Making headlines last month was the discovery – by mudlark Martin Bushell – of a skull fragment found on the south bank of the Thames.  While it was initially reported to the Metropolitan Police, radiocarbon dating soon discovered that the frontal bone (or piece from the top of the skull) was actually likely to be that of a man over the age of 18-years-old who lived in about 3,600 BC in the Neolithic Period. The Museum of London, who now have the fragment on display, state that traces of human activity dating from between 4,000-3,500 BC – mainly in the form of flint tools or weapons and pottery fragments – have been found along the River Thames floodplain. They say that those residing on what would be the site of London lived as semi-nomadic herders who supplemented their food sources by hunting and gathering and some agriculture. With some evidence that Neolithic people viewed the Thames as a sacred river, the remains could belong to that of a man dropped into the river as an offering – but the body may also have been swept down the river when his grave was swamped. The skull fragment is on display in the museum’s ‘London Before London’ gallery. PICTURE: © Museum of London.

WHERE: The Museum of London, 150 London Wall (nearest Tube stations are Barbican and St Paul’s); WHEN: 10am to 6pm daily; COST: free; WEBSITE: www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

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Maiden-Castle

Located just outside the town of Dorchester in southern Dorset to the south-west of London, Maiden Castle is the largest extant Iron Age hillfort known to have been built in Britain and among the largest and most complex in all of Europe.

Featuring multiple earthen ramparts (pictured above is the ditch between two of them) – from the top of which you can see spectacular views of the surrounding countryside – and well-defended entrances, it would have once been home to several hundred people. It’s been speculated the name may come from the Celtic word “mai-dun”, meaning a great hill.

Maiden-Castle2The first archaeological excavations were carried out here in the 1930s by Mortimer Wheeler and then later in the 1980s.

Initially built between 800 and 550 BC, the first Iron Age hillfort – built on the site of an earlier Neolithic enclosure with settlement dating back some 6000 years – was enclosed by a single rampart.

In the middle Iron Age, between 550 and 300 BC, it was extended to some 19 hectares or 50 football fields and, apparently densely populated with “round houses” which over time were organised into an increasingly regimented layout, eventually become the pre-eminent settlement in southern Dorset.

In the late Iron Age, the settlement became focused on the eastern end of the fort and with the arrival of the Romans and their establishment of the town of Dorchester (Durnovaria), it was finally abandoned.

Among the features identified within the hillfort’s precincts are well-defended and complex entrances at the western and eastern ends and a large Iron Age cemetery just outside the eastern entrance.

Discovered by Sir Mortimer, the cemetery contained more than 52 burials, some of which held the remains of males with terrible injuries. While Sir Mortimer believed it was a war cemetery created following a battle between the locals and the Roman, it is now thought to have been used as a more general cemetery over a longer period of time.

The remains of a Romano-British temple (pictured above right), dating from the late 4th century AD – about 200 years after the site was abandoned, has also been found inside the hillfort’s boundaries. It consisted of a central room surrounded by a passage with a portico open to the weather. Nearby is what is believed to have been a shrine and a two roomed building thought to have been a priest’s house. A bronze plaque depicting the goddess Minerva has been found on the site, suggesting the temple have been dedicated to her.

The site is managed by English Heritage who have an MP3 audio tour you can download from the website and play on an iPod, smart phone or MP3 player to give an extra dimension to your visit!

WHERE: Maiden Castle, two miles south of Dorchester, off A354, north of bypass or train – two miles from Dorchester South/West; WHEN: Any reasonable time in daylight hours; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/maiden-castle/

For more on Iron Age Britain, check out Barry Cunliffe’s Iron Age Britain (English Heritage).

The oldest structure on the Thames foreshore is only a relatively recent discovery. It was in the spring of 2010 that archaeologists found six timber piles driven into the foreshore just in front of the spy agency MI6’s building in Vauxhall (pictured below with the river covering the site). 

The piles – no specific function for which has yet been identified – were up to 0.3 metres in diameter and were found to be more than 6,000 years old.

That date puts them in the Mesolithic period when the level of the river was lower – meaning the structure was probably built on dry land – and the landscape considerably different to what it is today. Radiocarbon dating suggests the trees for the structure were felled between 4790 BC and 4490 BC.

The site, which is at the confluence of the Thames and now largely underground River Effra, was initially kept secret while surveying was carried out. Nearby were found stone tools dating from a similar era to the piles – they included a tranchet adze for woodworking – and pottery fragments from the slightly later Neolithic era.

The discovery near the low tide line was made by archaeologists from the Thames Discovery Programme and the site then surveyed with the assistance of English Heritage and the Museum of London as well as the geomatics teams from Museum of London Archaeology.

The site is 600 metres downstream from a Bronze Age timber jetty (about 1,500 BC) found in the 1990s.