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Sekhemka, the ancient Egyptian statue owned by the public yet sold by Northampton Council last year in the face of widespread condemnation, gazes towards another publicly owned asset, the archaeological setting of Oswestry Hillfort, perhaps soon to be destroyed by the actions of Shropshire Council in the face of similar widespread condemnation.

Sekhemka, the ancient Egyptian statue owned by the public yet sold last year by Northampton Council despite widespread condemnation, gazes across  another publicly owned asset, the archaeological setting of Oswestry Hillfort, perhaps soon to be destroyed by the actions of Shropshire Council despite similar widespread condemnation.  In both cases the Councils have assured the public they are motivated by the best of intentions. In both cases, coincidentally, about £15 million is involved.

There was a plan, Oswestry 2020, published in May 2013 under the banner, “Creating Tomorrow Today”. It was signed by Councillor Martin Bennett, Chair of the Steering Group and was said to be based on “the aspirations and priorities of the local community”. Maybe. But with regard to the hillfort something has subsequently clearly come between the will of the people and the actions of their representatives. What that something was might be explained by this account supplied by campaigner Diana Baur on Facebook in Feb 2014: “Martin Bennett emailed me ages ago when I challenged it all and explained that the council are *** scared of being challenged by the developer because they may have to end up with paying costs of such a challenge”.

What that seems to suggest is that if you’ve got deep enough pockets you can bully people with the threat of expensive litigation and get exactly what you want. Is that what’s happened in Shropshireland? It’s certainly one possibility, but there’s another (or maybe another aspect of the same one) : the Plan said of itself that it was “an informed and influential guide to developers, setting out what matters most to local people” and that it expresses The Town Vision in which “important open spaces are protected and enhanced”. But was it?Just look at how the monument’s place in that vision was depicted:

oswestry limits.

It couldn’t be smaller, could it? Keep in mind that that the line round the monument is supposed to be doing two things: a.) illustrating an open space that matters to local people and b.) acting as an informed guide to developers. It is drawn incredibly tightly round the hillfort, with no breathing space, no buffer zone, no hinterland, no protected views and no setting (think of it: what English Heritage say is one of the greatest archaeological monuments of the nation” and the Plan depicts it with no setting whatsoever!) – and none of it based upon any statutory authority, archaeological opinion or public expression of agreement! Yes, it might be defended as merely “symbolic” and not intended to imply a particular limit to the protected area, but if that’s true it’s a mighty strange coincidence, is it not, that subsequently applications have been made to build houses right up to the very edge of that very line?

oswestry limit 2

Has Shropshire only recently been bullied by people with deep pockets? Or was there an intention to frustrate the popular will and archaeological opinion from the very start?

Or both? You decide.

Following on from her extended series of posts in 2013, and a visit last year, once again Sue Brooke has revisited Caerau hillfort in Cardiff, to report upon this year’s activities there with a much more personal view. 

Since 2007 I have been researching the local area around Caerau. You may recall that I discovered what was to be later confirmed as at least an Iron Age hillfort, right over my garden fence. Much to the amusement of family and friends I waxed lyrical about this field full of lumps and bumps, cow poo and bitey insects. Although not exactly ‘preserved in public record’ as they say, this was well hidden and completely forgotten about so I was desperately trying to keep it secret and therefore protected. Of course Time Team later came and showed it in all its wall mounted, 48 inch, HD screen beauty, then went away again.

CAER Heritage Project and Cardiff University have however been periodically running community digs and generally involving the local community in the work they have been carrying out over the last three years or so and local interest has been increased. Their website shows the work that has gone on, not only in the field but in local centres and schools. Now and then local press picks up the story and it even pops up on local news. The really lovely thing about this work is that it involves everyone who is interested. Groups of primary school children through to older people have all taken a real interest in the site and become involved at various levels.

Me? Well, I moved away from the area recently. It was really sad to leave my garden fence behind and I do miss the trees as well as the mystery of what they would tell me if they could speak. But, I’m not that far away so I am still involved in keeping a close eye on what is going on. I go to the community events up at the site and still spend time wandering around with my camera.  I still research the local history there and am still turning up really interesting information about the people who lived in the area and how it links to other sites nearby as well as a little bit further away.

