Multi-period site at Norsey Wood


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1019485

Date first listed: 26-Jun-1924

Date of most recent amendment: 26-Jan-2000


Ordnance survey map of Multi-period site at Norsey Wood
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Essex

District: Basildon (District Authority)

Parish: Billericay

National Grid Reference: TQ 68644 95409


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

Norsey Wood contains a remarkable collection of visible and documented archaeological features. It is notable not only for the presence of individual features which are of national importance in their own right (such as the Bronze Age bowl barrow, the Iron Age and Roman cemeteries and the medieval deer bank) but also for the combination of evidence for prolonged human activity which has culminated in the present appearance of the woodland.

Chance discoveries such as a Neolithic hand axe from the Wood and a Mesolithic tranchet axe a short distance to the south, give some insights into early human presence in the area. However, the earliest specific activities are those represented by the southern burial mound investigated by J E K Cutts in 1865. Funerary monuments of this type, known as bowl barrows, date from the Late Neolithic period to the Late Bronze Age, with most examples belonging to the period 2400-1500 BC. They were generally constructed as earthen or rubble mounds, sometimes ditched, covering either single or multiple burials. Occurring in isolation or grouped together as cemeteries, they frequently occupy prominent locations and form a major historic element in the modern landscape. Bowl barrows are widespread across lowland Britain and, although superficially similar, they exhibit regional variations in form and diversity of burial practices. They provide important information on the diversity of beliefs and social organisation amongst prehistoric communities, and a substantial proportion of surviving examples are considered worthy of protection.

Although the bowl barrow located within the southern part of Norsey Wood has been somewhat disturbed by excavation, the mound is substantially intact and will still contain valuable evidence relating to its construction and subsequent use. Cutts' small scale investigation has provided some clues to its origins. Modern archaeological techniques, however, are capable of revealing far more about the date at which the barrow was built, the nature of the funeral rituals employed and even the appearance of the surrounding landscape at the time of its construction. As has been found to be the case elsewhere, the Norsey Wood barrow may well have acted as the focus for burials in later periods.

Middle Iron Age occupation is hinted at by discoveries of hand-made pottery sherds found towards the northern side of the Wood in the 1930s, but it is not until the later Iron Age that activity is known to have become widespread. Victorian reports point to an extensive cremation cemetery, probably covering much of the gravel plateau which underlies the northern part of the Wood, only a relatively small part of which was disturbed by quarrying in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Burial grounds such as this, which provide no clear evidence of boundaries, are known as `unenclosed Iron Age urnfields': a form of cemetery which marks the development of cremation as the dominant burial rite in the Late Iron Age (the period from the mid-1st century BC to the Roman invasion of AD 43). At the same time, the similarity of British urnfields to contemporary examples on the continent, and the occasional presence of imported, high status grave goods, provides evidence for the gradual assimilation of south eastern Britain into the expanding Roman world. Most sites of this kind contain less than ten cremation graves, although examples with up to 455 cremations, and others containing occasional inhumation burials, are known. The cremations were often placed in wheel-thrown pottery vessels and deposited in graves dug into the soil or bedrock, and sometimes grouped together in small ditched compounds which are thought to indicate family groups or like status. In Britain such cemeteries are found exclusively in south eastern England, and although only about 50 have been identified to date, this is expected to be only a small fraction of the original number. Iron Age monuments in general are rare, and urnfields therefore constitute an important source of information about the social structure, beliefs and economy of the time. All examples with surviving remains are considered to be of national importance.

The 19th century discoveries from Norsey Wood demonstrate the existence of further extensive burial areas, doubtless containing similar evidence of elaborate burial practices. The urnfield described (if not fully understood) by 19th century authors, appears to have originated in the mid-1st century BC and to have expanded well into the Roman period - a significant indication of social continuity before and after the Roman invasion. The duration of the cemetery is also significant in terms of the development of the Romano-British small town which occupied part of the area of modern Billericay, a kilometre or so to the south west. Extensive systems of ditches encountered by Victorian workmen, allied with traces of industrial activity and substantial buildings, all point to the development of a small settlement alongside these cemeteries, perhaps related in some specific way to the ceremonial practices associated with burial of the dead.

The `Deerbank' and other woodbanks, whilst only supporting the possibility of a medieval deer park in the Wood, clearly represent valuable archaeological evidence for the history of woodland management from the medieval period to the present day. In conjunction with documentary evidence for the ownership and exploitation of the Wood (especially from the period as part of the Petre estate) the system of boundary banks helps to explain the processes which led to its present appearance and underlies its highly valued biodiversity.

