Mock Duck (mockduck) wrote,
Mock Duck
mockduck

Digging Whitehawk

Our street is a cul-de-sac, overlooked by a steep wooded hill.

If you walk to the end of our road, you'll find houses which have spread out benches and tomato grobags and laundry-airers, and children who play out, because cars don't disturb them. You'll also find a small gap in the wall, leading to a bramble-lined muddy path.

Follow the path and within a few yards you'll see wooden shores shoved into the earth of the hill, creating steps which - while useful - are variably spaced and hard on the knees.

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I've yet to manage to ascend the whole flight and stay in breath, but it's always worth it, no matter what time of year.

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They take you through the woods and out to the wildflower-covered hilltop, and from there you can look right down to the sea, the pier, the coast as far as Shoreham, and half of Brighton.

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That hill is called Craven Vale: on the other side of it are allotments, and if you walk northwards from where you find yourself after climbing those steps, you'll pass the radio mast and arrive at the race course - where I begin many of my lunchtime runs, and to where I made my way last night for a small gathering.

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I've been vaguely aware, since we moved to this area 10 years ago, that there was a neolithic site at the top of this hill - but to be honest, I rarely thought about it.

My impressions of Craven Vale and Sheepcote Valley have been much more shaped by my experiences there: blackberry picking, running further and harder, and discovering the seasonal variety in the wild flowers, birds and animals as I did so - and enjoying the view as the swathe of rough ground slopes gently to the sea.

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If I thought much about its history, it was more about its use as a landfill site before it was resurfaced and returned to the downland it is now. But, as our convener Jon Sygrave, of Archaeology South East was to explain to us, its history goes back much, much further.

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We met on Manor Road, just where I generally slip onto the grassland and begin my runs. Last night I found out that it's also pretty much the central point of an enormous Neolithic monument.

And here's what Jon told us.

It's thought that the monument was built around 3,650 BC. This was the point in history when man became more sedentary: they'd started farming cereal and animals, so it was no longer necessary to follow game around the country.

Analysis of their remains shows that 95% of their diet was from domesticated species - only a small portion would have been from fishing or hunting.

This site predates Stonehenge by 700 or more years and as best we can tell, it has significance beyond merely being a monument. Previous excavations found a lot of human remains, but also cattle bones, pottery and evidence of feasting.

Neither was it a defensive structure. It consists of concentric banks, but the banks have breaks in them, so would not have been useful for defence. Astonishingly, you can still see one of the banks very clearly by eye - Jon pointed it out to us.

In 1830, this site was first identified and documented by a Rev Skinner, who drew up plans. Then in 1920 there was a survey and 'bozing' - the dropping of heavy weights to check the sound to see if there are hollow areas.

The 1920 survey uncovered a lot of artefacts that haven't been examined in recent times, and more sophisticated methodology may uncover new facts, so part of this project involves volunteers going into Brighton museum archives and seeing what is there. Since that time, there has been a bit more exploration, such as a geophysical survey that found "a lot of modern rubbish, but it was still useful because we could see the shape of what was underneath".

In 2011 they figured out that 4 to 5 generations built and used this monument. They also mapped at least 4 or 5 concentric circuits and believe there might be more - the area covered stretches from one end of the racecourse stands almost up to the radio mast.

It was granted Scheduled Monument status; nonetheless, Manor Road was built right over the top of it (I have also read that the racecourse should, by rights, never have been allowed to be built where it is).

After that bit of history, we walked to where we are going to be based. For the first couple of days, diggers are going to come in and remove the topsoil (it will all be replaced by Brighton park rangers after the dig, and seeded with wildflowers) and then we will be volunteering in blocks of up to four days.

There has been a lot of interest in the project and it's even going to have a BBC 4 programme made about it, so if we find anything interesting, we have to be prepared to re-enact the moment for a video diary.

We also have to be prepared to find some gruesome remains. I guess we were all thinking about that after Jon mentioned the earlier finds; someone came out and actually asked. "If that worries you...", Jon began - but no, apparently he was looking forward to it...according to his friend, anyway.

I'm really, really excited now. I've been thinking what an amazing thing archaeology is - it's like a mixture between a giant lucky dip, and a game where you (hopefully) find clues that tell us things we never understood before.

And to think that people enjoyed the same views (ok, without the buildings and radio mast and Roedean school... but you know what I mean) *6,000 years ago*. It's almost too trite to say, but at the same time... they were people, just like us in some ways. What were they thinking? What were they doing? Maybe we'll find something that helps answer that.

I'm not involved until right at the end of the dig, and because of our holiday plans, only for a couple of days, but I am so looking forward to understanding more about the hill at the end of my road. It'll certainly give me something new to think about as I'm running on Sheepcote Valley!
Tags: archaeology, brighton, digwhitehawk, sheepcote valley
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  • 9 comments
So very cool. I'm jealous!
It does feel like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Like, it's been dug about every 90 years.

And maybe this time we'll find something incredible!
How wonderful! The digging and the project.
I know - and right on our doorstep. What a gift.
I hope you find something amazing! I have never quite given up hope of one day discovering a new dinosaur...
Hee! If I find a dinosaur, it will change everything that is known about Craven Vale :)
What an excellent and interesting thing to be doing! There is some local archaeology happening in East Oxford that I'd like to have some involvement in but it's not proved convenient at this point. Things like traces in the land from hundreds of years ago (or even longer!) are very impressive - there are some places round here where you can see the signs left on the land from medieval fields and ploughing, once you know where to look.

PS lovely photos too!
Thank you!

I know, who would have thought you could make changes to the lie of the land that would stay in place for thousands of years?

As for digs not being convenient: if it's any consolation, many (most) of the volunteers that I met on this occasion are retired. I reckon there will be plentiful opportunities to get involved with such projects more fully during our golden years... if that's not too long to wait. Doesn't feel that far away for me :/
Very cool.