangers and volunteers. The more the ground is disturbed, the more quickly the Giant erodes. CA visited in 1988 to take a look at a geophysical survey of the site that was attempting better to understand the history of this enigmatic feature.

Cover of CA 180, featuring Sutton Hoo.

If there is such a thing as a spiritual home for the archaeologists of the National Trust, then a fair bet would place this home at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, burial place of Anglo-Saxon monarchs and the site of repeated fieldwork across the years by some of the greatest names in archaeology. In 2002, CA went to the site during fieldwork in advance of the then-new visitor centre that was being built at the time. As the magazine revealed, archaeological investigations at the site continue to turn up surprises, in this case a large (and previously unknown) Anglo-Saxon cemetery comprising of 19 inhumations and 17 cremations. Most dramatically, one of the cremations was accompanied by a Celtic-style decorated hanging bowl. Intriguingly, this bowl had been reused as a cremation urn, but originally it had been designed to hang suspended in the air, perhaps over a fire, and three of its attachments (known as escutcheons) were still in place. These were beautifully decorated in a traditional curvilinear Celtic style, with the addition of cells for red enamel inlay, traces of which had survived.

After a period of closure since autumn 2018, Sutton Hoo is now open to visitors once more, with the summer of 2019 marking the completion of a multimillion pound project to transform the visitor experience thanks to a range of supporters, including a £1.8 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the generosity of National Trust members and visitors through donations and fundraising. It is well worth a trip for visitors old and new. But, in the meantime, do join me in the next CA, when I’ll explore more stories of the National Trust from issues 201-300.


For more details on the National Trust sites mentioned in this column, visit these websites:

Crickley Hill, Gloucestershire: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/crickley-hill
Brecon Beacons, South Wales: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/brecon-beacons
White Horse Hill, Oxfordshire: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/white-horse-hill
Forthlin Road, Liverpool: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/beatles-childhood-homes
Cerne Abbas, Dorset: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cerne-giant
Sutton Hoo, Suffolk: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo


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 4 July. 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 ‘DIGI353’

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