Although comparatively recent, the pattern of trenches dating from World War I is a particularly interesting survival. Entrenchments of this type were commonly constructed during the training of units prior to their deployment overseas, although local defence forces sometimes undertook similar activities in preparation for the anticipated invasion. In most cases earthworks such as these (with their unfortunate associations) were quickly backfilled after the war and gradually forgotten. Well preserved and visible examples such as those in Norsey Wood therefore serve as a rare and valuable reminder of the nature of warfare in World War I, and of the activities of those who prepared for conflict, either on the Western Front or at home.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The monument includes the perimeter earthworks and interior of Norsey Wood, an area of mixed and coppice woodland located immediately to the east of Billericay. The Wood contains one of the most remarkable collections of archaeological features to be found anywhere in the region. These include occupation areas and burial sites dating from prehistoric and Roman periods, earthworks relating to continuous management of the woodland from the medieval period onwards, and physical remains related to the military use of the Wood in comparatively modern times.

The Wood is roughly triangular in plan, covering approximately 66ha and dominated by a broad plateau of sands and gravels from which a number of streams flow into a steep-sided marshy valley on the southern boundary. Until the 1930s the Wood was almost completely enclosed by perimeter earthworks, perpetuating a boundary unchanged since the Wood was first mapped in 1593.

These boundary earthworks still survive to the east and south east (along Outwood Common Road and Break Egg Hill) and around the southern perimeter of the Wood. However, the north western section (alongside Norsey Road) was largely demolished to make way for a row of houses, and it is not included in the scheduling. Although sections of the surviving boundary earthworks have been termed `The Deerbank' they mostly appear to be woodbanks; designed to prevent animals from entering and damaging the Wood and still typified by pollard hornbeam hedgerows on the banks and external ditches running alongside. The Wood is known to have been extensively coppiced between the early 17th century and the late 19th century, and such banks would have been maintained to prevent neighbouring stock (and wild animals) from grazing on the vulnerable new shoots. The banks may, however, have still earlier origins. The earliest recorded place-name for Norsey Wood (Nosseheye) dates from the mid-13th century and includes the Anglo-Saxon term `haeg' or `hey' which implies enclosure before the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Wood, attached to the manor of Great Burstead, was acquired by Bishop Odo after the Conquest. It later reverted to the Crown and, in about 1200, passed with the manor to the Abbey of Stratford Langthorne. In 1280 the abbot received a royal license to sell timber from Norsey Wood. This suggests coppice management and the concomitant need for a substantial boundary to prevent animals (especially deer) from straying into the wood from the Royal Forest, which then covered most of southern Essex.

In a few places (especially alongside Outwood Common Road to the east) faint traces of an internal ditch can be detected flanking the woodbank, hinting at a period when the boundary served to keep stock out of the Wood. Evidence of such a period is also apparent in the southern part of the Wood where three sequential versions of the boundary extend in parallel across the narrow valley. The innermost, perhaps the earliest in the sequence, is extremely eroded, measuring barely 0.5m high. It is, however, accompanied by traces of a broad internal ditch which does support the possibility of a short-lived abbey deer park, as suggested by a single reference to Norsey as a `park' rather than a wood in a document dated 1323. A large north-south oriented earthwork set within the eastern part of the Wood may also relate to this period of use. The bank here, although much altered in recent times, is still flanked by ditches on either side, implying that it was used to contain animals from both directions.

The enclosure of the woodland in the medieval period incidentally provided protection for traces of far earlier activity, some aspects of which were visible as earthworks whilst others remained unknown until disturbed by gravel extraction in the 19th century. The Wood formerly contained two Bronze Age burial mounds, or barrows. The surviving example is located on the gravel plateau to the east of the valley, some 20m from the southern edge of the Wood and the junction of Break Egg Hill and `Brackendale'. The barrow is circular in plan with a low domed profile, measuring about 15m diameter and 1.5m high.

In 1865 the Rev E L Cutts supervised the excavation of a trench from the western edge to the centre of the mound. Fragments of Roman pottery and an indecipherable bronze coin were uncovered in the process, perhaps indicating some disturbed later internments, but the central grave group of three large inverted cinerary urns (vessels containing cremated human remains) clearly points to a Middle Bronze Age origin. The second barrow no longer exists. This lay on the opposite side of the wood alongside Norsey Road and was also trenched by Cutts in 1865 when a central group of seven urns was found, only one of which contained cremated remains. It was investigated once more in 1895, disrupted by residential developments in the 1950s and finally overlain by a house and garage around 1965. This area is not therefore included in the scheduling.

