From the Archives, Blacklow Hill

The Blacklow Hill Dig – Part Two

When we left the story in Part 1 of this mini-series, the Society was grappling with the somewhat underwhelming task of digging and recording a bit of a backwater site at Blacklow Hill, in an almost impossibly short space of time. While the Coventry Archæological Society got the remit to investigate the Romano-British sites around Glasshouse Wood, a team including KHAS members was given the unenviable task of hacking through the undergrowth on a hill near Leek Wootton.

By KHAS Newsletter 38 of January 1972, however, things were looking considerably more appealing. Harry Sunley took up the story:

The Mysteries of Blacklow Hill

If this title smacks more of a thriller than an archæological excavation, then this is in part intentional. The following is not a formal report, for this will come later; it is an account of what has been done so far, the problems encountered and the mysteries that remain with us still.

It all started in June 1971, when Bill Ford of the Warwick Museum invited us to join in the Kenilworth bypass excavations. As Kenilworth itself (Glasshouse Woods et cetera) was already under the spade of the Coventry Archæological Society, we were asked to clear gorse and locate some walls previously reported by the road engineers to be on Blacklow Hill. Blacklow Hill had hitherto been noted, of course, as the execution place of Piers Gaveston, a cross having been erected there as a reminder.

It must be admitted that we were not overjoyed at being banished to Leek Wootton when so much of Roman Kenilworth was being uncovered; however, with good grace, and recognising that we needed to build up a team, we responded to the call.

The dig team grapples with thick vegetation and heavy soil with the use of a tractor and a spot of child labour, November 1971.The dig team grapples with thick vegetation and heavy soil with the use of a tractor and a spot of child labour, November 1971.

The gorse referred to was a mini jungle of brambles and trees and shrubs, and not having the faintest idea of what we were really looking for and where to find it within the tangle on the eastern end of the hill, we set to and blazed the trail with a machete. We were fortunately rewarded within a short time with the discovery of the “quarry”.

It is difficult to describe to those who have not seen, or only seen the quarry of late, the eerie sight that it presented. Cut into the side of the hill, it comprised three flat walls, each some 20 feet long and 12 feet high, forming approximately three sides of a square. The floor was a sort of leaf mould which rose steeply from the back. In and around the quarry there was an abundance of vegetation through which patches of sunshine percolated. There was also an abundance of mosquitoes. It was truly a weird place.

The ‘Quarry’ site, 1972The ‘Quarry’ site, 1972

We discussed the quarry with John Hedges (the full-time archæologist on the bypass) and it was, for the time being at least, dismissed as a quarry; but these were undoubtedly the walls referred to. Having performed this first task promptly, we were asked to take over the digging at the nearby “Barrow”, some 20 yards away. This dig had been sparked off by bypass field walkers who had suggested that a low mound on the north side of the hill was a Barrow; this possibility was supported by the name “black low” which infers an ancient burial mound, covered in gorse and heather.

In fact a section across the “Barrow” by full-time diggers had already ruled out the possibility of a formal Barrow, as beneath the surface there was solid sandstone bedrock. However, curious features in the form of shallow circular pits cut into the rock had come to light. Some six of these pits, about 3’6″ in diameter, have so far come to light (many more have been found since), but no one had a clue what they were. Various possibilities came to mind, such as Millstone quarrying, tanning pits or tree planting, but there was no evidence to support these; the idea of millstones was out, because, having with difficulty cut them to shape, how did one get them out? In any case the stone was too soft. We also checked that they were not associated with the building of Gaveston’s cross.

Shallow circular pit features, 1972Shallow circular pit features, 1972

So we dug. The more we dug, the more pits we discovered but with the exception of two pieces of clay pipe, nothing else. In due course we found a square hole cut into the sandstone, about 1 ft square and a foot or so deep. We concluded that this was a post hole, and this was supported by our finding three more in approximate line with it. The crunch came when in order to extend the site, we cleared more undergrowth and small trees and found an actual post sticking out of the ground. Sure enough, on excavation, Helen Steward found as we had feared, the post was standing in a square hole cut into the sandstone. To make matters worse there was a mesolithic type flint flake at the bottom. We could not really believe that we had found a mesolithic post, and so we were forced to the tentative conclusion that the post holes, at least, were relatively modern.

