Community excavations on the Beaulieu Estate in the New Forest have uncovered an enigmatic Bronze Age monument, as well as evidence for Mesolithic activity, greatly adding to our knowledge of how this area of Hampshire was used during prehistory.
Aerial photographs and LiDAR surveys provided the first hints of a possible Bronze Age round-barrow ditch on the site, and this was confirmed by a geophysical survey in the spring of 2018, which also showed signs of disturbance in the monument’s interior. A week-long excavation followed later that year, led by the New Forest National Park Authority (NPA) and archaeologists from Bournemouth University along with over 40 volunteers, exposing part of the ring ditch.
This investigation revealed that the ditch had two distinct phases, and that a small cluster of four inverted cremation urns had been inserted into its backfill. Three of the urns were lifted for post-excavation analysis, which revealed that two of them contained cremated human bone. One urn held the remains of a child and in the other were the combined remains of an adolescent or adult and another juvenile. Radiocarbon analysis dated the bones to the Middle Bronze Age, c.1300 BC.
The team returned for a second dig for two weeks in 2019, revealing more of the structure of the ditch as well as an unusual gap in the outline of its outer, second phase (below right) – this has been interpreted as a possible entrance, allowing access to an open internal space. Overall, it appears that the ring ditch was probably first constructed during the Early Bronze Age, possibly around 2900 BC. This ditch eventually silted up and was then recut around 2000 BC. The size of the monument was also increased during this episode and the possible ‘entrance’ added. It appears that this new, larger layout was recut a further three times over the span of 150 years. After a pause of around 500 years, the monument then appears to have been used as a cremation cemetery, which is when the urns were most likely interred. After this, though, the site appears to have gradually fallen out of use.
Jon Milward, Project Officer with Bournemouth University Archaeological Research Consultancy, said: ‘Monuments with “entrances” and apparent open interiors such as this one may have been meeting spaces used to carry out rituals and ceremonies that were important to the local community. There is evidence here of regular modification and an apparent continuity of use over a long time, implying that this monument was perhaps more than a burial place, and played a significant role in the community for many generations.’
In addition to the Bronze Age finds, charred hazelnut shells were discovered within the basal fill of the earliest ring ditch. These were selected for radiocarbon dating, as it was hoped they would provide a conclusive date for the monument’s foundation. The results, however, were very surprising as the shell was dated to between 5736 BC and 5643 BC, meaning it was actually from the Mesolithic period. As well as the shells, two Mesolithic flint tools were identified. This discovery adds to a handful of probable Mesolithic camping sites that have previously been found along the banks of the Beaulieu River.
The full excavation report is available here: https://nfknowledge.org/contributions/park-farm-excavations.