On the 4th of July the project held a Big Picnic. The original idea of this was to replicate the old Christian tradition of the Whitsun Treat which used to be held in the field at Pentecost.  This is still fondly remembered by locals. I’m not sure if this is a Welsh thing but it involved local children being transported to various sites, clutching a spoon with their name taped to the handle and a bag of something that their mum or Nan (very important people are Welsh Nan’s!) had made that they would share.  It was about coming together and having fun.

As well as the Big Picnic there would be a parade today with stalls, face painting, information on finds and tours of the ongoing excavations. Now, my grandson is really ‘into’ history. He has recently visited Castell Henllys in Pembrokeshire and has, I am very proud to say, developed a really impressive (for an 11 year old) knowledge of Welsh early history.  He asks questions, reads real books and takes it all in. He came with us with promises that I’d show him all the ditches and ramparts that had set my own imagination off and started this whole thing going for me in the first place. So, off we went.

A new brown heritage site arrow has appeared – pointing the way to the hill from the main road that runs through Caerau. Just in case you miss it there is another a little further on. This secret triangular shaped field of ‘mine’ is most certainly not such a secret any more.

Caerau Sign

There were quite a few cars parked at the entrance to the site and we were met by two lovely students who welcomed us on our way up. That walk up is getting steeper, I’m sure. I was a little surprised at the cars that were allowed up the lane, meaning I had to ensure we were safely out of the way – I tutted at one point, I admit – but at least it gave me a minute to stand and get my breath back.  The view as you round the final bend never fails to impress me and I’ve been up there many, many times.

Caerau event

The entrance to the field was set up with the promised stalls and it was all very busy with a real sense of community.   CAER’s Olly Davies (beautifully face painted by Glamorgan and Gwent Archaeological Trust artists) and Dave Wyatt were in the middle of it all so it was nice to catch up. We were able to see some of the more recent finds. What is particularly nice is that it’s possible to actually hold these in your hand, rather than peer at them through the glass of a museum case, although that’s probably where they will find a home eventually. At least I hope so, rather than end up in a box on a shelf somewhere.  The extremely knowledgeable and really friendly young women in charge there are able to tell you not just what you are holding but also where they were found, what the significance is and how they have made them look presentable. It was also good in that, for me, the star find from last year (the Neolithic flint arrow head) was also brought back home for the day.

Caerau Flint

A handout was provided to enable understanding of the objectives for this year, entitled ‘Digging Caerau’ – not exactly my most favourite phrase. Nonetheless, five areas of the field are being examined this year – four of which have been previously examined and re-opened for further investigation. One new area is being examined to ‘explore what appears on the geophysics to be a boundary probably dating to the Roman period.’ Guided tours were being given to small groups but we wandered off on our own to see what was going on. Well, it is my field, after all!

My biggest concern prior to the Time Team investigations was that my hillfort would be dug up. Mr Cadw Inspector reassured me that this would not happen. I’ve seen the finds that have come out of the ground, so to speak, and found them fascinating. From my grandsons perspective he was thrilled to wander around and to see postholes within the trench, confirming that this was an area that people had actually lived in. As you may know, for local historians like me the people are as important as the place.  But, the site itself, for me, is losing its special character. It is changing, losing its ‘feel’ underfoot and the magic of the lumps and bumps is fading along with the brown scarring of the excavated trench areas.

Since Welsh Nan’s are very important I had wandered off with the lad to show him how to interpret the various aspects of the site that had really grabbed my attention way back in 2007. But now, whilst the ramparts are still clearly visible one inner rampart now has a ditch cut through it. Please don’t misunderstand; it’s a really painstakingly created section from which the archaeologists are intending to gain dating evidence and environmental samples. But to me it’s a whacking great chunk out of the rampart that really won’t be the same once it’s refilled.

Caerau section

This is really evident in the beautiful ditch that once swept across part of the site. You couldn’t fail to see it and it was really easy to photograph. It looked like something special to me. Trouble is it looked like something special to Time Team and the other diggers too, so now it’s gone. I’ve since looked back over some of my early writing and the phrase ‘it’s quite possible to see ditches and ramparts untouched’ really jumps out. I wanted my grandson to experience that sense of standing in or on something special. Something that made a person curious and excited about what may have been there, who may have built it, why and when.  To me that sense of excitement has gone now as not all of those lumps and bumps are there any more – I feel that is really quite sad.