Post hole, September 1971Post hole, September 1971

Meanwhile the Museum had taken a second look at the Quarry. The neat way in which it had been cut out and its similarity to a building in Warwick suggested now that it might be more than a quarry. Additionally, the full time excavators had cleared and dug round the edges and found more of the ubiquitous pits. So we put in a trench in the Quarry. We then met our first serious problems. After three Sundays work we were some 5 ft down and the part of the floor that we had not dug had become a threatening mound of spoil. We had attempted to move this with a wheelbarrow but trundling a load up the sloping floor was stretching our energy resources and not producing much result. Quite apart from the danger of a landslide into the trench, it was also hard work heaving the spoil onto this mound. At this point, however, Pat Scott was able to come to the rescue with the loan of a tractor from Massey Ferguson. Once we had cut a way for the tractor through to the Quarry, Pat made fairly short work of the spoil; it was an education to see him drive up the slope with his front wheels gripping only fresh air due to the load in the scoop at the back lifting them off the ground.

In all we shifted about 20 tons of soil; and what did we find ? At a maximum depth of 8 ft we came to the original green marl floor, and in the process we turned up broken glass, mainly modern but at least one piece from the 17th century, corrugated asbestos roofing, clay pipe bits, a chisel and a pair of pincers, both very rusty, wire hawser, some relatively modern china, rabbit bones and, most triumphantly and unmistakably, Rene Potter found one piece of Romano-British mortarium – the only piece, however. So much for the finds. We also discovered that in two places within our trench, which embraced two walls and their corner, the stone had not been carefully tooled as elsewhere, and that the stone was jutting out a foot or so for a height of 2 ft above the floor. This suggested a support for beams, but we have no further evidence here. In addition, a feature, difficult to describe, had been cut in the corner. Instead of a sharp or rounded corner, the stone had been faced to form a flat triangular fillet, tapering off to the top of the Quarry. Whilst reminiscent of half a chimney, no evidence has been found, nor conclusions drawn, with regard to its purpose.

Slot in the ‘Quarry’, November 1971

We are not really sure where this leaves us. Although there were no significant signs of domestic habitation, the features continue to suggest that it is more than a quarry. Before it is destroyed by the motorway workings, John Hedges hopes to get the remainder dug mechanically.

At this point, which was now mid-November, and having the use of the tractor for another week, instead of returning to the main circular pit site, as had been suggested to us, we decided to scoop away the soil at the top of the Quarry, extending the earlier exploration. The first thing that we noted was a high concentration of flint flakes. In addition to that already found at the bottom of ‘Helen’s post hole’ a few others had been found. We were now starting to find them in quantity. Then, one afternoon, just before the early dusk, Rene (it always seems to be Rene) whilst exploring a cavity cut in the stone, discovered a bone and a rusty bit of iron. It quickly became clear that we had a grave. The next day, it was examined by the experts who considered that it was a Saxon burial. Due, however, to the specialist techniques required to investigate it, this was left to the Museum. Further investigation in the area has disclosed two more graves, and all three have been examined. Unfortunately the result has been a disappointment. The first contained a dagger (the rusty iron mentioned previously) and a heavily disturbed and far from complete skeleton, and the second grave contained lower leg bones only.

The Saxon grave, 1972One of the two Saxon graves, 1972

The third, although probably a grave, was only a couple of inches deep, the upper stone having been robbed out, and no contents were found. A rectangular cut-out at the nearby Quarry edge probably had also been a grave.

The current situation is that further exploration is going on in the area. It is now likely, but not proved so far, that the circular pits are associated with the burials. Nor can we be so sure that the square post-holes are so modern, as it has been pointed out that the small round post that we found was not really compatible with the very much larger square hole.

A few words about the flint flakes. There is a profusion of these, and it is now suggested that our site may be the most important Mesolithic settlement in the Midlands. In one afternoon alone, we found 273 flakes and cores, indicating that the site was at least a knapping area. Unfortunately, we cannot expect to find other Mesolithic evidence because, quite apart from the disturbance due to grave cutting and quarrying, remains less durable than flints are unlikely to have survived.

School children help the digging, November 1971School children help the digging, November 1971

Finally, I must say something about the support given to the dig. We have been a small band of enthusiasts, but in the last two months we have been reinforced by members of the Kenilworth Grammar School. On one occasion we had as many as 23 people working on the site. We therefore intend to continue digging all day Sunday until at least we lose the Quarry area by motorway workings. This is expected to be early in 1972. We hope that after that there will be the opportunity of continuing on the remainder of the site. I also hope that in the next Newsletter we will be able to unravel more of the mysteries of Blacklow Hill – at the moment it is a bit of a puzzle.

Harry Sunley, January 1972.”

Next Week – The Blacklow Hill Dig – Part Three:

In Part Three of this ‘From the Archives’ feature we’ll read how Harry Sunley attempted to evaluate these remarkable finds were, while the future of the site itself remained uncertain.

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