Britain’s buried secrets

As the new series of Digging for Britain hits our screens, Gemma Hagen gives us the lowdown on some of the archaeological mysteries that Dr Alice Roberts will be attempting to solve...

Bluestones, like these in the Preseli hills, were used to build Stonehenge. (Photo by Paula Connelly via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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1

The Preseli Bluestones Cairn

Pembrokeshire National Park, Wales

The mysteries of Stonehenge will perhaps never be satisfactorily solved. It is the holy grail of the British archaeologist. While the types of stone used to construct this iconic structure vary, the so called ‘Bluestones’ are perhaps the most perplexing, because the source from which they were quarried lay deep in the valleys of west Wales. In the Neolithic, the movement of this raw material must have been a feat of immense dedication. This begs the question: why these stones? But perhaps this is far too narrow a question. Perhaps we should ask: why this landscape?

Renowned archaeologists Geoff Wainwright and Tim Darvill have already identified numerous new monuments which are beginning to build the picture that this area was not only important to Stonehenge, but was extremely significant before the construction of Stonehenge. This was certainly more than a quarry – but was it an entire landscape of healing and magic?

2

The Neanderthal success story

Jersey, the Channel Islands

Excavations on the Channel Island of Jersey are revealing that the story of the Neanderthal race is not as simple as we have been led to believe, and is as much a tale of survival as it is extinction. There was, in fact, a Neanderthal success story that lasted over a quarter of a million years.

The sea caves that line the rocky shore on Jersey were once home to these small bands of hunter gatherers, who endured an extreme and icy climate in which later homo sapiens would surely have perished. The story of Neanderthal people revealed by the archaeology here is one of ingenious invention and adaptation, coupled with a fierce hunter’s instinct and a determination to survive.


3

Burrough Hill Fort

Burrough, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire

New excavations at Burrough are beginning to add serious fuel to the Iron Age hill fort debate. Were they built for show or for war? Burrough Hill Fort is a commanding sight in the local landscape, and it’s not hard to imagine the Iron Age tribes gathering inside the ramparts, preparing themselves for battle.

The Iron Age, we are taught, was a violent and bloodthirsty time in our Celtic history. But archaeologists have long suspected that the function of the hill fort was not always clear cut, and its role in society could change in times of war and peace.

At Burrough Hill Fort, excavations are taking place in two key areas. One is the ‘guards room’, which could also have doubled up as a grain checking point. The other is the domestic settlement that stretches far beyond the defensive ditches of the fort.


4

The Orkney Viking castle

Deerness, Orkney

Off the wild coast of the Orkney mainland stands the ghostly remnants of perhaps the last Viking citadel in Britain. This treacherous brough (fortified settlement) is situated on a stack of sheer rock 30 metres above sea level, and is cut off from the mainland, leading archaeologists to theorise that it was the fortress and home of a wealthy Viking chieftain. There are over 30 houses within this citadel, with a church at its centre. But at only 80 metres across, the archaeologists here are struggling to understand what kind of Viking would have needed such extreme isolation or protection – or perhaps both.

5

The Roman navy in Folkestone

Folkestone, Kent

The story of Roman Britain is typically one of military occupation. But whereas the mighty legions left their fortresses, amphitheatres and, of course, Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman navy have been somewhat forgotten in the archaeological record.

A local community-driven project on the cliffs of Folkestone is excavating the remains of what may be the last testimonial of the Roman navy in Britain – the villa that housed their headquarters. This villa was opulent indeed, home to bathhouses and elaborate mosaics.


6

The mystery of the Norfolk timber alignments

Geldeston, Norfolk

This brand new Iron Age excavation in the Norfolk Broads reveals an enigmatic giant timber alignment that has no comparison in Britain. Huge oak trunks were felled and worked delicately into a point by hand, then driven into the floodplain to form a triple alignment that is over 300-metres long in places.

What were these structures and what was their function? So far the archaeologists have suggested they were tribal boundary markers, ceremonial or ritual pathways to the river, or even the remains of a prehistoric boat building yard.

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Gemma Hagen worked as a researcher on the new series of Digging for Britain.