I completely understand that archaeology is a science. Indeed, my own first degree is a Bachelor of Science (with honours, obviously!) but my science is more social, of ordinary people and of ordinary places.  So whilst the archaeologists are looking  down into mucky holes getting dirt under their fingernails I can be found looking through dusty old books, looking up and out and, quite often across.  Both, whilst different perspectives, should complement each other in being able to tell the story of a place and understand the people who lived within it.  But, and this is a big but, I don’t think digging things up, taking them away and, as a result of this changing the really special characteristics of the site will benefit anyone in the end. Perhaps I just have an emotional attachment to this hillfort but to me it all feels really selfish.

Moving on…

All in all my grandson enjoyed his day. He was able to get an idea of the hillfort from the Lidar images and the visual representations on show, ask questions about how a roof was put on the roundhouses, look into trenches and to see the burial mounds clearly visible on the mountain opposite. He took photos and met with ‘real’ archaeologists. He was (reasonably) impressed with his Nan’s knowledge and perhaps gained a different perspective of the site from that. I just have this nagging feeling that he would have enjoyed it quite a bit more if he could have felt what I did when I first went into that field. It was only eight years ago.

As we left Olly came to chat and asked what I was doing now – I explained I had moved house recently but that I had a found a new site of interest that I felt linked in to the Caerau site. His eyes lit up and he asked where, I told him to b*gger off, there is no way he is digging this one up…

Many thanks to Sue for this report of her day out to revisit an old favourite. Have you recently revisited a favourite site? Or are you planning to do so during this year’s Festival of Archaeology? If so, why not submit a short article and share your visit with others on the Heritage Journal?

The strength and quality of the case against development within the setting of Old Oswestry hillfort seems to grow day by day. The Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort (Twitter: @OldOswestryFort #HOOOH) Facebook campaign and the powerful recent article in the Guardian suggest that this is no usual fight. It is possible it will be taken into Europe as it is being seen as having relevance on both a local and national level. In the words of Sir Barry Cunliffe: “It is worth making a fuss about this particular issue because it does look like the thin end of the wedge. There would be nothing really to stop developing land right up to the very boundary of some of our major archaeological sites.”

The latest development is a comment by Dr Mike Heyworth, Director of the CBA, about the image below: “The maps showing the location of known archaeological sites and find spots around the hillfort is very powerful. It shows that there is a lot of related archaeology in the area immediately surrounding the hillfort which will be potentially damaged by any development.”


All-in-all the campaign is causing the attitude of Shropshire Council to look increasingly unreasonable. Compare and contrast the concerns of both the public and a whole body of senior archaeologists with the recent statement by a Shropshire Council spokesman: The sensitivity of the Old Oswestry Hill Fort and its setting have been recognised by Shropshire council throughout its local plan-making process, which started in 2010. However, Shropshire council does not accept that proposed development would result in substantial harm to the significance of the hill fort.”  Does the Council have concerns about its own national and international reputation? Let us all hope so.


Oooh, and look …. (Image credit Maggie Rowlands)….

The developers have taken precautions to ensure there are no more “find spots” for archaeologists to talk about!


find spots

Seriously, you couldn’t! Historic England has just issued an advice note “to support those involved in the Local Plan site allocation process in implementing historic environment legislation“. Bearing in mind the disastrous fruits of the Local Plan allocation process adjacent to what English Heritage says is “one of the greatest archaeological monuments of the nation” it’s well worth examining the advice.

You may recall English Heritage/Heritage England have consistently expressed concern about the proposed development but have consistently sought to find ways to mitigate its effect not to actually oppose it. You may also care to note that a spokesperson for Shropshire Council has just provided The Observer with this amazing statement: The sensitivity of the Old Oswestry Hill Fort and its setting have been recognised by Shropshire council throughout its local plan-making process, which started in 2010. However, Shropshire council does not accept that proposed development would result in substantial harm to the significance of the hill fort.”

Bearing that in mind, please read Historic England’s advice. Take this section for instance…..

• The Local Plan should set out a positive strategyfor the conservation and enjoyment of the historic environment, in which the desirability of sustaining and enhancing the significance of heritage assets should be considered (NPPF paragraph 126); the associated statutory duty regarding the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of a conservation area must be considered in this regard (S72, Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990);

