Wild Purbeck National Mapping Programme project
The Wild Purbeck National Mapping Programme (NMP) project was initiated in order to provide a full assessment of the archaeological resource, informing strategic planning and future research frameworks for the area. Accurate NMP mapping and the resultant enhancement of the historic environment record for Dorset County Council will facilitate the restoration of the heathland by Dorset AONB in a sensitive manner.
Purbeck has seen major change since the Second World War with large areas of natural heathland lost to conifer plantation. In response to this loss and a degrading of many wildlife areas and loss of species, in 2011 Purbeck was designated as a Nature Improvement Area (NIA).
The NMP mapping took place between November 2013 and November 2014 during which time 2,328 archaeological sites were mapped and recorded. Of these, 1,934 sites had not previously been recorded in the Dorset County Historic Environment Record (HER). New discoveries were made for all periods ranging from potential Neolithic long barrows to Second World War military installations and bomb craters.
Few sites dating to the Neolithic are known for this area however one potential new site was identified at Watercombe Owermoigne. Here a ‘U’ shaped enclosure is visible as a cropmark on aerial photographs taken in 1995. The feature is 25 metres wide and at least 40 metres long and potentially the site of a plough-levelled Neolithic long barrow (MDO 32049). This area was clearly an important ritual focus in the prehistoric period; an additional eight new Bronze Age barrow sites were also located immediately to the south.
Three Iron Age Hillforts are located along the northern edge of the project the largest of which is at Woodbury Hill, Bere Regis. Woodbury Hill was once also the location of an annual fair which had origins dating back to the 13th century. Extensive field systems were also recorded, some with associated settlement sites. These are likely to have been in use in the Iron Age and Roman periods although Bronze Age origins are possible.
To the east of the village of Woodsford, a multi-phased prehistoric settlement is situated just off the floodplain of the River Frome. Two curvilinear enclosures are set 210 metres apart as well as fragments of two rectilinear enclosures, a possible trackway, pits and field boundaries. The site had not previously been recorded prior to the NMP project.
Sites dating to the later medieval period are well represented with 112 monuments identified during the project; of these, 52 (46%) were new to the Dorset Historic Buildings, Sites and Monuments Record (HBSMR). These medieval sites are generally located to the south of the River Frome where an extensive range of deserted settlements, field systems and ridge and furrow fields were encountered.
Holworth in Chaldon Herring is one of the few deserted Dorset medieval villages to have been partially excavated. The settlement earthworks cover an area of eight hectares and comprise an east-west orientated street lined on its northern side by a series of tofts between 20 and 35 metres across.
Standing on a natural hill defending a natural gap in the Purbeck Hills, Corfe Castle is arguably the most well-known site lying within the project area. The earliest evidence for fortification of the hill dates back to the Saxon period. The currently visible castle was commissioned by William the Conqueror in the 11th century and was one of the first in England to have been constructed in stone.
The earthworks of a medieval ringwork and bailey are situated less than a quarter of a mile to the south west of Corfe Castle. Known locally as The Rings, the ringwork encloses an area of 0.3 hectares and the outer bailey, 0.5 hectares. This fortification is attributed to the civil war period and was probably built by King Stephen when he sieged the castle in 1139.
Post medieval discoveries
Over 44% of the sites mapped and recorded during the project were post medieval in date, including many from the early 20th century. The majority of these sites related to post medieval extraction, the southern portion of the project area around Worth Matravers being the source of the Purbeck Marble used in the construction of Salisbury Cathedral. Significant numbers of field systems, trackways and drainage features such as water meadows were also recorded. Many of the trackways cross areas of open heathland and they may have had medieval or even earlier origins.
The military impact
There has been a long history of military activity in Dorset and large parts of Purbeck have been requisitioned for military training purposes since the First World War. In addition to the important military tank training camps and associated firing ranges at Bovington and Lulworth, a number of other smaller training areas, military installations, firing ranges, bomb craters and traces of practice slit trenching were identified across the study area.
The training grounds at Bovington Camp were adapted to resemble battlefields and a replica of a section of the Western Front was created here during the First World War.
Purbeck was designated as a Nature Improvement Area (NIA) in February 2012 and the Dorset AONB formulated an action plan that includes a heathland restoration scheme. The NMP project was formulated in response to this as part of Historic England's Action Plan.
The mapping was carried out between November 2013 and November 2015 by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit with funding by Historic England through Heritage Protection Commissions (EH 6600).
The images used on this page are copyright Historic England unless specified otherwise. For further details of any photographs or other images and for copies of these, or the plans and reports related to the project, please contact the Historic England Archive.
For further information on a project or any other aspect of the work of the Remote Sensing Team please contact us via email using the link below.
Historic Places Investigation
Also of interest...
We identify archaeological sites and landscapes using aerial photography, lidar, geophysics, earthwork analysis and excavation.
Historic England experts use airborne remote sensing methods to identify, record and monitor the condition of heritage assets
The aerial survey of the SW coast was the NMP element of a broader mapping project along the coast and formed part of the national scheme of RCZAS.