Kent & Sussex Courier - Friday 05 April 1929SAXONBURY CAMP. Interesting Excavations at Frant.
Visions of pre-historic times when ancient Britons built their camps on the hilltops of Sussex and when wolves, wild boar and deer abounded in the great Wealden Forests, are conjured up by a visit to Saxonbury Camp in Eridge Park, Frant, where excavations were commenced last week. The work of exploring and excavating the camp has been undertaken by Mr. S. E. Winbolt, the famous archaeologist, who has been responsible for many interesting discoveries in camps, tumuli and barrows in various parts of the country.
Saxonbury Camp stands on a wooded hill in Eridge Park, 660 feet above sea level, from which beautiful and extensive views may be had of the countryside and across the Park with Eridge Castle and lake in the distance. To obtain the full benefit of the view, however, one must ascend the handsome tower
, about one hundred feet high, which was erected in the centre of the camp in 1828 by an ancestor of the present Marquess of Abergavenny. The site of the camp is profusely planted with rhododendrons, which have in some places grown to nearly thirty feet high and created a veritable jungle, thereby considerably hindering the initial efforts of the excavators.
On Thursday morning of last week a representative of the "Courier" approached the camp by the prettily wooded road which bears the suggestive title "To Danegate." The camp is approached by a small hunting gate and from thence a rough roadway leads to the summit, where the camp is situated. The small room at the base of the tower has been converted into a temporary "Office of Works," and here are kept the necessary implements, plans of the camp, and of any worked flints or other evidences of early man, which are being discovered from time time to time and carefully preserved. Two workmen were busily engaged with pick and shovel, but Mr. Winbolt himself was found standing in a deep trench, trowel in hand, engaged in a careful examination of some rough stonework. Mr. Winbolt, who simply exudes enthusiasm for his self-appointed task, welcomed his visitor and was only too ready to explain the work which was going on and to make a tour of the camp. A WELL PRESERVED SECRET.
Saxonbury Camp, it appears, has up the present time managed to hold its secret, in spite of the fact of the tower having been erected, no record of anything which might have been disturbed when the foundations were laid was kept. This lack of concrete knowledge, of course, makes the present excavations all the more fascinating. The probability is that in past years the place has been found too difficult owing to the existence of the rhododendron forest. The top of the hill is also in a very out of-the-way spot, one familiar to the natives of the district, but seldom visited. About a year ago Mr. H. M. S. Malden, of Frant, who takes the keenest interest in local historical and antiquarian matters, approached Mr. Winbolt with a view to commencing excavations and wresting from the camp its ancient secrets. The project was eagerly taken up bu his friends also by the friends of Mr. Winbolt and a small excavation fund was started. The Marquess of Abergavenny, who is President of the Archaeological of Sussex, welcomed the scheme and gave Mr. Winbolt a free hand. The Tunbridge Wells Natural History and Philosophical Society also contributed to the fund, while mention must also be made, of Mr. E. C. Friend and Dr. Given, Curator of the Municipal Museum at Tunbridge Wells, for the interest they have taken in the project. Before the excavations commenced one shred of evidence existed, a fine polished axe. which was probably found about forty years ago and which is now in the Museum at Lewes.
Our representative was informed that after three hard days' digging in the fosse on the west side of the camp a number of flint flakes were discovered. These were obviously artifacts. Across the middle of the camp was cut a 150-foot trench and here again were found a number of flakes, bearing obvious evidence of deliberate working.A NEOLITHIC CAMP.
Apart from any other evidence the construction of the camp itself points to Neolithic times. There is a very finely made vallum, or bank about six to seven feet in height, piled with very big sand stones, and a fosse, or ditch, about twelve feet across, outside the bank. This formation is very uncommon in the South Eastern districts, but it is perfectly natural on this site on account of the great amount of sandstone in the sub-soil. The standing example of a Neolithic stone bank is at Worlebury, Weston-super-Mare. On the top of the bank at Eridge there would probably have been in its prime a wooden stockade. It must be remembered that the people of the Neolithic age shunned the low clay lands and lived always on the heights, such as the top the chalk downs, or the summits of the sand hills. The hill at Saxonbury was, of course, absolutely open and implanted with trees in Neolithic times and had a magnificent long view. The people of that time wanted to see as far as they could to watch the possible approach of enemies and also to keep clear of wild beasts which roamed the valleys. The countryside was then probably full of wild deer and wild boar, which they hunted. But even as early as this men kept swine and there were the attacks of marauding wolves be feared. It will thus be seen that Saxonbury was an ideal site for such a camp. DERIVATION OF THE NAME.
