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Finds of 'National Importance' at Nesscliffe Hillfort
23 Jul 2023

Archaeologists are backfilling trenches at Nesscliffe Hillfort after another year of successful excavations - resulting in three finds ‘of national importance’ and significant evidence of Roman occupation at the site. 

Members of the public who visited the Nesscliffe hillfort excavation site on a recent open day will have appreciated the scale of this formidable fort, as archaeologists from Oxford and Southampton universities peeled back the layers to expose a gigantic entrance causeway and towering stone walls. Topped with ramparts and a palisade this Shropshire fort would have been an awesome sight to behold. 

Previous digs uncovered magnificent guard chambers near the fort entrance, which Professor Gary Lock, of The University of Oxford, described as ‘some of the best preserved in Britain’. 

New finds this summer include rare evidence of iron working in the giant ditch by the fort entrance and the unusual discovery of internal walls inside the ramparts, which help explain how the fort was constructed. 

The stone walls of Nesscliffe hillfort

The giant ditch below the stone walls of Nesscliffe hillfort, where evidence of ironworks has been discovered

Professor Lock said: “We’ve got fantastic evidence in the big ditch for several furnaces - including the ceramic walls of furnaces, lots of charcoal which we can radiocarbon date, lots of slag which is the waste product of furnaces and bits or iron. 

“We’ve also found tuyères - the ceramic end of bellows. Iron Age furnaces were pretty crude and could only be used once, as they would have to break them open to get the iron out. They’d load them with lots of charcoal and lots of ore, get it up to a tremendous temperature and the slag would drop to the bottom and they’d be left with this lump of fairly crude iron. 

“We think they were down in the ditch as it was a sheltered spot. They were probably making little handy tools.”

The archaeologists will have to wait for the results of the radiocarbon dating to know whether the furnaces date from the early or middle Iron Age. This will help shed light on the kind of tools they were making - crude tools, or more sophisticated weapons, perhaps. 

“We don’t have evidence to link it with the construction, but certainly, around the edges of the fort, we can see tool marks.”

The hillfort is believed to have been constructed in the early Iron Age - around 500BC. Radiocarbon dating will date the furnaces but not the construction of the ditch and rampart itself: “All we’ll be able to say is that it was earlier,” Gary explains. 

construction chambers at the hillfort

The other big discovery this year was made in a trench in the middle of the hillfort, where the teams have found evidence for the internal structure of the rampart (pictured above). 

“There are internal walls that divide it up into cells, each about 2.5m long,” Gary says. “The way they were building it, there was an outer face and an inner face and then (perpendicular) walls that joined those two, made from stone. They would then fill in these boxes, or cells with random rubble, working their way along. 

“That’s very, very unusual evidence. It’s quite rare to get anything in the interior of ramparts. 

“In summary, we’ve got three things which are of national importance. Evidence for iron working, the guard chambers, some of the best preserved in Britain and internal evidence in the rampart.”

A geophysical survey had suggested evidence of a possible roundhouse in the interior, which archaeologists assumed was from the Iron Age. 

“We’ve not found evidence for the roundhouse but we’ve got huge amounts of Roman material, including a variety of different sorts of Roman pottery, a Roman spindle whorl, a bit of Roman quernstone, a Roman glass bead - all sorts of things. This suggests there was considerable Roman activity inside the hillfort after the Iron Age.”

The Nessglyph strange rock carving

Archaeologists say we may never solve the mystery of the Nessglyph - a strange rock carving discovered at Nesscliffe

The teams have not yet, however, solved the mystery of the ‘Nessglyph’ - a strange rock carving which might depict some kind of deity. 

Despite having shared the image with the world, Prof Lock says, it’s impossible to give a definite answer: “We were inundated with responses (most completely off the wall!). Nobody knows for sure. The trouble is, we found the stone in a very mixed up context in the backfill. We can’t say anything positive about it, other than it’s a very interesting carving .The cup mark is late Neolithic early Bronze Age, way earlier than hillfort. But the lines were made with a metal tool, as they have a V shaped profile - so these were made at two different times.”

Public tours of the site once again proved popular this year: “We had about 260 people visiting and did tours all day long,” Prof Lock said. “It was fantastic - very well received. The comment we often got was from local people who said they’d been walking up here for years and had no idea that anything like that was here.”

The teams will return again for one final time next summer, for four weeks in July and August, when they hope to explore another possible roundhouse site and dig deeper - down to Iron Age levels. 

Shropshire Council is also exploring ideas for improving interpretation at the site - although the trenches will have to be filled in. Options could include new interpretation boards and reconstruction drawings, a new webpage for the site, or augmented reality - which would use GPS to guide people around the site.