• Development will be expected to avoid or minimise conflict between any heritage asset’s conservation and any aspect of the proposal (NPPF paragraph 129);
• Great weight should be given to an asset’s conservation and the more important the asset, the greater the weight to the asset’s conservation there should be (NPPF paragraph 132);
• Harm should always be avoided in the first instance. Only where this is not possible should mitigation be considered (NPPF paragraph 152). Any harm and mitigation proposals need to be fully justified and evidenced to ensure they will be successful in reducing harm.
• The Local Plan should set out a positive strategy for the conservation and enjoyment of the historic environment, in which the desirability of sustaining and enhancing the significance of heritage assets should be considered (NPPF paragraph 126); the associated statutory duty regarding the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of a conservation area must be considered in this regard (S72, Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990);
• Development will be expected to avoid or minimise conflict between any heritage asset’s conservation and any aspect of the proposal (NPPF para graph 129);
• Great weight should be given to an asset’s conservation and the more important the asset, the greater the weight to the asset’s conservation there should be (NPPF paragraph 132);
• Harm should always be avoided in the first instance. Only where this is not possible should mitigation be considered (NPPF paragraph 152). Any harm and mitigation proposals need to be fully justified and evidenced to ensure they will be successful in reducing harm.

Which bit of that lot is NOT breached by building an estate in the hillfort’s setting? It seems to us that either English Heritage or Heritage England or Shropshire Council or all of them aren’t following that advice. Words are cheap, aren’t they?

Just received, a Press release from the Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort campaign:

Shropshire residents fighting planned housing by Old Oswestry hillfort say they are encouraged after meeting MP Owen Paterson to discuss the issues.

Campaign group HOOOH met recently with the North Shropshire MP to voice their concerns over the controversial site for 117 houses (OSW004) in Shropshire’s SAMDev local plan.

“We had a very constructive discussion with Mr Paterson, impressing on him that this is an issue not just of local but of national interest,” said campaigner and archaeologist Dr George Nash.

Mr Paterson agreed to write to Shropshire Council about residents’ contentions that inclusion of OSW004 in SAMDev has not complied with due process or planning guidelines, and their belief that the Council has misunderstood national planning policy. He will also be writing to Communities Secretary, Greg Clark, over the issues that Old Oswestry raises given its scheduled status regarding the interpretation of the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework).

Campaign advisor and heritage planning expert, Tim Malim, said: “If the Council’s decision to allocate housing in the setting of a heritage asset as significant as Old Oswestry is implemented, then it sets a dangerous precedent for protected monuments across the country which the NPPF is meant to safeguard.”

Local campaigners have been waging a bitter three-year fight against ‘masterplanning’ for the north of Oswestry which formerly included land within 85m of the hillfort.

Oswestry view

Despite making a strong appeal to SAMDev examining Inspector Claire Sherratt at a public hearing last December, OSW004 (off Whittington Road) remains in Shropshire’s development blueprint.

HOOOH claims that the site promoter has never submitted a justification for OSW004 as a standalone development, and that it has only ever been put forward as part of a coordinated scheme with sites at Jasmine Gardens and Oldport Farm. These were removed from the plan at an earlier stage.

Campaigners say that delivery of houses on OSW004 is predicated on a now obsolete planning bid and would be dependent on planning applications for sites that are not in SAMDev.

The Inspector’s plan modifications are out for consultation until Monday 13 July, 2015.



Situated 160m above sea level, the Castle Canyke hillfort to the southeast of Bodmin in Cornwall, is not an imposing hillfort. Certainly not as imposing as, say, Old Oswestry Hillfort. And yet they have something in common – both are currently threatened by developers.

Although it is Cornwall’s largest Iron Age hill fort, Castle Canyke is certainly not as large as Oswestry – there is a small modern farm building at the centre of the fort, and walls/hedges running from this building split the fort into four roughly equal fields. The southwest quandrant boundary is the best preserved, with a large bank and small ditch. In the northwest (which provides public access via a kissing gate) the ditch is more substantial, but there is no bank remaining. To the south there are a couple of large industrial estates, to the east, the junctions of the A38 and A30 trunk roads dominate. Brown Willy & Roughtor are visible on the horizon just east of north on a clear day.

Satellite image taken from Bing Maps

Satellite image taken from Bing Maps

So nothing too remarkable, and not a lot to see on site itself, And yet there is a possible Arthurian connection, and a later historical connection which make this site important for the Cornish nation.

