Dorset is home to some stunning archaeological sites, among the most remarkable in the country. Maiden Castle near Dorchester, for example, is to many the definitive Iron Age hillfort (see CA 336, March 2018), and the Cerne Abbas giant is another perennial favourite, its more overt attractions masking the conundrum of its age and origins (see CA 365, August 2020, and CA 376, July 2021). There is no shortage of coverage of the county in Current Archaeology, and so here I will provide some of my personal favourites.
To begin with, there are some superb multi-period sites: for example, Bestwall Quarry, on the shores of Poole harbour immediately east of Wareham, featured in CA 186 (June 2003). A team from Wareham and District Archaeology and Local History Society, led by local legend Lilian Ladle, examined a site there that began its occupation in the late Mesolithic; moved on to become an early/middle Bronze Age settlement with eight roundhouses ritually ‘closed’ at the end of their useful lives; and then had a new lease of life under the Romans as a centre of production of the local, distinctive, black burnished ware pottery. Ladle led work more recently at another multi-period site, at Worth Matravers on the Isle of Purbeck, uncovering a wealth of material primarily from the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, as examined in CA 253 (April 2011) and CA 327 (June 2017).
Dorset is home to many iconic archaeological sites, including Maiden Castle, an Iron Age hillfort that was the cover feature of CA 336, and Bestwall Quarry, a multi- period site east of Wareham, which featured in CA 186.
A PLEASANT DIVERSION INTO PREHISTORY
One of the most famous prehistoric sites in Dorset is Mount Pleasant, just to the east of Dorchester. CA 23 (November 1970) reported on Geoffrey Wainwright’s excavations there, and CA 371 (February 2021) put the site in its wider context of the ‘mega-henges’ of this era. The site features a huge Neolithic enclosure with an associated henge, the latter originally of timber (subsequently replaced by sarsen stones), with an estimated 1,600 posts enclosing an area of 12 acres.
In Dorchester itself, an even more unexpected find was reported in CA 97 (July 1985): that of a Neolithic circle spanning the centre of town, underlying the better-known Roman remains. This comprised hundreds of 3m-deep post-holes, each with a 45° ramp on the west side and signs of a tree-trunk-sized post on the east end. Intriguingly, these posts were spaced closely together (often less than 30cm apart), set on a curve that would have had a total diameter of between 250m and 380m – this approaches in size the giant henges of Avebury and nearby Mount Pleasant. Then, to demonstrate that it was not just Dorchester that was a big thing in Dorset’s prehistory, fieldwork at Down Farm in Cranborne Chase in the east of the county is similarly spectacular. CA 138 (April 1994) and CA 169 (August 2000) reported on fieldwork at the Neolithic and middle Bronze Age settlement there, associated with the Dorset cursus (a Neolithic linear monument that runs for six miles across the county). As a taste of its riches, a deeply cut Neolithic shaft was discovered, which the excavators managed to get 13.2m down into before safety concerns saw them resort to augering below this to 25m.
One further prehistoric site in Dorset lays claim to my affections, and those of many others: that of Hambledon Hill, near Blandford Forum – a Neolithic and Bronze Age enclosure that also encompasses an Iron Age hillfort immediately to the west of the Neolithic site. This is a place of big views and big history. Roger Mercer led fieldwork there across the 1970s and 1980s, as reported in CA 48 (January 1975) and CA 76 (May 1981), while CA 259 (October 2011) provided a modern scientific take on such causewayed enclosures. The site is, happily, in the loving care of my National Trust colleagues in the South-west – see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/dorset/hambledon-hill.
Mount Pleasant, a prehistoric site east of Dorchester, has made the cover of Current Archaeology twice, first in CA 23 and again, more recently, in CA 371.
DIGGING THE DUROTRIGES
I flagged the most famous of Dorset’s hillforts, Maiden Castle near Dorchester, in the introduction. CA 336 (March 2018) featured the site on the front cover, but the full story inside the magazine is far richer – of a survey published at this time in which geophysics transformed our understanding of the development, use, and evolution of these sites. The related book, Hillforts and the Durotriges: a geophysical survey of Iron Age Dorset, is well worth seeking out. Miles Russell, one of the lead authors of the book, has featured regularly in the pages of the magazine thanks both to his research and to his excellent social media work @durotrigesdig and under the hashtag #HillfortsWednesday. As CA 281 (August 2013) explained, since 2009 a team from Bournemouth University, led by Miles, has been investigating the nature of native and Roman interaction in this period and location, including at a ‘banjo enclosure’ near the village of Winterborne Kingston, seven miles south of Blandford Forum. CA 306 (September 2015) gave an update on the project, by which time the team had identified one of the largest and earliest unenclosed Iron Age settlements in Britain, in use from c.100 BC to the Roman invasion of AD 43, with at least 150 roundhouses covering an area of more than 30 acres. CA 313 (April 2016) followed up with an in-depth visit, telling the full story of the site.
We can then turn to Druce Farm, from later in the period. A Roman villa discovered in the mid-1990s by a local metal- detecting club, it was explored in 2012-2018 by a volunteer team from the East Dorset Antiquarian Society (EDAS), led by Lilian Ladle. The site lies just to the east of Dorchester, near Puddletown, and CA 323 (February 2017) first reported from there, with a more recent follow-up in CA 397 (April 2023). Both of these projects challenge us to think differently about their relative chronologies of occupation – how lives, livelihoods, and expectations changed over the centuries of their use and reuse.
The Iron Age site of ‘Duropolis’ and the Roman villa site at Druce Farm have both featured in several issues of the magazine. ‘Duropolis’ made the cover of CA 313, while Druce Farm featured on the cover of CA 323.
DORSET’S MARITIME SUPERHIGHWAY
A different tale of life – and especially death – in Dorset first came in CA 233 (August 2009), which reported on the discovery of an apparent Iron Age massacre burial found near Weymouth. Oxford Archaeology identified the site during work on a relief road on Ridgeway Hill, and CA 235 (October 2009) followed up, by which time the thinking had changed. It was now suggested that the site was more recent, instead dating to the early medieval period – a hypothesis confirmed in CA 243 (June 2010) and CA 245 (August 2010). The burials were probably those of a Viking raiding party killed nearby in AD 890-1043, and CA 299 (February 2015) gave the full story of the site and its analysis of some 50 skeletons, each decapitated, with their skulls in a neat (but grisly) pile at the pit’s southern edge, their bodies thrown roughly into the centre.
The study of these Viking visitors to Dorset is a reminder of the maritime connectivity of this area since prehistory. For example, Hengistbury Head, on the eastern end of Bournemouth, is a famous multi-period maritime entrepôt visited in CA 89 (October 1983), and the history of Poole (both the port town and the wider harbour) is examined in CA 58 (September 1977) and CA 181 (September 2002). Poole Harbour also lays claim to two of the most important shipwrecks identified in British waters in recent times, those of the 13th-century AD ‘mortar wreck’ that featured in CA 390 (September 2022), and of the 17th-century AD ‘Swash channel wreck’ in CA 284 (November 2013) and CA 286 (January 2014). These sites are significant in terms of both their contents and especially their survival, with well-preserved ships’ timbers telling the story of Dorset’s international networks of trade and exchange.
There I must draw to a close, heading away from this coastline and north to neighbouring Somerset, with its very different history of wetland and tidal coastland occupation along the Bristol Channel.
About the author
Joe Flatman 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 X: @joeflatman.