Protecting our Archaeological Heritage

Protecting our Archaeological Heritage – a Discussion Paper

Dorset Council’s draft local plan Options Consultation document for Central Dorset (Vol 2) refers to Dorchester’s ‘rich heritage dating back to pre-Roman era’, (23.6.44) but other than a passing reference to Maiden Castle, there is no further explanation regarding the area’s extraordinary prehistory; the emphasis is on Roman & later heritage. Yet the proposed developments facing the Dorchester / Charminster / Stinsford area (DOR 13, DOR 14 and a possible solar farm around Waterston Farm and Fiddlers Green), pose serious threats to prehistoric sites of potentially regional or national significance.

The evidence paper, ‘North of Dorchester Heritage Impact Assessment’, (LUC, 2021) recognises that;

“Human activity in the Dorchester area can be traced back to prehistory, as evidenced by monuments of national and international significance that highlight the area’s ceremonial or religious significance.” (3.28)

The ‘North of Dorchester Heritage Impact Assessment’ is important as the Dorchester area is comparable to Stonehenge in terms of the richness of its archaeology and the intensity of prehistoric activity. Some heritage companies already organise visits to the area and with the opening of the newly revitalised Dorset Museum this year there is the potential to develop significantly heritage tourism around Dorchester. The archaeology collections are a particular strength of the museum, including prehistory, and reflect the importance of the area thousands of years before Romans came on the scene.

Inevitably planning decisions have to define physical boundaries but human activity does not exist within a landscape vacuum. Understanding the significance of archaeological evidence has to take in the wider landscape context, as was recognised by the landscape & heritage study carried out by LUC for WDDC in 2018. In this study LUC assessed DOR 15 (now DOR 13) as ‘moderate-high landscape sensitivity’, and sensitivity of heritage assets to change was assessed as ‘High’.

A previously unrecognised Bronze Age cemetery within the DOR 15 boundary, the Stinsford Barrow Group, was assessed as ‘of medium-high importance’, ie of potentially regional or greater importance. LUC continued:

“In-depth assessment of the significance of [the Stinsford Barrow Group], & their potential relationship to contemporary assets in the wider landscape is likely to be required… “

LUC’s latest report, the 2021 Heritage Impact Assessment, refers to the ‘highly deliberate visibility’ of the barrows, (5.9), and ‘the design intent behind these monuments siting (e.g. prominent visibility) ’ (5.10), which begs the question of the scale of the religious and ceremonial landscape, how far the barrows and other monuments were intervisible and to what purpose?

Standing by the Stinsford Barrows our early Bronze Age forebears would have seen on the southern horizon the South Dorset Ridgeway with its plethora of large chalk burial mounds, they would have seen the river valley and the remains of at least four imposing neolithic henge monuments, and the gleaming earthworks of a long mound and causewayed enclosure at what we now call Maiden Castle. To the east, west and north were further monuments and burial sites, all currently recorded, but as technology improves, further sites will undoubtedly be found. The Stinsford Barrow Group may well have been part of a linear cemetery following the high ground, in effect a north Dorchester Ridgeway echoing the cemeteries along the South Dorset Ridgeway.

If this is indeed the case, then the dynamics of the whole valley needs to be taken into consideration, including the relationship with the henge monuments in the river valley, and the significance of the River Frome and its tributaries. The high bluff of land we now refer to as Poundbury hillfort (a scheduled monument) was also the site of neolithic and bronze age activity, and dominates the confluence of the River Frome and Cerne. The South Winterborne joins the Frome downstream about 1½ miles from the henge monument of Mount Pleasant and Conquer Barrow, having risen to the west in the chalk downlands of the South Dorset Ridgeway. It is possible that comparisons with Stonehenge refer not only to the density and abundance of prehistoric monuments, but also to the significance of the river in a ceremonial or religious context.

Significantly the Stinsford Barrow Group is a non-designated asset that previously had been unrecognised as the barrows had been ploughed out. They were identified when aerial photographs taken in 1989 were reassessed as part of the South Dorset Ridgeway Mapping Project, published in 2011. The project recognised the connectivity of the valley of the River Frome with the chalk downland to the south and north, and identified over 350 new barrows. Even though many of these barrows have been ploughed out, primary burials could still be intact, as is likely the case with the Stinsford Barrow Group.

