Coombe Hill – a talk by Greg Chuter


Greg Chuter opened his talk by apologising that he would not be describing the latest news about Exceat as advertised; that would possibly be for another evening. Suffice it to say that as well as the church, which they knew the position and general plan of already, he thought that they had now found the village of Exceat, with street and house plans, as well as the WWI trench systems some of us saw at the walk last summer, and would possibly return to describe it all for us when the post excavation work had been done.

This evening he would be describing Coombe Hill, a fascinating multi period site at Butts Brow, above Willingdon. Greg’s own interest was sparked by a 1920’s book by Kirwin about the hill that he read when he was aged seven. When, with book in hand he had climbed the hill and found the ditches, mounds and track ways that were described, a lifetime’s interest was born.

Topographically the hill is very visible all round, with gentle slopes cut by coombes to the South, West and North, but with a steep escarpment to the East. Geologically the hill is chalk, of four different types laid down over millennia, identical to the North Downs, with the space between the North and South Downs eroded away to form the Weald. The valleys, or coombes, would have been deeper and steeper, but have partially filled with colluvial wash. There is still soil movement, but the worst erosion is now caused by humans out enjoying the area for dog walking, riding and cycling.

A lot is known about the area, some field work has been done, much of it by Lawrence Stevens and others, which give a good record over five thousand years, but there is a mass of archaeological remains up there, and scope for more studies to be done. A slide showed the density of remains and dots indicated investigation sites.

The Causewayed Camp is mid to late Neolithic, dates to 2,600 BC, and survives in almost perfect condition. It has a double ditch with multiple gaps around the circumference and would have been prominent in the landscape, but could not be defensive as the gaps for the inner and outer ditches line up, nor are the ditches massive enough. The camp is similar to many other sites, for instance there are others at Windmill Hill and Whitehawk in Sussex, and has no evidence of settlement, though one at Staines does. No-one knows for certain what the function of the camps was, but they were probably multi-functional, with both social and ritual overtones. They could have been used as markets for trading, for relationship gatherings, which could have had religious or ritual connections, or for celebrating and exposing with the dead. Many artefacts have been found ritually placed or buried in the ditch ends, and subsequent burials and monuments were placed in relation to, and respecting the site, for instance there are many round barrows built near or centred on the enclosure over the over the thousand years following its being made.

Apart from Victorian antiquarian ‘treasure-hunters’, the camp was first excavated in 1949 by Musson, he assessed the double banked enclosure as typologically Neolithic, and his finds confirmed the date. In 1962 Seton-Williams led an excavation team to check whether the two rings were of the same date, which they are, though the dig was not written up until Peter Drewitt did it for her. They found no evidence of post-holes or palisades, but the circles would still have been prominent in the landscape because of the white of the exposed chalk. The ditches still remain prominent when revealed by the last melt of snow in winter. English Heritage did further work in 1995, including geophysics. This was not as successful as it could have been owing to the very dry weather at the time, as the type used works better in damp conditions. They did pick up arcs of post-holes within the circle, which could have been from WWII activity, but which could also have been contemporary with the construction, as they seem to align with the entrance gaps; enigmatic ‘tails’ forming from the ditch ends; and evidence of field systems.

Finds from the excavations include small shards of pottery, from baggy early Neolithic forms, through to highly decorated late Neolithic wares. Musson found a miniature axe, possibly a votive offering ‘placed’ in a ditch, and Seton-Williams found a group of three polished axes buried together. Using fine soil analysis Peter Drewitt indicated that the camp was near the edge of a woodland clearing, and speculated that the axes may have been placed as a ritual deposit when clearing the trees away. Bronze Age pottery has been found, deposited as pots, or as bones within pots, and animal bones indicate feasting activity.

An aerial photograph of 1925 to south of Coombe Hill, at Butts Brow car park, shows another large ring feature that may be the same age as the causewayed camp. This is in what is known as the beehive plantation, and has been largely destroyed by the construction of the car park, but is still traceable on the ground for some of the ditches’ length, with a central cairn. It urgently needs further investigation. The whole area is very rich in all types of round barrow, from simple bowl barrows, through disc, to the more complex bell barrows, one of which has a huge central mound where three broken axes were found. It is thought that the snapping of axes was a ritual ‘killing’ of the artefacts, and all were buried together. Another axe has been found recently.

Another photograph, of 1957, showed the complex field systems on the west facing slopes towards Jevington. This area has now been scheduled as an ancient monument, and though much was lost during 20th Century ploughing of the downs for wartime food production, what remains is a very rare survival of Mid Iron Age and Romano-British farming. Finds of a Late Iron Age cremation pot and Roman wares buried on the hill indicate that the upland area was a focus for burials over many centuries.

Little evidence remains of the Saxon and Medieval periods as the downs were used for grazing pasture, and that leaves very little or no mark on the ground. It was not until the mid-20th Century, when the area was used as a vast training area for WWII troops that significant alteration was made. The home Guard was known to have slit trenches and bunkers, (one cut into the side of round barrow), there was a radar mast with associated bunkers, collections of live and spent ammunition cases, and Canadian tanks cut many tracks that are still in evidence today. After the war Barstow found lots of Iron Age and Roman pottery turned up by tank activity.

There is now a Research Framework for the South East, allowing professionals to target areas that are seen to need investigation, whose work will include opportunities for local societies. Coombe Hill now has a management plan in place, basically it is to be kept under grass, further ploughing is prohibited, and farmers cooperate to remove scrub growth to stop root damage, which also removes cover for burrowing animals. Ironically the main threat is now from human generated erosion.

No trace of the fabled Roman road has been found on the downs. Those features that had been so identified before being merely worn ‘bostal’ track ways, allowing access from the low to the high land.

Greg finished by inviting all to a walk over the area on Sunday 27 July 2014. The walk will start at 10.00 am from Butts Brow car park, and will visit all features mentioned in this talk.

After a lively question and answer session, Robin Reffell gave the vote of thanks for this detailed and fascinating talk, which was warmly applauded by the 31 members and visitors present.

Report by John Warren