2008 Holmbury Hillfort survey report


Fieldwork at Holmbury Hillfort, TQ 105430

Holmbury is one of three hillforts located on the scarp edge of the greensand ridge between Guildford and Dorking, of which only Anstiebury has been subjected to an analytical survey ().  Clearance of the interior of Holmbury gave access to this enclosure and its immediate surroundings.

The level approaches to north and west are addressed by a substantial array of double banks and ditches, that to the north apparently having been constructed in two, or possibly, three stages.  The eastern and southern limits of the hillfort are positioned atop steep slopes.  On the east side an inner bank is separated from its ditch by a berm and a vertical, rock cut face, the latter exposed beneath the root plate of a wind-felled tree.  Outside this ditch there appears to have been a second bank, now largely destroyed, and below it, cut into the steep hillside, a further vertical face.  To the south the scarp face at the end of the spur appears to have been sculpted into a series of three terraces, separated by vertical faces, which stretch round the protruding ‘nose’ at the south western corner of the enclosure.  This ‘nose’, formed by one of a number of bands of harder chert running from the north towards the scarp edge, stands higher than any of the enclosure banks, at least in their present, eroded, form, and has a viewshed across the Weald to the South Downs – only to the immediate east is the view blocked by the higher ground of Leith Hill.

Quarrying, mainly during the 19th and early 20th centuries, has damaged the north-west corner, the probable site of the original entrance, and an area of the south-west corner.  A number of small platforms have been cut into the south-western and south-eastern slopes below the hillfort; these may represent later lookout points, or planting postions for specimen trees, but the possibility that their construction was contemporary with the enclosure should not be ignored.

The results of this survey emphasise the skill with which the original builders utilised the existing topography, and also their concern that the monument should be visible from, and overlook, the expanse of the Weald to the south.  The enclosure occupies a position such that its western and eastern boundaries overlie chert strata and a further two strata abut the northern boundary, although only one of these continues as a scarp across the interior.  To the east the ground falls away steeply whilst to the west a number of these ridges, relatively closely spaced, cover the remaining high ground.  Thus the enclosure was positioned to take advantage of the widest areas of flat ground available.  The break in slope noted along most of the length of the central scarp may result from the cutting back of its lower levels to increase the width of the flat area to its east.  Indeed, it is not impossible that the original intention was to use this scarp as the base for the western boundary, but a requirement to include the high point and the southernmost ‘nose’ resulted in its inclusion within the interior and the staged increases in height of the inner and outer northern banks.  Terracing of the southern flanks of the hill would have resulted in the exposure of an area of sandstone some 80m across and 50m deep; whether vertical cuts into the hillside or revetted banks the sandstone, greenish / gold when freshly cut would have weathered to a brilliant gold.  Facing into the sun, this would have been visible from any clearing within the Wealden woods for a considerable distance and, perhaps saliently, from the ridge which forms the watershed between the Wey and Arun basins.  This ridge, which could have provided the only east / west route into the western Weald, would have had view of both Holmbury and Hascombe to the north and Chanctonbury on the South Downs.  Looking up at the greensand ridge from the Weald the central scarp produces a distinctive profile and would have identified the location of Holmbury hillfort from a greater distance than would visibility of the terraced slopes

Concern about the dates assigned to the hillforts has led to a reassessment by Mike Seager Thomas (2008) of the pottery recovered at excavation (Thompson 1979).  It is intended that this report will be submitted for publication in the Collections but a preçis of the main points is relevant here.  Both Holmbury and Hascombe produced small amounts of Late Bronze Age pottery but their floriat was in the Middle Iron Age and there is no evidence of occupation into the Late Iron Age.  The assemblage from Anstiebury contained a small amount of Middle Iron Age pottery but the main periods of occupation appear to have been the Late Iron Age and into the Romano-British. Of particular interest are stylistic links with Iron Age pottery from Sussex as opposed to that from sites in the Thames Valley.

In addition to the analytical survey, a damage report has been prepared, which concentrated mainly on erosion exacerbated by use of mountain bikes.  Considerable effort towards ameliorating this threat has now been made by the Hurtwood Control Trust warden, Mark Beamont who, with the help of some of the cyclists, has prepared a track in one of a series of quarries outside the scheduled area.  Considerable damage has also been caused by the root plates of trees felled by the wind, but such damage also served to confirm an impression that, on the east side at least, a steep slope outside the inner rampart was, in fact, a rock cut vertical face.

Copies of the survey and damage reports (Hooker & English 2008a; 2008b) have been deposited with English Heritage and other interested bodies including this Society.

This fieldwork could not have been undertaken without the assistance of David Field and Graham Brown of English Heritage who set up the control points for the survey and the time and skills of Mike Brace, Roman Golicz, Alan Hall, Pauline Hulse, (who undertook much of the site drawing), Gillian Lachelin, Nick Moore, Jen Newell, Hannah Sadler, Geoff Stonehouse, Ed Walker, Ken Waters and Keith Winser; SMC was granted by English Heritage, and access facilitated by the Hurtwood Control Trust and their Ranger, Mark Beaumont, and to all these we are most grateful

Hooker, R & English, J 2008a Holmbury hillfort, Surrey – an archaeological survey, privately circulated report

Hooker, R & English, J 2008b Damage report on Holmbury hillfort, Surrey, privately circulated report

Seager Thomas, M 2008 A re-contextualization of the prehistoric pottery from the Surrey hillforts of Hascombe, Holmbury and Anstiebury, privately circulated report

Thompson, FH 1979 Three Surrey hillforts: excavations at Anstiebury, Holmbury and Hascombe, 1972-77, Antiq J 59, 245-318

Rose Hooker

Judie English