Occasional discoveries of later prehistoric burials are recorded from the early 19th century onwards, and a large number of cinerary urns were apparently kept at Thornton Hall (the home of the Petrie family, owners of the Wood from 1600 to 1899) until this collection was lost in the fire which destroyed the hall in 1878. Similar vessels were found in still greater numbers as a result of gravel extraction in the Wood which began in earnest in the 1850s. Between 1858 and 1880 an area of about 1.5ha was dug away towards the western end of the Wood alongside Norsey Road. This western pit was re- used to dump Billericay's rubbish until the early 1900s, after which it was infilled and partly built over. A second quarry (the eastern quarry) was opened around 1880 towards the centre of the Wood and expanded to nearly 2ha before being abandoned around 1915.

In 1865, during the excavation of the western gravel quarry, a number of cremation urns and related pottery assemblages were retrieved by J E K Cutts (the son of the Rev E L Cutts). In all some 15 coarse-ware urns were recorded, all wheel thrown and arranged either singly or in small groups of two or three (one vessel in each group containing the cremated remains - the others presumably containing burial offerings). A single un-urned cremation, without vessels but associated with some corroded iron objects, was also found near the other burial assemblages. In the published account these remains are described as Roman, although the accompanying illustrations show that some at least dated from the Late Iron Age (essentially the century preceding the Roman invasion of AD 43). B R Branfill, writing in 1895, reported the subsequent discovery of vessels similar to those recorded by Cutts. These were found `in great numbers' during gravel extraction at both ends of the Wood, often sealed with flanged tiles - a feature which does clearly indicate continued use of the cemetery into the Roman period. One extremely elaborate Romano-British cremation burial was reported by J A Sparvel-Bayly, who monitored the gravel workings between 1874 and 1883. The burial pit was about 3m long and 2.4m wide, paved with stones and flanged tiles and containing an enormous quantity of broken pottery vessels, including Samian ware (a high quality import), in associated with cinders, ashes and burnt wood. The location of this burial is uncertain, although it probably lay in the vicinity of the eastern gravel quarry.

The earliest known evidence of occupation, as opposed to burial customs, emerged from the excavation of a pit on the fringes of the western quarry area in 1938. Day Kimball, investigating the area for the Ministry of Works, recorded the discovery of fragments of coarse, hand made pottery which he dated to the pre-Belgic (or Middle) Iron Age. J E K Cutts' report of 1865 includes a reference to an infilled ditch `about eight feet deep' found near the western cremations. The ditch could relate to an enclosure around part of the cemetery, although some 30 years later Branfill noted that infilled ditches were widely encountered throughout both the eastern and western quarries with the dark, mixed fills containing deposits of ash and fragments of wheel-turned pottery and tile from the Late Iron Age or the Roman period. Some ditches doubtless served as boundaries, but it is possible that others, particularly the deeper examples, were dug to extract clay from beneath the Bagshot gravels. A small pottery kiln was discovered by workmen within one infilled trench in the eastern quarry area prior to 1895. This was reported to be some 1.2m in diameter with a domed roof and to contain `a score or two' of black pots still stacked for firing. The pots were destroyed by the workmen without any accurate record being made. However, the kiln can still be dated (albeit roughly) to the Roman period by the report of thin square tiles used in its construction. Further evidence of small scale industry is provided by Branfill's short description of a `primitive smelting furnace' also found by workmen in the eastern quarry area. Again, the furnace was destroyed before any details could be recorded, but Branfill did observe quantities of slag and ash on the spot and a small piece of soft white metal, apparently the waste from a lead casting, was recovered from the debris. Although there is no direct evidence for substantial Romanised buildings within the wood, the common occurrence of Roman tile (mentioned in every antiquarian report) suggests this as a distinct possibility. Other evidence of occupation is provided by a range of coins dating between the 1st and 4th centuries AD, and chance discoveries of items of a more domestic nature, such as the upper stone from a rotary quern recorded by Branfill in 1895.