  • The site is a possible candidate for Kelliwic (Celliwig), Arthur’s court in “Culhwch and Olwen” and the Welsh Triads. Callywith Wood is located about a mile to the Northeast.
  • The fort is also the site where Cornish forces mustered for the Anglo-Cornish War of 1549. Nine hundred Cornishmen were subsequently executed in what has been described as “a bloodbath and the most heinous crime ever committed on British soil”

So what of the development threat here? According to the “It’s Our Cornwall” Facebook page:

Last week the Council’s Strategic Planning Committee voted by 17 votes to 2 to give Hawkstone Ltd of Surrey permission to build 750 houses at Bodmin (And a hotel, pub, shops, community building, allotments and public open space). This was despite only 1 in 4 of the houses being ‘affordable’ and calls for rejection from English Heritage.

According to one press report, “due to the steep topography of the site, it would not be financially viable for developers to adhere to the normal demand that 40 per cent of the homes should be in the affordable bracket. Instead, a compromise figure of 25 per cent, which amounts to 187 affordable homes, was reached”.

Apparently a ‘green buffer’ has also been suggested between the development and the hillfort (basically the three fields to the southeast on the plan below), but there is some discussion as to whether the buffer should consist of open space, sports fields, or be left as agricultural land. The full text of the Strategic Planning Committee’s Report can be found on the Council website (PDF link)

As can be seen, the original plan was to have built over part of the scheduled monument area.

As can be seen, the original plan was to have built over part of the scheduled monument area.

And there’s the question of the extent of the development. 750 homes in one of the most economically depressed areas in Europe sounds like a good idea to stimulate ‘growth’, but as only 1 in 4 will be designated ‘affordable’ – how I hate that word – who will be able to afford the non-affordable homes in such an area? The usual answer to such a question is larger corporations. But in order to get a return on their investment, they’ll either sell them on (who to?) or let them out at inflated rents. With very low employment and pay levels in the area, it’s difficult to see how local people will be able to live in the homes, however pleasant they may be.

Once again, it seems the only people to benefit will be the developers themselves, and to hell with the heritage!

Our friends at campaign group Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort (HOOH) have today issued the following press release:

Campaigners say new doubts hang over Shropshire Council’s handling of proposed housing by Old Oswestry hillfort as planners come under fire for alleged misuse of delegated powers (Shropshire Star report 30 May 2015). 

The backlash comes as government-appointed Inspector, Claire Sherratt, revealed her findings (1 June 2015) on Shropshire’s development blueprint SAMDev. Despite overwhelming public opposition during three years of consultation, a large housing site (OSW004) in the shadow of the 3,000 year old Iron Age hillfort remains on the plan.


Meanwhile, Shropshire planners face claims that they are misusing delegated powers by rubber stamping contentious schemes where objections have been raised that should be referred to planning committee.  The latest involves a legal challenge over the demolition of a 200-year-old Thomas Telford tollhouse in Oswestry to make way for an ALDI supermarket.

Campaign group Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort (HOOOH) says this new revelation must call into question the integrity of decision-making in other areas, most significantly SAMDev. And scrutiny should go back to the very start to ask how development by the hillfort was ever included as a ‘preferred option’, challenge campaigners.

HOOOH member Maggie Rowlands said: “The latest crisis simply reinforces our grave concerns over the cavalier planning culture within Shropshire Council. It has virtually cast itself loose of the opinion of elected councillors and the public in order to fast-track insensitive development on heritage landscape and prime greenfield land.”

Campaigners suggest that hard steers by Shropshire planners and Cabinet, including the imperative of meeting five-year housing supply, may have fettered the discretion of councillors to motion for removal of OSW004 from the plan. This was despite being circulated with alternative heritage reports by HOOOH, produced to industry standards, calculating that development would have major impacts on the setting of the hillfort and views to and from it.

Heritage setting is recognised in national planning and Historic England (formerly English Heritage) guidance and protected in law according to the significance of the heritage asset. This should provide major weight against the approval of development affecting a monument of the national significance of Old Oswestry, whose landscape setting is an integral part of its heritage value and archaeology.

In spite of repeated requests, Shropshire planners refused to post HOOOH’s reports on the SAMDev website alongside the site promoter’s original heritage impact assessment. The latter was strongly criticised for being flawed by experts at RESCUE (The British Archaeological Trust) and was subsequently revised.

And while failing to answer HOOOH’s challenge that OSW004 did not meet five-year supply criteria due to ‘unresolved issues’, planners later revealed it was not part of five-year figures for that very reason.

“We are not surprised that Shropshire planners find themselves at the centre of these accusations of undemocratic conduct and calls for restraint,” said campaigner Dr George Nash.

“Based on recent media reports, it is clear that councillors at all levels and across the political spectrum are extremely disappointed in the way Shropshire Council’s planning department exercise their decision-making.”

