Dorstone Hill

Dorstone Hill, Herefordshire: Excavations 2011-2015

Julian Thomas

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From 2011 onwards, exploratory excavations took place on a series of possible Neolithic hilltop enclosures in the uplands between the Golden Valley and the Wye Valley in south-west Herefordshire, in a collaboration between the University of Manchester and Herefordshire Archaeology.  One of these sites, Dorstone Hill, seemed to consist of a huge bank cutting off a spur of the hilltop, and was presumed to represent a promontory enclosure of putative Neolithic date.  The 2012 work demonstrated that this was actually a series of three long mounds, arranged end to end.  The primary build of the central mound had been composed of a mass of burnt clay and timber.  This was sealed within a layer of turf revetted by a timber palisade, and later a cairn of stones had been built over the whole.  The easternmost mound has a linear timber chamber bracketed between two very large postholes, which was investigated in 2013, while a series of further, stone-built chambers had been inserted into the side of the mounds when the cairn was constructed.  Later, a pit containing a flint axe and a fine flaked knife had been dug into the eastern mound, and a stone axe had been placed in the forecourt of the same mound.  Probably the most unexpected finding of the excavation is that the mounds appear to built over the in-situ remains of one or more timber buildings.  Postholes and stakeholes have been found beneath the central mound, while burned structural timbers have been identified in several locations.

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Work in 2014 focused on the western mound, which had been heavily damaged by bulldozing during the second world war, while on the southern side extensive stone robbing in post-medieval times had removed structural traces. However, the remaining portion of the mound revealed a core of intensely burnt daub and clay containing substantial fragments of burnt timber, encapsulated within a mound of turf. In this respect, the western mound was similar to the central mound, investigated in 2011-13. But while the latter had been contained within a timber palisade, the western mound was bounded by a drystone wall, which survived to several courses on the northern side.

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The mound was markedly trapezoidal in plan, and this form had been enhanced by the addition of a series of buttresses attached to the outer side of the bounding wall, which became more extensive toward the proximal (eastern) end. These buttresses were composed of ‘loops’ of drystone walling, comparable with the internal bay divisions within Cotswold-Severn tombs. They were set within a cut feature that ran parallel with the wall, similar in conception to the ‘buttress pit’ at Penywyrlod (Britnell and Savory 1984). Set back from the wall at the distal end were two small cists or chambers. The larger of these had been defined by a series of orthostats, which had clearly been truncated by the bulldozing. In the area where the mound had been entirely removed by stone robbing, and on either side of the mound (but sealed by mound-wash), numerous postholes began to be revealed, some of them much larger than those that had been identified beneath the central mound in 2013.

In the summer of 2015, further work on the western mound revealed more extensive traces of the underlying timber building. Although on the southern side of the mound the structure had been badly damaged by later stone-robbing and a series of post-medieval structures, on the northern side and along the eastern edge a posthole structure was defined that was probably slightly trapezoidal and of the order of 17 x 30 metres in extent. Lines of very substantial postholes appeared to represent the load-bearing elements of a timber building, while an outer wall line was defined by smaller postholes. The eastern wall of the building intersected with a series of stoneholes marking the façade of the stone-clad long mound, indicating the way that the barrow had been constructed on the same footprint as the earlier building.

The structures at Dorstone Hill are remarkable in a series of respects. It is most unusual to have a series of long mounds arranged end-to-end (although comparisons might be made with the long barrows at the Thickthorn terminal of the Dorset Cursus). More unusual is the architectural diversity of these mounds, with different chamber forms, and the distinction between timber palisade and stone wall. But most unique is the way in which the fabric of ‘houses of the living’ has been incorporated into that of ‘houses of the dead’, so that the barrows serve to commemorate not only past human generations but also the ‘house’ as a social and physical entity.

The Dorstone Hill Project is directed by Julian Thomas (Manchester University) and Keith Ray (Nexus Heritage), with the assistance of Tim Hoverd (Herefordshire Archaeology) and Irene Garcia Rovira (Manchester University).