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History Periods

Human impact through the ages

Evidence of past human activity from over 750,000 years ago to the Cold War period survives in the forest.

Mesolithic (c.8000 – 4000BC) to Neolithic (4,000 – 2,000BC)

Man’s impact on the landscape probably started in the late Mesolithic period (around 5,000BC). Worked flint has been found in the Avon Valley and on areas of the Open Forest, indicating that humans hunted and gathered wild local resources. The hunter-gatherer way of life was gradually replaced by small scale farming and a less nomadic lifestyle in Neolithic times, although there is a general lack of physical remains from this period in the New Forest.

Bronze Age (2000 – 700BC)

By now much of the landscape had become a complex mosaic of wooded and heathland areas – perhaps similar to much of the open landscape we see now in the New Forest.

The Bronze Age was a period of major environmental change. A rise in the local population, along with more extensive herding of domestic livestock, led to a massive expansion of arable agricultural practices on the better soils. The land became exhausted from this use and some areas were unable to support arable agriculture from then on. Woodland was replaced by heathland in certain areas.

Bronze Age barrows visibly survive on the open heathland, where the soils were too thin and badly drained for arable agriculture and ploughing to take place. Along the coastal margins and within the river valleys, where the soil was more fertile, evidence has emerged of field systems and settlement activity.

From at least the late Bronze Age onwards, the coastal areas were important for the sea-salt industry that flourished until the middle of the 19th century, resulting in the salterns we see today. The salt was carried inland by packhorses and donkeys along routes such as the New Forest Salt Way, parts of which can still be walked.

Iron Age (700BC – 43AD)

The Iron Age was a time for defensive settlements such as the hill forts at Buckland Rings near Lymington, Castle Hill at Burley Street, and Frankenbury, overlooking the Avon Valley. Large areas were cleared of woodland, where the soil was more fertile, and extensively cultivated. Many are now heathland.

The Romans (43 – 410AD)

The Romans started a thriving pottery industry in the New Forest using the plentiful natural resources of clay, fuel wood and water. Many sites have been found across the Forest area with a distinctive circular earth kiln and extensive pottery fragments nearby. The pottery was traded widely – all the Roman sites in the south of Britain have evidence of New Forest pottery. Coins unearthed near the kiln sites indicate that the pottery industry survived until late in the Roman period.

There are no Roman villa sites within the New Forest National Park, the nearest is at Rockbourne, near Fordingbridge.

Anglo-Saxon period (410-1066AD)

It is traditionally thought that Lepe provided the landing point for the Saxons. The existing pattern of parishes and the older Forest villages dates from Anglo-Saxon times.

Evidence is now emerging of other middle and later Anglo-Saxon settlement activity within the New Forest, often on prehistoric sites and now beneath poorly drained heathland. Many place names are of Saxon origin, and the sites of the Forest’s oldest churches date from these times.

Medieval (1066 – 1500AD) and Post-Medieval (1500 – 1800AD) periods

Extensive evidence of woodland activities from medieval and post-medieval times includes charcoal, saltpetre and gunpowder production. The patterns of the larger estates were established at this time and are associated with better soil types. Earthwork remains of some of the royal hunting lodges built in the depths of the Forest in the 13th – 15th centuries can still be seen.

Modern Period (1800AD – present)

Within the forested areas of the New Forest, woodland management measures such as inclosures, banks and ditches are commonplace. Increased provision of transport and communication has also left its mark on the landscape.

The 20th century archaeological record in the New Forest is dominated by military and industrial relics. The two World Wars left lasting reminders such as airfields, Mulberry harbour construction sites and various army camps.

Our Historic Environment

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