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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).

Colour aerial photograph showing a landscape view along the spine of hills with pasture fields and scattered woodland
Corfe Castle and the Purbeck Hills looking west towards Kimmeridge as photographed on 18-NOV-2005 (NMR 24139/31) © Historic England

New Discoveries

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.

Colour distribution map with dots indicating new v old records against a shaded green background showing general topography
Distribution of all monuments mapped and recorded during the project. Red dots are for previously known sites and green dots sites newly recorded during the project.  Background mapping (c) Crown Copyright all rights reserved.

Prehistoric origins

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.

Annotated black and white aerial photo showing arable fields next to a main road, with archaeology highlighted by a red oval
A potential new Neolithic long barrow visible as a cropmark and photographed on 07-AUG-1995, just to the north of the A352 Wareham to Dorchester Road at Watercombe, Owermoigne (NMR 15362/3) © Historic England

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.

Annotated colour aerial photo showing arable field with archaeology showing as dark green against generally pale background
Prehistoric enclosures and trackways visible as cropmarks on aerial photographs taken on 15-JUN-2004 at East Woodsford, Woodsford (NMR 23489/15). © Historic England

Medieval Purbeck

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.

Colour aerial photograph showing pasture fields with low earth banks surrounded by hedges with some buildings towards the top
The remains of the deserted medieval village of Holworth are picked out in low sunlight in this photograph taken on 24-SEP-2003 (NMR 23295/10) © Historic England

Corfe Castle

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.

Colour aerial photograph showing the stone walls of a castle to the right with earth mounds in pasture fields to the left
The earthworks of the 12th century motte and bailey siege-work are clearly visible to the west of the Norman castle at Corfe on this aerial photograph taken on 21-FEB-2000 (NMR 18655/14) © Historic England

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.

Black and white vertical photo of multiple trackways seen as ditches running across upland heath with some settlement around
Post medieval trackways crossing Stoborough Heath, Arne photographed by the RAF on 04-NOV-1946.  The trackways appear to predate the post medieval small-holdings which are marked on the OS 1st edition map. (RAF CPE/UK/1821 4410).  Historic England RAF Photography

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.

Black and white vertical aerial photo showing irregular patterns of ditches with straighter, more regular roads crossing them
The extensive systems of trenches at Bovington Camp are clearly visible on historic photographs taken in the 1920s or 1930s (CCC 11755/5851) © Historic England (Crawford Collection)

Project details

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).

National Mapping Programme Mapping of Wild Purbeck

National Mapping Programme Mapping of Wild Purbeck

Published 1 February 2016

A summary report on the air photo and lidar mapping undertaken for Wild Purbeck (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.

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