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Nesscliffe Hillfort Excavations Reveal Gigantic Causeway
17 Aug 2022

Archaeologists have returned to open up new trenches at Nesscliffe Hill Camp this summer - and are due to come back again next year! Our editor Katy Rink visited the site, talked to volunteers and caught up with Prof Gary Lock, from the University of Oxford, who is leading the dig. 

The awesome spectacle of a massive Iron Age hillfort has been uncovered at Nesscliffe this summer, as archaeologists peel back the layers to reveal the true scale of construction. 

A gigantic ditch has been exposed either side of a causeway leading to the inner enclosure, along with massive blocks, forming the front face of the rempart. 

“We think the hillfort was built probably more for display (rather than military purposes) - to impress the neighbours!” says Gary Lock, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology, University of Oxford, who is leading the excavations. 

For the teams from Oxford and Southampton universities, returning to explore the site for a second year, the 2022 excavation raises more questions than it answers - as is common with such digs. 

With no organic matter, wood, woven fabrics, or pottery to shed light on domestic or spiritual life, it is still a matter of conjecture what this magnificent ‘fort’ might have been used for. The soil in this part of the country is too acidic for bone to survive.

Gary believes that, rather than a defensive edifice, the hillfort may have served the farming communities of the Severn Valley, as community hub, or locus of ceremonies, or celebrations. The date of construction has been estimated as 600-500BC. 

Gary Lock checks the finds

Gary Lock, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology, University of Oxford, casts his expert eye over the finds 

Last year’s excavations focused upon the entrance and revealed the spectacular gateway, with its so-called guard chambers (although there is no evidence of Iron Age military occupation). This year, new trenches, near the entrance, reveal the gigantic front face of the rampart, cut into the bedrock, showing vertical tool marks made some 2,500 years ago, plus the main outer, rock-cut ditch - which is easy to get lost in - at more than 2m deep!

The gigantic front face of the rampart at Nesscliffe

Image shows the impressive front face of the rampart at Nesscliffe Hill Camp, Shropshire

“We’re surprised by the sheer size of it and also the size of the blocks quarried out of the ditch to construct the rampart,” Gary said. “It all boils down to what you think forts like this were used for. Whether they were defensive, or special places people came to at certain times of the year to celebrate festivities, or trade their rams and sheep - some kind of community centre on a grand scale!

“Obviously, this is prehistoric archaeology, so there are no written records. All we get is what we excavate. We don’t know how they were organised socially (although by the end of the Iron Age there are Roman writings, referring to the tribes with kings and elders). I think they would have been a superstitious people - they probably had gods and deities.

“We do know there were groups of people who lived all around here - they would have been farmers living down in the Severn Valley, in Iron Age farmsteads. This could have been about bringing their dispersed community together. They might have had religious beliefs timed to fit in with the agricultural cycle - planting, harvest, equinox - and could have come together to make offerings.

“We’re gradually unpicking the site. It’s been a bit like trying to piece a jigsaw together where you don’t have the final picture.”

Archaeologists working in the ditch alongside the entrance causeway

Archaeologists working in the gigantic ditch alongside the entrance causeway

The archaeologists are able to see very clearly the method of construction, Gary explained. Simply put, there’s a stone-built outer face and a stone-built inner face - with the middle filled with rubble: “It shows they were clever - they knew what they were doing and were quite capable of building huge structures - it’s a massive civil engineering project, stretching all the way around to Oliver’s Point.”

This year’s dig has been funded entirely by Shropshire Archaeological and Historical Society. 

The teams will be back next summer, in the first three weeks of July, to explore further the interior of the fort - specifically an Iron Age roundhouse, identified by a geophysical survey. 

This year, they have also opened a new trench towards the back of the rampart - and have exposed the fascinating ‘box’ construction method used by ancient peoples, siting huge boulders in squares, then filling in with rubble, to strengthen the build. 

A significant amount of Roman domestic and military pottery has been discovered this year, in trench three in the interior, indicating subsequent occupation of the fort - possibly by Roman soldiers making their way across England to Wales.

This year’s excavators are made up of experienced archaeologists from the universities of Oxford and Southampton, along with local volunteers. 

Lesley Collins a volunteer at the Nesscliffe dig

Lesley Collins, a teacher from St Lucia's Primary School in Upton Magna, volunteering at the excavations

Lesley Collins, a teacher at St Lucia’s Primary School in Upton Magna, lives in Nesscliffe and spotted the dig was happening on My Shrewsbury’s Facebook page: “Initially I thought I’d just pop up and do a day a week. I thought I haven’t got any skills so perhaps I’ll just shovel. But after the first day, I was absolutely hooked. It’s astounding what they have found. 

“The group is so willing to share their knowledge. It’s great to listen to them talk and give their opinions. By the end of day one, I had a trowel in my hand and was finding Iron Age tool marks. You learn to get your eye in! 

“It’s completely addictive! It’s incredibly satisfying to uncover something, no matter how small. I’ve just found a piece of charcoal - who’d have thought I could be so excited?! It’s been a really brilliant experience.”

Lesley also helped develop children’s activities for the Open Day, when more than 200 members of the public enjoyed tours of the site, and is looking forward to hopefully bringing school pupils to the site next July. 

“It’s important for them to understand not just the historical importance, but also the way it needs to be managed and how people have to work together to dig it.”

An image showing the scale of excavations at Nesscliffe hillfort

An image showing the scale of excavations at Nesscliffe Hill Camp

Next year’s earlier date for the excavations - in the first few weeks of July - will mean schools can get involved too. 

The findings will help inform new display boards that Shropshire Council is planning to put up, to offer a better interpretation of the site for visitors. 

“The idea is to get local people interested and engaged,” Gary adds. “So many people have said they’ve been coming here for years and didn’t realise what it was.”

Artist Simon Callery has been working on site, as artist in residence - he soaks canvasses in coloured distemper and then marks them and cuts them in contact with the surfaces of the archaeological trenches during the excavation process. 

To see his work in progress visit https://www.instagram.com/simon.callery/