A while back I revisited Wittenham Clumps (Sinodun Hills) in the parish of Little Wittenham, Oxfordshire. It is managed as a nature reserve by the conservation charity the Earth Trust. I was interested in the fashions by which death and memory are intertwined within this archaeological and natural landscape.
The Clumps comprise of a pair of prominent hills. The clumps are Round Hill and Castle Hill while to the east is a third hill called Brightwell Barrow not normally regarded as one of the ‘Clumps’. Overlooking Didcot and Dorchester on Thames, and with views across much of south Oxfordshire framed by the Chilterns to the east and the Berkshire Downs to the south, this is a popular place for walkers (200,000 per year) who either park by the lane to the south of the hills or walk in from father afield or up from Little Wittenham or Dorchester on Thames.
Castle Hill – A Hillfort and its Afterlife
This is a place of memory over the long term: a locale that has attracted activity from as early as the Mesolithic to the present day. Based on interventions by antiquarians and Oxford Archaeology, the fortifications around Castle Hill can be shown to have begun their life in the Late Bronze Age. The Iron Age hillfort is an enlargement of this earlier circuit. Iron Age finds have been identified through numerous interventions.
The surrounding district is teeming with rich Iron Age and Roman archaeology. A short distance away are the Dyke Hills at Dorchester on Thames: the monumental defences of a late Iron Age oppidum. Overlaying the oppidum grew the Roman small town at Dorchester on Thames, seen by many to be on or close to the border between the Catuvellauni, the Atrebates and the Dubunni in the late Iron Age, a situation fossilised in Roman civitas boundaries.
Round Hill and perhaps the southern slopes of the clumps were occupied for a high-status building(s) in the Roman period, particularly in the late 3rd and 4th centuries AD. These were revealed by Oxford Archaeology and Time Team.
The hills have been subject to speculation regarding their use in the Anglo-Saxon period. Dorchester on Thames became the first episcopal see of the West Saxons or Gewissae and close by at Sutton Courtenay, the largest Anglo-Saxon timber hall discovered so far as been uncovered. Helena Hamerow has regarded the district between Sutton Courtenay and Dorchester on Thames as a principal ‘central place district’ for the Gewissae.
On the Clumps themselves, recent investigations have revealed few traces of post-Roman activity although it has long been speculated that the site might have been refortified as part of a southern boundary by King Offa of Mercia. To my knowledge, there is no demonstrable evidence for this but it has to be conceded that anyone wishing to manage movement through the Upper Thames Valley at any time in any period in the Early Middle Ages – including movement to and from Dorchester on Thames – could have done so by fortifying it or at least keeping regular watch from it.
There are also burial dimensions to the Clumps. Early interventions revealed undated human remains – coffins – on the Round Hill (mentioned in the Poem Tree, see below). In 1986, Chambers reported in Oxoniensia on the discovery of 4 sets of human remains, with an osteological report by Mary Harman. These were from graves located near the north-east corner of Castle Hill earthworks and were uncovered following reports of human remains brought to the surface by ploughing in the field to the east of the hillfort.
Two graves were preserved beneath the bank (F3 and F9) – part of a terracing creating by repeating ploughing of the field just outside the hillfort. Two further sets of remains (F4 and F8) had already been disturbed by the plough. This was small-scale excavation work and the burial site might be much later than this.
Notably, skeleton F3 – an adult female of 30-35 years – had her legs missing due to plough-damage but also her hands (although it is unclear whether this is due to rushed excavation). Furthermore, the body was prone – i.e. face-down. F9 was a supine adult male with no signs of deviant treatment, but his hands were crossed over his waist, which leaves the possibility that his hands had been bound.
Chambers speculates that these four graves and earlier discoveries needn’t represent more than ‘short-lived peasant burial grounds’ equivalent to those known from rural Romano-British settlements. He also noted the predilection for early Anglo-Saxon graves to be situated around prehistoric monuments and this might include hillforts as at Blewburton not far away.