Norsey Wood has been suggested as the site of the last stand of the Peasant's Revolt, the last remnants of which were finally crushed near Billericay in 1381 by the Earl of Buckingham. Victorian theories regarding the woodbanks as the peasants' battlements have no validity, however military earthworks of a much later date do exist within the Wood. The large, double-ditched medieval bank which extends through the eastern side of the Wood parallel with Outwood Common Road was adapted during World War I to form a defensive position. The northern section of the bank (to the north of the Information Centre) is scored by a system of slit trenches over most of its 300m length, and the bank itself seems to have been enlarged in the process. Although the trenches have collapsed inwards over the years, the main components of the system can still be seen: a denticulated forward position with firing steps (each about 5m in length) facing east; a series of connecting passages, and a service trench running along the rear (western) side of the bank. The precise function of the trenches is uncertain. In his modern history of Norsey Wood, K G Cook states that they were constructed by London Defence Volunteers as part of the inner defence line for the capital. Such a line was envisaged during the War, but it was never properly implemented, and the Norsey Wood earthworks may simply have been dug as a training exercise. As with many Essex woods, Norsey Wood was used for army manoeuvres and storage during World War II. About six trenches were cut in the area immediately to the north of the eastern gravel pits, covered with curved sections of corrugated iron and used for storing ammunition. These features remain visible as a series of partly infilled depressions. A much larger dugout, which required timber shoring and a ventilated ceiling was constructed slightly further to the north and also used for storing munitions. This too remains visible, having been filled with rubbish and allowed to collapse after the War.

Woodland management (coppicing and hedging) continued through the early 20th century and resumed, on a more restricted scale, after 1945. In 1976 the Wood was acquired by Basildon District Council, and it has since been run as a local nature reserve. The combination of varied soil and topography, together with the long history of woodmanship, has produced a rich and varied flora and fauna, recognised by the designation of the Wood as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1979.

A number of features are excluded from the scheduling, these are: all standing structures, all fences, fenceposts and gates, the modern surfaces of all driveways, car parks and rides, the foot bridges which span streams in the southern valley, all litter and dog-waste bins, benches, information boards and signposts, the ground beneath all these features is, however, included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 29428

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Cook, K C, The History of Norsey Wood, (1992), 15-16
Cook, K C, The History of Norsey Wood, (1991)
Cook, K C, The History of Norsey Wood, (1992), 13
Cook, K C, The History of Norsey Wood, (1992), 40
Cook, K C, The History of Norsey Wood, (1992)
Cook, K C, The History of Norsey Wood, (1992)
Hull, M R, The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1963), 49
Hull, M R, The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1963), 49
Hull, M R, The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1963), 49
Reamey, P H, The Place Names of Essex, (1938)
Reamey, P H, The Place Names of Essex, (1938)
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 226-36
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 226-36
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 229-30
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 228-229
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 230
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 226-29
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 228
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 226-36
Cutts, J E K, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (Old Series)' in Notes on Roman and British Remains found at Billericay in 1865, , Vol. 5, (1873), 214
Cutts, J E K, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (Old Series)' in Notes on Roman and British Remains found at Billericay in 1865, , Vol. 5, (1873), 212-14
Cutts, J E K, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (Old Series)' in Notes on Roman and British Remains found at Billericay in 1865, , Vol. 5, (1873), 212-4
Cutts, J E K, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (Old Series)' in Notes on Roman and British Remains found at Billericay in 1865, , Vol. 5, (1873), 214-17
Kimball, D, 'J Brit Arch (3rd series)' in Norsey Wood, Billericay, , Vol. 3, (1940)
Sparvel-Bayly, J, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in , , Vol. 2, (1884), 221
Sparvel-Bayly, S, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in , , Vol. 2, (1884), 221
Evidence to public inquiry (in SMR), Rackham, O, Norsey Wood, (1975)
Evidence to public inquiry (in SMR), Rackham, O, Norsey Wood, (1975)
Evidence to public inquiry (in SMR), Rackham, O, Norsey Wood, (1975)
Gilman, P, 5304 Norsey Wood, (1988)
Gilman, P, 5305 Norsey Wood, (1988)
in Essex Record Office, Ph1-105, (1593)
In Essex SMR (ref 5328), Ordnance Survey , TQ 69 NE 08 Ordnance Survey Record Card, (1938)
Information from park warden, Bennett, L, Woodbank hedges, (1998)
Map of Norsey Wood (Record Office), Ph1-105, (1593)
Medlycott, M, Billericay: Historic Towns Assessment Report, (1998)
Medlycott, M, Billericay: Historic Towns Assessment Report, (1998)
Notes for Public Inquiry (in SMR), Hedges, J, Norsey Wood, (1975)
Watching brief report (pipe trench), 16070 Norsey Wood, (1992)

End of official listing