Celtic Field Groups

Pages 117-119

An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 5, East. Originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1975.

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See introductory notes to 'Celtic' Field Groups of Central Dorset (Dorset III, 318). The Field Groups of East Dorset are numbered consecutively with those of Dorset IV.


'Celtic' fields have been found only in the N.W. third of the area, generally on the higher ground within the heartland of Cranborne Chase. They are restricted to the Chalk, except in a few instances where thin superficial deposits such as Valley Gravel or Clay-with-flints overlie it, and they are absent from the heavier or less fertile soils of the Eocene deposits in the S.E. Their distribution on the Chalk, however, is by no means uniform; as yet they have not been found in its S.W. extension towards the R. Stour and, even where they occur, distribution is intermittent. Probably the most important factor governing this distribution is differential post-Roman cultivation, 'Celtic' fields surviving best in those areas where subsequent cultivation has been limited or negligible. In N.E. Dorset, for example, distribution coincides markedly, if not exactly, with the areas of downland pasture on O.S., 1811, and they are notably absent from the vicinity of existing villages. A further factor which contributes to their survival in some areas and absence from others where they probably once existed, is the degree of slope. The biggest 'Celtic' field lynchets, and therefore the most durable remains, are found on the steeper slopes, and on the Chalk these occur more frequently in the N. than in the S. of the area. Virtually all the fields have been damaged by later ploughing, most of them severely, and today many of them are distinguishable, often barely so, only on air photographs.

'Celtic' fields are clearly related to a number of settlements and enclosures, all of Iron Age and/or Romano-British date where this is determinable, or likely to fall within that period. On Handley Down they appear to be associated with the later Bronze Age settlement known as Angle Ditch (Sixpenny Handley (27)). Only at three sites—the settlements of Gussage All Saints (20) and Gussage St. Michael (8) and the hill-fort on Penbury Knoll (Pentridge (18))—is occupation restricted to the pre-Roman period; elsewhere occupation continues into the Roman period, or begins then. No fields have yet been found in association with villas or other Roman buildings in the area; distribution is at present confined to settlements in the native tradition. To what extent the layout and distribution of fields was modified in the later period is largely unknown. On Oakley Down the track leading from the Iron Age and Romano-British settlement (Wimborne St. Giles (36)) towards the Roman road appears to lie over 'Celtic' fields, and some of the fields, either additional or altered, are of the elongated type generally associated with the Roman period. There is clear evidence in the pattern of fields N. of Nine Yews (Group (85); Plate 86) that at some stage at present undetermined they were completely realigned.

Where boundary dykes and 'Celtic' fields are found together, as in Groups (82) and (85) they appear to be integrated, and in most cases the dykes appear to be contemporary with or earlier than the fields, rather than inserted into them. On Gussage Hill (Group (82)), fields overlie and make use of the earthworks of the Dorset Cursus, but on the E. side of Salisbury Plantation (Group (85)) they meet it obliquely and unconformably. Scattered round barrows are often incorporated into the divisions between fields, as in Group (85), where they also impinge on some of the barrows in the Oakley Down group (Wimborne St. Giles (94–124)). Generally, however, 'Celtic' fields avoid major concentrations of barrows as, for example, on Wyke Down in Gussage All Saints.


Group (80): Crichel Down (Long Crichel). 'Celtic' fields on Crichel Down are probably part of a more extensive network that once covered much of the downland W. and S.W. of the Crichel Brook; they have been largely destroyed by intensive ploughing since enclosure of the downland (c. 1950), but air photographs show that they had been substantially damaged by earlier cultivation and that some had ridge-and-furrow on them (Long Crichel (5)). The fields extend W. across Crichel Down towards Hyde Hill Plantation in Tarrant Launceston (966100–953102). They appear mostly to have been of the elongated rectangular type and some were probably integrated with the linear dyke which extends S.W. from the small rectangular enclosure, Long Crichel (6). (Plate 85.)

Air photographs: CPE/UK 1845: 4055–7, 6056–8; F 21 58 RAF 1090: 0136–7; C.U.A.P., AMO 6–8, ANC 67–71.

Group (81): Sovell Down (Gussage All Saints, Gussage St. Michael, Moor Crichel). 'Celtic' fields, now almost totally levelled by ploughing, are faintly seen on air photographs on the ridge between the Crichel and the Gussage Brooks; they lie mostly along the N.E. side of the ridge, on either side of the Roman road (985104– 986112–003102). Towards the S.E. end the fields adjoin an Iron Age settlement (Gussage All Saints (20)) and almost certainly are associated with it.

Air photographs: 58/RAF/3250: 0059–60; F22/58RAF/1090: 0138–40.

Group (82): Thorney DownGussage DownHarley DownTenantry DownBrockington Down (Gussage All Saints, Gussage St. Michael, Sixpenny Handley). 'Celtic' fields cover much of the top and flanks of the low ridge between the Gussage Brook and the headwaters of the R. Allen. From just S. of Sixpenny Handley they extend almost without interruption for over 3 miles to Brockington Down (000165–995118– 014116). Much of the area was formerly downland pasture, but it is now extensively cultivated and most of the field remains have been levelled.

On Gussage Hill the 'Celtic' fields, many of them irregular in shape, are clearly integrated with an Iron Age and Romano-British settlement (Gussage St. Michael (7), plan opp. p. 24) and immediately N.E. of it they make use of the earlier earth-works of the Dorset Cursus. Fields are also integrated with another enclosure (Gussage St. Michael (8), see Plate 54), probably of the Iron Age, and apparently with a linear dyke (Gussage All Saints (21)). They appear not to have intruded on the concentration of barrows on Wyke Down.

