Blacklow Hill, From the Archives

The Blacklow Hill Dig – Part One

Introduction – The Importance of Blacklow Hill

What follows is part one of four of the remarkable story of how KHAS came to be involved in the discovery of stunning finds at Blacklow Hill, just outside Leek Wootton, in the early 1970s. Up until then, Blacklow Hill had chiefly been known as the scene of the dramatic execution of King Edward II’s favourite Piers Gaveston, “in life and death a memorable instance of misrule”, on the hilltop in 1312. These events were commemorated by a sandstone cross erected there in 1832. However, the dig showed that the site’s history is much longer and more intriguing than that.

The Blacklow Hill site looking north before completion of the bypass extension, 1972.

Thanks to the activities of a few dedicated individuals and archæological bodies back in 1971 / 1972, we know today the true importance of Blacklow Hill – it is the only early Mesolithic site in Warwickshire and one of only 61 in Britain. It solved a major problem of the period, namely why were there no known early Mesolithic sites in the Midlands ?

Its Deepcar typology, named after a similar known site in Deepcar near Sheffield, establishes its date as approximately 9,300 years before present and lets us apply information from other sites (e.g. preserved animal bones) to paint a picture of Blacklow Hill 9,300 years ago. The elevated site would have been chosen because it was dry, sandy and close to resources including water, river game and local flint, as are many such sites of this time.

Based on the evidence found on the site of fires, a small group of hunter gatherers used the site to cook food. Evidence of all stages of flint knapping shows that they made flint tools there. Scrapers found on the site would have been used to clean hides, and broken microliths are evidence of repairs being made to hunting weapons.  Axe flakes, a remnant of timber and vegetation being cut, were found on the site, as were miscellaneous tools referred to as ‘microdenticulates’.

Not only that, but evidence was found that the site was later used as a sacred Saxon grove. A series of post-holes was found enclosing a number of pits, enclosing two graves which appear to have been dug deliberately in the centre of the site. One grave contained an Anglo-Saxon knife known as a seax.

Plan of the Blacklow Hill finds located by the dig, December 1971

What lay on Blacklow Hill turned out to be of national interest. Over the next couple of weeks we’ll examine the story of how KHAS came to be involved in this dig, and how it swiftly turned, from what was initially seen as a bit of a duff assignment, into possibly the most significant piece of work the Society has ever undertaken.

Background to the Dig

The A46 Warwick Bypass was extended past Kenilworth in 1971 / 1972 as part of the “Bath to Lincoln trunk road”. In the summer of 1971 the Society was alerted that the route of the proposed road, on which work was due to begin as early as September 1971, would affect a number of known archæological sites.

Blacklow Hill, Easter 1972, with the A46 construction in progress below

The archæological community now had to rush to determine how to record those sites which would be altered or obliterated by the scheme. KHAS Newsletter 37 from June 1971 records how the Society first learned of the details of the scheme and began to scramble to determine what activities were needed to deal with the proposals:

“This newsletter should be the first of many that has a great deal of interest for all who are interested in local archæology. The Kenilworth Southern By-pass, which will start from the end of the Warwick By-pass and follow very roughly the route of the Stoneleigh Road, through Finham and across to Leaf Lane (East of Leamington Road on the Coventry by-pass) is to have a start made on it in September by the road construction contractors. Your committee attended an emergency meeting with Coventry Archæology Society and Bishop Bright School’s Committee at the Warwick Museum, chaired by Graham Webster with Bill Ford and John Hedges. (Local professional archæologists and historian.)

Graham Webster apologised for not having notified us before, but they have had difficulty with local authorities, landowners and shortage of available funds, and permission to go onto land and property etc.

But, briefly, the by-pass which will be seven miles long will affect at least 16 known archæological sites, possibly many more, which are known, either by documentary research, maps, aerial photography etc. though some of these sites may not be directly lost as a result of the motorway. What is required is more site investigation and trial trenching by machine and hand in the likely areas.

Large magnetometer surveys for Roman tile kilns etc, direct surveys, contour detail and field work. Money is very short and authorities concerned are not likely to help much, application has been made to the Ministry of Environment and all the help that can be given is required now. The Kenilworth History Society has pledged to clear one very interesting site of dense undergrowth, as there is a suspected long barrow, Roman British building and glass works, though at the moment the museum is trying to get the landowner’s permission for us to go onto the site. We have also pledged to do a trial trench at Leek Wootton as an aerial photograph shows ditches, and on the ground is a flint spread. But again we are waiting permission to go onto the land. But as soon as we can make a start on these two sites we shall need plenty of help, and quickly as time now until September is very short, and if anything more interesting shows up it will mean more hard work. If anyone would like to help now with any of the current ‘digs’ they could either contact Irene Potter – Secretary, or John Hedges direct; he is usually to be found at the Headquarters set up at Baginton by the allotments near the “Old Mill”. If no one is there either leave a note or phone John Hedges at Barford 449 early evening.”

Work commences on the extension of the A46, from the stretch bypassing Warwick towards Coventry. This image was taken by the dig team from the summit of Blacklow Hill

A letter from prolific illustrator and KHAS member Eric Pedler in the same newsletter shows that frustration and pessimism abounded over whether anything significant could be achieved in the tight timescales involved:

MEMBER’S LETTER (Kenilworth By-pass)

Good luck with the rescue work! It’s ridiculously late, and confirms my long held opinion as to the egocentricity and inherent anarchism of archæologists – they never seem able to organise ahead of the event. It’s practically a disease with them to be just one jump ahead of a bulldozer. Incidentally, I don’t suppose anyone has given a thought to all the ‘minor road works’ which will go on at the same time to link up. Dalehouse Lane is the obvious first candidate for this – in its present state, as nearly mediæval as makes no matter. I’m sure the Society should do a proper survey of it, marking ditches with sketch-sections at various points. It is supposed to be a Roman Road alignment after all.

ERIC PEDLER

Editor’s Comment: As Mr. Ford of the museum is concerned with Westley Bridge, at the other end of Dalehouse Lane, we could try to interest him in the idea when we have our next meeting at the Museum. What about some photographs of this area?”.


Next Week – The Blacklow Hill Dig – Part Two:

In Part Two of this ‘From the Archives’ feature we’ll see how events saw this impossible mission turn into something of an archæological thriller!

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