Thanks to subsequent research by Andrew Reynolds, it is now possible to propose an alternative interpretation. Given the evidence for at least one prone adult female and one adult who might have had his hands tied, were can suggest that this was a prominent location utilised as a later Anglo-Saxon execution cemetery. The choice to situate these graves on the north-east side of the hillfort might be no coincidence, since those gathering for executions here, and any subsequent displays of the executed dead, would be visible from the minster church at Dorchester.
Oxford Archaeology have also revealed 12th-century pits suggesting occupation in the Norman period of unknown character.
Memory and the Vicotorian Landscape: The Poem Tree
This is a landscape of memory, not only because of the traces of the Iron Age earthworks and its prominent situation, but also because of the views it affords of its surroundings and its literary, artistic and musical associations. This is immortalised in literature inscribed onto a beech tree in the late 19th century. This 20-line poem was carved by Joseph Tubb of Warborough Green between 1844 and 1845. This transcription is taken directly from the Wikipedia page:
As up the hill with labr’ing steps we tread
Where the twin Clumps their sheltering branches spread
The summit gain’d at ease reclining lay
And all around the wide spread scene survey
Point out each object and instructive tell
The various changes that the land befell
Where the low bank the country wide surrounds
That ancient earthwork form’d old Mercia‘s bounds
In misty distance see the barrow heave
There lies forgotten lonely Cwichelm‘s grave.
Around this hill the ruthless Danes intrenched
And these fair plains with gory slaughter drench’d
While at our feet where stands that stately tower
In days gone by up rose the Roman power
And yonder, there where Thames smooth waters glide
In later days appeared monastic pride.
Within that field where lies the grazing herd
Huge walls were found, some coffins disinter’d
Such is the course of time, the wreck which fate
And awful doom award the earthly great.
The poem attempts to encapsulate not the history of the location, but that of its surroundings as illustrated by ancient earthworks. Notably, the prehistoric linear earthwork of Grim’s Ditch might be regarded as ‘Mercia’s bounds’ or perhaps Castle Hill itself. Meanwhile, Scutchamer Knob is referenced; the site of Cwichelm’s grave described as ‘forgotten and lonely’. The abbey at Dorchester and the Dyke Hills (the late Iron Age oppida) is also mentioned. This is an early poetic landscape archaeology from the very decade when modern British archaeology is born.
The poem tree died in the 1990s and collapsed due to rot and bad weather in 2012. The wooden tree survives as a recumbent fragment, sadly nearly indistinguishable to those who didn’t know it is there. Nearby and in a sense replacing it, is a transcription and rubbishing of the poem erected in 1994 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the original carving. In this regard, the stone is now a citation of a wooden fragment.
A New Memory Tree, Memorial Benches and a View to Memory
The Wittenham Clumps are also interesting to me as a contemporary landscape of memory. As well as the modern commemorative monument to the memory tree, there is a new ‘memory tree’ at Wittenham Clumps – a rough stump near the southern car park. It bears information about the landscape for visitors.
Taking in the view is also memorialised through the viewpoint on Round Hill, pointing out the things to be seen in all directions.
Around the hilltops of both of the Clumps are a series of memorial benches, testament to the continued draw of the Wittenham Clumps for the living and for the dead, whose ashes are scattered and whose names are remembered. The act of sitting and enjoying the view of past and present, Didcot power station and ancient barrows, are shared by those walking and those whose spirits are believed to reside here, enjoying the view.
Chambers, R.A. 1986. An inhumation cemetery at Castle Hill, Little Wittenham, Oxon. 1984-85, Oxoniensia 60: 45-48.
Reynolds, A. 2009. Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wessex Archaeology, 2004. Round Hill, Wittenham Clumps, Oxfordshire: An Archaeological Evaluation and An Assessment of the Results, Old Sarum: Wessex Archaeology. http://www.wessexarch.co.uk/files/52568_Wittenham.pdf