above steyning crop

River and Hill

By Jim Hindle, Jun 9 2012 08:00AM

Long after the barrows that seem to be pointing towards it were built, Caburn’s first initial circling ditch and bank were dug out and piled up. The date for these is thought to be of the Middle Iron Age, some one hundred to four hundred years then before Christ. The dating, together with its location in the center of a downland block, places the hillfort in a group including Cissbury, Torberry and the Trundle. Unlike Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age hillforts which are generally, around here, on liminal locations on the south and north edge of the Downs, these local Middle Iron Age hillforts appear to be primarily concerned with the internal coordination of their regions, rather than standing as outposts against the enemies or rivals or closer cousins of neighbouring tribes; perpetually marking out boundaries, rallying at real or half imagined threats.

In this, these later forts may have something in common with those such as Bigberry, Llanmelin and St Cath’s; locations in turn for the later regional capitals of Canterbury, Caerwent and Winchester. Many such forts may have originated out of traditional meeting places: even if the occurrence of cattlefairs or a level of settlement within the ramparts resembling something like a market town is unlikely for the small round dome of Caburn itself, the hillfort here must have been a sign - and very probably too a crucial linchpin - of the community it was both borne out of and helped to define.

And yet a stranger narrative exists; that while many forts were anchored in place by a untold tract of settlement preceding them and many surely were built to help ward off aggression, some at least may have been planted as staging posts to help consolidate invasion. In the intermittent years before the classical authors opened up the first written window into tribes and their rough wherebouts, it’s difficult to tell where one people ended and another began. Even so, it seems a stretch to conceive that Caburn ever acted as a staging post of an incursion; it seems so rooted in vast hinterlands of time, seems so at peace with some kind of older fellowship. It stands now as a symbol for something more longstanding and benign than thoughts of any ancient subjugation; more than a fort, it sits as a part of the landscape itself, speaks of both foundation and endurance.

By Jim Hindle, May 25 2012 08:00AM

They’re so commonly seen around here it’s tempting at times to take them for granted; the low, curved mounds that speak in an earthy language of their own of distant cultures and what would otherwise be long forgotten burials; nobility or warriors or chieftains who may have been considered royal, if sovereignty was even then exclusive. There are said to be around a thousand barrows throughout the county, of which not more than eighty are fully intact. The impact of the treasure hunters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is well known, as is that of early, informal archaeology. Also post war farming on the Downs – where most of the barrows occur – as well as the spread of towns throughout the region - has undoubtably exerted a heavy toll in terms of what barrows survive.

The Downs west of Alfriston and Lewes are said to be the most prolific for barrows in the wider county, but there may yet be many more surviving, hidden beneath the sprawling plantations that cover so much of the West Sussex Downs. As Leslie Grinsell remarked in the ‘thirties: “all along the ridgeway, at intervals of never more than a few hundred yards, are an enormous number of barrows”. Though they come in several forms, nine tenths of the Sussex barrows are the ‘bowl’ type, further catagorised in some cases as “saucers” or even the strangely titled “Druid No. 2”. But there are many others: bell barrows, disc barrows, ring mounds, platform barrows even long barrows such as the ‘Camel’s Humps’ on Malling Down (also known as the ‘Warrior’s Grave’) and that on Firle Beacon, both thought to once have contained wooden chambers similar to those of stone found in Wiltshire, the Cotswolds and many others places throughout Britain. Barrows wholly or largely comprised of flint cairns were plundered for buildings or roads at least as far back as the mid eighteen hundreds and quite likely for a long time before.

They sit like memories or markers to another time, tagged along the way with younger names and legends whose roots may still stretch further back than we might think: ‘King’s Graves’, ‘Watch Ways’, ‘The Devil’s Jumps’, ‘The Mill Ball’, ‘The Black Burgh’, ‘Four Lord’s Burgh’, ‘Thunder’s Barrow’, ‘Bunker’s Mound’, ‘Pipering Barrow’, ‘Gill’s Grave’, ‘Money Burgh’, ‘Males Burgh’, ‘Long Burgh’, ‘The Hunter’s Burgh’...

By Jim Hindle, Apr 14 2012 08:00AM

Have you ever noticed how on Caburn, it’s hard to figure out exactly who is on the hill? You can approach it and see a figure or two but after you’ve climbed up from the ramparts they’re no longer there, or otherwise you stumble upon people yards away as you round the crest or wander round the general curve. The hill seems almost a law unto itself, as if it rotates when you’re least expecting it or somehow seems to help disorientate you as to your immediate surroundings even as the landscape all around serves to pin you in place within the wider area. The curve and seemingly exposed interior are characteristics the hill is famous for. Infact they help define our understanding of it.