He added: “This now gives us additional teeth to challenge what we believe has been a calculated bias towards keeping OSW004 in SAMDev. We believe that the original heritage assessment that carried the site through several stages of the process must be the subject of a formal independent review. Oswestry Town Council asked for this over a year ago and was completely disregarded.“

Commenting on the Inspector’s decision, HOOOH says it is extremely disappointed that the Inspector has rejected the scale of public opposition to OSWOO4 and the strong heritage case against it. This included a petition with almost 6,000 signatures and objections by twelve leading British academics of archaeology in an open letter.

Campaigner Neil Phillips said: “The planning plight to develop 117 houses within the shadow of Old Oswestry Hillfort is the thin end of the wedge.

“The use of the NPPF to sanction development over the preservation of such significant heritage landscape was surely not the government’s intention. However, the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ is propping up greedy bids to build high profit housing with postcard views of hillforts, meres and parkland.

“Whitehall needs to intervene now before the Best of Britain disappears under brick and concrete in the present rush to build houses.”


Today we thought we’d re-publish an article from a while back. It illustrates how vital it is to continue to fight against housing within the hillfort’s setting – and to see some of the claims that are about to be made for what they are – meaningless smokescreens to aid someone to make loads of money at the expense of everyone else’s heritage. .

“If I eat your toes your legs will be safe!”

Trust me, I'm a developer!

Trust me, I’m a developer!


Oswestry is turning into a fantasy world. Eddie Bowen, from Bowen Son and Watson, one of the development agents, has said: “There is a golden opportunity here. At the moment nobody knows what will happen from a farming point of view, but once this is done that is it. There would be a public open space around it [the hillfort] and that will secure it for the future.” In case you don’t quite take it in, he is saying that building houses round the hill fort will provide a protective ring within which no-one will build houses! . Seasoned observers of developerspeak are saying they haven’t heard such stuff since the days when those masters of the dark art, Tarmac PLC, used to claim that opencast mining round the Thornborough Henges would be good for them!


There is NO golden opportunity here, no chance to establish a sacrosanct buffer zone, no-one can say another assault won’t ever be mounted by someone that wants to make money. If you hear it said in the next few weeks or months (and we suspect you will) it won’t make it the truth. Not that anyone should be surprised by tricky words at Oswestry. It was there that the Reverend Spooner was educated. They say he once said “You have hissed all my mystery lectures”. Maybe the people of Oswestry should say to Eddie: “We ciss on your ponservation claims….”

Oswestry - nothing to worry about

We’re very pleased to be able to bring you, in serialised form, a paper courtesy of Dr Euan MacKie regarding the Sheep Hill hillfort and associated rock carvings, which are currently under a long-running threat of destruction. After a brief Introduction, part two discussed the Greenland rock carvings. We then considered the Sheep Hill forts. In this final part, we now look at the evidence for a link between the two sites, and what the future may hold.

Were the two sites linked?

The construction of the timber-framed dun is such an obvious explanation for the prehistoric damage suffered by the cup-and ring rock that it may reasonably be adopted as a working hypothesis, albeit one that has to be tested (below). One clear implication of it is that the great double disc symbol on a flat surface exposed by the ancient quarrying had to date to the 10th or 9th centuries BC at the earliest and this is extremely surprising if the majority of such rock carving took place in Neolithic times (Burgess 1990). Yet it is not impossible; such skills could have been handed down for many centuries by families of specialist carvers who could have practised their skills occasionally on existing carved rocks; it would probably be quite hard to detect such additions under normal circumstances. Also there is no doubt that the double disc symbol was known in the Late Bronze Age as it occurs on a few socketed bronze axes in Scotland and NE England (MacKie 1991, 147, pl. 10); these are known as the Sompting type (Schmidt & Burgess, 1981, 243-44).

However the most exciting aspect of this hypothesis is surely the social one. It is hard not to infer that the damaged and re-carved rock means that there were two distinct social groups in the area in the Late Bronze Age – namely the timber-framed fort builders and the descendants of the Neolithic peoples who had venerated the rock carvings for centuries and who retained some of their carving skills. The fort builders could have been a new elite – either local or immigrant but armed with new bronze weapons and evidently with little respect for the local traditions. The re-carving of the rock with a fine double disc after it had been badly damaged suggests a defiance of the new order but in a relatively harmless manner. A parallel with invading Normans and defeated Saxons might be appropriate. The phenomenon of Sheep Hill and the Greenland rock carvings is to my knowledge unique in the British Isles and the sites should surely be preserved for that alone.

