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An internationally important site
People have been visiting Hengistbury Head for the past 12,000 years. It is a site of international importance in terms of its archaeology and is scheduled as an Ancient Monument.
There have been numerous archaeological excavations on the headland to discover what our ancestors were doing here. By studying the evidence we can create a picture of what people were doing and what the headland looked like thousands of years ago.
One of the earliest excavations was that of a Bronze Age burial barrow in 1912, just outside the present day Visitor Centre. It contained the cremated remains of a young woman who must have been of great local importance. Buried with her were precious items for her afterlife, images and replicas of which can be seen at the Visitor Centre and at the Red House Museum, Christchurch.
Excavations in 1957 and 1968 were followed by a new wave of research in the early 1980s. Professor Barry Cunliffe (Oxford University) and his team investigated the Early and Late Iron Age settlements including the Iron Age Port and Dr. Nick Barton (Oxford University) directed excavations on the Late Upper Palaeolithic, Old Stone Age site, at the eastern end of the headland.
Cunliffe and team circa 1980
These excavations together with those at the nearby Mesolithic Archers' campsite recovered around 25,000 artefacts, including more than 600 stone or flint tools.
The first people to leave evidence of their visit, came here from Europe around 12,000 years ago, in a warmer period towards the end of the last Ice Age. They were following the retreating ice sheet in search of new hunting grounds.
To them, the headland was a lightly wooded hill. Standing on this hill, looking south, they saw a wide river valley and open plain. Sea level was much lower than today. It was dry land all the way to France. Following the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, the climate warmed and sea levels began to rise. A light woodland of oak and birch trees began to grow on the sandysoils. The coastline was somewhere south of the Isle of Wight.
Our visitors still came in small groups, setting up camp on the high ground as they followed red deer herds in the river valley. As the climate continued to warm, the hill at Hengistbury became covered in pine forestand then a dense woodland with trees like oak, hazel and birch.The rise in sea levels meant that Britain was cut off from mainland Europe.Here, on the higher ground, a community was setting up home.
While no evidence of actual buildings has been discovered, the scatter of tools and pottery that they left behind suggests a substantial population occupying the headland and the lower slopes to the north and west.
A place for ceremony and ritual
Towards the end of the Neolithic period and the beginning of the Bronze Age, around 4,000 years ago, human use of the headland changed: this became a place for ceremony and ritual. People came here to bury their dead.
No evidence of Bronze Age buildings has been discovered, so it is unknown whether people were living here or just using the site as their cemetery.
Thriving in the Iron Age
As Bronze Age society gave way to the Iron Age, skills and knowledge in metal-working were introduced from Europe.
Iron replaced bronze as the preferred metal for tools and weapons. Iron was abundant, cheap and made better tools.
With a ready supply of iron ore, Hengistbury Head was an attractive place for people to settle.
As the Roman Empire expanded northwards towards Britain, merchants were on the lookout for coastal sites to establish trading ports.
The headland’s sheltered and gently shelving northern beach was made suitable for landing their wooden sailing boats. The two navigable rivers, the Avon and Stour, also provided a trade route inland for smaller dug-out log boats.
The northern shoreline became a busy port and a large settlement grew up along the water’s edge.
Exotic goods, such as wine and glass, arrived by boat from the Roman Empire. British metals, slaves, corn, cattle, hides and dogs were traded in exchange.
Between 1848 and 1870 human activity at Hengistbury Head had a devastating impact.
Tons of ironstone doggers were removed from the shoreline, sea bed and Warren Hill and shipped off to iron smelting works in South Wales.
For thousands of years, these hard rocks had formed a natural defence, protecting the headland from the erosive force of the sea. Within just a few decades of their removal around one third of the headland was lost.