The Archaeology of Cleeve Common
13th November 2017
This post comes from Visiting Fellow in Landscape Archaeology at the University, Dr Tim Copeland.
The three tall radio masts on the hill above Cheltenham are ready identifiable from all parts of the town and much of the Severn Valley. They are sited on the lip of the Cotswold Edge with Cleeve Common behind them gently sloping away to the east. The geology of the Common is free draining oolitic limestone with a surface of close-cropped grass which has been kept short by flocks of sheep since the Middle Ages, accompanied in the last decade by a herd of Banded Galloway cows. These attributes make the Common a favourite place for dog walkers as it offers a dry, flat landscape for running and chasing balls. This open environment was probably wooded in the distant past, but since at the least the Bronze Age (c.2500- c.800BCE) it has been de-forested by human activities. These activities have left traces in terms of up-standing earthworks which can be identifiable by archaeologists since the ground has never been ploughed and the features are relatively undamaged. The ‘relatively’ is because there is also a ‘quarry’ and ‘golf course’ which have partially destroyed, hidden or modified some of the older features.
Cleeve Common has a number of archaeological sites protected by the government as ‘Scheduled Ancient Monuments’ (SAMs) and which are readily identified in the landscape. The earliest is a Bronze Age ‘cross dyke’, probably defining ownership of land on either side: a prehistoric fence. The largest monument is a late Bronze/early Iron Age (c.800-600BCE) enclosure surrounded by two ditches and banks, delineating a now semi-circular space. Whether it once was a whole circle we do not know as half of its possible area has been quarried away. On maps the feature is identified as a ‘hillfort’ with defensive functions, although more recent interpretation suggest that seasonal festivals would have taken place in the enclosure with markets, arranged marriages, and religious rituals being celebrated. The third SAM is on the side of the Common and comprises two late Iron Age/early Roman (100BCE-100AD) features, but the platform on which they were built has been turned into a golf green causing much damage to the archaeological evidence.
Besides my own professional work as a landscape archaeologist, I am Voluntary Warden on the Common, and have researched and identified many smaller, less obvious sites in the landscape. The most significant of these have been Bronze Age burials in ‘round barrows’, a square enclosure that might be for a Roman villa, or perhaps medieval paddocks for animals moving along one the five long distance routes crossing the Common. Then there are the possible foundations of the grandstand of Cheltenham’s first racecourse before the sport moved down to its present position, a late 19th century sheep wash and the Washpool that supplied it, a First World War practise shooting range and the foundations of a World War Two direction finder to help bombers find their way back to Gloucestershire airfields.
However, Cleeve Common is 4.55 square km. (1.575 square miles) in area, and far too large for one person to explore thoroughly and effectively. As a result a project has been set up with Historic England (the academic part of English Heritage), Gloucestershire Archaeology (a society of part-time archaeologists) and the Cleeve Common Trust to undertake a long term survey of the area.
The programme will consist of project phases – not necessarily sequential as some can run in parallel
- Information gathering to find out what we do know, and as important what we don’t know to provide questions to inform:
- Topographical survey to find the anomalies that might indicate historic structures
- Geophysics, lidar (using light pulses from aircraft) and other targeted survey
- Possible excavations
- Assimilation and reporting.
Although trained archaeologists will be leading the project, it is important that the community who use the Common are also involved in some way. Access to Heritage Lottery Fund grants and other agencies and charities will allow for the training of individual groups in archaeological skills and methodology. The University has already been identified as possible partner in the project once it is up and running. This might take the form of providing professional experiences for history students and those other areas which have an interest in the ecology of the Common. There would also be opportunities for students who wish to take part as a leisure interest. However, these are early days, but the project offers great potential.