Air photographs: F21/58RAF/1090: 0115–20, 0140–47; F22/58RAF/1090: 0141; CPE/UK1845: 6048–9; 58/3250: 0057–8; CPE/UK 2038: 3197–8; N.M.R., ST 9914/7, 14.

Group (83): Minchington Down and Woodcutts Common (Sixpenny Handley). 'Celtic' fields, now almost destroyed by ploughing, can be seen on air photographs of the land around the hamlet of Woodcutts. They extend from the parish boundary on the W., where they adjoin an enclosure (Sixpenny Handley (24)), as far as Manor Farm (961153–956166–974166). To the N., on Woodcutts Common, further fields occur around the Iron Age and Romano-British settlement (Sixpenny Handley (19)).

Air photographs: F21/58RAF/1090: 0101–03; F22/58RAF/ 1090: 0100–03; N.M.R., ST 9615/1/112–118; ST 9616/6/185–6; ST 9617/3/192–196.

Group (84): Handley Common and Chapel Down (Sixpenny Handley). 'Celtic' fields long flattened by cultivation extend for over 2 miles along the top of a ridge, from the N. edge of Handley Common, S.S.E. to Chapel Down (976187–990152). They appear to be related to the Romano-British and probably earlier settlement at Humby's Stock Coppice (Sixpenny Handley (20)), and on the S. they adjoin the boundary ditches of the Iron Age and Romano-British settlement on Gussage Hill (Gussage St. Michael (7)).

Air photographs: F21/58RAF/1090: 0117–8; F21/58RAF/ 1090: 0103–5.

Group (85): Garston Down—Handley Down— Oakley Down—Bokerley Down—Pentridge Hill— Bottlebush Down—Crockerton Hill—Blackbush Down—Toby's Bottom (Cranborne, Pentridge, Sixpenny Handley, Wimborne St. Giles). 'Celtic' fields cover a large area of the Chalk in the N.E. of the county, close to the boundary with Hampshire. They extend for nearly 4 miles from W. to E. and for over 3 miles from N. to S. (see distribution map of Iron Age and Romano-British Monuments opp. p. xxvi). Their distribution is closely, though not entirely, related to the areas of downland pasture shown on O.S., 1811. Over much of this area cultivation has removed the 'Celtic' fields as relief features visible on the ground and they are now only discernible, often faintly, on air photographs. Fields are notably absent in the immediate vicinity of villages, and remains are best preserved in the peripheral and adjoining areas of the parishes (map in end-pocket) where, until recently, cultivation has been minimal. As relief features the fields survive best on the steeper slopes, for example W. and N.W. of Penbury Knoll. They vary markedly in size, though it must be accepted that many internal divisions have almost certainly been destroyed; they also vary to some extent in shape, though the majority tend to squareness. The more elongated rectangular fields generally attributed to the Romano-British period are not noticeably in evidence, though they seem to occur on Oakley Down and N. of Salisbury Plantation (024176); also possibly S. and W. of the R. Crane. In the latter area, particularly N. of Nine Yews, two phases of fields may be distinguished, one overlying the other (Plate 86).

The 'Celtic' fields impinge on numerous other sites and earthworks. On Handley Down they appear to be integrated with the later Bronze Age settlement known as Angle Ditch (Sixpenny Handley (27)). The Iron Age and Romano-British settlement on Oakley Down (Wimborne St. Giles (36)) is clearly integrated with fields (Plate 78; plan opp. p. 102), as are the Romano-British settlements at Jack's Hedge Corner (Cranborne (34)) and S.W. of Oakley Farm (Sixpenny Handley (21)). Fields adjoin the probable settlement near Bowldish Pond (Wimborne St. Giles (37)) and all but join the Iron Age hill-fort on Penbury Knoll (Pentridge (18)). Their alignment oblique to the Roman road, N. of Salisbury Plantation and on Oakley Down, suggests the likelihood that the road was laid across existing fields; but a similar oblique alignment of the fields with regard to the Neolithic Cursus is observable on the edge of Salisbury Plantation (027169). On Bottlebush Down (026156) and at Nine Yews (039138), 'Celtic' fields are integrated with lengths of bank and ditch, now largely flattened by ploughing, which presumably served as some form of boundary between blocks of fields. Elsewhere, continuous lynchet lines appear to have served a similar purpose, for instance S.W. of Jack's Hedge Corner (around 044153) and N. of Nine Yews (037142). There are indications on air photographs that at the N. end of the group, near Bokerley Gap, 'Celtic' fields formerly occupied some of the land between Grim's Ditch and Bokerley Dyke.

A round barrow (Pentridge (25)) lies in what appears to be the middle of a 'Celtic' field N.W. of Penbury Knoll, and another (Wimborne St. Giles (83)) occurs just E. of Salisbury Plantation. In neither instance, however, is it certain that the barrow was built after the field had been laid out. Other barrows have been incorporated in the boundaries of fields, for example Wimborne St. Giles (54), (56), (58), (114–116), (118), (123) and (124).

Air photographs: CPE/UK 2038: 3041–53, 4041–55, 4111–16; 58/3250: 0055–58, 0086–98, 0120–23; F21/58RAF/1090: 0146– 54; F22/58RAF/1090: 0146–53.

N.M.R., SU 0314/1–5; 0315/1–5; 0315/6/36–47; 0515/1–2; 0515/4/71–9; 0515/5/64–70; 0316/1/80–2; 0316/2/91–2; 0416/1/ 48–62; 0317/2/63–4; 0517/2/84–90; 0418/2; 0418/6/8; 0418/6/14– 6.

C.U.A.P., ABX 80; ANB 58–75; AQZ 10–11; AXM 47, 49; V-DG 6–12, 22, 27–47, 58–63, 66–80, 83–96; V-DH 1–20; RC 8; X 99–101; V 215–9; V 223–9.

Cranborne Manor House. Symbol of Virgo