Testing the hypothesis

Fortunately the hypothesis can be tested and clear proof of it could be forthcoming. If it is correct there should be on Sheep Hill many fragments of the heated sandstone of which the carved rock is formed, a few perhaps with cup-and-ring carvings on them. A thorough rescue excavation before Sheep Hill is quarried away should find this evidence. However I hope it will never come to that; it might be awkward for archaeologists to find such evidence who had been hired by Thompsons of Dumbarton, especially when there is a suspicion that it was such a group which in 2013 wrote (anonymously) and circulated an attempted refutation of my views on the two sites. In fact it would be easy to find the evidence without disturbing the interiors of the forts. There is just under the turf a vast pile of stone debris at the foot of the cliff-like northern side of the summit the lower part of which should be the debris of the timber-framed wall; it could be explored quite easily. It is already known that rocks were imported on to the site to build the timber-framed wall. Its boulder foundation was exposed during the original excavations and two of the boulders were identified as imports, one of quartzite and the other of sandstone (MacKie 1991, 146 & pl. 9).

Illus. 7. Map of the area westwards from Old Kilpatrick, West Dunbartonshire, showing how the proposed heritage trail might be laid out. [1] is the Roman fort, [2] the length of Antonine Wall on relatively low, flat and open ground where a section might be excavated add the barrier reconstructed, [3] is the proposed footpath connecting the Roman remains to Sheep Hill fort [4] and the cup-and-ring carved rock [5].

Illus. 7. Map of the area westwards from Old Kilpatrick, West Dunbartonshire, showing how the proposed heritage trail might be laid out. [1] is the Roman fort, [2] the length of Antonine Wall on relatively low, flat and open ground where a section might be excavated add the barrier reconstructed, [3] is the proposed footpath connecting the Roman remains to Sheep Hill fort [4] and the cup-and-ring carved rock [5].

A possible archaeological heritage trail at Old Kilpatrick?

If Sheep Hill can be preserved from being quarried, the cup-and-ring rock – now stored in the National Museums in Edinburgh – could eventually be re-assembled in its original position and this unique pair of sites could be brought together again. Alternatively a replica could be built there. The quarry’s licence apparently expires in the early 2030s so their future should be safe after that. The existence only 2.5 km to the east of the western end of the Antonine Roman wall – now a World Heritage Site – suggests that the West Dumbartonshire Council could then organise what would surely be one of the most interesting archaeological trails in the country. Illus. 7 shows how it might be laid out; the numbered points on the map are identified below.

The fort at the western end of the Wall [1] is in Old Kilpatrick and, though excavated, is largely inaccessible under a housing estate. However a visitor centre could surely be set up nearby with a car park and could house some of the finds from the site and replicas of the Roman inscribed stones which were found there. A footbridge over, or a tunnel under, the dual carriageway immediately to the north (the A82) could be constructed to lead to the open ground there where the Antonine Wall and its ditch curve round to the east [2]; about 100m of it there might be excavated and reconstructed, thus providing (so far) an unique insight into what the northernmost frontier of the Empire looked like when it was intact. A footpath [3] could then run for 2.5 km westwards along the lower slopes of the Kilpatrick Hills up to Sheep Hill [4] with a short extension northwards to the Greenland 1 rock carvings [5]. Needless to say signposts and explanatory notice boards would be essential.

One intriguing aspect of such a tourist trail is that it could be presented as a step-by-step journey into the past. The Antonine Wall was built during the second Roman invasion of Scotland, from about AD 140 onwards, and was the northernmost formal frontier of the Empire in Europe. The fort at Old Kilpatrick defended the western end of the Wall where it ran down to the river Clyde and this may well have been the time at which the second fort on nearby Sheep Hill was abandoned – either out of caution or because it was attacked and destroyed by the Roman Army. Any future excavations could look for signs of that. Thus Sheep Hill 2 is a vivid example of a later native stronghold of the pre-Roman Iron Age. The primary timber-framed fort takes us back to the Late Bronze Age – perhaps in the 9th century BC – with all the various possibilities of the arrival of newcomers armed with bronze swords. We now know that cup-and-ring carving skills were very probably still present in the area at the time and were exercised then, possibly in defiance of the newcomers after the carved rock had been damaged by them. The original carved surface takes us right back to Neolithic times.