Mr. Winbolt stated that the only other Neolithic camp in this district is that at Castle Hill, Pembury-road, Tonbridge, where Neolithic implements have been found. The derivation of the name "Saxonbury" has given rise to much speculation, and Mr. Winbolt was able to throw some interesting sidelights on this. Many people will be surprised to hear that the word Saxonbury has nothing directly to do with Saxons any more than Dane gate has anything to do with the Danes. The word Danegate merely means Denne gate. The word Saxonbury first occurs about the end of the 16th century, when its form was Sockburie. During the centuries that followed it changed somewhat, so that in 1724 it was Socksbury, in 1775 Socksberry, and again in 1809 Socksbury. These forms are most probably derived from Socca, a Saxon, who at some time owned this estate. Saxons and Danes may be safely ruled out, though 19th century "archaeologizing" tendencies turned it into Saxonbury as it turned Denne gate into Danegate.
Geographically the camp is situated in the north-eastern corner of the Ashdown Forest belt, which used to be called Lancaster Great Park. Earlier it was called Pevensel Forest by reason of its connection with Pevensey. It was obviously a hunting ground for long ages back, and at Speldhurst in 1862 antlers were found at a depth of several feet below the ground. In this connection it is interesting to recall that the last wild deer on Ashdown Forest was not killed until 1810, when a pack of foxhounds surprised and pursued a fine buck at Hartfield. Incidentally, the locality abounds in such names as Hartfield, Buckhurst, etc., the significance of which is obvious.
That Saxonbury is a Neolithic camp Mr. Winbolt is convinced, and he contends that the evidences which he will discover will bear this contention out. The interesting point to discover will be whether Romans ever used the place when they smelted iron at Furnace Wood, which they probably did. This wood is situated about one and a half miles north-east from the camp. Here there are Tudor iron workings, but it is very common indeed to find Tudor iron workings on the site of British or pre-Roman workings. The only evidence which Mr. Winbolt has at present is some undoubted Roman pottery, which was found in Great Wood and is known as New Forest Ware. This was apparently found amongst Tudor iron slag. Roman iron slag has not yet been discovered. It is presumed that the pottery may have been washed down the stream from near the site of the camp. THE CAMP DESCRIBED.
The camp is roughly ovoid, egg shape, and is in depth only 350 feet from north to south and 260 feet from east to west. It is on a nearly level hilltop which slopes away to west and north, especially west, where the gradient is one in five from 660 feet down to 500 feet. The southeast offers the easier accent, and this was the way in which the place was approached. On the south-east side is the entrance. Altogether, it was an ideal spot for pre-historic man who wanted to live high up and on dry soil. His chief difficulty, of course, was water, but there is a spring running out of the side of the hill about a quarter of a mile down the west side. Mr. Winbolt points out that looking for evidence in these pre-historic camps is like looking for the proverbial needle in a bundle of hay. The tiniest jot or tittle counts.FURTHER DISCOVERIES.
On Tuesday last Mr. Winbolt informed us that a great stone wall, the base of which was from 16 to 18 feet, and the top of which probably piled to four or five feet higher, was being traced through the jungle of rhododendrons. It will probably be found to make the wall of an inner camp of earlier date than the outer wall and trench. This inner wall was probably destroyed and levelled when the rest of the soil of the outer bank was thrown up. Another interesting discovery is that of a causeway across the outer trench. This is about 25 feet across the trench, and about 13 feet from side to side over all. It is particularly interesting because one of the characteristics of a Neolithic Camp is said to be the provision of a causeway across the fosse. It also crosses just at the point where the bend of the bank makes a sharp angle, and at the point nearest to the water supply mentioned above.
Mr. Winbolt is now being assisted by Mr. K. W. Pearce, who recently excavated a new Roman Villa at Otford
, near Sevenoaks, while several workers from Tunbridge Wells have been rendering excellent help.