Bronze Age monument, prehistoric campsite found in southern England

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Archaeological excavations in the New Forest have investigated the remains of a highly significant Bronze Age monument dating back more than 4,000 years.

Bronze Age monument, prehistoric campsite found in southern England
Aerial photo showing the double barrow ring ditch as a dark cropmark
[Credit: New Forest National Park Authority]

The ring ditch monument, on the Beaulieu Estate, is thought to have played an important role in the local community for many generations, although exactly what it was used for remains a mystery.




During two digs at the location, archaeologists and volunteers discovered the Bronze Age ring ditch monument and five Bronze Age cremation urns. The team also found some unexpected evidence of much earlier inhabitants from the Mesolithic period (8000 – 2700 BC).

Bronze Age monument, prehistoric campsite found in southern England
One of the 2019 trenches focused on a gap in the ring ditch, which may have been used 
as an entrance to the internal space [Credit: New Forest National Park Authority]

The project’s final report has now been published and includes some fascinating facts about the prehistoric communities who once inhabited the New Forest.

The Beaulieu investigations were part of an archaeology project led by the New Forest National Park Authority (NPA) and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund through the Our Past, Our Future, Landscape Partnership Scheme. The team included experts from the NPA and Bournemouth University working with more than 40 volunteers.

Bronze Age monument, prehistoric campsite found in southern England
Volunteers carefully excavating Middle Bronze Age cremation urns,
sampling the surrounding soil in buckets for further analysis
[Credit: New Forest National Park Authority]

Hilde van der Heul, Community Archaeologist at the NPA, said: ‘This project is a great example of how quality archaeological research can be undertaken as part of a community project with volunteers learning archaeological techniques and processes.




‘The project aimed to give a better understanding of the New Forest’s prehistoric past, with the direct involvement of the local community, and to share that knowledge with the wider world.

Bronze Age monument, prehistoric campsite found in southern England
Three of five urns discovered at the site were found to contain cremated human bone
[Credit: New Forest National Park Authority]

‘It was an exciting opportunity for volunteers with an interest in archaeology and heritage to get some hands-on experience in the field, especially with rare and important findings like these.’

Work on the project began with a week-long dig in 2018 and a two-week excavation followed in 2019. In total, five Middle Bronze Age (c 1500-1100 BC) urns were discovered, three of which were lifted and carefully excavated at Bournemouth University where they were found to contain cremated human bone.

Bronze Age monument, prehistoric campsite found in southern England
Radiocarbon dating of the shell placed it and the flint tools as having come from around
5,736–5,643 BC — during the Mesolithic [Credit: New Forest National Park Authority]

Following the excavations, finds and soil samples recovered were processed at Bournemouth University and the pottery, human bone, flint and charred organic remains were all analysed by specialists. The investigation of the ring ditch monument has added significantly to our knowledge of prehistoric activity in the New Forest, particularly in terms of improving our understanding of Bronze Age monument building and burial practices in the region.




Jon Milward, Project Officer with Bournemouth University Archaeological Research Consultancy, said: ‘Monuments with “entrances” and apparent open interiors such as this one may have been meeting spaces used to carry out rituals and ceremonies that were important to the local community.

‘There is evidence here of regular modification and an apparent continuity of use over a long time, implying that this monument was perhaps more than a burial place and played a significant role in the community for many generations.’

The charred remains of a hazelnut shell sent to America for radiocarbon dating was given a surprisingly confident Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) date of 5736 – 5643 BC. This shell and two flint tools from the same period were the earliest finds from the site and indicate there may have been a campsite in the area.

Jon Milward added: ‘Archaeological evidence from the Mesolithic period is rare but now and again we do find flint tools and evidence for these temporary settlement sites. We know of a few Mesolithic sites close to Beaulieu River and it appears there was another at this site.’

Source: New Forest National Park Authority [November 21, 2020]

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