new light on old sites

Swallowcliffe Down Project

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Hello, and welcome to the ‘New light on old sites’ blog where we will chronicle our fieldwork adventures. The name of our project reflects our interest in re-evaluating sites that were excavated/explored early in the history of archaeology that became intrinsic for defining the Iron Age period in Britain (c. 800 BC – AD 43). We are currently looking at Swallowcliffe Down in Wiltshire where many Early Iron Age period artefacts were recovered. The following is an excerpt from our project proposal:

The Early Iron Age settlement at Swallowcliffe Down, Wiltshire, was excavated in the 1920s by Dr RCC Clay1,2. He uncovered a rich assemblage of artefacts including pottery, glass beads, and an assortment of other domestic material. Clay’s technique for finding archaeological features relied on striking the ground and listening for changes in the vibrations, which located a total of 93 pits. Today, we would recognise the pits as only one type of feature that is often present at settlements and we would interpret the finds within them as acts of structured deposition3. However, as the study of the British Iron Age was still in its infancy, Clay recognised that only some of the pits were used for storage, while he interpreted most of them erroneously as Iron Age domestic structures. As a consequence of the ambiguity of the deposits, the material found was considered to be solely the result of domestic life. Due to his excavation methodology and the state of knowledge at the time of these excavations, other, smaller features, such as post-holes for roundhouses or 4-post structures, may well be present on the site, but remain unidentified.

The lack of structural evidence at this site renders discussions of settlement impossible; as a consequence the artefactual evidence has been the focus of subsequent study. This has led to some interesting results. Amongst the material found in pits was evidence for iron smelting, bronze working, and pottery manufacture. Interestingly, the artefactual evidence suggests that there was an exceptional level of continental connectivity. For example, although much of the pottery falls within the Early Iron Age types (i.e. bucket with slightly everted rims) that bear similarity to the All Cannings Cross type, two unusual forms have been suggested to be local copies of continental La Tène types4. In addition, the five glass beads have continental parallels. As settlements within Wiltshire have traditionally been seen within the Wessex hillfort-dominated approach, the range of artefacts and the continental affiliations found at Swallowcliffe Down (a non-hillfort site) suggests that the situation is much more complex, which has wider implications for our understanding of social organisation during this period5.


More about our project in the next blog post!



1. R. C. C. Clay, An Inhabited Site of La Tene I date, on Swallowcliffe Down. Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Society 43, 59 (1925).

2. R. C. C. Clay, Supplementary Report on the Early Iron Age Village on Swallowcliffe Down. Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Society 43, 540 (1927).

3. J. D. Hill, Ritual and rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex: a study of the formation of a specific archaeological record.  (BAR British Series no. 242, Oxford, 1995).

4. B. Cunliffe, Iron Age Communities in Britain: An Account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC until the Roman Conquest, Fourth Edition.  (Routledge, London, 2005).

5. J. D. Hill, in The Iron Age in Britain and Ireland: Recent Trends, T. C. Champion, J. R. Collis, Eds. (J.R. Collis Publications, Sheffield, 1996),  pp. 95-116.


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