Hambledon Hill

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Hambledon Hill is set as an "island hill" on the northwest edge of the Cretaceous ridge as it crosses southern England where Cranborne Chase and the North Dorset Downs are cut through by the River Stour as it flows to the south coast just east of Bournemouth. At this point the chalk downland, of which Hambledon Hill is geologically a part, overlooks an area of the broad inland floodplain of the Stour and tributary rivers to the northwest known as the Vale of Blackmoor. Rich dairy farming land now, this area in early prehistory would have presented a variegated range of potentials for both farming and hunting-gathering. The chalk downland appears to have been covered largely by woodland rich in oak, elm, ash, and birch. The River Stour and its northern tributary, the Iwerne, at the confluence of which Hambledon Hill stands, in themselves would have formed an important economic resource as well as being the focus of routes to the site.

Modern Hambledon Hill lies 6 kilometers northwest of Blandford Forum, Northeast Dorset (at British National Grid reference ST 848123). The site, of principally Neolithic date, comprises a complex of enclosures set on and around the hilltop that fall into the category of "causewayed" or "interrupted ditch" enclosures that occur widely throughout southern England and that increasingly are being recognized in Wales and Ireland. Some one hundred examples are known, although as yet none of established Neolithic date has been located in northern England or Scotland. These sites are found most often in valley settings, often occupying low spurs at the point where tributary streams enter the floodplain, where they usually are detected by aerial photography. Particularly in southern England, however, many have been known since the early twentieth century, surviving as much reduced earthworks on spurs and eminences of the Cretaceous and Jurassic ridges of the region. It is to this class that Hambledon Hill belongs. Sites of similar type and date occur widely in Northwest Europe from the Baltic to central France.

The investigation of Hambledon took place between 1974 and 1986 and was characterized by four specific approaches. First, a "landscape" perspective was developed of this massive site (the hill itself occupies some 120 hectares) and its hinterland. Second, very large-scale sampling strategies were adopted, involving mechanical topsoil clearance. The subsoil surface had been heavily eroded by solution and agricultural activity (since the Bronze Age), and considerable care had to be exercised to locate and excavate the features of Neolithic date. Third, stratigraphical analysis and taphonomic study were intensively applied to gain maximum information from the very large bodies of artifactual, faunal, and botanical material located on the site. Fourth, a program of radiocarbon dating, involving more than 160 assays, has been undertaken to provide a sensitive chronometer for this disparate mass of material.

The enclosure complex at Hambledon Hill focuses upon an 8-hectare single-causewayed ditched enclosure set, slightly askew, upon the crown of the hill at the point where the three spurs of the hill—north, east, and southeast—meet (see fig. 1). This enclosure is isolated from easy approach from the east and southeast spurs by a series of cross-spur ditches (and almost certainly was isolated from the northern spur before the introduction of the later Iron Age hillfort there eradicated any trace). Set within the southeast cross-spur ditches and immediately south of the focal causewayed enclosure was a small "Dorset-type" long barrow orientated north to south. Its mound had long been destroyed, but its ditches, encircling the south end, were still available for investigation.

These components, set at the focus of the complex, can perhaps be treated as a whole. They jointly, and broadly, compose the earliest facet of Neolithic activity on the site (c. 3800–3600 b.c.), although the long barrow may be of a little later date than the enclosure. Whatever the primary role of the enclosure, it soon was associated with the deposition of debris that appears to have been drawn from extravagant feasting of a periodic nature. Deposition of "prestigious" imported objects (pottery and stone axes) deliberately is evident in groups on the floor of the ditch and in successive recuttings and disturbances in its filling as well as in pits dug in the interior. Considerable quantities of human bone were included among this debris, especially skulls, with one articulated mass of human bone showing clear signs of gnawing by dogs. Some of the bone also showed signs of cut marks that might be associated with defleshing, or cutting the meat off the bone. This part of the complex is interpreted as an area associated with the exposure and treatment of human cadaver material of both sexes and all ages, with associated ceremonial activity, taking place over an extended period of time.

At the tip of the southeastern spur another causewayed enclosure of 1-hectare extent had been constructed at approximately the same date, perhaps a little later (known now as the Stepleton enclosure). Deposits on this site, both in the ditches and in features of the interior, suggest a function distinct from that of the focal enclosure just described, not so closely associated with funerary activity but nevertheless ceremonial and not domestic in its character. At both this enclosure and the hilltop example the food consumed on the site seems already to have been prepared upon its appearance there; in fact there is evidence that it was extravagantly prepared and consumed. It may have been the surplus from a hinterland community producing emmer wheat and barley, cattle primarily raised for milk products, as well as sheep and pigs. Only the upper part of the food preparation chain, those parts of the crop or animal actually consumed, is present on this site, however. People came there with a hamper, as it were, to feast. They did not live there; they visited relatively seldom and probably seasonally.

After considerable time had elapsed, the whole hilltop (60 hectares) was enclosed with a series of "outworks" that presented an unassailable facade to all sides (3600–3400 b.c.). Again, in at least two episodes, these defenses (so sited and constructed) apparently were burned and indeed attacked. Two young men, both killed by arrows, lay in the ditch of one of these outworks, their skeletons almost intact. One of these young men seems also to have been partly defleshed.

This center of high prestige, subject to widely originating importation of specialized goods and a possibly isolated center for ceremonials that were associated, probably among other things, with circumfunerary activity over a period of several hundred years, eventually became a focus of power that attracted recurrent episodes of aggression. The program of excavation activity on or near the site continued into the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and ultimately the Anglo-Saxon period.

See alsoLong Barrow Cemeteries in Neolithic Europe (vol. 1, part 3).


Mercer, Roger J. Hambledon Hill: A Neolithic Landscape. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1980.

Roger Mercer