The South Dorset Ridgeway has been described as “one of the richest and most important cultural landscapes in England.”(Pinder & Munro, 2008) As far as I am aware the Mapping Project is the most comprehensive survey of the archaeology of the Dorchester area, taking in the chalk down lands to the north as well as to the south of the River Frome. This highly successful project, which was carried out between 2008-2010, reassessed aerial photographs and used Environment Agency lidar images, added hugely to the sites recorded in the Historic Environment Record. The author, Carolyn Ryall, concluded that;

“There …remains considerable potential for the discovery of archaeological sites through a continuing programme of aerial reconnaissance…”

This systematic survey was funded by English Heritage through the Historic Environment Enabling Programme, whereas much of the remainder of archaeological investigations north of Dorchester has been funded by developers and therefore piecemeal. Even so, there are tantalising glimpses such as concentrations of worked flint or earth ridges which suggest human activity from Neolithic times onwards.

Clearly much work still needs to be done to understand the significance of the Dorchester area and its archaeological potential. Further expert advice needs to be sought to guide responses to the inclusion of sites north of Dorchester in the draft Dorset Local Plan. (I know the LUC 2021 report supposedly fulfils this role on behalf of Dorset Council, but I have concerns that it is rushed and possibly due to Corona virus restrictions it is primarily a desk top study. Field visits were restricted to public footpaths so the author (unlike my husband and me) did not even visit the site of the putative bronze age cemetery which potentially will be buried under concrete. There are factual mistakes – Dorchester has at least 4 henge monuments, not 2 – and it proposes economies / short cuts such as not investigating Open Spaces 1 & 2 despite acknowledging their archaeological potential. I’m also concerned that if DOR 13 is included in the Local Plan, I understand the same company, ie LUC, will be involved in drawing up the master plan for the site.)

In an archaeological context one would like to see a comprehensive, landscape scale approach which would also include Waterston Ridge. The reality is, of course, that there are different developers involved who legally cannot be obliged to fund archaeological investigations beyond the fallout from their own development sites. But given the potential significance of the Dorchester area, and comparisons with the rich archaeological landscape of Stonehenge, we owe it to future generations to ensure that each development site is thoroughly investigated, including using the latest technology, before the archaeological evidence is destroyed – including evidence of which we are as yet unaware.

The author of the South Dorset Ridgeway Project says there is ‘considerable potential’ for further discoveries; this is also recognised by the LUC 2021 report regarding the DOR13 site;

“In addition to the known archaeology, there is a high potential for further archaeological / geoarchaeological discoveries to be made within the site…” (9.7)

The report acknowledges the need for further research and recommends the appointment of an archaeological clerk of works.

Given the scale, potential significance and complexity of the site, however, I suggest that before any decisions are made as to whether or not DOR 13 should be included in the draft local plan, advice should be sought from independent experts at the cutting edge of research. For example, Professor Mark Gillings, Head of the Department of Archaeology & Anthropology at Bournemouth University has within his department Prof Tim Darvill, who has worked on the Stonehenge landscape, and Paul Cheetham, who is an expert on geophysics techniques including ground penetrating radar. I understand that Paul C. should be able to advise on the latest remote sensing techniques available to archaeologists, including access to images from space. Dr Sarah Parcak, from Birmingham University, Alabama, has developed a technique which uses very high definition, military satellite images with infra red filters to identify previously unknown archaeological sites around the world. She has set up a citizen science project, GlobalXplorer, so this kind of technology is becoming more widely accessible and there may well be a British equivalent.

The success of such techniques is of course dependent on underlying geology and local terrain, and this is where expert guidance is needed on the most effective remote sensing methods available. The rich archaeological potential justifies an ambitious and imaginative approach which goes beyond fulfilling minimal planning requirements – but even if, post investigation, the landscape does not live up to comparisons with Stonehenge and the like, such in depth research will surely reveal fascinating archaeology from other historic periods, as identified in the LUC 2021 report. Opportunities for public engagement will be stimulated and the ‘package’ available for heritage tourism will be significantly extended. Kingston Maurward College has been considering offering an archaeology course and in depth, local research will support their ability to deliver such a course.

I recognise that my proposal will involve collaboration between Dorchester Town Council and Stinsford and Charminster parish councils at a time when the draft local plan consultation is already imposing enormous demands on people’s time. However, it would be a terrible betrayal of our cultural heritage if decisions regarding the future of this special historic landscape were based on a lack of understanding and ignorance of its true significance, and buried for ever under layers of concrete.

Documents referred to:

  • Dorset Council Draft Local Plan, Vol 2, Central Dorset – Options Consultation Documents.
  • Landscape & Heritage Study carried out by LUC for WDDC, 2018.
  • North of Dorchester Heritage Impact Assessment, carried out by LUC for Dorset Council, 2021
  • South Dorset Ridgeway Mapping Project, Carolyn Ryall, 2011

Linda Poulsen