The present situation concerning quarrying.

Sheep Hill was scheduled as an ancient monument by the then Dept. of the Environment in 1970, after brief accounts of my excavations were published. I do not know when the cup-and ring rocks were scheduled but they were de-scheduled by Historic Scotland at the quarry firm’s request, probably soon after 1984 when I was asked to record them. In 1994 the carvings were sawn off and taken to the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. Sheep Hill was de-scheduled in about 2005, again at the quarry company’s request. At a meeting with Historic Scotland in Edinburgh Thompson’s representative apparently argued that there were no signs of human activity on Sheep Hill. My verbal assurances that there were, and the preliminary account of the excavations I published in 1976, were evidently not enough and a member of Historic Scotland was sent to the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow University to examine the finds and the records. Descheduling went ahead anyway, but the quarry failed to take advantage of this and the hillfort automatically became a scheduled monument again five years later. Now Thompson’s have to re-apply for de-scheduling prior to quarrying and there does not seem to be any doubt this will be granted again; if it is not granted the quarry firm will demand full compensation and it seems that no-one is willing to pay this. One understands that Historic Scotland is expected to accede to what the Scottish Government wants and the Minister for Local Government and Planning – Derek Mackay – has made it quite clear that no compensation will be forthcoming from that quarter. The only obstacle now is that West Dunbartonshire Council now have legal powers to issue a ROMP (Review of Mineral Permission) in which it could set new conditions that the quarry firm would have to abide by – for example to limit the environmental damage in some way. The only realistic hope now is that the archaeological uniqueness of the sites becomes more widely known and appreciated, and that consequent protests from the public will cause the Minister to think again. In the year of the referendum for an independent Scotland it would be sad if the present Scottish government allowed the destruction of such a unique pair of Scottish sites.

Our foremost chronicler of prehistoric rock carvings in Scotland, Ronald Morris, wrote of the Greenland carvings, “This is one of the finest examples of these carved rock surfaces in Scotland.” (1981, 103). It is surely nothing short of a national scandal that this priceless treasure was broken up and removed to make way for heaps of quarried rubble and I fully accept that I should have objected much more strongly about it at the time. The whole episode is an interesting example of how even professional archaeologists can simply assume that the public bodies that are supposed to protect our heritage are always able to do so. I have learnt the lesson and – being retired and less vulnerable – do not propose to let Sheep Hill go without vehement objections.


  • Bruce, J 1896 ‘Notice of remarkable groups of archaic sculpturings in Dumbartonshire and Stirlingshire’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 30 (1895-1896), 205-209.
  • Burgess, C 1990 The chronology of cup-and-ring marks in Atlantic Europe. Revue Archaeol Ouest, suppl. no. 2, 157-71.
  • Cowie, T (forth) Ceramic material associated with metalworking from Sheep Hill, Dumbarton. In MacKie forthcoming.
  • Davidson, J M 1935 A Bronze Age cemetery at Knappers, Kilbowie, Dunbartonshire. Proc. Soc. Antiq Scot 69 (1935-36), 352-82.
  • Davis, A 1991 Part 2: the metrology of the carvings. Pp. 150-55 in MacKie 1991.
  • MacKie, E W 1976 The vitrified forts of Scotland, in D.W. Harding (ed) Hillforts: later prehistoric earthworks in Britain and Ireland. Academic Press: London. 205-35.
    –– 1991 New light on Neolithic rock carving: the petroglyphs at Greenland (Auchentorlie), Dumbartonshire. Glasgow Archaeol Journ 15 (1988-89), 125-56 (with A Davis).
    –– 2008 The broch cultures of Atlantic Scotland: origins, high noon and decline. Part 1: Early Iron Age beginnings c. 700 – 200 BC. Oxford Journ Archaeol 27(3) (2008), 261-79.
    –– forth. Trial excavations on Sheep Hill, West Dunbartonshire,in 1966-70; a possible timber palisade, a late Bronze Age timber-framed dun and a small Iron Age hillfort. Scott. Arch. Journ.
  • Morris, R W B 1981 The prehistoric rock art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway). Oxford.
  • Schmidt, P K & Burgess, C B 1981 The axes of Scotland and northern England. Prahistorische Bronzefunde, ab IX, band 7. Munich.

We are indebted to Dr MacKie for permission to help build awareness of this remarkable site.


August 2015
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