Volunteers during fieldwork regularly found they kept losing touch with their supervisors and surveyors from the Royal Commission found it necessary to use walkie talkies to keep in touch, despite the hilltops relatively small size. It helps diminish the possibility the place formed a settlement; the implication is that any houses would have been almost individual affairs, cut off by sight from any others on the hill in a way that has been compared to the ‘tower block syndrome’ of so many socially isolated high rises, even if really the height is the only fair likeness.

An ‘intra visibility’ study was actually carried out, measuring the distance at which others could be seen. The results showed five largely separate viewing areas whose small size demonstrated how hard the site would have been to defend, as well as conduct other, domestic activities. If the site was indeed something other than - in this early stage at least - a classical defensively designed hillfort, what other function did the early earthworks serve? The roundness and the ramparts lower down monumentalize the place and the many pits whose contents imply ritualized activity help imply that the place’s purpose remained as sacred in the Iron Age as it did when it was covered with trees. Confusing close up at times, the place acts as a landmark and beacon from any distance and once it may have been watched from afar while devotions we only can guess at were laid down; signs in themselves of entreaties or a continuous faith.

By Jim Hindle, Mar 27 2012 08:00AM

They almost seem to march across the map of ancient Britain – Brigantis, Belgae, Ordovices; some twenty seven tribes and up among them all the Iceni sitting proud in Eastern territories. But the maps are loose and territories go largely undefined, names plastered arbitarily like guest names at a table without places. Here of course in Sussex the Atrebates ruled the roost, or seemed to do so, even though the area this tribe defined was huge. At its height it’s likely that it took in Sussex, Surrey, East Hampshire, Berkshire and probably a portion of West Kent.

When it comes to our attention, it was ruled by Commius; once an ambassador for Rome who was imprisoned by the tribes here during Julius Caesar’s first abortive invasion but was subsequently freed. He later returned to Gaul where he became one of the leaders of a Gallic league against the Empire and was active enough to attract an attempted assassination, later escaping to Britain by the skin of his teeth by raising his sail while his boat was still on dry land to confuse and put off his pursuers.

In 51BC he was one of the leaders of a league formed between the Bellocavi, the Atrebates and others tribes but finally subjected to Caesar, promising to go anywhere and do anything prescribed as long as he never came in sight of another Roman. The links between the Atrebates here and their namesakes over the channel were apparently strong and it seems a few - though perhaps a politically important few - may have migrated here after Julius Caesar ‘dealt’ with Gaul after his two British expeditions.

On his death, the territory was split between his three sons; two of whom may have jointly ruled over an area every bit as large as their father’s, including that of the Cantii in what is now Kent. At some stage, the Atrebates became known as the Regni: ‘the proud ones’. Despite or even partly because of this moniker, one son actually went to Rome, perhaps to seek help against the aggressive Catuvellauni who had taken territory in Hampshire. He may well have offered the legions a harbour and base at Fishbourne during the Claudian invasion in 43AD.

Though it is said the Belgic tribes of the South East offered stiff resistance to Roman incursion during the first years of invasion, the Regni themselves apparently never took up arms and later blossomed under Roman rule. But some suggest Caburn offered the western and southernmost point of resistance in a line that stretched up towards East Anglia and the Iceni themselves. Commius’s life and that of the tribe he once led speaks volumes of the drama and the ironies the age embodified. Our society continues to be influenced by the changes the Romans brought in, even if we hold as well the memory of something more original and wild.

photo: James Luxton

By Jim Hindle, Mar 8 2012 09:00AM

Long before it turned into a place associated with conflict, or shelter from conflict, or with watching the roads and waterways, or managing the region it was in the centre of, it stood simply as a stubborn looking, knuckleheaded hill. It may have been known just for that even then; prominent above the river valley, shrouded in trees, its earliest sign of the interest of people surviving only in the single, broken, leaf-shaped arrowhead attributed to sometime in the Neolithic.

Certainly hunters and foragers making their way up the Ouse would have known it but the only real measure of any according of special significance came much later with the barrows on the ridge that seemed to point towards it; each one only visible from the next in line and only the last giving clear sight of the hilltop. Whether these Bronze Age pointers speak as well of an earlier significance attributed to the place is difficult to tell.

Before then we know nothing but the piecemeal speech of pollen analytics. Woodland management is suggested in the Neolithic by a peak in lime pollen; trees then that may have been coppiced or pollarded or subject to the related but less husbandry-like sounding process of shredding. There may have been limited planting in woodland clearings at the base of the slope in around 3750 BC - as signified by a decline in elm and the appearance of cereal grains - but the trees returned a few centuries later and yew woodland was established; something that continued for the next fifteen hundred years.

A grove of yew existed on the hill itself till the late Bronze Age and would have distinguished it even apart from its characteristic dome and its salient place above the valley. It reminds us in this of other hilltops further West; though Chanctonbury’s famous ring came much later, the thought of both hills with their crown of trees remains intriguing. However much we may associate the place with what we see today, the image of yews on the hill speaks of something far removed from forts and dykes and cattle raids and war.