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Ancient discovery begins to rewrite the New Forest’s history

Ancient discovery begins to rewrite the New Forest’s history


An archaeological dig in the New Forest has unearthed new evidence that may play a role in finding out more about when people first settled here.

Analysis of charcoal found in what was believed to be an Iron Age hillfort at Matley Heath, has dated the monument much further back to the Earlier Neolithic period.

With a 95% probability of dating between 3347 and 3097 BC the evidence, together with previous isolated finds in the New Forest, raises new questions around the history of human settlement and land-use in the New Forest and Hampshire.

The discovery was made during a programme of conservation and investigative works at the monument undertaken by a team from Forestry England, the New Forest National Park Authority, archaeologists from Bournemouth University’s Archaeological Research Consultancy (BUARC), and local volunteers.

Through a process of geophysical surveys and an archaeological excavation the team were able to locate the charcoal deposits in buried soil deposits at the base of the large ditch of the monument. These were removed and underwent specialist radiocarbon dating analysis to provide an objective age estimate for the charcoal.

Andrew Norris, Planning Officer with Forestry England, said: ‘This site has always been a bit of a mystery, referred to as an ancient hill fort but on very low ground making it a curious location for this kind of feature. There is still much to find out about it but this investigation has given us a big piece of the puzzle. By dating the settlement much further back than we thought it potentially resets the archaeological clock for when people first began settling here in the New Forest.

‘Alongside the dig we have conducted some important conservation activities at the site to protect it from further erosion and damage. Preserving the cultural heritage of the New Forest is an important part of Forestry England’s work and we would like to thank all of the partner organisations and volunteers who supported this project.’

Lawrence Shaw, Archaeological Officer for the National Park Authority, said: ‘This fascinating discovery has raised more questions than answers about this amazing site and certainly increases the significance of the monument both locally and nationally.

‘What is particularly great about this discovery is that it is a result of extensive partnership working by several different organisations. The monument itself has been on the At Risk Register for a number of years and this work has been one of many steps towards bringing the site back into favourable condition, so that it survives for many more thousands of years.’

There are several other archaeological features close to the monument suggesting there was a large prehistoric complex at this location. A clearly marked drove way runs alongside the monument and leads into its main entrance, suggesting this was a structure made to bring people to and directly in front of this important area. There are also several burial mounds in the area signifying that this may have been an area of special significance.

Jon Milward, Senior Archaeological Consultant from Bournemouth University’s Archaeological Research Consultancy who led the fieldwork, said: ‘It has been a pleasure to have been involved in this project, which has been a great success. Taking the opportunity to undertake a controlled archaeological excavation alongside the repair and conservation works has provided a wealth of information that can be used to inform long term conservation and management plans and any future research projects.

‘We now know a lot more about the characteristics of the earthworks around the feature and the nature of the buried archaeological remains, as well as having new dating evidence that defied expectations and proposes the monument is at least 2,500 years older than previously thought.’

The project at Matley Heath is part of Forestry England’s ongoing programme of monitoring and preserving 158 different ancient monuments in the New Forest.

Frank Green, Senior Archaeologist for the National Park Authority said: ‘The dating evidence from this site is really exciting, increasingly we are seeing evidence for the Neolithic period being found in the New Forest that is changing our understanding of how the landscape was used. The suspicion was that this particular site was not Iron Age as previously thought. The dating evidence has confirmed this and is really important in establishing that the construction of landscape monuments started before the Bronze Age.’

To hear more about this exciting discovery from the team, watch our joint YouTube video.


Notes to Photo Editor:

Lidar (Light Detection And Ranging) image of the monument at Matley Health.

Notes to Editor:

Forestry England

  1. Forestry England manages and cares for the nation’s 1,500 woods and forests, with over 230 million visits per year. As England’s largest land manager, we shape landscapes and are enhancing forests for people to enjoy, wildlife to flourish and businesses to grow. For more information visit Forestry England is an agency of the Forestry Commission

About the New Forest National Park Authority

Protect – Enjoy – Prosper

The New Forest National Park Authority’s statutory purposes are to:

  • Conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the Park – Protect.
  • Promote opportunities for understanding and enjoyment of its special qualities – Enjoy.

We also have a duty to:

  • Seek to foster the social and economic well-being of local communities within the Park – Prosper.

The New Forest National Park was designated in March 2005. Its unique landscape has been shaped over the centuries by grazing ponies, cattle and pigs which roam free. Majestic woodlands, rare heathland and a spectacular coastline provide fabulous opportunities for quiet recreation, enjoyment and discovery.

Visit to find out more.

Media contacts:

Susan Smith, Media Officer
Forestry England South Forest District
Tel: 07384 878434

Beki Mole, Communications Assistant
New Forest National Park Authority
Tel: 01590 646639

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