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Searching for hillforts in the New Forest

Michael Osborne, one of our archaeology volunteers, tells us about his hunt for hillforts in the New Forest.

Having walked in the New Forest over a number of years I had seen many half-hidden signs that people had been living and working here for a very long time - but very little of it was marked or identified on maps.

Surveying at Buckland hillfort, Lymington.

As such, I was delighted when the opportunity came up to join the New Forest NPA archaeology volunteers to get out into the Forest and check the results of the LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) survey on the ground.

The survey teams, described in my fellow volunteer Tony Carpenter’s blog in February, work mainly from late autumn until early spring when there are no ground-nesting birds to disturb and the bracken dies away to allow features to be better seen.

As a result, the summer months are normally quieter, however this year Lawrence Shaw (Heritage Mapping and Data Officer at the New Forest NPA) introduced us to a project run by Oxford and Edinburgh universities to create an Atlas of the Hillforts of Britain and Ireland.

The imposing Iron Age sites at Maiden Castle in Dorset, Danebury near Winchester and Buckland Rings in Lymington are well known but there are many more of all shapes and sizes throughout the British Isles and the wider picture is not well understood.

It was somewhat of a surprise to discover that there are 27 potential Iron Age fort sites in or close to the New Forest National Park. The aim of this project is to gather the available information on every identified location using ‘citizen science’ - i.e. enthusiasts who are not necessarily expert archaeologists.

Teams of NPA volunteers arm themselves with tape measure, camera, clipboard, print-outs of the LiDAR surveys and as much information as can be gleaned from local knowledge and the internet. They then spend an hour or so on each site interpreting the very specific information which has to be entered on the central database.

Castle Hill near Burley on a map from 1871.
(c) Crown Copyright and Landscape Information Group Limited 2014. All rights reserved 1871.

The background research we do ranges from examining document and physical observations to cutting edge technology.

For example a 1960s aerial photo of crop marks showed the possibility of a previously unreported hill fort near Damerham. This was combined with Lawrence’s manipulation of the available LiDAR data to assess the intensity of the ground, which led to the creation of a ‘Fly-by’ 3D image (below) which will help us decide if this was indeed a new site or an illusion.

With the smaller hill forts it is all too easy to see an earthwork marked on a map, check out the grid reference on the English Heritage Pastscape database, then take a walk out to find it but when you get there just see perhaps a rather insignificant set of banks and ditches.

The secret is to look very hard at the site, walk all the way around it, see how many lines of banks and ditches there are, estimate how far you can see from the ramparts, assess where a water supply might have been, then try to identify where the original entrances were and which have been added in the 2,500 years since they were built.

Expert opinion on how, when and why the forts were created and used is constantly changing as more evidence comes to light so it would be unwise of us to do more than make our record – which we are enjoying doing very much!

If you'd like to find out how to become an archaeology volunteer, email

This entry was posted by Communications on Friday 26/09/2014


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